Anzac Day commemorates our history of national myth-making

Anzac Day, the cornerstone of our collective Australian national identity, has just been solemnly commemorated. Men and women marched, or attended dawn services, honouring the lost youths who fought and fell at Gallipoli, in incomprehensible numbers. I saw an advertisement on television that claimed: “They fought, not for King, not for Country, but for their mates.”

This then is the Australian version of the Adonic cult. The emphasis on ‘mateship’ was borne of the ANZAC tradition and exemplifying the ‘very best of the Australian character’, to lend a particularly Antipodean tinge to the Mediterranean cult of the lost youth, who, through commemoration, achieves deification.

Such mateship mythmaking is important, and Australians have successively capitalised on ancillary mateship myth-making, emphasising the magnanimous words of the founder of Modern Turkey in the aftermath of the Great War, Kemal Ataturk: “There is no difference between the Johnnies and the Mehmets to us where they lie side by side here in this country of ours,” in order to ensure continued permission for Australians to commemorate their dead directly at their place of slaughter. It is well that they do so, for it is becoming apparent both, that Ataturk never uttered those words and that Australian commemorations at Gallipoli are negotiable, by a Turkish government that is increasingly viewing the Ottoman Empire with nostalgia and admiration and which is purging intellectuals and others who would challenge the validity of its own national myths.

The Gallipoli campaign could, according to scholars, have been the catalyst not only for the creation of the Turkish republic and the Australian national identity, but also the first genocide of the twentieth century.

Thus, myths of mateship aside, the ANZACS actually fought at Gallipoli, a peninsula ethnically cleansed of its Greek inhabitants by the Ottomans at the instigation of their German advisers Colonel Liman von Sanders and Ambassador Wangenheim, in anticipation of the ANZAC landings.

The Australians fought willingly in what the spin doctors of the time termed ‘the Great War for Civilisation,’ because apparently Teutonic barbarism had to be stopped and the world made safe for benign monarchies like the British Empire. Barely having been given self-government some thirteen years previously, Australians went to war to serve British strategic interests, in the firm belief that these were also their own.

Gallipoli is the Australian Thermopylae, a place where Australians distinguished themselves through their valour, thus creating cultural archetypes to boost the self-esteem of a young nation, even though their efforts were ultimately futile and absolutely useless in serving their military aim: the capture of Constantinople.

For the Turks, the battle is seen as one of the finest and bravest moments in the history of the Turkish people – a final surge in the defence of the motherland as the centuries-old Ottoman Empire was disintegrating; laying the grounds for the so-called Turkish War of Independence and the subsequent foundation of the new Turkish Republic, led by Atatürk, a commander in Gallipoli himself.

This is significant because the Gallipoli campaign could, according to scholars, have been the catalyst not only for the creation of the Turkish republic and the Australian national identity, but also the first genocide of the twentieth century. According to an essay by Robert Manne, Professor of Politics at LaTrobe University in The Monthly magazine, what the Turkish genocide of the Armenians (and in parallel that of the Pontic Greeks and Assyrians) and the battle of Gallipoli have in common is that they started on almost the same day, within a few hundred kilometres of each other. He poses the question, one which is pertinent considering blatant attempts to recast the Ottomans as Turks and in that guise, as an ‘honourable enemy’ in a manner not attempted with Australia’s other historical military opponents, such as the Germans, Japanese and Vietnamese, why we don’t know this as a nation and why Australian historians and literati have apparently never made the connection between the two events, except for Les Murray, who used Armenian genocide victim Atom Yarjanian’s poem: ‘In shock I slammed my shutters like a storm,/ Turned to the one gone, asked: ‘These eyes of mine/ How shall I dig them out, how shall I, how?’ in his work Fredy Neptune.

The Turkish government has consistently denied the genocide of the Christian peoples of Anatolia.

In The Monthly, Professor Robert Manne, explains “in 1915, the Ottoman Government began one of the first really systematic genocides in history, certainly of the twentieth century. And within a year or so, perhaps one million Armenians had been killed because they were a Christian minority in the Muslim Ottoman Empire, which was in its point of crisis. And there’d been persecution for a long time, but this the attempt to eliminate a people.”

The Turkish government has consistently denied the genocide of the Christian peoples of Anatolia. As Professor Robert Manne posits: “The Turkish Government has always utterly denied that a genocide took place, although they admit that some massacres took place. But they largely blame the Armenians for that saying they were a rebellious, subversive element at a time of wartime crisis. But it’s at the heart of Turkish identity to deny the meaning and the reality of that genocide.”

