Anzac Day – and foundation mythology in the national consciousness

Turkish handcraft marking the centenary

Turkish handcraft marking the centenary

Thousands of New Zealanders and Australians are getting ready for another pilgrimage to the battlefields and cemeteries of Gallipoli. This year, 2015, interest has been especially high since it marks the 100th anniversary of that long ago exercise in military futility.

As usual, however, Turks will have finished commemorating their victory by the time our contemporary pilgrims arrive on the beaches where their ancestors struggled ashore on 25 April 1915. For the people of Turkey, 18 March is the day they remember their grandfathers’ turning back the combined might of the French and British navies. In those early days of aviation, warships were the pre-eminent military force – and Great Britain had the world’s mightiest. The attack was the brainchild of Winston Churchill, at that time First Lord of King George’s Admiralty, and commanded by Admiral Sir Sackville Hamilton Carden.

Come out with your hands up - That was the plan

Come out with your hands up – That was the plan

The plan was for the navies to force a passage through the Dardanelles to the Ottoman capital of Istanbul/Constantinople obliging the sultan’s government to surrender. Military supplies could then be brought to the wavering Russians, strengthening the hand of the Czar so that Germany would have to divide its armies, thereby relieving the stalemate on the Western Front. To achieve this aim, Britain and France assembled one of the most powerful aggregations of naval firepower ever seen: the latest dreadnought battleship Queen Elizabeth; the battle cruiser Inflexible, twelve pre-dreadnought battleships; four light cruisers; fifteen destroyers; eight submarines; and thirty-five fishing trawlers converted into minesweepers. There were also two battalions of Royal Marines to serve as a temporary landing force if needed.

Unfortunately for the Brits and the French, it wasn’t enough. Possibly Western powers had swallowed their own rhetoric about the ‘Sick Man of Europe’ and convinced themselves that the decrepit Ottoman Empire would fold at the mere sight of the Union Jack and the French Tricolore. They didn’t. Minesweepers sent to clear the channel came under heavy fire from shore batteries (as one might have expected) and had to retreat. The British battleship Amethyst was badly damaged. Admiral Carden reported sick and had to be replaced by his 2nd-in-command. The French battleship Gaulois was hit and beached, and another, Bouvet, struck a mine and sank in 60 seconds with most of its crew. Three British battleships, Irresistible, Inflexible and Ocean were also lost . . . and the sea operation was called off.

Rather embarrassing, really. And that's not counting the French ones

Rather embarrassing, really.

That was 18 March. For the Ottomans, the greatest threat had been repulsed. What followed, the beach landings and eight months of pointless slaughter in atrocious conditions, never looked like posing the same danger. The Gallipoli campaign was an embarrassing military disaster for Britain and its allies – and a tragedy for New Zealand and Australia, whose politicians sent thousands of young men to die or be maimed in a land few could have located on a map. By July 1915 males up to the age of 45, and over 157 cm in height were being dispatched to the warzones.

Almost immediately, however, the myth-making began. Anzac ingenuity had enabled a withdrawal from Gallipoli under the very noses of Ottoman gunners, turning an abject military defeat into some kind of intellectual victory – ignoring the possibility that the defending forces may have been happy to see the invaders up sticks and leave. The ‘Anzac spirit’ came to represent an idealised rugged courage, disdain for mindless discipline, mateship, good humour and sense of fair play exhibited by the antipodean fighting man. The myth survived through to the 1960s when participation in the United States’ ill-fated Vietnam War supported by Returned Servicemen’s Associations led many to question traditional enthusiasm for following blindly in the footsteps of Mother England or Uncle Sam.

The recent resurgence in popularity of Anzac Day and, in particular, youthful pilgrimages to Turkey on 25 April, while preserving some vestiges of earlier myths, probably owes more to an emerging national consciousness among younger generations of Australians and New Zealanders. Because of our constitutional ties to the British Crown we lack a day for celebrating our uniqueness and independence like the Americans’ 4th of July, the French Bastille Day, or the Turkish Republic Holiday. Waitangi Day and Australia Day have been unable to escape the taint of colonial dispossession of indigenous peoples – and the April date has gone some way towards satisfying a need.

Quack quack, we're coming, mom

Quack quack, we’re coming, mom

It’s sad, however, to see news media invoking the myth of Anzac in support of the decision by New Zealand and Australian governments to join US military action against ISIS in Syria and Iraq. ‘Anzac spirit lives on as nations eye joint role in Iraq against ISIS’, trumpeted The Australian. The Australian edition of the International Business Times announced: Australia and New Zealand troops could team up once again to fight the militants of the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria after 100 years since the ANZAC alliance was forged in World War I.’ As far as I know, to their credit, Prime Ministers Abbott and Key have refrained from making such comparisons. Nevertheless, they have shown themselves only too willing to continue their countries’ tradition of following like ducklings after Jemima Puddleduck.

