At the centenary of Gallipoli, Germaine Greer interrogates the myth of Australian nationhood

Was Australia born on the battlefield? 100 years after Gallipoli, the accepted narrative seems further than ever from reality.

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Gallipoli
Peter FitzSimons
Bantam Press, 848pp, £30

Gallipoli
Richard van Emden and Stephen Chambers
Bloomsbury, 344pp, £25

Gallipoli
Alan Moorehead
Aurum Press, 400pp, £25
 

When What’s Wrong With Anzac? The Militarisation of Australian History by the Australian historians Marilyn Lake, Henry Reynolds, Joy Damousi and Mark McKenna appeared in 2010 it was greeted with uproar. Public opinion in Australia remains vociferously divided, despite the official rhetoric that insists that Gallipoli was where the Australian nation was born. The immediate result of Australia’s involvement in the First World War was friction, between classes, between right and left, between religions, between Anglo and Celt. The stand-off persists. It is only now that the survivors are no longer around that the myth of Gallipoli as the fount of national identity has become holy writ for the yea-sayers. The naysayers are simply that.

Ballots held by the governments of Australia and New Zealand have selected those lucky descendants of the Australian Imperial Force (AIF) who may attend the centenary ceremonies on the Gallipoli Peninsula. The Turkish government has decreed that only the Dawn Service at the Anzac Commemorative Site, the Australian Service at Lone Pine and the New Zealand Memorial Service at Chunuk Bair will be allowed. No informal memorials at other sites, no surf boat races and no sporting events. No alcohol. Cruise ships may not anchor off Anzac Cove; the ceremonies will be relayed to the passengers by video. There are many times more Turkish, British, French and Indian bodies buried on Gallipoli than there are Australians and New Zealanders, but it will be the Antipodeans who make a big deal of it.

Eager participation in European wars scarred generations of Australians. Most of them did not crow about it. My grandfather was gassed somewhere on the Western Front and was awarded a military medal; all I know of him was the cough that seemed to be pulling up bits of his lungs by the roots. His marriage had collapsed. When he wasn’t on the road, he lived behind the closed door of the front room of my grandmother’s house. They did not speak and I never actually laid eyes on him. My father, who served as an intelligence officer with the RAF in Malta, came back aged beyond recognition and did not collect his medals. The only time I saw the Anzac Day March was in 1957, when it crossed my path to somewhere else. I stood with silent bystanders as the ex-servicemen shambled past. No one cheered; a few clapped. Years later, when I was hitchhiking in Normandy, an old man at the Syndicat d’Initiative shook my hand warmly and repeated the old slogan “Australia will be there”. I was moved to helpless tears.

For years the myth remained stunted by reality. Australians stranded in Britain after the war were involved in racist rioting; in Australia unemployed soldiers created havoc in Brisbane and Melbourne. Anzac Memories by Alistair Thomson, which is based on Digger oral history and was originally published in 1994 by Monash University Press, is probably the best guide to the emergence of the magnificent delusion, first aired in C E W Bean’s diary only a few days after his arrival in Gallipoli, that “the wild pastoral independent life of Australia, if it makes rather wild men, makes superb soldiers”. (Most of the Australian men who enlisted in 1914 came from the suburbs.)

On 23 September 1915 Keith Murdoch (Rupert’s father and my father’s boss) wrote to the Australian prime minister:

I could pour into your ears so much truth about the grandeur of our Australian army, and the wonderful affection of these young soldiers for each other and their homeland, that your Australianism would become a more powerful sentiment than before. It is stirring to see them, magnificent manhood, swinging their fine limbs as they walk about Anzac . . . Oh, if you could picture Anzac as I have seen it, you would find that to be an Australian is the greatest privilege the world has to offer.

Peter FitzSimons uses these words as an epigraph to his new book, Gallipoli; he also quotes C E W Bean’s Official History of Australia in the War of 1914-18: “Remote though the conflict was, so completely did it absorb the people’s energies, so completely concentrate and unify their effort, that it is possible for those who lived among the events to say that in those days Australia became fully conscious of itself as a nation.” It may be possible to say such things, but it is hardly possible to know what they mean. All the British who fought at Gallipoli were volunteers, but while the British agreed to fight for a shilling a day the Australians got six shillings a day. New Zealanders were paid five shillings a day while, according to FitzSimons, “the French earn the equivalent of two shillings a day and the Indians get approximately a fifth of fuck-all”. (FitzSimons has an unfortunate propensity to imitate the various idioms of his characters, mostly inaccurately.) It is no easy matter to work out what the rate of pay actually meant for Australian volunteers but one suspects that it was more important than any highfalutin notion of nationhood. When they arrived in Egypt the Anzacs had, besides “abundant and surplus energy” to spend “in wild and oft drunken orgies”, the money to pay for them.

This observation was made by Private Charles Watkins of the 1st/6th Lancashire Fusiliers, 42nd Division and can be found in Gallipoli: the Dardanelles Disaster in Soldiers’ Words and Photographs, compiled by Richard van Emden and Stephen Chambers, a much better introduction to the campaign than FitzSimons’s barracking. In the late 1980s FitzSimons played international rugby, and has since had a career as a sports commentator, so we cannot be surprised that his Gallipoli keeps its eye on the Anzacs and the Turks as if they were two teams contesting some sort of championship. His narrative is full of yelps and cheers; he hardly mentions Maori soldiers without having them do a haka, as if they were at Eden Park.

