A sombre salute to those who served

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In Flanders Fields the poppies blow…

ANZAC day has been and gone for another year. It’s our veteran’s day, named after the Australian and New Zealand Army Corps that during World War I took part in the attack on the Gallipoli Peninsula on the 25th April, 1915.

There have been too many wars since then; World War II, the Korean War, Vietnam, tours of duty in Somalia, East Timor, Iraq, Afghanistan and others. The anniversary of that ill-fated attack in World War I has become our national day of mourning/celebration of all the men, women, and animals that served.

Dawn Services are held all over the country, honouring both the fallen and the survivors as the sun rises. On the east coast, services are held near the beach. In the cities and towns, folk gather at the war memorials – whatever the weather. During the dark days of covid when services were not held, people lit a candle and stood at the end of their driveways as the sun came up.

It’s a sombre salute to those who served in times of conflict. My family was in Amsterdam for the duration of WWII. After we made our home in Australia we would attend the ANZAC day marches. I doubt there’s a better place to attend the dawn service than the memorial on King’s Park overlooking Perth Water as the sun rises in the east.

It’s great to see that attendance has risen after covid. But I roll my eyes when the media refers to service men and women as heroes. Oh, some of them undoubtedly were heroes. But most of them were youngsters who didn’t know what they’d signed up for, farm boys from rural Australia going off to fight Old England’s wars in places they’d barely (never) heard of. Every tiny town in rural Australia has a war memorial dating back to the end of WWI. The names of their fallen are inscribed on the monument, with many surnames repeated, a list of brothers and cousins killed in a far off land.

So often these kids were sent off to die in poorly planned, ill-conceived campaigns. Gallipoli was supposed to open shipping through the Dardanelles and allow allied troops to capture Constantinople, thus knocking the Ottomans out of the war. It didn’t quite work.

“The landing on Gallipoli on 25 April 1915 did not go to plan. The first boats, carrying the covering force, became bunched and landed about a mile north of the designated beaches. The main force landed on too narrow a front and became intermixed, making it difficult for the troops to regroup. The troops had to scale treacherously steep ground with little understanding of the terrain.” [source] And that was just one of the problems.

The biggest factor was that they faced Turks, led by the inspiring Kemal Attaturk, who were fighting for their homeland. (Putin might perhaps have learned something from this when he launched his attack on Ukraine.)

The most successful operation of the campaign was the evacuation which ended on 19–20 December 1915, conducted under a well-planned deception operation. Around 8,700 Australians had died and 18,000 more were wounded. The survivors were sent off to fight on the Western Front in Europe. I expect some of them thought France would be a much nicer place.

Fromelle in France was one of the first battles the Diggers fought after they arrived in Europe. Like Gallipoli, it was a shambles, poorly conceived with little planning.

“As in the attack on the Somme, the plan had no identified and realistic objectives, and it imposed unrealistic demands on both the men and their available artillery support. The carnage on the Somme had not taught their leaders anything.” [source] Around two thousand Aussies were killed and some four hundred were captured in about two days. And the battle achieved nothing.

The most moving exhibition I’ve seen about Gallipoli was in Wellington’s Te Papa museum in New Zealand. It showcases the brutality and horror of the campaign with sculptures of a few representative real people who took part.

War is a horrible thing. I can’t say it better than Eric Bogle.

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