When will we learn? The commemoration of Anzac Day came under threat in the early 1970s because of opposition to military involvement in Vietnam. The very campaign itself quickly turned from ‘Great Adventure’ to a tragedy of mud, blood and mindless massacre. An Australian government website has recorded The nurses experiences of Gallipoli from their letters:

‘I shall never forget the awful feeling of hopelessness on night duty. It was dreadful. I had about 250 patients to look after, and one orderly and one Indian sweeper. Shall not describe their wounds, they were too awful. One loses sight of all the honour and the glory in the work we are doing. All we can do is feed them and dress their wounds … A good many died … It is just too awful — one could never describe the scenes — could only wish all I knew to be killed outright.’

Takes one to know one, we used to say

Takes one to know one, we used to say

The new role of Anzac Day for younger generations as a focal point for national consciousness and pride has something to commend it if it allows for the inclusion of indigenous peoples – and if scheming politicians can be restrained from exploiting it for their own questionable purposes. A century ago jingoistic political propaganda played a major role in persuading young men to travel half way around the world and die on the beaches and hillsides of the Gallipoli Peninsula. Posters urged them to enlist and ‘Destroy this Mad Brute’ (Germany). Notice any similarity to Tony Abbott’s calling ISIS a ‘death cult’ that ‘poses a threat to the whole world including Australia’?

In fact, the part played by the Çanakkale War (as Turks call the Gallipoli Campaign) in the establishment of modern Turkey is arguably more founded in truth. The personal qualities of Colonel Mustafa Kemal (later Atatürk) undoubtedly contributed to the Ottoman victory, which then gave him the credibility needed to gather his people for a war of liberation and be chosen as the new nation’s first president.

Military leadership of the invading forces was somewhat less inspirational. Mention has been made of Admiral Sir Sackville Hamilton Carden’s throwing a sickie at the crucial moment of the naval operation. Commander of the landings was General Sir Ian Standish Monteith Hamilton. Well, with those names, it would be a fair guess that the military gentlemen concerned were blue-blooded scions of the English aristocracy – somewhat removed in experience from the lives of their own troops, never mind those of their colonial allies. Hamilton, watching the landing at Anzac Cove from the deck of the Royal Navy flagship Queen Elizabeth, is reported to have said, They are not charging up into this Sari Bair range for money or compulsion. They fight for love – all the way from the Southern Cross for love of the old country and of liberty.’

Possibly the dear old general was not aware that, according to the official New Zealand History website, 2600 conscientious objectors lost their civil rights, including being denied voting rights for 10 years and being barred from working for government or local bodies. Many received military punishments . . . were beaten and abused for their stance.

So that's what it was all about

So that’s what it was all about

‘Mark Briggs was called up in the third conscription ballot in early 1917. He refused to serve on socialist grounds. [Sent to] France in October 1917, he refused to walk, stand, salute or wear uniform. Field Punishment No. 1 failed to break his resolve, and he joined Archibald Baxter and Lawrence Kirwin in the trenches in February 1918. Every morning they were forced to walk 1000 yards up to the front line. Briggs refused. On the first day he was carried by sympathetic soldiers, but on the second day military policemen tied wire around his chest and dragged him to the front line, tearing his clothing and skin. At the line he was pulled through puddles of freezing water and told to ‘Drown yourself, now, you bastard.’ Dragged back to camp, he was denied medical treatment.’

Sad to say, in spite of heroic charges inspired by love of freedom and the old country, the invaders were unable to progress more than a few kilometres from the beaches, and General Hamilton was recalled to London on 16 October 1915, his military career at an end. The campaign stuttered along for another two months with little to show but 245,000 wounded and missing, and 59,000 confirmed killed. The defending Ottoman forces suffered similar losses.

Another high-level casualty in the region was Winston Churchill himself. Having failed to take a lesson from the Gallipoli fiasco, Winston and British Prime Minister Lloyd George attempted, in September 1922, to turn back the Turkish nationalist army, fresh from victory over the invading Greeks and now intent on liberating Istanbul/Constantinople. Outmanoeuvred politically this time by Mustafa Kemal, Churchill and Lloyd George failed to get support from their own parliament and imperial dominions. Obliged to back down in a major humiliation for Great Britain known as the Chanak Crisis, their government fell and Lloyd George’s political career was over.

