‘New views from a little way beyond Gallipoli’, Honest History, 21 November 2016
This book is a collection of 15 papers (plus introduction) from a conference in Turkey in May 2015. It is aimed, one suspects, at an academic rather than a general audience though it will certainly appeal to people who are already deeply immersed in the historiography of the tragic and pointless Gallipoli campaign.
The book’s sub-title is more accurate than its title. There are indeed some interesting ‘new perspectives’ – more of them in a moment – but if the book is ‘Beyond Gallipoli’ it is not very far away from it, perhaps as far as Lemnos or the deck of the replica Ottoman minesweeper Nusret, on which conference participants took a short trip. A better description is the editors’ in the introduction: the book ‘approaches old questions in a new way’, with more cultural than operational studies – a nice change and welcome – and a good leavening of the multi-disciplinary. The authors hail from other than the two Anzac countries though – for reasons explained in the introduction – there is but one Turk, who contributes one of the best papers in the collection.
The papers were chosen from the 90 delivered at the conference and they vary greatly in length – perhaps some were delivered in plenary and some in panel sessions or maybe some authors of the longer papers just resisted post-conference editing. For this reviewer (who did not attend the conference) the papers fell into four categories: turnings-over of well-ploughed fields, new plantings, technical papers, and vignettes. I looked particularly for attempts to move beyond academic research results into general points about the nature of memory and commemoration.
First in this category was Robin Prior with a very useful collection on ‘the myths of Gallipoli’, a genre to which Prior has already made distinguished contributions, along with Chris Roberts and Mesut Uyar. The second-most frequent comment about Gallipoli that this reviewer has heard from non-historians is ‘Of course, you know they landed in the wrong place’. Prior scotches this one and a few others. But his most telling paragraph comes right at the end:
As for Australia, it became a nation in 1900 and by 1915 had established a series of unique parliamentary, industrial and commercial arrangements which clearly proclaimed its nationhood. It in fact provides the perfect example of how a nation can be created without the blood test of war. Some Australians have insisted that unless such a test is applied the country is something less than a nation. Such notions should be dismissed for the bloodthirsty hankerings of insecurity that they are. Those who know the true cost of war will be content with Australia’s peaceful path to independence.
Jenny Macleod and Gizem Tongo discuss Turkish-Australian commemorative politics, especially the jointly-stirred schmaltz surrounding the famous ‘Atatürk words’ commencing ‘Those heroes that shed their blood …’. The authors show deftly how the emotion surrounding this classic furphy has helped gloss over the real story of the Armenian Genocide. However, as someone who has ploughed the Atatürk field a lot in the last couple of years, might this reviewer be permitted a response to Macleod and Tongo’s slightly huffy comment on ‘the tortuous web of evidence’ about the provenance of the famous words? If historians – not Macleod and Tongo – had probed more deeply in the last 30, nay 50, years this nonsense could have been nailed long ago and there would have been no need to do it so intensively recently. There has been a lot of wishful thinking associated with Atatürk.
Paul Cummins, designer of the poppies project (Daily Mail)
Kevin Fewster comments on recent memorialisation in the Northern Hemisphere, from the river of poppies at the Tower of London, to Greenwich, to the Smithsonian, then promises to visit the Melbourne Museum’s Love and Sorrow exhibition on the recommendation of Michael McKernan. Fewster notes the basting received by the Guardian’s Jonathan Jones for his criticisms of the Tower poppies.
It doesn’t matter now how sad we are about those the first world war killed [Jones argued]. Our soulfulness won’t bring back a single slaughtered soldier. What can make a difference is our historical understanding of the Great War, its causes and consequence. History is worth far more than the illusion of memory, when none of us today actually have a memory of being soldiers in 1914-18 …
Australia’s peddlers of Anzackery, like their British equivalents, would no doubt have responded, ‘That’s what you’d expect of the Guardian’. This reviewer can only say, ‘Right on, Mr Jones’.
The fourth offering under this heading is Bill Gammage on the origins of Anzac Day. Surprisingly, Gammage does not refer to the John Moses-George Davis 2013 book on Canon Garland while doing his own reconnaissance of primary sources to come up with a detailed picture of the ‘spontaneous combustion’ of Anzac Day in various locations. The later Gammage’s staccato style was irritating in The Biggest Estate on Earth (also about fire) but it works well in piling up this collection of evidentiary embers.
One wonders, nevertheless, whether much more need be said about the history of Anzac Day; surely it is the Anzac legend or myth or encumbrance, as interpreted and reinterpreted and tweaked and misused and taken advantage of, that weighs us down today – and needs deflating. Gammage is certainly spot on with his final comment about the Anzac Day march: ‘Already it is as much about ancestor worship as memory’.
The standout here is A. Candan Kirişci’s analysis of Gallipoli-related literature 1915-65 in the Anzac countries and Turkey, particularly how it depicts the patriot soldier and the enemy. She contrasts the Turkish approach, with its fairly uniform ‘indignant, antagonistic tone’ including ‘vilification of the enemy’ and ‘celebration of the [local] hero’ with the Antipodean (particularly the Australian) tendency to ignore the enemy and concentrate on how well our boys fought as courageous, resourceful, larrikin mates.