Of course, up until very recently, the fact that modern day Turkey was considered a vast economy of some eighty million people that paid lip-service to Democracy and was, apart from Israel, the only non-Arab ‘democratic’ state in the Middle East, could possibly explain why the West has been willing to overlook a painfully obvious crime that allegedly inspired Hitler to perpetrate the Holocaust, supposedly remarking “Who remembers the Armenians?” Realpolitik is also compounded by the difficulty the West would experience in sympathising with such Middle Eastern peoples such as the Pontians, Armenians and Assyrians, who were slaughtered a century ago, when in our own time, the nightly news has for the past decade, flooded our living rooms with images of mass slaughter in the same broader region, coupled with our own tears of terrorism. However, considering the increasingly authoritarian nature of the Turkish government, such attitudes may change.

“We have Anzac Day as April the 25th 1915 is remembered; the Armenians have April the 24th 1915 as their day of mourning, which they take to be the beginning of the genocide.” – Robert Manne

The inconsistency of such historical indifference has not escaped Professor Robert Manne, who stated to the ABC a few years ago: “It seems to me the strangest thing. We have Anzac Day as April the 25th 1915 is remembered; the Armenians have April the 24th 1915 as their day of mourning, which they take to be the beginning of the genocide. The two events not only coincided in territory and in time, but there is quite a lot of evidence that the genocide was pushed on because of the Dardanelle campaign of the Anglo-French forces in which the Australians were involved.

So despite the fact that the things happened at the same time and in he same place more or less, and they were even kind of connected with a causal link, I looked through book after book about Gallipoli, and there’s no end of books that Australians have written about it, and virtually none of them mention it for more than a passing paragraphs or a couple of lines”.

Yet as Professor Manne states, the evidence linking the two events, seems to be incontrovertible: “[T]here are some contemporary historians, there’s a wonderful Turkish historian, Tanner Akcam, who think that when the Gallipoli campaign began, or when the Dardanelles were first bombed by the Anglo-French in March 1915, that was the final moment of reckoning, and that the Turkish regime, which was run by two or three young Turks were the dominant figures, they set upon and decided on a systematic extermination of the Armenians, saying that at this moment of crisis, where Constantinople might fall, we can’t afford to have as subversive minority within our country.

“The Dardanelle campaign and the Gallipoli landings pushed on and maybe not exactly caused, but at least triggered the final events that led to the genocide.”

So, the Dardanelle campaign and the Gallipoli landings pushed on and maybe not exactly caused, but at least triggered the final events that led to the genocide…. My point is how strange it is that the event that’s really by far the most important historical event in the national imaginary in Australia, which is the Gallipoli campaign, our historians have never thought to ask the obvious questions about the connection between the two events, or even to comment on the fact that the two events took place at the same time. Apart from the poet Les Murray, I’ve not come across an Australian writer who’s really thought imaginatively about the connection of the two events in whatever they’ve written.”

The causal link between the two events is further cemented when one considers that just twenty days after the Gallipoli landing, on 14 May 1914, Talaat Pasha, a member of the ruling Young Turk triumvirate ordered the forcible evacuation of all Greek settlements on the Dardenelles as far as Kyssos and the re-settlement of the region with Muslim refugees from the Balkans: “For political reasons it is urgently necessary that the Greek inhabitants of the coast of Asia Minor are forced to abandon their villages… If they refuse to move… please give oral instructions to Muslim brothers how to force the Greeks to remove themselves ‘voluntarily’ by any means possible. In that case, don’t forget to obtain confirmations from them that they are abandoning their homes of their own free will.”

Consequently, in May and June 1914, there were massacres of Greeks in Erythrae and Phocaea in Ionia, while in Pergamon on 27 May 1914; the Greeks were given just two hours to leave the city. This ethnic cleansing, along with the simultaneous massacres of Armenians and those of the Assyrians in inaccessible areas such as the mountains of Hakkari, were widely reported by diplomatic personnel and missionaries.

As always, there was no mention of the millions of innocent Christian victims of bungled western policy in this year’s ANZAC Day commemoration.

U.S Ambassador Morgenthau, who had the ear of the Young Turk Pashas and was also privy to their boasting about what they would do to the Christians in their realm, was one of the first to link ethnic cleansing with the Gallipoli landings in his memoirs. Arnold Toynbee, who worked for the British secret service wrote as early as 1915: “The scheme was nothing less than the extermination of the whole Christian population within the Ottoman borders…”

As always, there was no mention of the millions of innocent Christian victims of bungled western policy in this year’s ANZAC Day commemoration. Nor was there any mention of the thousands of Greeks who assisted and nursed wounded Australian soldiers from Gallipoli on the island of Lemnos. Homage instead, was paid to that ‘honourable enemy army’ that, upon German instruction, cleansed the coastline of its Christian inhabitants in order to better defend it against the ANZACS and who, as the campaign dragged on, engaged in their wholesale slaughter.