In the last months of the Great War, a magazine, The Kia Ora Coo-ee was published in Cairo, ostensibly by Australian and NZ troops stationed in the region. I am quoting from the issue of April 15, 1918:

Fighting and falling in a glorious cause

Fighting and falling in a glorious cause

‘Just three short years, but in that period the names of Australia and New Zealand have penetrated every corner of the globe. The hearts of those “downunder” have glowed with pride, and the eyes of many mothers have filled with tears as they read of that wonderful landing on far away Gallipoli. They are proud of their sons, these parents. They know that in all the records of war they cannot find a parallel to the landing at Anzac. Their sons proved themselves equal to the veterans of the legions of Alexander, Hannibal, Caesar, Cromwell or any other warlord we may name . . . Those who are now mourning their dead feel that it is a privilege to fight and even to fall in so glorious a cause . . . Those who lie buried on or near the beach, among the gullies and ridges of Gallipoli have hung up their laurel-wreathed swords in the halls of the brave, bright with imperishable lustre. They heard the call of the Motherland and responded. Death has been their share of the conflict but they have gone under just as their forefathers went under, so that the grand old flag which carries freedom and civilisation to every corner of the world shall still fly above those they have left behind them.’

Possibly Prime Ministers Key and Abbott are lost in a time warp and actually still believe that kind of nonsense.

Anzac cemetery on Lone Pine Ridge

Anzac cemetery on Lone Pine Ridge

In 1988, New Zealand author Maurice Shadbolt published a book, ‘Voices of Gallipoli’. It was based on interviews he had recorded with Gallipoli veterans in old folks homes around the country. An 18 year-old in 1915 was well into his 80s by that time – but most of them had never spoken about their experiences to anyone in the intervening years. No one else wanted to know what it had really been like if it didn’t conform to the war according to Kia Ora Coo-ee. On Shadbolt’s recordings octogenarians could be heard breaking down in tears as they recounted their horrific experiences on those beaches, gullies and ridges – the hopeless bayonet charges into the mouths of machine guns firing 600 rounds per minute; the nightmarish injuries; the pathetic cries of mates dying in agony in no-man’s land; the realisation that they had more in common with the young guys in the enemy trenches than with the generals and politicians who were ordering them to charge and die.

What’s changed in a hundred years? In 1970 the Motown record label released one of the most successful anti-war songs of all time: Edwin Starr singing War? What is it good for? His conclusion was ‘Absolutely nothing’ – but that answer is, of course, extremely naïve. If it were true, there would be no more wars. The fact is, war is very good for some, namely those involved in the military-industrial complex and the transnational finance system that supports and is supported by it.

Harvey Broadbent, Associate Professor of history at Macquarie University, Sydney, published a book earlier this year, ‘Defending Gallipoli: The Turkish Story’. He dedicated it to ‘the memory of those soldiers whose stories have not been told and who perished by the folly of others’. Later he explains that those ‘others’ were ‘every person who was responsible for instigating that campaign and carrying it out in a way which led to all those deaths.’ Again, I take issue with the learned professor’s use of the word ‘folly’. I would substitute a phrase: ‘cynical self-interest and heedlessness of human life.’

As Kurt Vonnegut wrote in ‘Slaughterhouse-Five’: ‘So it goes. Poo-tee-weet?’

_________________________________________

Further Reading:

Busting the Anzac Myth

Anzac Legend is more pork pies than bully beef

Gallipoli Rewatched – Another look at Peter Weir’s 1981 movie

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7 thoughts on “Anzac Day – and foundation mythology in the national consciousness

  1. Something to reconsider in your “War” Motown song analysis:
    “GOOD” is not synonymous to “beneficial”, nor “hidden agenda”…
    The song’s lyrics did not ask who does it benefit – and answer with – absolutely no one.
    Agreed – War benefits and reward the military industrial complex, the hierarchy, the bankers, etc.; however philosophically it can be argued war is not “good” for even them, if war lead to the eventual abolishment of hierarchy and their institutional governance or the nuclear destruction of all life on Earth.

    “War” was one of my favorite songs, I am not being argumentative, my wish is for you to agree that the song is not as “naive” as you portrayed it. (If no agreement, then ok, we disagree, no further comment necessary.) Better examples of naive statements concerning war and ignoring the war profiteering are available and focusing on the famous Motown “War” song as a “naive” war song is not serving your report’s conclusion.
    As I played out the lyrics in my mind, your point of war benefiting the destructive agenda of a few is accurate and the song failed to address that very narrow perspective of warmongering oligarchs controlling industry, commerce and institutional governance profiting from war. Recall, however, the counter Vietnam war grassroots objective with that song – Motown & Edwin Starr were not promoting the obedient, patriotic citizen, enlist in the government’s war effort.

