Gallipoli 1915: a century on – conference report

Peter Stanley

‘Gallipoli 1915: a century on – conference report’, Honest History, 14 April 2015

Those interested in Gallipoli had been anticipating the conference convened jointly by the Australian National University and the Australian War Memorial and held in Canberra for three days, 18 to 20 March. Called Gallipoli 1915; a century on, it was to be one of the highlights of this centenary year. The convenors, Professor Joan Beaumont of the ANU (whose book Broken Nation jointly won the 2014 Prime Minister’s Prize for Australian History) and head of Military History at the Memorial, Ashley Ekins, should be congratulated for organising a conference that was inevitably uneven but which brought speakers and participants together in often productive ways.


One of the problems with the conference program needs to be addressed at the outset. Conferences, as I never tire of saying, are for conferring; discussion is at the heart of what a conference is for, and in plenary session, not just over coffee. Unfortunately, speakers at this gathering were allowed to continue speaking right up to session time limits, leading chair-people to bemoan that ‘we only have time for one or two questions’.

And they usually were questions; this was generally not a conference at which big ideas were debated. When speakers, to avoid using up their entire time, imposed a discipline upon themselves – as Ashley Ekins did in revealing his research based on the statistical analysis of courts-martial on Gallipoli – the results were rewarding. But too many speakers gave what were, in effect, lectures, often telling the audience things – facts – that the audience could more readily have obtained from books.

The audience was large, perhaps 400 people, perhaps too many participants for effective discussion. It transpired that, though the conference was billed as ‘international’, presumably for reasons of institutional prestige, it was instead a ‘national’ conference with a number of international speakers. In fact, when I conducted an on-the-spot survey in the course of the ten-minute presentation I was allowed, I found that the audience was solidly Australian-born, with a family connection to Gallipoli and over 50 years of age.

This gathering was not representative of modern Australia; it had an understandable but firm commitment to a moment of old Australia’s military glory. When, after my presentation – in which I pointed out that large segments of today’s Australia found nothing in the Gallipoli-Anzac story to relate to – a woman (invisible because of the venue’s unsympathetic lighting) asked plaintively, ‘But what about our identity?’ Sadly, due to time constraints, I was unable to respond to her question.

The speakers included several world-class scholars, notably Hew Strachan and Jay Winter, with notable Gallipoli authorities such as Robin Prior of Adelaide, Jenny MacLeod from Britain, Keith Jeffery and John Horne from Ireland, Rana Chhina from India and (somewhat bizarrely) Mark Humphries, who spoke about the one Newfoundland battalion that served on Gallipoli for a few months. Among Australian participants it was notable that the conference achieved something of a breakthrough by including a strand of papers looking at the Australian civilian experience of 1915 (through papers by Joan Beaumont and Melanie Oppenheimer – both supporters of Honest History). This theme, which had tended to be absent from previous AWM Gallipoli conferences, is presumably a positive result of the partnership between the Memorial and the ANU.

The_Four_Military_Representatives_of_the_Supreme_War_Council,_Versailles,_their_Co's,_Secretaries,_and_Interpreters_in_session_Art.IWMART4214Meeting of the Supreme War Council, Versailles 1919 (Wikimedia Commons/Imperial War Museum: at the link there is information on those portrayed in this painting by Herbert A. Olivier)

The conference also addressed the creativity inspired by Gallipoli, with informative sessions on war art by PhD candidate Margaret Hutchison of ANU and the music of Gallipoli (notably that of the Australian composer Septimus Kelly, killed in France, 1916) discussed and performed by Christopher Latham. The program was a full one, even though the format of half-hour or longer papers prevented the inclusion of a more comprehensive range of subjects. A penultimate session confined dissident voices sceptical of the celebration of Anzac (Bruce Scates of Monash, James Brown of Sydney and myself) to ten-minute papers followed by a hurried and unsatisfactory discussion. At least this session allowed the airing of views very different to those of the government ministers who spoke.

While some aspects of Gallipoli were dealt with in detail – the question of why the Franco-British naval attack and the initial landings failed was comprehensively discussed – other, seemingly important questions were neglected. Perhaps it could not be otherwise in even a large conference, though the format of long formal papers – a quite old-fashioned approach – did not make for flexibility.

The range of speakers was, in some ways, idiosyncratic. Absent were, for example, Rhys Crawley of ANU, who has recently published an account of the August offensive, Mesut Uyar of UNSW Canberra, who has recently brought out the most authoritative account of the Turkish side of the 25 April landing, Jeff Grey, who has just published a new study of Australia’s part in the war against the Ottoman empire, and Harvey Broadbent, who likewise has just published two books based on previously unseen Ottoman records. No one spoke about, say, nurses or journalists or Charles Bean’s part in creating the Anzac legend (though Peter Rees’s biography of Bean appeared in the course of the conference) nor, astoundingly, about the importance of Gallipoli to New Zealand.

While a lunchtime seminar did address the service of Indigenous Australian and New Zealand soldiers – Monty Soutar did this creditably – speakers able to discuss more generally the New Zealand relationship with Gallipoli were absent from the program. This disparity was particularly apparent, given that no fewer than five Turkish speakers participated. The disdain of the British experience of Gallipoli is now an established feature of Australian conferences dealing with the Great War (the Army History Unit’s series of Great War conferences over the 90th anniversaries offering a notable exception). At best, it might be assumed that Australians take the British participation for granted, so no one actually directly addressed the British part in the campaign.

The relative neglect of New Zealand, however, was new and surprising, especially when Glyn Harper, one of New Zealand’s foremost scholars of the Great War, was present as a participant. The answer seems that be that conference programs are constructed not only on the basis of scholarly standing but also on the personal relationships existing between the organisers and their networks. It seems that the Memorial’s network, at least, extends to Turkey but not New Zealand.

