One hundred years ago today, 25th April, thousands of young men stormed ashore on a beach in the Dardanelles into a hail of machine gun fire from the Turkish defenders, well entrenched upon the heights above. So started the tradition of ANZAC, the Australia and New Zealand Army Corps.
Lest we forget.
Today we commemorate their sacrifice, and those of the many Australian and New Zealand men and women who fought and died in defence of our countries, or to support our allies in their conflicts.
It’s somehow very fitting that we have chosen this day to commemorate the fallen. Because this assault was, to me, a shining example of the stupidity and futility of war.
Lest we forget.
Those young men went off on their Great Adventure in support of Mother England, far from their homes in the new lands in the south. Australia’s population in 1914 was approximately 4.9 million. Around 420,000 Australians enlisted for service in the First World War, representing around 39% of the male population aged between 18 and 44. Of those, around 60,000 never came home and many, many more were left sick or wounded. Source
WW1 gutted Australia. You have only to travel around the tiny country towns and look at the war memorial you’ll find in every one. They were erected after 1918, listing the names of those who died overseas. Many, many surnames are duplicated, or triplicated or more. Brothers and cousins, all the men of their generation – gone.
The landing at Gallipoli, on the beach now known as Anzac Cove, was futile from the start. Von Clausewitz would have turned in his grave. The Turkish defenders were well entrenched in the heights above the beach, fighting for their homeland. In contrast, for the aggressors the Dardanelles were a strategic objective. The Anzacs stayed for eight months, then somebody finally saw sense and evacuated them in the dead of night. From there, they went to the hell on earth of the trenches in France, where they consolidated their reputation as formidable soldiers, especially at Villers-Brettoneux where Australians are welcome to this day.
But I don’t believe the rhetoric, that they fought for the freedoms we enjoy today. The only time that truly happened was in the dark days of WW2, when in 1941-2 the Japanese advanced down through Asia into Papua New Guinea to menace Australian soil at Darwin and Broome – and Sydney Harbour. The Eighth Army, hastily brought back from the Middle East despite Churchill’s disapproval, pushed the Japs back, foot by weary foot, over the barely passable Kokoda trail.
This is in no way to belittle the courage and suffering of any Anzac soldier, merely to cast a critical eye on the people who send young men and women into conflict. Why were we in Vietnam? Iraq? Afghanistan?
Today I pause and reflect on not just the Anzacs who died at Gallipoli. Many Turks did, too, defending their homeland under the command of the great General Kemal Ataturk, who would go on to create the modern state of Turkey. For the Turks, of course, Gallipoli was a great victory. It’s truly fitting that both sides will come together to jointly honour their dead.
And I’ll end with this, Eric Bogle’s wonderful song And the Band Played Waltzing Matilda
Lest we forget.