Duty to Warn
April 25, 1915, the Massacre at Gallipoli and
the Origins of the “ANZAC Spirit Myth of Glorious Defeat”
By Gary G. Kohls, MD
In 1981 a young up-and-coming Australian actor named Mel Gibson starred in an antiwar movie titled “Gallipoli”. The infamous Gallipoli campaign was a good example of wartime mass murder-mass suicide that usually involved troops on both sides of the battle line – this time in the first year of World War I.
Gallipoli was the Turkish peninsula that had the Aegean Sea on its western shore and the narrow Dardanelle Straits to the east. Upstream, flowing out of the Black Sea, the Dardanelles ultimately led to Constantinople (until the 1930s, when the world acknowledged its new name, Istanbul). That city was a major port that controlled access to the Black Sea, the northern shores of which were Ukrainian, Crimean and Russian.
Within months of the start of the “war to end all wars”, Russia was obviously losing the war against Germany and Austria on the Eastern Front, and Czar Nicholas II was asking for Allied help. Great Britain, having recently lost her naval trade route to the Black Sea, was interested in re-establishing it. The Western Front in France had rapidly developed into a highly lethal and demoralizing trench war stalemate, so the idea of forcing Germany to expend her military resources on a viable Eastern Front seemed to be good strategy for the allies. For Churchill and (the destined to soon be “not-so-great”) Great Britain, selling Russia weapons and other war supplies made good economic sense as well. And the Bank of London, that had profited for centuries on England’s imperialistic wars, agreed.
The Gallipoli peninsula was the initial military target of Churchill’s planned amphibious assault, and so just before sunrise on April 25, 1915, exactly 100 years ago this coming Saturday, untested glory-seeking Australian and New Zealand Army Corps (aka ANZAC) soldiers landed at various places on the Gallipoli peninsula. Little did they know that Churchill and his over-confident military planners had had ridiculously poor intelligence information on the terrain, but, in their arrogant stiff-upper-lip British style, they still had no doubts that the campaign would be a quick and easy one and that Constantinople would soon be theirs.
It was the first time Australian and New Zealand conscripts had fought in a major war, and they found themselves, on day one, suffering demoralizing massive casualties as they tried to disembark from the ships. Those that managed to get to land found themselves trapped on the beach below the machine gun nests of the Turkish army that inflicted massive casualties, in a virtual “turkey shoot” on the helpless, poorly equipped troops. The waters of the Aegean Sea turned as red with ANZAC blood.
The massacre on day one and the total disaster of the entire Gallipoli campaign went on for another 10 months. Trench warfare soon ensued, and the stupidly repeated “over-the-top” assault orders against withering machine gun fire confused the British officers and infuriated the enlisted ANZAC men. The lessons that should have been learned from the Western Front had to be learned again and again. Gallipoli was the first time that Australians and New Zealanders had fought in an international war; and it was also the last time ANZAC troops allowed themselves to be under the command of foreigners.
After an ignominious, but very fortunate, low-casualty retreat later in the year (which could have been another massacre as they exposed themselves to enemy fire fleeing onto transport ships), the casualty count began. Out of approximately 480,000 Allied forces that took part in the ill-conceived campaign, there were more than 250,000 total physical casualties (back then acute-onset and delayed PTSD was called “shell shock” and falsely understood to be just cowardice or a so-called “mental illness” (rather than a neurological illness) and was not generally counted as a typical casualty).
Australia herself suffered 18,500 wounded and missing in action with 7,600 killed, and New Zealand had 5,000 wounded/MIA with 2,400 killed. The other British Empire troops (excluding ANZAC) had 198,000 wounded/MIA and 22,000 killed, and France had 23,000 wounded/MIA and 27,000 killed. The Ottoman Empire suffered 109,000 wounded/MIA and 57,000 killed.
