‘Gallipoli reckoning‘, Sydney Review of Books, 22 April 2016
Long review of The Landing at Anzac by Chris Roberts (2013) and The Ottoman Defence against the Anzac Landing, 25 April 1915 by Mesut Uyar (2015), which are appropriately reviewed side-by-side as they look at the same event from two different perspectives, those of the attackers and the defenders. They have something in common, however. ‘The works under review’, says Lockhart, ‘both by soldier-scholars, join a small body of writing that avoids the usual Anzac romanticism’. Moreover, both ‘follow primary evidence and build their subjects from the bottom up’.
This approach allows, for example, Uyar to put the role of Ataturk in perspective, as not the single saviour of the day but as one of a clutch of influential middle level commanders on the Ottoman side. It also allows Uyar to give the Ottoman Army its due as a modern (for the times) well-trained, fighting force rather than a sluggish rabble.
Roberts, too, sets himself to get rid of ‘myths and misconceptions’ about the nature of the fight on the Australian side and about its significance for Australian nationhood.
It is obvious [says Lockhart] that no battle of an Australian Imperial Force could have given birth to an Australian nation; Bean’s assertion is based on a contradiction in terms. And indeed, the power of The Landing at Anzac 1915 lies in the clarity with which its eleven rigorously researched chapters show that, far from being the independent national narrative Bean suggests, the story of Anzac is still a function of colonial insecurity.
Roberts blends an appreciation of weaponry with broad cultural awareness (of the Ottoman forces) and a close analysis of the heavily British general staff commanding the Australians. He then goes on to demolish the ‘wrong landing place’ and ‘met by machine gun fire’ myths. (The latter was peddled by Albert Facey in A Fortunate Life – he wasn’t even there – but can’t be blamed entirely on him.) He also busts the myth that the Anzacs suffered heavy casualties on the beach and suggests that this and the machine gun myth grew as excuses to explain initial failures in a situation where the invaders outnumbered the defenders 28:1.
There is lots more in Lockhart’s detailed article and some of it will be skimmed over by non-specialists but the bottom line is pretty clear:
The good news is that, retailing most readable precision, two qualified military historians writing from opposite points of the compass have now alerted us to the ignorance and lazy conformity the myth nurtures in the romance of our military history to this day … The point about the landing is not that it failed – we all know that it did not turn out well – even Bean knew that. The point is rather about how effectively his Official History buried the story of the landing, so as, wittingly or otherwise, to obscure the causes of the failure and to thicken the web of imperial significance in which the Anzac romance and much of our military history are together suspended.
Lockhart looks at how Uyar’s work fits into a larger narrative of Ottoman-Turkish history then concludes with this paragraph about Bean, Gallipoli and Australia:
Bean’s narrative excuses our Gallipoli disaster. As Roberts elegantly concludes, Bean’s romance of Anzac does that by turning “failure into heroic achievement” – or, we could say, by functioning to institutionalise ignorance of our imperial history in a romance that hides behind the false and misleading glory that the nation was born at Gallipoli. We see how, in that way, the Anzac legend inhibits the emergence of a sovereign strategic ethos in our literature and politics. That is our Gallipoli reckoning.