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Gallipoli the birth of our nation?

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Two weeks after the Anzacs scrambled ashore at Gallipoli on April 25, 1915, Australia received its first detailed report of the story that became its greatest legend.

It appeared on the front page of every daily newspaper in the country, proclaiming the landings “the finest feat of the war”, describing those who performed it as “a cheerful, quiet, confident, nerveless race of athletes” who waded ashore through a hail of bullets, scaled cliffs and got stuck into the enemy with bare hands and bayonets.

The faces of Gallipoli 
Huge crowds march to honour Anzacs
Remarkable images from the front line 

This initial, breathless gush came from the pen, and the imagination, of the British war correspondent Ellis Ashmead-Bartlett who observed the landings at Anzac Cove from the bridge of a British destroyer a couple of kilometres off the beach.

It ignited the Anzac legend, and probably did as much to inflate it as anything since.

Ashmead-Bartlett was no jingoistic, tabloid man. He’d been to seven wars before this, participating in one and chronicling them all.

Surf boats at an Anzac service in Currumbin.

With the benefit of this experience, and perhaps of mere common sense, Ashmead-Bartlett predicted the folly of the landings the night before they took place, along with the greater disaster to come at Gallipoli.

He also did more than any other reporter, general or statesman to expose the mismanagement and bloody incompetence that beset the campaign before it began and continued for the next eight months.

It was thanks to reports such as Ashmead-Bartlett’s and Australia’s most prominent war correspondent, Charles Bean, that in the weeks immediately following the landing at Anzac Cove young Australians flocked in greater numbers than ever before to enlist.

In those early days of the Gallipoli campaign, little was known at home of the massive losses or the dreadful futility of a campaign perceived as a great adventure.

At the time of that first report, newspapers would run a photograph alongside a soldier’s obituary at a rate of around half a dozen each day. They soon abandoned the practice as the numbers of the dead left no room for photos.

But the legend survived and grew.

Bean, who reported the war for The Sydney Morning Herald and later became Australia’s official war historian, wrote romantically of the Anzac as a superior individual, a warrior at home on the back of a horse and one who “differed very little from the Australian who at home rides the station boundaries”.

All of it contributed to the legend … or to the myth.

Of the almost 417,000 Australians who enlisted during WWI, only around 57,000 had addresses outside a capital city and 30 per cent of them had been born in Britain.

Another popular piece of Anzac wisdom is that the Australian Imperial Force was the only volunteer army on the Allied side. It was not.

What the Anzacs achieved, and even the way in which they failed to achieve, during the Gallipoli campaign was undoubtedly heroic.

There need be no argument that by and large they were good-natured, stoic, resourceful, laconic and refreshingly irreverent. Or perhaps naive.

But the notion that this unmitigated human catastrophe led to Australia staking its claim for international recognition is increasingly seen as a politically motivated myth based on misinformation and exaggeration.

“The emphasis on Gallipoli has really been a part of our political culture. It’s not part of history,” says Professor Joan Beaumont of the Australian National University.

The nationhood view has always appealed to politicians who love to sound profound, adopting and reinforcing it at every opportunity.

The 100th anniversary of the war in which the Gallipoli campaign was fought has led to further cross-examination of the facts.

Professor Peter Stanley, a former principal historian at the Australian War Memorial and president of the group Honest History, questions the widely accepted wisdom attached to the Anzac legend.

“I’ve never understood how a nation can be born on a particular day on the other side of the world,” Prof Stanley says.

“That idea was a view fostered in the aftermath of the war, partly to justify Australia’s losses and the waste and expense by the prime minister of the time, Billy Hughes.

“We don’t have to believe it any more … this metaphorical birth on the cliffs of Gallipoli.”

Opponents of “Anzackery” prefer to go back 14 years to Federation as a greater nation-building event.

“1901 is an amazing story … disparate convict colonies coming together to form a nation,” says author and historian Paul Daley.

A similar view has been put forward by the author Thomas Keneally in discussion of the coming centenary.

“I hope no one says Australia was born at Gallipoli,” Keneally said.

“Australia was born in 1901, and there needs to be a certain amount of de-mythologising. Let’s hope the historians win out over the politicians, who strike me as fairly jingoistic.”

Consideration of the costs borne by other nations can also be instructional.

Gallipoli claimed 8709 Australian lives, a human tragedy, but far from the worst.

Turkish casualties ran to more than 250,000, including 86,692 dead; Britain lost 21,255 with another 52,235 wounded; and France lost more than 10,000.

Perhaps another measure of the Australian attitude to its role in the Anzac story can be made by comparison to the contribution of the other half of the acronym and the dreadful losses it suffered.

From a population of just over one million in 1918, 16,697 New Zealand lives were lost in the First World War.

Historian Richard Stowers, in his 2005 book Bloody Gallipoli, calculated 2779 NZ soldiers died at Gallipoli – one out of every five who fought there.