The British never did succeed in opening up their coveted trade route to Russia, and most of the ANZAC soldiers tragically wound up killing and dying in another futile trench war in France for the duration of the war. It was the rarest of ANZAC soldiers that came back whole. (See the song at the end of this article for more on that reality.)
With the help of a fawning embedded (and back home civilian) media and despite their humiliating losses, the ANZAC servicemen – and most of their countrymen back home – came to believe that there was some type of special “ANZAC Spirit” that had been revealed, sort of like Americans wanting to believe in a special “American ingenuity” or “American exceptionalism”, the current attempt of the Pentagon and the press to glorify what America did in Vietnam; or like America wanting to take full credit for winning WWII in Europe in spite of the fact that the USSR inflicted 80% of the casualties of the German Army and suffered 80% of the casualties during the years 1939 – 1945. The ANZAC spirit myth developed into a “down under” ideal based on the “mateship” and the “cheerful suffering” that the soldiers showed during the campaign.
A short silent movie documentary from 1915 (which can be viewed at: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=KpgzuVuHg1U) attempts to glorify the Gallipoli campaign. It began with a comment that it was “History’s most glorious failure”, and it ended by commenting that “both sides had won imperishable honour.” As is typical for most war documentaries, that short film did not show footage of the “wounded, the crippled, the maimed, or the armless, the legless, the blind, the insane, those proud wounded heroes of Suvla”, as Eric Brogle’s ballad below so honestly points out.
Gallipoli was just another example of the many shameful episodes in the history of warfare that were lied about, covered-up or unreported by the war correspondents, military leaders and politicians who were witnesses to the disaster but who refused, or were not allowed, to tell the horrifying truth. All the myths about the “glorious deaths” of “fallen soldiers” are started in this way and then perpetuated by various myth-makers that don’t want to tarnish their countrymen’s patriotism that will sustain the next war.
So despite the regular exposes of the true nature of the useless and senseless deaths and enduring disabilities of war, ANZAC Spirit myth-believers (as is true of every other militarized nation) still seem to be in denial about the horror and unaffordability of war realities like Gallipoli, the two World Wars, the Vietnam War, etc, etc. And somehow, most uber-patriotic humans continue to blindly “celebrate”, rather than mourn and repent of, the senseless killing and dying that has generated, every annual ANZAC Day, Remembrance Day, Memorial Day or Veterans Day.(Incidentally, it is exactly 50 years ago (April 28, 1965) that Australia announced that it was joining the US-led war in Vietnam. Don’t count on that 50th anniversary fact being mentioned in the celebrations in Australia next Saturday. Credit the ANZAC Spirit myth with that gross error in judgement.)
“Waltzing Matilda” as National Anthem?
Down Under, the unofficial Australian national anthem is “Waltzing Matilda”. That catchy tune is played reverentially on April 25th and every night during the year in Australian pubs. Most non-Aussies don’t understand the lyrics to that great drinking song, but everybody likes the melody.
“Waltzing Matilda” tells a strange tale about a loveless, solitary outback vagabond (whose knapsack he calls “Matilda”). The vagabond poaches a sheep from some wealthy absentee landowner and then drowns himself in a deep pool when the rich man’s police force is about to arrest him for his “crime”. To me, it is an odd theme for a national anthem but it is far easier to sing than the “Star-spangled Banner”.
An internet site has this to say about “Waltzing Matilda”:
“To non-Australians it must seem strange that this much-loved Australian song does not refer to the land itself, but rather mourns the suicide of a thieving vagabond. Nevertheless, “Waltzing Matilda” somehow speaks to the strong anti-authoritarian and independence streaks in the Australian psyche, as it represents the battler struggling against the wealthy and being one with the Australian bush.”
Most Australians and New Zealanders have been led to believe in the heroic nature of the “Anzac Spirit”. As I understand the concept, it represents the courage and loyalty to the Crown that the first ANZAC infantrymen exhibited in their baptism by fire, obediently (and blindly) following the suicidal orders of their commanding officers to go “over the top” over and over again directly into deadly machine gun fire.
