What’s To Commemorate?

The Making of Gallipoli into a Marketable Memory
by Gordon Campbell

It is easy to know what we don’t want to commemorate on Anzac Day this year. We don’t want to (a) glorify war (b) commercialise it (c) politicize it (d) watch our leaders weep crocodile tears over it or (e) do anything that might heighten the chance of something like Gallipoli ever happening again. That may not leave very much left over.

In fact, is there anything that can be validly commemorated on this 100th anniversary of Gallipoli ? Beyond, that is, a fleeting sense of empathy with the thousands of soldiers killed or wounded on April 25 1915 and in the months thereafter, until the whole thing was finally called off in December 1915. (Most of the New Zealand survivors were transferred to the trenches in France, and eventually to the battle of the Somme in 1916.) And lest we focus unduly on the Gallipoli fallen, what about everyone who has died or been wounded physically or psychologically in wars before and since… and lets not forget the pacifists, either. Or the Turks, whose own commemorations began on March 18, when the Dardanelles campaign began in earnest. Most of them didn’t want to be there, either.

Point being, the more we focus on this object of national veneration, the more it eludes our grasp. Sure, we can admire the bravery and endurance of those who fought, died or survived at Anzac Cove and elsewhere – but even that sentiment can’t legitimately be separated from anger at (a) those who dreamed up this folly, or (b) the politicians who have decked out the carnage ever since with platitudes about courage, honour and duty to King and Empire. We’ve been hearing the modern variations on these patriotic themes all month, to the point where “Anzac fatigue’ may be setting in.

To repeat : Is there any valid way to commemorate this anniversary? Perhaps if we eliminate all the things we don’t like about the sentimental bath into which the country has been plunged this month, a residue might remain that we can still feel OK about. Its worth a try.

1.Glorifying war. It is very hard to honour an event of this sort without glorifying it. It may be too late to avoid this pitfall entirely, given how Anzac Cove and Chanuk Bair have become sanctified, as the crucibles of our national identity. Such a process cannot help but pump fresh life back into what the poet (and WW1 casualty) Wilfred Owen called the “old lie” told to children “ardent for some desperate glory” : namely, that it is a sweet, noble and admirable thing to die for one’s country. Owen, and many of the soldiers present at Gallipoli, felt quite the opposite.

That’s the challenge. As the New Zealand historian Jock Phillips told Werewolf : “Some people argue that the commemoration of the First World War is in itself an act that is going to encourage greater sympathy towards militaristic responses and a blind sense of duty towards the nation, and so forth. Such that any form of commemoration of that event is therefore politically and socially dangerous. “

His own view is that even so, the scale of the tragedy demands that it be addressed, somehow. “My view is that the First World War has been by far the greatest trauma that pakeha New Zealanders have ever undergone. Look at the scale of the suffering, and not only in terms of the losses of the 18,000 people who died. If each of them had at least six people close to them – parents, lovers, siblings etc – you’ve got 100,000 people who had a direct and major loss, out of a population [at the time] of a million. Then you take into account the 50,000 who were injured. It was a huge, huge national trauma. My view is that it is important to recover the memory of that trauma if only to prevent it in the future. Its important to confront what war really means and it is important to confront the implications of war. I don’t think you do that by simply burying it.

Or by bathing it in sentimental glory?

“Exactly. I think the battle really is to make sure that in remembering the First World. War, we remember the costs and the pain and the horror. What I’ve been trying to do is recover individual stories, because that is often the way you come to grips with what the suffering was really like. It was a horrific experience. Basically, you had industrial warfare in a situation in which the health and treatment had simply not caught up with it. Look at the food even, that people were getting at Gallipoli. They were suffering from scurvy by the end….”

If the 20th century has taught us anything, it is that scepticism should be our very first response whenever patriotism puts on a military uniform. Military service tends to be treated as a sacrificial rite. Certainly, when war broke out in 1914, the Edwardian era had treated obedience to the bugle call of national service as a manly virtue. In commemorating the Anzacs, we run the risk of glamourising their fate, and communicating those same Edwardian values – or something very much like them – to another generation of young New Zealanders. The politicians and military personnel at the helm of this month’s celebrations may find that too tempting a route to resist.

2.Politicising war. The Gallipoli landings began as a military folly on April 25 and stumbled along in much the same vein until the withdrawal nearly eight months later. So when did the process of transforming it into (a) a glorious failure and (b) an originary myth of nationhood begin in earnest ?