Not only were Turkish speakers prominent – though, curiously, none of them were academic historians but film-makers, an independent scholar and a tour guide – but participants’ responses to them were welcoming to the point of sycophancy. This became most notable in the formalities on the conference’s opening morning and in an address on the final day. Kevin Andrews, the Minister for Defence, opened the conference and quoted the celebrated Atatürk paragraph (‘Those heroes …’) in full, to appreciative applause. On the Friday, Michael Ronaldson, the Minister for Veterans’ Affairs (and the Centenary of Anzac) thanked the government and people of Turkey for ‘allowing’ Australians to commemorate the centenary on Gallipoli, again to applause.

Later on the first day, the British speaker Jenny MacLeod tweeted to observe that the Atatürk paragraph has become the single most frequently quoted piece of writing about Gallipoli – it had been mentioned no fewer than five times that day. (Tweets from the conference can be found at #gaco2015.) I did not attend the conference reception (at the Turkish embassy) or the conference dinner, which was addressed by author Les Carlyon, whose 2001 book Gallipoli did more than any single work to entrench sympathy for the Turkish view in Australia.

800px-William_Orpen_–_The_Signing_of_Peace_in_the_Hall_of_Mirrors,_Versailles_1919,_AusschnittThe signing of the Treaty of Peace in the Hall of Mirrors, Versailles, 1919 (Wikimedia Commons/Sir William Orpen; at the link it is possible to mouse over the picture for biodata on each representative)

This suggests that the dominant international relationship visible in the Anzac centenary is not Australia and Britain (as it was in 1915) or Australia and New Zealand (as it has been for much of the past fifty-odd years) but Australia and Turkey. Reconciliation is a powerful emotional lever in history. For Gallipoli, or at least for Australians and Gallipoli, the emotional relationship with Turkey, based on a range of largely historically unjustified presumptions, is in the ascendant. In this view it matters not that the ‘Mehmets and the Johnnies’, in between the occasions when they respected each other, actually fought savagely, or that the Atatürk quotation’s portrayal of history and remembrance is at best dubious, or that recent expressions of the relationship (in, say, the film The Water Diviner and the Channel 9 series Gallipoli) are exaggerated. What matters is how people feel; they are heavily influenced by the rhetoric of reconciliation.

In summary, then, the Gallipoli centenary conference was worthwhile as far as it went. It exposed the work of a good but not fully comprehensive range of scholars and others to an interested Australian audience. The constraints of the venue, the format of long papers and short questions, and the perhaps inevitable unevenness of the program worked against the conference being as successful as it aspired to be.

Perhaps, crucially, the organisers’ desire for a large conference in itself cruelled the possibility of it affording a satisfactory exchange of views. Conferences are not intellectually neutral (nor are government agencies). Would it have been feasible for either partner to have elected to hold a smaller but more comprehensive gathering, one with less exposition and greater discussion? Conferences emerge from political and institutional relationships. This conference reflected both the diversity of intellectual interest in Gallipoli but also what is encouraged and discouraged.

Professor Peter Stanley is a Research Professor in History at UNSW Canberra and is President of Honest History


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2 comments on “Gallipoli 1915: a century on – conference report
  1. tonyreid says:

    Wars bitterly divide; commemorations need to heal and to balance in the longer perspective of time. Australian military anniversaries, unfortunately dominated by Department of Veterans’ Affairs and AWM, continue to fail this test. As this conference strikingly demonstrates, we have opened the agenda only to Turkey, and clearly not even to serious scholars in Turkey, because forced to do so by reciprocity for Anzac Cove. But that opening has effectively closed the door to serious consideration of the fatal legacy of WWI in unleashing the beast of militant racially-defined nationalism.

    The direct consequences of WWI and its vengeful peace on the rise of Nazism are well enough known internationally, though Australian commemorations notably fail to acknowledge the tragic role of Australia’s Billy Hughes as the most extreme of the avengers. But how can we ignore the beginning of the Armenian genocide the day after the Anzac landings? How can we ignore the way the war strengthened Hughes’ kind of racist imperialism in Australia, and enabled him “to defy the opinion of the whole civilised world” (as Woodrow Wilson put it) in opposing the principles of racial equality and a trusteeship system for the former German colonies? How many centuries must elapse before a genuinely international conference can analyze the deeper causes of this terrible chapter in Australian and world history, and inch towards a broader consensus about its meaning?
    But many thanks Peter, for opening this and many other issues to greater scrutiny.

  2. Robert says:

    Interesting perspective of the conference Peter, especially as it is the anniversary. I gather from your article there was not much room for questioning and expansion of thoughts even after a century.

    None the less to me it seems as if the Ion Idriess and the subsequent Eric Lambert types have not been totally suppressed, and controlling an outcome by controlling the questions is as active today as when Churchill and T.E.Lawrence combined, after Churchill, as Colonial Minister, was given the mandate to sought out the mess in the Middle East. “He and Churchill were determined to leave no loose ends: their agenda would define the questions to be raised, with little room for decisions other than the ones they wanted.” (Lawrence and Aaronsohn by Ronald Florence, page 437.)

    Gallipoli and Anzac Cove, along with Churchills prior Dardanelles fiasco, combined with Sykes, Picot and many other disgraced academics and aristocratic participants in the “Great Game”, still have much to answer for to this very day I strongly believe. Sychophantic outbursts of applause and choreographed time frames as written of, make for heavy going and little value when the complete Gallipoli and Ottoman introspection deserves, due to the monumental debacle it continued to evolve into, along with the sacrifices of life there, to be treated with far more respect and honesty.

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