Gallipoli: a defining moment in Australian history

Australian writer Peter FitzSimons, author of a new history of Gallipoli, talks to Rob Attar about the experiences of his compatriots in the battle and explains why it has become such a defining moment in the country’s history...

This article was first published in the April 2015 issue of BBC History Magazine

Australian troops (widely known as ‘Diggers’) at Anzac Cove in April 1915. Their exploits at Gallipoli would help to forge a nation, says Peter FitzSimons. (Australian War Memorial)

Q: Why does the battle of Gallipoli seem to have so much more importance for Australians than for people in Britain?

A: In 1901 all the colonies of Australia came together to become a country but there was a view at the time that you weren’t a serious nation until you had shed blood – both your own and that of your enemies.

Our great revered poet, Banjo Paterson, wrote a poem when the news came through of the Gallipoli landings: “…We’re not State children any more/We’re all Australians now…!/The mettle that a race can show/Is proved with shot and steel,/And now we know what nations know/And feel what nations feel…” There in that poem you have got the exultation that took place in Australia; our diggers (slang for Antipodean soldiers) had fought for the British empire and they had done well. There is a pretty strong argument – which I have come to believe in – that while Australians went to that war as loyal sons of Great Britain, they came back as Australians.

Q: Why do you think that so many Australians volunteered to fight in the war in Europe?

A: The romantic reason was to fight for Britain – and that was certainly true of many of them. Andrew Fisher, who became Australian prime minister (for a third time) soon after the war began, proclaimed to great acclaim: We will fight for Great Britain to the “last man and the last shilling”. There were lots of patriots who left accounts saying that the mother country had called on her lion cubs to come to her aid and that’s what they were doing.

Others joined for adventure and still others joined – and this was not an insignificant reason – for “six shillings a day, mate”. It wasn’t bad pay. The British soldier was getting paid just one shilling a day. In my book I tell the story of the Australians who went absolutely crazy in the red light district of Cairo. Our soldiers were very well known in the city and all the ladies of the night wanted an Australian because they had six shillings in their pocket every night, so they were the first in line. Tragically a lot of soldiers got venereal disease and were sent home in disgrace.

Q: Were the Australian troops surprised by the ferocity of the fighting that they encountered at Gallipoli?

A: I think so. It was certainly hell on earth. At the battle of the Nek [on 7 August] you had Australian soldiers charging about 50 yards across open ground with no bullets in their rifles into open machine gun fire and artillery.

And yet the veterans of Gallipoli who then went on to the western front all said: “Look, we thought Gallipoli was bad but we’ve got to the western front and realised we didn’t know anything.” There, the German artillery was so overwhelming and so precise that some Australians almost looked back on Gallipoli with nostalgia. We lost 46,000 killed on the western front, which almost makes the 9,000 lost at Gallipoli pale into insignificance. But still Gallipoli is writ so large in the Australian psyche. I think if you tapped most Australians for their military knowledge, 90 per cent of it would start and finish at Gallipoli and 90 per cent of that would centre on the first day.

Q: How did the Australians view the Turks they were fighting?

A: Early on they had little respect for them: “Let us at these Turks and we’ll sort them out.” Yet, even though the Ottoman empire was on its knees by this time, it was nevertheless an empire with hundreds of years of martial tradition. These men knew what they were doing; they believed in their cause; they were very courageous and fought very hard.

The story I most love in my book concerns an incident on 24 May 1915. After one month of fighting, no man’s land at Anzac Cove was filled with stinking dead bodies, and a truce was arranged. Both sides came up waving flags and the Turks and Australians began to talk to each other. The Turks had one particular question for the Australians, which was: “Who are you?” The Australians would explain: “We’re from Australia.” “Yes, yes we know that,” the Turks would reply, “we looked in the atlas, but why are you here?” And then the Australians would have to explain about being part of the British empire.

The Turks had a respect for the Australians because they knew the punishment they had taken and still held on. And the Australians had a respect for the Turks because they saw the way they kept charging onto their guns, which was extremely courageous. From then on there was empathy between the two sides.

Three days after that meeting, something thumped in front of the Australian trenches and for the first time it didn’t explode. It was a package with a note that said: “To our heroic enemies.” Inside were Turkish cigarettes, which our blokes smoked and thought were pretty good. They wanted to send something back and all they could find were cans of bully beef – some dating back to the Boer War, reputedly. They threw some over to the Turks and a minute later it came back with a note: “No more bully beef!”

Recently I was speaking to our former prime minister Bob Hawke and I asked him what was the most moving time in his period of office. He said that it was the 75th anniversary of the Gallipoli landings, in 1990. They flew back 53 diggers – most of whom were 90 or 95 years old – and when they got there, who should pull up, but 100-odd Turkish soldiers of the same vintage? These two groups of very old men walked towards each other across the same no man’s land where they had first met 75 years earlier. Our blokes put out their hands – let bygones be bygones – but that wasn’t good enough for the Turks. They pushed away their hands and gave them bear hugs, kissing them on both cheeks. There was still this extraordinary respect between the Turks and Australians.

Q: That’s a remarkable story, considering that the Australians had originally come to invade their country...

A: It’s very interesting you use that phrase. In my introduction, I explain how, like most Australians, I took Gallipoli in with my mother’s milk. I studied it at school and at university. It’s in my bones, part of the Australian birthright.

Then, in 1999, I was listening to ABC Radio in the car and a historian said, “when Australia invaded Turkey” and I just about ran off the road! ‘Invaded’ seemed like such an ugly word but then thinking about it that’s what it was, really. But in Australia we just didn’t think of it as an invasion – I dare say similar to the fact that we still don’t think of our dispossession of the indigenous people as an invasion. But what else would you call it if you were an indigenous person and you saw the big ships arrive?

Q: One debate you bring out in the book is the question of how heroic the Australian troops really were at Gallipoli. Have you formed a view about that issue?

A: Cecil Aspinall-Oglander was on the staff of [Gallipoli commander] General Hamilton and became a British war historian afterwards. He wrote that some of the Australians had run away on that first day – which does not fit with our national image – but I imagine that some of it was true.

I often wonder what I would have done if I had been in the third wave at the battle of the Nek. The first wave of 150 Australian soldiers was just completely slaughtered, as was the second one. If I would have been in the third wave, would I have given in to civilian sanity and said: “I’m not going to do that. My job is not to give my life for my country, my job is to make some other poor bastard give his life for his country”? Had I landed on the shores of Gallipoli, looked up and seen machine guns firing and shrapnel coming down at me, what would I have done? The numbers are disputed, but certainly some Australians gave in to that and refused to fight – just as I dare say some Brits did at Cape Helles – but the majority went forwards.

Against all the accusations of cowardice, when I go to Anzac Cove and see that beach, I look up and think: “God help me, how the hell did those bastards hold on for as long as they did? They never had the higher ground, never had sufficient supplies, never had as many machine gun bullets, or as much artillery, or as many men.” There is no doubt the Australians did very well, as did the Kiwis and the Brits, to hold on against overwhelming numbers.

Q: How do you think we should remember the Gallipoli campaign now?

A: I strongly believe that we should commemorate, not celebrate, this centenary. When I wander through the graveyards and see the ages of those who died and read about the circumstances of their deaths, I feel that we need to understand their world, what they did and why it happened. As that great line from Rudyard Kipling says: “Lest we forget.” 

Peter FitzSimons is an Australian journalist and author whose work includes several history books.

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