“It happened the moment the news of the landing occurred,’ Phillips says. ‘If you read the New Zealand newspapers…from the time when the first cables came through its all phrased in terms of New Zealanders finally show their value to the British Empire. What the newspapers did particularly well was to draw on the positive comments of the British elite – namely the King, the British newspaper reporter Ellis Ashmead-Bartlett and people like John Masefield. These were the spokespeople of the British ruling class. When they made positive comments about New Zealanders, these comments were recycled and recycled and recycled. There was a sense that New Zealand had won its spurs on behalf of the Empire. And it started from the moment that the first news of the landing arrived in New Zealand.”

During the ensuing months, the newspaper reports filtered their way back to the soldiers themselves, and as Phillips says, the disbelief was almost total. “The troops [at Gallipoli] read the media accounts with incredulity. They were both horrified and contemptuous. They couldn’t believe the disjuncture between the heroic way in which this was being presented, and their experiences.”

At home, the conservative Massey government was doing its bit to peddle the message of imperial service as being a glorious endeavour. On April 30 1915, Massey reportedly addressed a crowd of 4,000- 5,000 on the steps of Parliament in these astonishing terms:

‘We have sent out on active service 17,000 men, the best and brightest in this community… In a few months, if the war lasts – and I believe it will last because the end does not appear to be in sight – New Zealand will have 25,000 men on the other side of the world fighting for their King, for the Empire, and for their country. (Cheers) I feel absolutely certain of this, that if another 25,000 men are required from New Zealand – and they may be required – they will be forthcoming from the manhood of this country…’

Even so – and as those cheers suggest – Massey was merely echoing the sentiments of the day. What looks to us today like toadying to King and Empire seemed more like manly virtue back then. Moreover, local politicians were something of an irrelevance. At the time, the New Zealand public wanted praise from further up the imperial food chain. “From the point of view of the New Zealand public,’ Phillips says, “they were much less interested in what the Massey government said, than in what [the British Gallipoli commander General Sir Ian] Hamilton said, or what the King said. The rulers of the Empire were the people that the public wanted to get plaudits from.”

“Bravery” and “duty” recur in the modern rhetoric about Gallipoli. So much so that it is probably worth examining what those terms could possibly have meant, in a 1915 context – as the forces of history, social expectations and notions of masculinity were all converging on the individual. All too easily, one imagines it would have been possible in the Gallipoli trenches to feel like Corporal Fife In the James Jones novel The Thin Red Line…. that “they had trapped him into bravery and killed him.” In the same novel, another character says:

“But what the hell?” thinks one soldier. “If a man’s government told him he had to go and fight a war, he had to go, that was all. The government was bigger than him and it could make him. It wasn’t even a matter of duty. He had to go.”

Once there, the nature of 20th century warfare – of which Gallipoli was an early example – all but deny the individual soldier of moral agency and free choice. As the historian John Keegan explained In his 1976 book The Face of Battle:

“It is a function of the impersonality of modern war, that the soldier is coerced more continuously and more harshly by vast, unlocalised forces against which he may rail, but at which he cannot strike back and to which he must ultimately submit : the fire which nails him to the ground or drives him beneath it; the great distance which yawns between him and safety, the onward progression of a vehicular advance or a retreat which carries him with it willy-nilly. The dynamic of modern battle impels more effectively than any system of discipline which Frederick the Great could have dreamt.’

Finally, as Chris Walsh indicates (p.119) on his recent book on the history of cowardice, the notion of “duty” has been emptied of meaning. Again, citing James Jones, and The Thin Red Line, Walsh concludes: “For Jones, the overwhelming power of war and the modern state, yoked to capitalist interests, bureaucratisation, indoctrination and media saturation, make ‘duty’ meaningless.” That was true of Gallipoli in 1915, and is true today of the alleged ‘sons of Anzac’ who are headed for Iraq.

2. Commercialising war. What we choose to commemorate, and when we do so, is a conscious decision. It seems significant for instance, that New Zealand barely acknowledged the 50th anniversary of Gallipoli in 1965, and the 75th anniversary in 1990 also went by virtually unsung. The fanfare this month has been partly driven by commerce. Gallipoli presents a marketing opportunity and a positive brand, and is now distant enough in time to be re-packaged with impunity.