    As a counter to the U.S. government/anti-communist-patriotism commitment to the Vietnam war the song achieved its objective in touching the community awareness to oppose the Vietnam war inside the U.S.. I experienced it and it was not pleasant, and in fact it was very dangerous and life threatening to oppose the Vietnam war.
    M. L. K. Jr. was murdered when he finally joined our community efforts and publicly opposed the Vietnam war. Many people are unaware that King did not want to speak out in opposition to U.S. foreign/national security policy as it would dilute the momentum in changing bad domestic policies…

    Many battle hymns (such as “The Battle Hymn of the Republic” by Julia Ward Howe) were written for patriotic duty to winning wars, but this single “War” song was huge in opposing the Vietnam war.
    That successful appeal for Peace and war resistance was not Naïveté, as many faced jail and abuse for objecting to the Vietnam war. [I respect your busy schedule – Please watch this documentary at your leisure: The GI Revolt That Ended the Vietnam War, “Sir, No Sir”: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=3nPJgeg6hpA ]

    In gratitude to Edwin Starr, may he rest in peace I share the “War” lyrics:
    War, huh, yeah
    What is it good for
    Absolutely nothing
    Uh-huh
    War, huh, yeah
    What is it good for
    Absolutely nothing
    Say it again, y’all

    War, huh, good God
    What is it good for
    Absolutely nothing
    Listen to me

    Ohhh, war, I despise
    Because it means destruction
    Of innocent lives

    War means tears
    To thousands of mothers eyes
    When their sons go to fight
    And lose their lives

    I said, war, huh
    Good God, y’all
    What is it good for
    Absolutely nothing
    Say it again

    War, whoa, Lord
    What is it good for
    Absolutely nothing
    Listen to me

    War, it ain’t nothing
    But a heartbreaker
    War, friend only to the undertaker
    Ooooh, war
    It’s an enemy to all mankind
    The point of war blows my mind
    War has caused unrest
    Within the younger generation
    Induction then destruction
    Who wants to die
    Aaaaah, war-huh
    Good God y’all
    What is it good for
    Absolutely nothing
    Say it, say it, say it
    War, huh
    What is it good for
    Absolutely nothing
    Listen to me

    War, huh, yeah
    What is it good for
    Absolutely nothing
    Uh-huh
    War, huh, yeah
    What is it good for
    Absolutely nothing
    Say it again y’all
    War, huh, good God
    What is it good for
    Absolutely nothing
    Listen to me

    War, it ain’t nothing but a heartbreaker
    War, it’s got one friend
    That’s the undertaker
    Ooooh, war, has shattered
    Many a young mans dreams
    Made him disabled, bitter and mean
    Life is much to short and precious
    To spend fighting wars these days
    War can’t give life
    It can only take it away

    Ooooh, war, huh
    Good God y’all
    What is it good for
    Absolutely nothing
    Say it again

    War, whoa, Lord
    What is it good for
    Absolutely nothing
    Listen to me

    War, it ain’t nothing but a heartbreaker
    War, friend only to the undertaker
    Peace, love and understanding
    Tell me, is there no place for them today
    They say we must fight to keep our freedom
    But Lord knows there’s got to be a better way

    Ooooooh, war, huh
    Good God y’all
    What is it good for
    You tell me
    Say it, say it, say it, say it

    War, huh
    Good God y’all
    What is it good for
    Stand up and shout it
    Nothing

    LOVE & Wholeness ~Ron

    • Thanks, Ron. As always, a perceptive and informative response. I had no intention of disparaging Edwin Starr – I was around at that time, although in NZ and not as directly involved as you guys in the US. I remembered the song and it kind of suited my purpose of slinging off at those who glorify war for the purposes of profiting from it. I’m sure you remember Country Joe at Woodstock: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=-7Y0ekr-3So

  2. I’ve never had any interest in celebrating war in any way, even if others claim it’s in remembrance of the brave young men. Fact is, war is hell, and I’m just glad that we’re not likely to ever see such manpower mobilisations again.

    While war is still with us, it now seems impossible for any Western state to propagandise its subjects sufficiently enough to have them lining up to fight. And conscription would only cause a major headache for today’s current batch of “leaders”.

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