Return to Gallipoli

Bruce Scates

In April the Gallipoli Peninsula can be a place of breathtaking beauty. The deep still waters of the Aegean glisten like a mirror in the sun; the jagged cliffs that climb up from the shore glow with wattle-gold blossom. Occasionally, seedpods drift by on the breeze like tiny stars rising up to the heavens. Silence sits deep on the landscape, broken only the distant rumble of tourist buses ferrying Australian pilgrims across the ridges.

Visitors find it hard to imagine the peninsula as anything but beautiful. Even the tiny cemeteries scattered across Anzac are ablaze with colour: Rosemary, Iris and Forget Me Nots soften the long sharp rows of headstones. It's hard to imagine that men lie buried there, let alone the filth, disease and the violence that claimed them. The recreated trench lines around the killing field of the Nek look like something out of a theme park. Young travellers clamour playfully along the parapet.

As an historian I sometimes wonder if remembrance at Gallipoli is not also a careful act of forgetting. Every year the speeches on the shore run the usual gamut of patriotic clichés. No one, it seems, ever doubted the sanity of massed attacks on well-defended trench lines; no one shook with fear or died a long, painful inglorious death from dysentery.

And most important of all, the names of the Fallen are usually the names of Australians. Unveiling the commemorative site in 2000, Prime Minister Howard made much of the Anzac's sacrifice and said nothing of the appalling losses suffered by their Allies. Nothing of the massacre of conscripted Algerian troops, forced to fight for an Empire that enslaved them; nothing of 20,000 British troops whose lives were thrown away by aging and incompetent British generals.

Nor do Australian politicians often remind us of the losses faced by Turkey. Over 8,000 Australians were killed in the campaign, the flower of our country's youth cut down in their prime, but as many as 150,000 Ottoman soldiers died on the Peninsula, fighting to defend yet another aging, incompetent Empire.

"Atatuk's words remind us that the greatness of Gallipoli is not well served by the posturing and rhetoric of Mr Howard's Anzac Day. Here is a message of reconciliation our deeply divided and much-embattled nation would now do well to remember."

At Gallipoli, we confuse remembrance with entertainment, commemoration with spectacle. This year again, the cemetery at Lone Pine will be decked out like a football stadium, the cry of 'Aussie Aussie Aussie' will batter the breeze and enterprising stall holders ply their souvenirs and shish ka bab. At Gallipoli, history has been grossly commodified; a t-shirt one can wear, an experience purchased with an air ticket.

There are many who are deeply troubled by the appearance of this Anzac festival, the name wily Turks give to the tourist bonanza in April. It is easy to dismiss or deplore much that happens there, easy to mistake the massed Australian flags on Anzac Cove as the same raucous, ugly nationalism that marred the beaches of Cronulla.

But that, as I said, would be mistaken. In my book, Return to Gallipoli, I've surveyed several hundred Australians who make their way to Anzac. For most, it has been a pilgrimage that affected them deeply, an encounter with something greater than themselves, a journey into history.

Many were distantly descended from the men who lost their lives there, some were named after uncles missing since 1915, several remembered aging aunts who grieved away a lifetime. For them the journey to Gallipoli was a chance to lay a body to rest, to complete a process of mourning denied a generation. All expressed a need to run their fingers across a name, their name, chiselled softly in stone.

But for other travellers too the Peninsula proves a storied landscape. Even the youngest of travellers described Gallipoli as sacred, a place where hearts were broken as much as nations were made, one mass grave that consumed a generation. 'Walking on the beach I felt a tingling up my spine', one wrote, 'history came alive, it spoke to me'.

And for all the furious flag waving, one encounters something much deeper than nationalism. Within a day of arriving at Anzac, Priscilla ceased to see the fighting 'from an Australian point of view':

On Gallipoli Â… there are the graves of so many nations, the experience of Â… these men transcended nationalities. I thought about human loss, human bravery Â… the loss their families would have felt Â… I felt despair at the wasted lives all around me.

These are not the words of some puerile nationalism; they confront the common tragedy of war and confirm our common humanity. And like every traveller to Anzac, Priscilla gazed in wonder at Ataturk's words carved in stone by the sea, words spoken to some of the first Australian pilgrims to stumble across the shingle at Anzac:

You, the mothers, who sent their sons from far away countries, wipe away your tears; your sons are now lying in our bosom and are in peace. After having lost their lives on our land they have become our sons as well.

Atatuk's words remind us that the greatness of Gallipoli is not well served by the posturing and rhetoric of Mr Howard's Anzac Day. Here is a message of reconciliation our deeply divided and much-embattled nation would now do well to remember.

Bruce Scates Is Associate Professor of History at the University of New South Wales and the author of Return to Gallipoli: Walking the Battlefields of the Great War, Cambridge University Press 2006. This is the text of a 'Perspectives Piece' broadcast on Radio National on Anzac Day 2006. The history of Australian pilgrimages to the Killing Fields of the Great War now stretches over four generations, from grieving families in the 1920s and 30s struggling to make sense of their loss, to the modern day odyssey of backpacker travellers. Return to Gallipoli tells the story of these journeys into history. A powerful indictment of the waste of war, it engages with a national conversation we can no longer afford to ignore. You can order the book, (AUD$39.95) through Cambridge University Press.