Two young men who went off to fight 'the war to end all wars' My paternal (left) and maternal (right) grandfathers.
It's Anzac Day today, quite possibly the most important day in Australia's calender. Even Australia Day, on January 26th, does not quite match it for solemnity and pride. It's a day of mixed feelings for me. Essentially, I am a pacifist, even as a young child, it simply didn't make sense to me, all this marching and uniforms and what seemed to be a celebration of one of humankind's greatest failings, war, especially as the ANZAC landing it commemorated was an unmitigated strategic disaster. Despite the fact that both my grandfathers fought in WWI it seemed to have little relevance for me.
I suppose I have Peter Weir to thank for changing my attitude. His film "Gallipoli" released in 1981 gave me more of an insight into why we should remember those men. Perhaps the commemoration of a military defeat is no bad thing, it focusses more on the men themselves, on individual acts of courage and heroism. I won't go into the flaws and historical inaccuracies of the film now, but it sent an impressionable young 15 year old into the library to find out more, to find what the truth might be, and why my paternal grandfather was there in the first place.
It's often phrased as the 'birth of the nation' or the 'baptism of fire' for Australia. I don't know about that, but it was the first time Australian troops had fought AS Australian soldiers, after the creation of the Australian Imperial Force (AIF) under the distinctive rising sun badge. In previous wars, such as the Boer War, Australians had fought as part of the British military. On April 25th 1915, Australian and New Zealand (hence the ANZAC) army corps landed at the Gallipoli peninsula in Turkey, in an attempt to smash through the Ottoman Empire, a German ally. It was a disaster from start to finish. Firstly, the troops were landed in the wrong place and instead of a having to charge up a gentle slope and over-run the Turkish positions, they faced almost sheer cliffs. Secondly, despite this supposedly being a top secret mission, the Turkish troops were well prepared for them. There was also of course, that typical western superiority complex, for they had been told that the Turks would simply turn and run. They found out how foolish that idea was. Many never even made if off the landing boats. Despite the failure of the initial landing, they dug in and continued to slog it out for months, wave after wave of young men dying in stupid and ultimately pointless attacks. The Turks suffered horrific losses, but never gave an inch, and by the end of the campaign, in December of 1915, a grudging respect had grown between the two sides. Ironically, the withdrawal from Gallipoli was an remarkable strategic success, with few casualties. Many of those young men went straight to the horrific battlefields in France and Belgium. My other grandfather, too young to enlist in time for Gallipoli, fought there. These young men were told they were fighting the 'war to end all wars'. If only.
Although attendance dropped off during the 60s and 70s, probably a lot to do with Vietnam, and anti-war protests of the time, Anzac Day has gained enormous popularity in recent years, with many making a kind of pilgrimage to Anzac Cove in Turkey for the ceremony there every April 25th. I wonder about this. It worries me somewhat that when young people are asked why they think it's important to remember Anzac Day, they answer "to remember those who died so we could be free" but often have no idea what Anzac Day actually commemorates. I wish it were true, but I don't believe it. Am I too cynical? I believe absolutely that generations of young men have fought and died believing they were defending their homeland, their loved ones. But it seems to me most wars are fought for less noble reasons, and good young people are lied to, and die instead for those lies. What exactly was WWI all about? The evil Hun Empire trying to enslave the world? Or two empires clashing over power, greed, politics and resources? What was it my grandfathers fought for, and in my maternal grandfather's case, almost died for? A 'war to end all wars'? That might have been a war worth fighting.
To me, Anzac Day should be a day to remember the bravery and courage of men (and women too now) who have put their lives on the line, believing that they are defending us from evil. A day to mourn those who lost their lives, and their innocence. But most importantly, it should be a day to reflect on why we ask these young people to go to war in the first place. Surely, we have made a binding contract with them? If we ask them to lay down their lives, if we ask them to kill for us...then it is our responsibility, our sacred duty, to ensure that they are NEVER called upon to do that unless it truly is the only, the last resort, unless we are in immanent danger of annihilation. Not for oil, or money, or cheap resources, or political point scoring. Not for gaining votes in an election. Not to keep a powerful ally on side.
Anzac Day has also become a day of reconciliation. In 1934, Kemal Ataturk, who had been the Turkish commander at Gallipoli in 1915 and later became Turkey's first president, paid tribute to the allies who had died at Gallipoli. In 1985, the Turkish Government officially renamed the place where those troops landed 70 years before, Anzac Cove. Old 'Diggers' met with old Turkish soldiers and remembered and shared stories of their experiences. In Canberra, at the Australian War Memorial, the Ataturk Memorial Garden was opened, featuring a memorial to Ataturk and the Turkish soldiers who fell fighting for their homeland. But more than this, as Australia is a land of immigrants, many who were once enemies have come here, found a home and become friends. They too, share in Anzac Day, and remember.
I was going to leave you with Ataturk's 1934 speech, which appears on both the memorial in Canberra, and at Ari Burnu at Gallipoli...and I will, but this post requires a short epilogue. Just before I started writing it earlier today, I heard voices by the front gate. It was an elderly Italian couple, who wanted to know if they could pick the olives on our two trees to preserve. As I know I'm not going to get around to it, I told them to go ahead. So my girls and I spent a couple lovely hours this morning, learning how to pick olives the easy way, about making gnocci and pasta sauce, about grandchildren and growing garlic and eggplants, and how to fertilize citrus trees. And it occurred to me...70 years ago, Australians and Italians were bitter enemies, fighting each other during WWII. And yet I cannot now imagine Australia without the Italian influence of the last 60 or so years. I shudder to think what we'd be eating (and I won't even mention the coffee we'd be drinking!) if they had not come to this country. Enemies become friends, and we learn that essentially, we are all the same and have so much more in common than what we do not. It seemed highly appropriate then, to spend my Anzac Day morning offering an olive branch, literally, to people whose nation was once an enemy, but who came to this country and having enriched it in so many ways, belong here now. They have indeed, put roots down "in the soil of a friendly country."
Memorial at Ari Burnu