20 December 2002

"Charge of the rewrite brigade"

By Jonathan King

NOTE: Bold highlighting has been added

The Gallipoli campaign may never be viewed in the same light if some war scholars have their way. Jonathan King reports

Just six months after the death of the last Anzac, Alec Campbell, a group of academics has called for a revision of the Gallipoli story. After touring the battlefield, dodging enthusiastic Australian backpackers as they went and debating the issue over four days, they've concluded it is time to dispel the myths that have inspired many young people to make the pilgrimage.

Instead of commemorating the heroism of Australian soldiers who landed on that fatal shore in 1915, the conference in October concluded that Australians should reframe the landing as an unmitigated disaster and apologise to the Turkish Government for invading their country.

"The landing was nothing but an unjustified invasion of foreign soil like the British invasion of Aboriginal land in 1788,'' says John Lack of the University of Melbourne. "And we should put the two coves together -- Sydney Cove and Anzac Cove -- because both invasions were just as bad as each other and cost a lot of lives.''

Lack addressed 40 scholars from around the world at the plenary session of the conference, Australia in War and Peace, which was convened by the Australian War Memorial and Curtin University and held at Canakkale, the nearest town to the Gallipoli battlefields.

Now that the last living link with Gallipoli has gone, the conference agreed, it is time to reframe the history books and correct the interpretations that have become part of the public perception.

But this is not a betrayal of the legend, according to Australian War Memorial principal historian Peter Stanley. "We are just rediscovering Gallipoli and what it means to Australians today,'' Stanley says. "We cannot get sucked in by the patriotic propaganda. We cannot keep calling Gallipoli a landing as if it were a picnic outing to the beach -- it was an invasion of another country.''

This rewriting of history is important, Stanley says, because "Gallipoli is the single most important place Australians believe their national identity comes from -- so it is time to tell the truth so we know what that identity is based on''.

Academics at the conference said they have "a great responsibility to interpret Gallipoli properly'' because they are the prism through which the public understands the Gallipoli story. Just as the arrival of European settlers in Australia has been reinterpreted and accepted by the mainstream as an invasion, many of the scholars believe the Gallipoli landing must be labelled an invasion, too.

"If we take an Aboriginal point of view,'' says Shane Breen of the University of Tasmania, "we would appreciate Gallipoli from the Turks' point of view, seeing it as the invasion it really was.''

John McQuilton of Wollongong University says Australians should look at the story of Gallipoli from the Turkish angle to see how they feel about it, a view that has been neglected for too long. The Turks lost 86,000 soldiers compared with Australia's 8709. "It is now time to embrace our old enemy Turkey,'' he says.

Stanley also warns Australians against monopolising the legend, saying: "It was not Australia's battle. There were thousands more British and French soldiers there, along with soldiers from India and Newfoundland as well, and we do not have exclusive rights.''

Claiming that Gallipoli has become "just a country of the mind'', Jenny MacLeod, from the UK Joint Services Command and Staff College, says "myths about Gallipoli are based on ignorance. People say ‘Lest we forget', but they have forgotten what it is they are trying not to forget''.

Lack claims Australians know very little about the campaign despite its high profile.

Some even think it was a victory, according to McQuilton. On winning the 1983 America's Cup, Perth businessman Alan Bond claimed his yachting triumph was "the greatest victory since Gallipoli''.

Lack says scholars must "stop politicians from perpetuating the myth, let alone using it to justify sending more soldiers to war''.

Dale Blair of La Trobe University, author of the controversial book Dinkum Diggers published last year, says historians have to dispel these Gallipoli myths quickly, before Prime Minister John Howard invokes them again to justify sending troops into Iraq "in the spirit of Anzac''.

He also urges teachers to start teaching pupils about the mistakes instead of heroes. Blair says schools should be prohibited from commemorating what was essentially a disaster and that the November 11 one-minute silence should be banned because it is passing on the wrong values. "We have to grow up, stop blaming the British for mistreating Australian soldiers and take some responsibility for our own mistakes as Australians,'' he says. "Otherwise this whingeing just reinforces the myth of the hard-done-by diggers.''

Freelance war historian Martin Ball says it is also time to stop worshipping heroes that do not exist. "We must stop calling the Anzacs heroes and repeating the same old story. Those Anzac soldiers were not all heroes, nor were the Anzacs all country boys either. It is time to dismantle the monolithic images of Anzacs and update the reality.''

Breen also says it is time to spare a thought for the working class, which was used as cannon fodder by British upper-class officers at Gallipoli, and Australians should focus on that tragic injustice.

In his paper Gloves Off, Blair claims the so-called heroic Anzacs were not even particularly good fighters but were often cowards who sometimes killed defenceless prisoners of war in cold blood when they did not have to.

"Whether these bushmen carried their frontier mentality into battle or not, they were as brutal as Germans or any other race,'' Blair says. "Some of the more bloodthirsty Australian soldiers had a particular love of `ratting', where they repeatedly smoked enemy soldiers out of shelters in order to kill them, even if they had their hands over their heads. And this defied prevailing rules of warfare such as the 1907 Hague Convention and 1914 British Manual of Military Law, which forbade killing the enemy once they surrendered and laid down arms.''

Blair blames government propaganda for "reducing the enemy to animals in the eyes of Australian soldiers'' and the promotion of the bayonet as the preferred weapon by the military authorities because this ``cultivated bloodlust among the troops''.

McQuilton says Australians should stop going to Gallipoli and claiming rights over Turkish soil for their commemorative activities. "This land belongs to Turkey and the reason they are building so many memorials of their own is they want it back,'' he says.

Says Stanley: "All this criticism showed the old Anzac legend has life in it yet. We are not destroying Gallipoli but updating the interpretation and enriching our understanding of it.''

There may have been widespread agreement at the conference, but with Anzac Day parades reaching record numbers and backpacker bookings at an all-time high, it is doubtful whether any of these views will be able to stop the juggernaut of the Gallipoli industry. Politicians and tourist operators are planning an extravaganza for the 2015 centenary, when organisers predict a record 25,000 visitors.


CONFRONTING REVISIONISM (at the Australian War Memorial)




AUSTINVADE (index to this section)