The commercialisation takes many forms. Like the battlefields of the American Civil War, Gallipoli is now a magnet for tourism. Gallipoli and the related ‘spirit of Anzac’ also drive television ratings, newspaper and magazine sales, and offer a myriad of sponsorship opportunities. Here at home, the media outpouring of documentaries, human interest stories, and Anzac-themed events is another way in which the national memory is being sanitised and resold to the public, as an ingredient of Kiwiana. New Zealand Post for instance, has quite a range of “King and Empire “ collectible coins and stamps, including one called “1914 – The Great Adventure Begins,” which includes this blurb:

As part of the First World War five year programme, New Zealand Post will issue legal tender commemorative coins. This highly collectable and intricately designed gold proof coin highlights not only the plight of those who left for the war, but those who were left behind.

That’s turning suffering into coin, quite literally. Of course, those involved in this kind of business will say that they’re not creating anything, but are responding to a felt need. These days, they will say, New Zealanders have an interest in the sources of our national identity that earlier generations did not feel. And if the product being bought should differ in important respects from what we know of historical reality ….well, that’s OK, too. Inevitable, even. To paraphrase Anais Nin, we do not see things as they were, we see them as we are. In that respect, Gallipoli will always be being re-marketed to each new generation, according to its needs. War is not only good for business, it is business.

Part of the mythology is that at Gallipoli, New Zealand and Australia became Anzac brothers in arms. While this is partly true (see below) it is also false in significant ways. For one thing, the Anzac Day commemorations in New Zealand have always been more inclined to stress the importance of the links between Australia and New Zealand. “Whereas in Australia that doesn’t mean anything,” Phillips points out. “There’s been no concept of New Zealand.”

This divergence in the “ Anzac tradition” is reflected in other ways as well. In stark contrast to New Zealand, all
of Australia’s troops who served in WW1 were volunteers. Twice during WW1, Australia held national referendums on conscription and twice rejected it. New Zealand gave its citizens no such opportunity. In mid 1916, a form of conscription was introduced without a public vote, by an Act of Parliament. Part of the reason for this difference in attitude to the call of Empire, Phillips says, was due to the differing make-up of the respective populations. Australia had a higher proportion of Irish Catholic immigrants, while New Zealand had more Anglican/Presbyterian stock and these ratios generated different social pressures when it came to military service.. In Australia, Catholicism and its bishops played a significant role in defeating conscription. Here by contrast, the rate of volunteering among Catholics was not significantly lower than for other denominations

Ironically, so strong was the call to imperial service in New Zealand – always keen to be more British than the British – the incidence of appeals against conscription on grounds of conscience, disability, economic value to the nation or family need was extremely low. It was far lower in fact than in Britain itself where, as Phillips says, little shame was attached to lodging such an appeal.

Since conscription was introduced here only in mid 1916, this meant that all of the New Zealand forces at Gallipoli were volunteers. Eventually however, about a quarter of New Zealand’s entire military forces in WW1 were conscripts. This reality has fostered significant differences in how Anzac Day has been recognised here, compared to across the Tasman. ‘When Australia came to commemorate the First World War,’ Phillips explains, “the residue of those battles over conscription remained. The emphasis was on the voluntary sacrifice made by Australians. The result is that those who served became the focus of attention, rather than those who died. If you look at Australian war memorials, over 80 per cent of them have the names of those who served, while in New Zealand 80 per cent of them only have the names of those who died. Those who served were not accorded the same honour here, because about a quarter of them were conscripts.”

This difference carried over into the form of the Anzac Day ceremonies. “In Australia, the parade of the veterans [has been] a big deal. In New Zealand, the parade of the veterans has held nothing like the same focus. In New Zealand, the focus has been on the laying of wreaths for the dead.” Despite these important differences, one element of the “Anzac” tradition at least is entirely genuine. On the battlefield at Gallipoli, a mutual respect between the two nations was forged, judging by the evidence of the letters and diaries.

Yet one of the interesting things about this bond is that it was preceded by a good deal of disdain and disapproval, on the New Zealand side at least. “You can read it in the diaries, Phillips says. “You get a whole switch in attitude…New Zealanders had begun by wanting to identify with the English and are contemptuous of the Australians. ” In the preceding months before the troopship departure from Albany in Australia, the New Zealanders perceived the Australians to be an ill-disciplined, larrikin lot. Not British at all. “After a month at Gallipoli, the whole thing has changed. “ The courage and military prowess of the Transtasman partners became mutually apparent – and ironically, it stood in stark contrast to the changed perceptions of the actual British troops thrown into these battles – many of whom were young, untried, weak and ill-prepared.