FitzSimons’s easy contempt should not obscure that India contributed to the First World War not only 1,440,437 recruits, at her own expense, but also £100m towards the cost of the war, in the hope that such loyalty would convince the British government that there was nothing to lose by granting India home rule, which was not forthcoming. The nation that came into being during the Dardanelles campaign was not Australia or India, but Turkey; the shaping tool was not the Dardanelles campaign but the Armenian Genocide. Of two million Armenians living in the Ottoman empire at the beginning of 1914, at least three-quarters of a million were exterminated. The fall of the empire led to the partition and occupation of Turkey, followed by bitter battles with Turkish Nationalists, ending with the establishment of the secular nation state of Turkey. Australia should perhaps have asked itself if a nation was what it wanted to be. It is presumably as a truculent, self-defining nation that Australia dares to criminalise, persecute and illegally intern refugees intercepted on the high seas.

The importance of the 29th Indian Infantry Brigade to the Dardanelles campaign is seldom acknowledged. The 7th Indian Mountain Artillery Brigade landed with the Anzacs on 25 April and fought alongside them until the final evacuation eight months later but even a writer as observant as Alan Moorehead does not appear to notice them. His masterful Gallipoli, first published in 1956, now republished with a thoughtful introduction by Max Hastings, does not mention the taking of Gurkha Bluff by the 6th Gurkha Rifles, and gives a curiously skewed account of their reaching the crest at Sari Bair, only to be shelled by the British navy. Moorehead also makes an odd mistake in referring to the Turks’ distributing pamphlets in Urdu “appealing to the Indian soldiers not to fight their brother Moslems – a device that had very little success with the Gurkhas, who were unable to read Urdu and who, being Buddhists, loathed Mahomet”. The Gurkhas are in fact Hindus; Punjabis did serve in the Indian contingent but they were soon returned to Egypt for fear that they might abscond to join their brother Muslims (which goes to show just how little the British knew about Muslim identity). Lieutenant General Sir Reginald Savory went on record as saying that “the outstanding battalion of the Gallipoli Campaign” was the 1st/6th Gurkha Rifles.

Rank-and-file soldiers were very much aware of the presence of the Indian mule corps, which carried ammunition and supplies to the troops on the front line. Young Private Watkins had high praise for them:

What blokes they were, these muleteers . . . Little brown-skinned men from the hills of northern India, little brown men of frail physique, perpetually frightened eyes, but with guts of steel . . . Not many men on the Peninsula did a lousier, more thankless and more dangerous job. Their only weapon: the rope that dangles from the mules’ heads as they led charges along narrow paths . . . It’s not a job that earns many VCs, in fact I doubt if any of them ever earned a medal at all.

The mule corps was organised into four troops, each consisting of 650 men and 1,086 mules. To feed the animals, India sent 100,000 tons of hay, barley and maize. At Anzac alone 177 drivers and 858 mules were killed or wounded. The last act of the forces leaving Suvla Bay was to shoot 500 mules and horses in their standings on the beach.

Any colony that hopes to achieve nationhood by serving under imperial command would seem to have set itself a Sisyphean task. About a quarter of the Anzacs who enlisted in 1914 were born in Britain; rather more were first-generation Australian, born to British parents. Whatever they achieved was likely to be, as the colonial contribution to the Battle of Britain still is, subsumed into the British effort. Sir Ian Hamilton, commander-in-chief of the Allied Forces at Gallipoli, is typical when he writes: “May I, speaking out of a full heart, be permitted to say how gloriously the Australians and New Zealanders have upheld the finest traditions of our race during this struggle still in progress; at first with audacity and dash, since then with sleepless valour . . . They have already created for their countries an imperishable record of military virtue.” Take that, you Maori. Your warrior prowess is one of the finest traditions of our race. At first only “our race” was eligible to serve in the AIF, but the death toll at Gallipoli changed that.

The Maori were just one of the peoples fighting at Gallipoli who had been nations before the British absorbed their homelands into the empire. At first the British were unsure of just how far the Maori were pacified, and refused to arm them. The first Native Contingent from New Zealand was confined to garrison duties in Malta before the losses suffered by the New Zealand Expeditionary Force at Gallipoli had to be replaced as a matter of urgency. The only Aboriginal men in the AIF were those who succeeded in remaining unidentified as such at the time of enlistment, until the order came down that “half-castes” who could be shown to have one European parent were eligible. The result is that we do not know how many Aboriginal men served in the First World War. Aboriginal researchers are now doing their best to right the record, but the going is slow. Dead men tell no tales.

Alan Moorehead’s account of Gallipoli is still the best written; he avoids such nonsense as the tale of Simpson the stretcher bearer and his donkey, as FitzSimons does not, but he concentrates on the key players, the commanding officers of both sides and the politicians who were manipulating them. Newer historiography is concerned to reveal the reality of the experiences of the “Poor Bloody Infantry”, where possible in their own words. Not a lot of what Second World War and Vietnam veterans are telling us adds up to a conviction that to be Australian is “the greatest privilege the world has to offer”. Sir Keith Murdoch might have thought that, but his son Rupert, who ditched his Australian nationality to build a global empire, knows it was bunk.

In the concise words of van Emden, “Just under 40 per cent of Australian males between 18 and 44 enlisted, and of the 331,814 who had served overseas or were undergoing training by November 1918, about 65 per cent were casualties (the highest rate in the British army) and 56,639 had died.” If Australians were such good soldiers, why were nearly two-thirds of them casualties? For the answer, it is necessary to assess the priorities of the high command and the probable causes of its repeated failure to provision, supply or support the colonial troops. By November 1917 the five Anzac infantry divisions had been organised into their own force under Australian command, but even that would not protect them when it came to 1941-42, and Crete, Tobruk and El Alamein. Perhaps the bravest thing the Anzacs could have done at Gallipoli in April 1915 would have been to mutiny. 

This article appears in the 27 March 2015 issue of the New Statesman, Easter Double 2015