Anzac Day 2015 – what are we remembering and forgetting?

On the 25th April 2015, Australians will commemorate the 100th anniversary of the Gallipoli landings. At 4.30am on 25th April 1915, Australian and New Zealand soldiers stormed the beaches of Ari Burnu on the Gallipoli Peninsula where it was hoped they would join up with the British, French and Indian soldiers and march on the Ottoman capital at Constantinople, knocking the Ottoman Empire out of the war.  That was the plan for a military campaign that would end in disaster eight months later and in which the only thing to go right was the evacuation from Gallipoli.

The events at Gallipoli on that day on 25th April 1915 have become a part of the Anzac legend, the bravery of the soldiers, courage, mateship, the aussie larrikin of C.E.W Bean, the war correspondent writing from Gallipoli. These characteristics echoed by C.E.W Bean still find a place in Australia’s popular culture as in films as Peter Weir’s 1981 ‘Gallipoli’  But like C.E.W Bean and his account of the Australians at Gallipoli, the film ‘Gallipoli’ is for an Australian audience made shortly after the Vietnam War ended.  While the film appealed to the Australian character, Australian audiences would the recognised the comparison to a British led disaster at Gallipoli and the American led disaster in Vietnam.

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But where was Gallipoli? Why were Australians at Gallipoli? Australia was a dominion of the British Empire in 1914. When Britain became involved in the war after the neutrality of Belgium was violated by Imperial Germany, Australia also became involved. As Australians rush to enlist, the ailing Ottoman Empire is humiliated after the British seize two warships that they had built for the Ottoman Empire. The Ottoman Empire responds by giving sacntuary to two German warships which have sunk three British ships in the Mediterranean. When the Ottoman Empire closes off the Dardanelles Straits – in clear violation of International trade agreements and prevents Britain from sending aid to its ally Russia, Britain declares war on the Ottoman Empire.

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For the Australians climbing out of their boats to what was supposed to be a surprise attack only to find themselves under fire from an enemy that was waiting for them and willing to die fiercely defending their own country.  The failed naval bombardment of the Ottoman Forts a month earlier had alerted the Turks to an impending invasion. But Australians and New Zealand soldiers, known as Anzacs were not alone as they climbed out of their boats and landed on the wrong beaches. Further down were the British forces landings at three separate beaches.

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When Australian troops landed on the beaches of Ari Burn on the Gallipoli Peninsula that morning, it was the first time Australians had fought in battle as a nation after Federation in 1900. Gallipoli became our ‘Baptism of Fire’ and proof of our prowess on the battlefield. In 2005, Prime Minister John Howard said of the Anzacs at Gallipoli that ‘They bequeathed Australia a lasting sense of national identity’. Why did an Australian identity have to be born at Gallipoli? Or was John Howard just echoing the sentiments first started by C.E.W Bean writing for Australian audiences?

But as Australian and New Zealand soldiers raced up the steep slopes of the hills of Gallipoli, what were they fighting for? The British Empire? Had they joined out of a sense of adventure? Employment? Boredom at home? A sense of duty and patriotism? Were Aboriginal Australians fighting for better chances at employment and to be treated equally with other Australians? Do Australians know that approximately 800 Aboriginal soldiers fought at Gallipoli in 1915? Do Australians know that Aboriginal Australians were still treated differently when they returned from the war or ask why do Aboriginal Australians have a separate war memorial  on the side of Mount Ainslie?

There is no disputing the bravery of the soldiers that fought at Gallipoli – on both sides. As former Prime Minister John Howard said in 2005 ‘Over eight impossible months, they forged a legend whose grip on us grows tighter with each passing year. In the hills, ridges and gullies above us the Anzacs fought, died, dug in and hung on. Here they won a compelling place in the Australian story”.  C.E.W Bean recognised that the bravery and courage of the Australians at Gallipoli would be immortalised when he wrote ‘”What these men did nothing can alter now. The good and the bad, the greatness and the smallness of their story will stand. Whatever of glory it contains nothing now can lessen. It rises, as it will always rise, above the mists of the ages, a monument to great-hearted men; and, for their nation, a possession for ever’.

What of the soldiers that served on other battlefields during the First World War? What of the soldiers that served on the Western Front at places as Fromelles, Bullecourt, Messines, and the four-month campaign around Ypres, known as the battle of Passchendaele. Anzac day parades now include soldiers that have served in the Second World War and the Korean War but it took until 1987 to recognise the soldiers from the Vietnam War. What of the thousands of Australians taken as Prisoner of War by the Japanese on the Burma railway or at Sandakan?

Should the Anzac day commemorations also remind us about the futility of war? Can war ever be justified? Although Gallipoli was a military disaster which was brought to light by Keith Murdoch, the father of Rupert Murdoch, should Australians be looking at the reasons why Gallipoli was a military failure and learning from those lessons? Australian popular culture has accepted that the failures at Gallipoli were due to the incompetence of the British military and lack of planning. Peter Weir’s 1981 echoes this popular sentiment that it was not the Australians but the British who were responsible for the needless sacrifice at Gallipoli. Was this the truth of the Gallipoli disaster?

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The suffering of families who have lost fathers, brothers and son’s seems to be all forgotten in the Anzac legend. But what about the soldiers of those that did not come home from war or those soldiers who came home injured and mentally scarred by the war? As soldiers came home from war suffering from what was described as ‘shell shock’, ‘combat fatigue’ and now known as Post Traumatic Stress Disorder or PTSD. There were soldiers who returned from war that never participated in the Anzac day parades as they wanted to forget the horrors of the war. The Anzac Legend has forgotten those soldiers who never really came home.

Lest we forget.

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