Yet post-war, that respect didn’t translate into shared Anzac views about the campaign, of Churchill, of the meaning of the war etc etc? “No,” Phillips says. “What endured was the way the New Zealanders continued – particularly on Anzac Day to commemorate the wartime relationship with Australia. “ As mentioned, this was not reciprocated across the Tasman, to anything like the same degree.

In articulating the meaning of our involvement in the First World War, the New Zealand public persisted in seeing it very much within an imperial framework. Today It is impossible to identify with – much less to respect – the conformist, totalitarian, village democracy that New Zealand was at the time. “There’s often a disjunction, “ Phillips adds, “between the way soldiers are thinking and the way that people at home are thinking. For those who went on to the Western Front, a lot of them didn’t get home until the end of 1919.” The chasm in perceptions endured…. Perhaps the famed reticence of the veterans to talk about the war may have its origins in part from the realization by these men that what they might have to say about the war wouldn’t have had much of an audience. By the time they arrived back home in 1919, the meaning of WW1 – and of Gallipoli – had already been constructed.

3.Crocodile Tears.. For the National Party today – as with the Massey government in the past – militarism and its alliances, obligations and sorties abroad are a relatively straightforward matter.. They are the price of being in the club, as Prime Minister John Key recently put it. For the Labour Party, it has been somewhat different. In recent decades, Labour has had a far more complex relationship with the country’s military traditions. Long identified with its strong opposition to the Vietnam War, Labour went on in the 1980s to champion an anti-nuclear policy that alienated our traditional allies.

Not accidently, the Clark government then went out of its way to (a) re-equip our run-down armed forces at considerable expense during the 2000s, and also to (b) put up the money and lay the groundwork for the new National War Memorial Park in Wellington. If such efforts helped to insulate the Clark government from being politically stereotyped as peaceniks, this would have been regarded by Helen Clark no doubt, as a worthwhile investment.

There has always been another price to be paid, in blood. From Gallipoli in WW1 and Crete in WW2 to Afghanistan and Iraq in recent years…our troops have regularly been deployed overseas on expeditions that don’t bear up to much close scrutiny. Was Gallipoli for instance always a folly, or was it a justifiable gamble at the time? The intention of the Dardanelles campaign, Phillips replies, was to get ships through to the Sea of Marmara, and then bomb what is now Istanbul and eventually, hopefully, take Turkey out of the war.

“However,” Phillips says. “ once the attempt to drive the ships through the Dardanelles had failed – because the Turks had very big guns there – then I think the landing [at Gallipoli] was probably a folly. They didn’t have the necessary number of men, since all the resources were still going to the Western Front. They were always short of support, and it was very badly organized, in that they landed for instance, at the wrong place.”

So once the naval gambit had failed the prudent thing would have been to shelve the landing that had been meant to be the next phase? “Yes. A landing is always much more fraught isn’t it ? Once a landing takes place…you immediately create a more motivated enemy, in that they feel themselves to be defending their own land. And the Turks responded accordingly.” The invasion, he continues, was always undermanned. “Even [Lt Colonel William] Malone [later killed at Chanuk Bair] if you read his diaries, thinks after about two weeks that the whole thing is a joke war. Basically, what was the point of putting men into dangerous and exposed situations if they’re not being giving the equipment to do it properly, they’re not being backed up properly, and there is not enough material ? ”

So the eventual withdrawal in December should have been brought forward ? “Yes. Certainly it should have been after the August failure – to take and hold the heights – had failed.“ During the August offensive, he says, members of the family of Phillip‘s wife were involved in the attack on Hill 60, which can usefully serve as a microcosm of the wider folly. By launching the August offensive, Phillips explains, the Allies had decided to make one last push to capture the heights of the Dardanelles, drive the Turks out and belatedly allow the Allied ships to go on through. Instead, the Allies got to the top at Chanuk Bair and were beaten back. In the process of capturing Chanuk Bair the Allied forces had over-run a whole area north of Anzac Cove., and this territory included a little hill that later came to be known as Hill 60.

‘While they were retreating, the Allied forces could easily have held on to Hill 60,’ Phillips says. ‘but they decided not to. But then Hamilton [the British general in charge of the whole Dardanelles campaign] decided that Hill 60 had strategic value if and when the Allies should ever launch another attack on the heights.’ This was always a fanciful idea. So two weeks after the failed August offensive, Phillips says, the tired, exhausted and bloodied troops were sent back on not one, but two suicidal attempts to re-take Hill 60, whose value lay only in the context of a further offensive that – even at the time – was obviously never going to happen.