But then again, Gallipoli was never about justice, or historical fact. It is a national myth within the confines of which other people, especially victims of its aftermath who may sully the noble pure page of its epic with their blood, have absolutely no place. In the words of Robert Manne:

“… I think always Gallipoli has been tied up with identity and almost never been really connected to a kind of interest in the history of the First World War, let alone an interest in the Ottoman Empire. And so it’s not really pessimism so much as kind of trying to identify the difference between history and myth, that I think it’ll never become a matter of great interest in Australia, except perhaps for some intellectuals…. The interests of myth, I think, drive the historians that move time and again back to Gallipoli. Even if they want to revise the story, what they’re doing is revising the myth. But they’re not really interested in the kind of overall historical questions that are connected to it.”

In this context, the traditional expression: “Lest We Forget” assumes the form of a pious hope indeed.

24 responses to “Anzac Day commemorates our history of national myth-making

  1. Attended an ANZAC Day service very proud having had a dad and a nephew serve in Wield War 2 and Afghanistan.
    Moving forward where was the aboriginal and Maori presence like Townsville. Good on you Townsville
    Hope the rest of Australia catches on with this and how about
    Fly the flags of Aboriginal,Torres Strait Islander flags. Australia’s first people
    Come on R S L let’s move into 2018
    Daughter of World War 2 and Afghanistan veterans
    Thank you for recognising the role of women in previous and current wars

  2. If we stopped embracing great powers for our defence and started to stand on our own two feet when it comes foreign policy and defence we would all be better off. We did that that with the British Empire and now the US who will we attach to next .

  3. The dates in the article are correct . It was in 1914 when the Ottomans ethnically cleansed the Greek people out of the Dardanelles peninsula where they were living from time immemorial.
    The ANZAC’s sacrifice in 1915 is not disputed but we need to understand better the context of this sacrifice.

  4. The more we know – the better we can understand. Turks sloughing off the Ottoman system – pushing aside their Greek and Armenian and Assyrian communities – befriended by Germans – invaded by the British (Canadians, ANZACS, Indians) and French – opportunity and confusion – massacres and “interesting times”! As a young university student in the latter 1960s I was friendly with a family from Baghdad. Assyrian Christians. The father born in Stamboul (Istanbul/Constantinople). I was only aware of a massacre of Assyrian peoples in Mosul in the early 1920s. The mother was from Teheran. The children were born in Damascus and Baghdad. I learned to sound out Arabic consonants – some similarities between Arabic words and Assyrian words. I learned to count to 10 in Arabic. 50 years later I retain that knowledge. Visiting Turkey nearly four years ago the bus passed by Izmir – formerly Smyrna – where in 1922 the Greek Metropolitan Chrysostomos KALAFATIS was martyred. The great uncle of a mate’s father. Declared a Saint 71 years later. I know that Charles AZNAVOUR(IAN) is Armenian – born in Paris in 1924. These things I know – but the things I have read in this essay as explained by Dean KALYMNIOS pertaining to the day before ANZAC Day – I did not know. Thank you Dean. εφχαριστο. And in recent days reading The Honest History Book uncovering the fact that the words of Kemal Ataturk as inscribed at ANZAC Cove were not his. So much yet to learn – beyond the myths.

  5. As a lad I loved the Anzac Day marches , the bands playing and the marching men and women , I still do but it’s losing a bit nowadays as the older guys die out , but we need a day of national pride every country does, we have freedom today because of the Kokoda trail and the Battle of the Coral Sea, Gallipoli was the fault of the British idiots in High Command , cost us dearly but we have to honour the fallen not only there but in all wars we have fought in, so F$%#$Ck the academics and left wingers , disrespectful immigrants ,they should be thankful we have this nice place to live in, I know I am !!

    1. Robert,
      The nice place you live on is of the result of hundreds of Innocent Indigenous people defending their home lands from colonial imperialist white people. It is stolen land and built on the blood of the First peoples. Lest We Forget (them)!

    2. Robert it’s the Kokoda Track not trail. Trail is an American term. And yes we should honour those that were killed serving in the military forces; however far too many people bathe in the reflected glory of their ancestors who fought in the wars. Years ago the RSL forbade youngsters marching on behalf of deceased fathers etc and the servicemen were well turned out in suits, jackets and ties. Now anybody marches and many look like a bloody rabble with their scruffy appearance. Most disheartening.

  6. Interesting article, and covered an aspect that I’d never seriously considered before. The Armenian genocide is widely acknowledged, though apparently not by the Turkish government. I think it would be hard to get serious commentary in Australia, simply because the overwhelming emphasis in Australia around April 25th will always be on Anzac Day. The connection of dates is there, but it’s hard to make any causal connection to the Australian, NZ, British and French forces fighting at that moment.

    Seriously in need of editing, though. Some jumbled sentences, and a set of dates allegedly in 1914, that I guess were supposed to be 1915.

