Lest We Regret

There is something you need to know about the Gallipoli legend. It’s a myth. And the events ANZAC day commemorates should not be “celebrated”.

Before you spit out your half chewed lamb sandwich and scream “torches and pitch-forks!”, remember that I’m referring to your conception and interpretation of actual events. That is, actual things happened at ANZAC cove, and since those events occurred many other things have been claimed in the name of the sacrifices made. We have attached historical myths to actual events. We have weaved a story we want to believe, all the while ignoring the truth.

There are three myths in particular that have been defaced onto the ANZAC legend since Gallipoli:

They died for our country at Gallipoli
They died for our freedom at Gallipoli
They died for our way of life at Gallipoli

All of these claims, on any objective test (remember, this means to test them against the facts of the invasion), are wrong. And to claim them is to deliberately misappropriate what happened at Gallipoli, and therefore disrespect the sacrifice that was made.

They died for our country at Gallipoli
At the time of the Gallipoli campaign, Australia was a “dominion” of the Imperial Empire of the United Kingdom. The word “dominion” means that we were not a fully independent county, but a “possession” of the English. We did not have control of our own foreign policy and did not have a diplomatic service. Importantly, we didn’t declare war on Germany, the mother country did it for us.

We did not get to choose where our troops fought. This would not be done by Australia until December 1941, when the now immortalised Prime Minister John Curtin announced our new alliance with the United States in the Pacific to defend against a rapidly approaching Japanese Army. Until that time young men from Australia went to war where the English pointed.

As then Victorian Premier Sir Alexander Peacock put it “Let outsiders flout the Motherland and they will find her cubs from all parts of the world will come to her aid.” Does this read like we were sending young Australians to die for Australia?

At the time of the Gallipoli campaign we were, in terms of our military and international capacities, a British outpost. This is plainly obvious to any reasonable person who can contemplate basic factual evidence. To superimpose the Gallipoli campaign on what is today Australia, an independent federated democracy in total control of all of its affairs, is just plain wrong.

As to the argument that the Anzacs and Gallipoli were the “birth of the nation”, and therefore justifying the legend as it helped “build” Australia, one need only look as far as New Zealand. The forgotten dominion (in Australian ANZAC “celebrations” at least) which made up the other part of the ANZAC acronym. To suggest the Anzacs died for our country is to suggest thousands of New Zealanders died for Australia. A manifestly absurd sentiment.

They died for our freedom at Gallipoli
There was absolutely no threat posed to Australia’s territorial sovereignty from the Germans. None. Nor for that matter from the Turks, or by extension the Ottoman Empire. Read any book on WWI you would like. I’m not going to provide you with primary sources for this one, google it.

As to defending our democracy at Gallipoli, Australia was default allied to Tsarist Russia at the time we landed in Gallipoli.

Turkey posed zero threat to Australia, then we decided, under instruction from an empire, to invade this country that was in no way a threat, with absolutely no justification besides the “strategic” musing of English politicians, namely Winston Churchill. We landed in Turkey. They were defending their freedom. The hospitality of the Turkish people towards Australians to this day is a testament to them. We are able to peacefully and freely commemorate each year our landing on their beach. Cheers Turkey.

They died for our way of life at Gallipoli
This is very much the most believed part of the myth. We identify traits such as “mateship” in the Anzacs at Gallipoli. This is a perfectly understandable thing to do. Traits such as “mateship” were present in the Anzacs at Gallipoli, no doubt; consider Simpson and his donkey. Where the “myth” of this part of ANZAC story comes from, that they died for our way of life, is the sycophantic praise heaped on the actions of those battered and destroyed young men. This praise is used to glorify war, to glorify killing, to glorify death; not to comfort them, or to renew resolve to end fighting in a bid to help them.

Take this excerpt from Glorious Deeds of Australians in the Great War (Ernest Charles)
“Every Australian woman’s heart this week is thrilling with pride, with exultation and while her eyes fill with tears she springs up… Boys, you have honoured our land; you, the novices, the untrained, the untaught in war’s grim school, have done the deeds of veterans.”

Obviously the above is patronising to the women who presumably just lost sons, husbands, and brothers, yet the myth is more insidious than that. The young men who fought returned destroyed and traumatised. Our want to “celebrate” ANZAC day, derives directly from propaganda like the above.

Ignoring what happened in the trenches and instead focusing on how great Australia is, and by extension our troops, obviates our need to constantly remind ourselves of the hideousness of war. This wilful blindness is our original ANZAC sin, and it is not how we should remember them. To glorify war, to celebrate what happened, is to ignore what actually happened entirely, and therefore their memory. There could be no greater insult.

Or could there be? In 2005 some two thousand young people from Australia made a pilgrimage to ANZAC cove in Turkey for the commemoration ceremony. These are presumably the very people who would have us believe the three myths I have debunked. At the remembrance weekend they drank and slept on the tombstones of the fallen; they caused an awful ruckus, they celebrated all night. When they left, the cove and the tombstones were littered with rubbish and cans. This is the result of neglecting our real responsibility, remembrance, and instead indulging in nationalistic gluttony. This is not the “way of life” we are told the Anzacs died for. Yet it is the way the most zealous believers in the ANZAC legend act.

Lest we forget
In researching this article I interviewed Peter Fitzsimons AM, author of over 20 books on Australian history and our best selling non-fiction author today. He told me the story of a man called Hugo Throssell VC. Hugo won the Victoria Cross, the Commonwealth’s highest military honour, for gallantry during battle at Gallipoli. Hugo returned home to Australia with the rank of captain and a decorated military career behind him. He became a pacifist upon his return, he spoke out very publically about the futility of war and the damage it was doing to the people involved. He no doubt received much criticism for this stance, and in 1933 he killed himself. Hugo was trying to do the exact thing ANZAC Day is supposed to do for us. Remind us of just how futile war is. How little we stand to gain from it. And how high the price of those who fight for is. It is certainly not a celebratory occasion.

By imparting our own desire for identity onto these young men, we ignore the facts of the Gallipoli campaign. It stands to reason that they did not die for our country at Gallipoli; they did not die for our freedom at Gallipoli; and they did not die for our way of life at Gallipoli. They died in horrible circumstances that must never be repeated. That is the truth. Lest we forget.