By David Ahern
Earlier this year we marked the 105th anniversary of the first landing on the Gallipoli Peninsula by the allies, including British, French, Indian, Australian and New Zealand soldiers, who tried unsuccessfully to overrun Turkish positions.
Australians and New Zealanders were quick to sign up to defend the British Empire, oblivious to the fate that would befall many of them. Wet behind the ears in terms of life experience, some were too young to legally drink alcohol or to vote, and yet they drew their last breath on a foreign battlefield far from home. The grief experienced by many parents at the time was well illustrated by the last two verses of the poem, The Soul of the ANZAC by Roderic Quinn.
And yet it t’was your choice to be this thing —
A young man dead on an alien shore,
Where the immemorial surges sing
As once they sang in the days of yore,
When Greeks and Trojan marches their might
And Troy shone down upon the fight
O Man that I was, well done! Well done!
You chose the nobler, the better part;
Though a mother weep for her soldier son,
And a fair, sweet girl be sad at heart,
Yet the soul of your country glows with pride
At the deed you did and the death you died!
Gallipoli was a military disaster and therefore appreciation and understanding of the ANZAC spirit among the broader community didn’t happen overnight. Brigadier Michael Annett (RSL Victoria) said on the 100th anniversary of the landing in 2015 that there had been an attitudinal “sea change” towards ANZAC Day over the past 30 years. “In the post-Vietnam period of the 1970s and early 80s, people were still getting over the divisiveness and impact of the Vietnam war and earlier conflicts,” he said.
“But as time passed there was a re-awakening of interest in military conflicts. For example, in 1995 there was the Australia Remembers campaign, marking the 50th anniversary of the end of World War 2. There was also the 75th anniversary of the Gallipoli campaign which was held when a number of soldiers from World War 1 were still alive. Those two events marked a change in how we saw our veterans.
“New technology has also made it easier for families to look into the past to see what their great grandfather did during various wars and where he spent his time,” Brigadier Annett says. “The increased accessibility coupled with a profusion of books by popular authors, such as Les Carlyon has raised awareness and interest about our military past and the ANZAC spirit.”
While Gallipoli was a failed campaign, April 25 has come to symbolise the ANZAC spirit, and that’s not to diminish the heroics fought on the Western Front, other World War 1 battlefields, WW11 and the other major conflicts since. The date has become increasingly important as the day we remember the tragedy that was Gallipoli; recognise the bravery of the soldiers; and acknowledge the futility of war! It is deeply etched in the respective psyches of Australians and New Zealanders and the need to respect those who paid the ultimate price for their countries.
From the outset Gallipoli was a tough proposition. The official Australian World War 1 correspondent, journalist and historian, Charles Bean, landed with the Australian troops on April 25 and in his first report he wrote about the difficulties of the campaign.
‘It was eighteen minutes past four on the morning of Sunday, 25th April, when the first boat grounded. So far not a shot had been fired by the enemy. Colonel McLagan’s orders to his brigade were that shots, if possible, were not to be fired till daybreak, but the business was to be carried through with the bayonet. The men leapt into the water, and the first of them had just reached the beach when fire was opened on them from the trenches on the foothills which rise immediately from the beach. The landing place consists of a small bay about half-a-mile from point to point with two much larger bays north and south. The country rather resembles the Hawkesbury River country in New South Wales, the hills rising immediately from the sea to 600 feet. To the north these ridges cluster to a summit nearly 1,000 feet high. Further northward the ranges become even higher. The summit just mentioned sends out a series of long ridges running south-westward, with steep gullies between them, very much like the hills and gullies about the north of Sydney, covered with low scrub very similar to a dwarfed gum tree scrub. The chief difference is that there are no big trees, but many precipices and sheer slopes of gravel.
One ridge comes down to the sea at the small bay above mentioned, and ends in two knolls about 100 feet high, one at each point of the bay. It was from these that fire was first opened on the troops as they landed. Bullets struck fireworks out of the stones along the beach. The men did not wait to be hit, but wherever they landed they simply rushed straight up the steep slopes. Other small boats which had cast off from the warships and steam launches which towed them, were digging for the beach with oars. These occupied the attention of the Turks in the trenches, and almost before the Turks had time to collect their senses, the first boatloads were well up towards the trenches. Few Turks awaited the bayonet. It is said that one huge Queenslander swung his rifle by the muzzle, and, after braining one Turk, caught another and flung him over his shoulder. I do not know if this story is true, but when we landed some hours later, there was said to have been a dead Turk on the beach with his head smashed in. It is impossible to say which battalion landed first, because several landed together.
The Turks in the trenches facing the landing had run, but those on the other flank and on the ridges and gullies still kept up a fire upon the boats coming in shore, and that portion of the covering force which landed last came under a heavy fire before it reached the beach. The Turks had a machine gun in the valley on our left, and this seems to have been turned on to the boats containing part of the Twelfth Battalion. Three of these boats are still lying on the beach some way before they could be rescued. Two stretcher-bearers of the Second Battalion who went along the beach during the day to effect a rescue were both shot by the Turks. Finally, a party waited for dark, and crept along the beach, rescuing nine men who had been in the boats two days, afraid to move for fear of attracting fire. The work of the stretcher-bearers all through a week of hard fighting has been beyond all praise.’
According to official records, 8,079 Australians were killed and 19,441 wounded; 2,779 New Zealanders died and 5,212 wounded; UK and Irish deaths numbered 21,255; and 10,000 French soldiers died. Newfoundland (49) and India (1,358) also recorded casualties at Gallipoli. The number of Turkish dead and wounded numbered more than 250,000.
The Great War took a huge toll on many nations and at the time many believed that hard lessons had been learned and the world would never again experience such carnage. However, as history records Europe was plunged into another world war 21 years later and this time the casualties were far higher.
Lest we forget.
Charles Bean – The first report, Commonwealth of Australia Gazette No.39. Monday 17th May 1915
New Zealand History
Australian War Memorial
RSL Victorian Branch
The Soul of the ANZAC (Roderic Quinn) Australian Poetry Library