In the process, the New Zealand forces were compelled to race across 700 metres of open space in broad daylight against entrenched and well-armed Turkish positions. They were told to carry rifles, but not to use them. Only bayonets were to be used, once they got close enough. “So they raced 700 metres down into a valley and up Hill 60,” Phillips says, “all the time under continuous attack. They had no [useful] covering fire. The casualties were horrendous. And then four or five days later, they were told to have another go at Hill 60. All of which was a complete and total farce.”

Again, and despite the enduring myths of Anzac unity, Australians and New Zealanders have always held markedly differing attitudes towards those responsible for the Gallipolli disaster. The entire Dardanelles campaign for example, had been the brainchild of the British First Lord of the Admiralty, Winston Churchill. ‘To the Australians, “ Phillips says, ‘Churchill was the guy with the bright idea that got costed in Australian lives. He did it not only once. In WW11 he had the same idea of sending people off to Greece and Crete to open another eastern front. It was exactly the same idea as the one he’d had at Gallipoli. Yet in New Zealand, and despite the fact we’ve had two fiascos at his bidding – at Gallipoli and again in Greece and Crete – Churchill has never lost his public following in this country.” To the point today, where our most successful populist politician is called Winston Peters? “Well, yes.”

Rather than revile Churchill and rebel against Britain, New Zealand has waged much of its post-colonial rebellion against the United States. In this country, the Mother Country and its monarchy remain virtually immune to criticism. It was the opposition to the Vietnam War that became central to our quest for a more independent foreign policy – even though at the same time, Britain was busily in the process of abandoning New Zealand, and joining the European Common Market. Regardless, Britain has largely escaped blame for its actions and inactions – whether those be at Gallipoli a hundred years ago, or during the 1970s, or at any time since.

A generational shift in values does now seem to be under way however. The anti-militarism of the generation forged by Vietnam and by the other struggles of the 1970s and 1980s, is giving way to a generation that seems tired of ideological posturing of any sort. Most obviously, this transition is being reflected in the increased turnout for Anzac Day ceremonies.

Phillips has noticed the change in temperature. ‘When I started getting interested in the First World War in the 1980s, people of my generation thought that if you were interested in war you were somehow supping with the devil…It was common to associate the commemoration of war with drunken veterans going off to the RSAs on Anzac Day and reminiscing about the good times on the piss in Cairo. We grew up shaped by the political attitudes that came out of the RSA, at a time where there was a great deal of suspicion about the value of military activity.“

At the time, those negative attitudes were being reflected in the declining numbers at Anzac Day services in the mid 1980s. “I took a photograph [in Auckland] of the dawn service in 1986.. There were about a hundred people there. It was a tiny group. Yet when I went down to the dawn service last year there must have been about 10,000 people there. A lot of them were younger people. The war experience is such a strange and foreign experience now, that people come across it almost with a sense of disbelief…

The feelings of disbelief – and the very real sense that WW1 has been a kind of secret history, known only to a few – has marked the story of Gallipoli from the outset. New Zealanders were sheltered from the war in many ways, Phillips says. Here, it was not at all like the situation in southern England, where the explosions from the Western Front in France were clearly audible across the Channel. “The soldiers were a long way away. The letters were all censored, the newspapers were censored.. The public was fed endless propaganda. So it was actually quite hard to find out what that experience was like. Later on, the war memorials were presented in heroic terms.. And when more gutsy accounts did finally begin to emerge, New Zealand censored them. The film of All Quiet On The Western Front was censored, and the Auckland Public library wasn’t allowed to stock it as a book…”

Ultimately, Gallipoli and the other battles in WW1 have been re-discovered in different ways by each generation – for whom it serves very different purposes. In commemorating it, there is – as mentioned earlier – a chronic risk of re-valorising what was in its essence, a folly that had been enacted in the context of a grovel by a colony to its King. The danger in celebrating this is pretty obvious.. Arguably, spending the currency of human lives to pay the price of membership in the imperial club is as foolhardy now – in Iraq – as it was at Gallipoli. Yet just as the generals and politicians got off virtually scot free from the Gallipoli fiasco, the public don’t seem to be unduly concerned about our current military adventures abroad, either.

So what – if anything – does a historian like Phillips think is still worth commemorating on this 100th anniversary of Gallipoli ? “I think the most important thing is that New Zealanders remember – with as much richness of detail as they can – the true horror of the Great War. And then dedicate themselves never to repeat it. “