Anzac Day

This is the big national day for Australians and New Zealanders, even those who are away from home, as the huge crowd at Hyde Park Corner showed this morning. The start of the campaign to land troops in Turkey, to put a final end to the sclerotic Ottoman Empire and open the Dardanelles to the Russians. Oh how things change.

tribute Brunswick Sentinal 1968

I grew up with the Gallipoli story, as my first appearance in print shows me at the back of this pic, back at primary school for our annual wreath laying.

I have also written a book on the Sydney-Emden battle, which could have put a stop to Gallipoli and any future colonial involvement in the First World War, but I always thought it was primarily a battle involving the antipodeans.

But this was far from the case. An article by Germaine Greer in the New Statesman brings a lot of Far more soldiers and supporters came from the Indian subcontinent were involved, as well as providing a lot of food for the horses and pack mules. They hoped their contribution would bring independence closer.  And a lot of Brits were there too. One of the last acts of the troops when they departed was to slaughter the 500 animals on the beach.

Galipoli has long been claimed to be about the forming of nations, but the Maori were a nation long before British arrived, but they were kept at Malta till the slaughter made their presence necessary. The only aborigines named were apparently those listed as half-caste, so we have no idea how many were there.

But the ANZAC tradition is based on some pretty horrific facts, as historian Richard van Emden wrote: “Just under 40% 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% were casualties (the highest rate in the British army) and 56,639 had died.”

In 1915 Keith Murdoch, father of Rupert 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..”

The sad fact is that the colonial troops were a lot stronger than the Britons because most of them grew up in the countryside: fit, strong and suntanned, a far cry from the rickety slum dwellers that made up so many of the British contingents.

So, why did so many die at Gallipoli? Because they landed at the wrong place. The Turks were up on the cliffs so slaughtered them, often before they reached shore. and once the error was realised, the commanders refused to relocate them, so the slaughter continued. Australia and New Zealand were not just young colonies, they had a tiny population. This is still their founding myth, a strongly anti-British one, which makes it even more surprising that these strong independent people are still part of the Commonwealth.

Here’s the classic anti-war song by Scot Eric Bogle, covered by The Pogues and others, The Band Played Walzing Matilda. :

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