Certainly the ANZAC soldier’s misbegotten sense of loyalty to the British Crown was enforced by the pseudo-patriotic history book versions of war which, as always, was written by the victor’s nationalistic pseudo-historians in order to divert attention from what were often fiascos. Not only was the Gallipoli campaign badly bungled, but it was then misrepresented in order to avoid admitting that tens of thousands of innocent troops had suffered and died in vain.
And the beat goes on to this very day as if none of the carnage had ever happened.
“Never knew there was worse things than dying”
In the following antiwar ballad, “The Band Played Waltzing Matilda”, singer/song-writer Eric Bogle tells the poignant truth about the futility of war and the cognitive dissonance that will keep Australians this April 25th focused on the ANZAC Myth and their anthem/drinking song rather than on the many unwelcome truths about war. Bogle wrote the song in 1971, 10 years before “Gallipoli” was released. His powerful ballad provides a dose of reality to a world awash in militarism, war profiteering, and media-generated war propaganda.
We Americans are no better, and our mis-leaders (especially our Chicken Hawk politicians that have never truly experienced combat) could learn a few lessons by acknowledging the many inconvenient truths about the true history of military misadventures. They are so numerous as to be uncountable. Please go online to watch and listen to several of the powerful videos featuring Bogle’s song.
The Band Played Waltzing Matilda
By Eric Bogle 1971 – http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=WG48Ftsr3OI
When I was a young man I carried me pack
And I lived the free life of the rover
From the Murray’s green basin to the dusty outback I waltzed my Matilda all over
Then in 1915 my country said: “Son, It’s time to stop rambling, there’s work to be done”
So they gave me a tin hat and they gave me a gun
And they sent me away to the war
And the band played Waltzing Matilda
When the ship pulled away from the quay
And amid all the tears, flag waving and cheers
We sailed off for Gallipoli
Well I remember that terrible day
When our blood stained the sand and the water
And how in that hell they call Suvla Bay
We were butchered like lambs at the slaughter
Johnny Turk, he was ready, he primed himself well
He rained us with bullets, and he showered us with shell
And in five minutes flat, we were all blown to hell
He nearly blew us back home to Australia
And the band played Waltzing Matilda
When we stopped to bury our slain
Well we buried ours and the Turks buried theirs
Then it started all over again
Oh those that were living just tried to survive
In that mad world of blood, death and fire
And for ten weary weeks I kept myself alive
While around me the corpses piled higher
Then a big Turkish shell knocked me arse over head
And when I awoke in me hospital bed
And saw what it had done,
I wished I was dead I never knew there was worse things than dying
Oh no more I’ll go Waltzing Matilda
All around the green bush far and near
For to hump tent and pegs, a man needs both legs
No more waltzing Matilda for me
They collected the wounded, the crippled, the maimed
And they shipped us back home to Australia
The armless, the legless, the blind, the insane
Those proud wounded heroes of Suvla
And when the ship pulled into Circular Quay
I looked at the place where me legs used to be
And thank Christ there was no one there waiting for me
To grieve and to mourn and to pity
And the Band played Waltzing Matilda
As they carried us down the gangway
Oh nobody cheered, they just stood and stared
Then they turned all their faces away
And so now every April I sit on my porch
And I watch the parade pass before me I see my old comrades,
how proudly they march
Reviving their dreams of past glories
I see the old men all tired, stiff and worn
Those weary old heroes of a forgotten war
And the young people ask “What are they marching for?”
And I ask myself the same question
And the band plays Waltzing Matilda
And the old men still answer the call
But as year follows year, their numbers disappear
Someday, no one will march there at all Waltzing Matilda,
Who’ll come a-Waltzing Matilda with me?
And their ghosts may be heard as they march by the billabong
Who’ll come a-Waltzing Matilda with me?