    1. The dates are correct . It was in 1914 when the Ottomans ethnically cleansed the Dardanelles peninsula of its Greek inhabitants since time immemorial!

  7. More than past time that this episode and its real consequences were given wider attention and acknowledgment in the greater scheme of Australian history. Thank you for this article.

  8. There are some inconsistencies in dates in this article since the author dates related ethnic cleansing from 1914, considerably before the landings. Clearly though, the Empire was in steep decline, ethically, politically, economically, socially, in nearly every way and seemed a relatively easy target to Churchill and the English Govt. However, none of this or the terrible events that followed can be laid at the feet of or used to stain the memory of those that were there. However, as one conscripted in the 60’s I can only say how saddened I am by the jingoistic and self serving crocodile tears of the commemoration industry, those who profit from it and our politicians, particularly from the right. I despair of the lies told, myths encouraged when the straight history is full and compelling enough. The T? Don’t know, but don’t think so, The Turkish government also gains from this myth building. What other country celebrates a military campaign at the site of the invasion, with the permission of the invaded? Are there English and French commemorations there as well? Don’t know but don’t think so. Both nations suffered far more than we did there . I find it bizarre. We can visit Long Tan, but official celebrations? Don’t think so, and rightly so indeed.

  9. Dean. It is pathetic to read this nonsense pedalling a trivialisation of the story of the Anzacs at Gallipoli.
    Is this the only way you could think of to bring current relevance to Armenian history?
    First of all, the stories of the Anzacs including Gallipoli are not myths, they are facts;….myth (defn.) a traditional story, especially one concerning the early history of a people or explaining a natural or social phenomenon, and typically involving supernatural beings or events.
    There were no supernatural beings or events involved. Please stop bastardising language. It is transparent and indicates a lack of a reasoned argument.
    Second, we will sadly never know all the stories of all the Anzac soldiers from Gallipoli and the myriad later military encounters in subsequent decades. If we did, the total narrative would be immense.
    I grew up being taught about the Kokoda Trail. Gallipoli came next. But how many have heard of Milne Bay? Or the ferocious (and successful) battles in Rabaul (New Britain) and Borneo? There is so much more to enter the public consciousness. We have only seen the tip of the iceberg.
    Robert Manne’s ‘causal links’ between the Anzacs at Gallipoli and the Armenian genocide are ropey at best. In any case important stories can stand on their own without having to be hitched to the coat tails of the national rememberence of an important event in history.
    There are better ways to address the mythmaking of the Armenian genocide.

    1. Brett, your usual negative tripe. Manne’s causal links are quite reasonable and the Armenian genocide is not myth making it’s fact. Also note it wasn’t just the Aussies and Kiwis at Gallipoli, there were British, French and Indian troops as well. Something we tend to forget.

      1. Rodney. My post is not negative. It is a positive statement in favour of preserving the truth of Anzac history.

        If the Anzac story is a myth, so is the Armenian genocide.

        Just because Robert Manne asserts something doesn’t make it true. The so-called causal links are tenuous at best and fit with other screwball conspiracy theories.

        This unsubstantiated nonsense which seeks only to debase Anzac history is petulant and anti intelliegence.

  10. Another myth gets perpetuated every ANZAC day as well – enough to turn me off, being an ex Kiwi – and that is that even though they love to give lip service to the ANZAC spirit, the real and complete meaning of the acronym seems to be forgotten. Even though it is common knowledge probably more NZers have moved here to live than from any other country, especially as so many have shared ancestry, (both my grandfathers were from Victoria, eg), the NZ part of ANZAC hardly ever rates a mention. During the entire channel 7 coverage last night of the ANZAC parades, etc, I did not hear the words New Zealand mentioned once.

    That and the fact the whole enterprise was a fiasco from beginning to end, ordered by incompetent British hHigh Command, with inadequate intelligence, ( both meanings of the word), and achieved zero positive gain. What a waste. Let’s remember them, yes, but not eulogise the actual campaign.

  11. It would appear that the writer is applying their own 21st century biases and attempting to somehow attribute it to the Australian and New Zealand troops (and the Indians and English as well) who attacked the place on the basis of a scheme crafted by Churchill, some measure of responsoibility for a scheme planned, enacted and then covered up by the Turks.

    That’s just idiocy, in fact self-serving idiocy.

    Quoating Manne on pretty much anything does the writer no credit, Manne is a left-wing culture warrior, in his own way as bad as Bolt.

    Oh, and another thing; Anzac Day may have started out as a commemoration of those landings on the Gallipoli Peninsular, but today it is about the sacrifice that young Australian men and women have made to lay down their lives in the service of theitr country as part of the nation’s armed forces.

    Telling a soldier who lost mates in Vietnam or Somalia or Iraq or Korwa or Afghanistan or Malaya that Anzac Day isn’t about them is likely to get you a busted nose.

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