Apart from this main theme there is Kirişci’s notable opening line: ‘One of the many ironies associated with the Gallipoli campaign is that it included parties that otherwise would have been least likely to have any contact with one another’. The sentence makes us consider the rather strange closeness that has developed between Australia and Turkey over the last few decades. Is former combatant status enough to explain this or are there other forces at work? Is the closeness felt equally on both sides? (Macleod and Tongo’s piece is also relevant here.)
Early edition of Jim and Wally by Mary Grant Bruce, set in World War I (Ebay)
Frank Bongiorno presents a concise and thoughtful piece on Australian children’s literature during and just after the Great War. He shows that the sanitised war propaganda evident in recent publications like Belinda Landsberry’s Anzac Ted and Carlie Walker’s Audacity has a long pedigree. But there is a notable difference between then and now: children’s non-fiction then seems to have tried harder to say why we fought (to thwart German desires for world domination, naturally) and what individual campaigns, particularly the Dardanelles, and the war as a whole had achieved. These books, says Bongiorno, ‘were designed to serve a propagandist purpose, but they also disclose with a notable clarity many of the historical meanings that contemporary society attached to the war’.
Janda Gooding’s paper on George Lambert’s famous painting ANZAC, the Landing 1915 is another case study of art in the service of propaganda, from the commissioning of the work by Charles Bean, the supersizing of the canvas (big works show that the subject is important), the poetic licence Lambert employed (changing the landscape, compressing time, plonking slouch hats on his figures to make them look more Australian), the catering to the emotional needs of the Australians of 1922 who had never seen – or in the case of soldiers who had been there, would never see again – the landscape depicted. Gooding shows, in summary, how the painting ‘contributes to and reinforces a popularly held belief that the Australian nation and national identity were forged in a battle on the shores of a foreign sovereign country’.
Tom Sear is a pioneer of digital approaches to history and his paper here is full of discussion about avatars and ‘Anzac selfies’, statistics of Google searches for Anzac-related words, terms like ‘postdigital historical consciousness’ and ‘revisionistic memorialisation of nodal events’, and lots and lots of footnotes. The paper will not be easy going for ‘newbies’, particularly chronologically older ones – there is a commentary by Andrew Hoskins which may help the mystified – but it certainly maps out new territory, while raising important issues of how to balance immersion with distance. It also prompts this question: in the face of apparently endless and easily accessible resources about how our boys fought, including whizzo new stuff, supersizing, colourising and websites giving us the illusion of talking directly to soldiers a century ago, will we be even less likely than we are now to ask why they fought and what that fighting did to them?
Sharon Mascall-Dare and Matthew Ricketson continue Mascall-Dare’s previous work on the ethics and techniques of commemorative journalism. Every Anzac Day cries out for a more critical – even a slightly offbeat – approach to the stories of our wars but, time and again, journalists, whether due to lack of time or too much of what they take to be reverence, serve up the same old stuff. ‘When reporting on Anzac Day’, the authors say, ‘a reporter’s “baggage” can take a number of forms: psychological, emotional or intellectual’. (This is similar to the reflexes that cut in at Christmas or Easter, or at weddings and funerals.) The paper’s case studies contain much ‘teachable’ material for journalists who are willing to use it.
Rounding off this group are Paul Gough on ‘artistic interpretations of the empty battlefield’ and Jessie Birkett-Rees on the archaelogical geography of Gallipoli. The first will be of interest mostly to art historians of a philosophical bent while the latter should be indispensable to amateur and professional archaelogists scrambling around on the rugged hills and gullies beyond Anzac Cove.
National War Memorial, St John’s, Newfoundland (Garrie Hutchinson)
Finally, we classified three papers as ‘vignettes’. Peter Pierce reviews New Zealander Stephen Daisley’s 2010 novel Traitor, which Pierce describes as ‘less concerned with the horrors of war than to [sic] the possibilities for redemption that they cannot foreclose’. From New Zealand also comes Jock Phillips’s story of brothers Gordon and Robin Harper at Gallipoli and in the Sinai. The paper says a lot about why men go to war and how they look after each other when they are there. Last but not least, Canadian Raynald Harvey Lemelin tells us more than most Australians and New Zealanders – and many Canadians – have previously known about Newfoundlanders and Labradorians at Gallipoli and why their contribution has not been more conspicuously commemorated.
The book grew out of a rather fraught conference in Turkey in May 2015. (Many of the problems that arose were well out of the control of the organisers at the Australian end.) Honest History’s president, Peter Stanley, has written about the conference at length and the editors’ introduction touches discreetly on the political aspects of it. There is no need to say anything more about that side here except perhaps ‘other people’s country, other people’s rules’.
On the other hand, the editing and presentation of the book was entirely within the control of people in the Southern Hemisphere. The editors’ introduction does its job concisely and well yet there are in the book too many typographical slips and inconsistencies of style – Ari Burnu and Arıburnu, Atatürk and Ataturk, Mustapha and Mustafa (just two pages apart), nations ‘borne’ at Gallipoli (p. 19), Joan Beaumont’s book Unbroken [sic] Nation (p. 128), ‘General James McKay’ instead of ‘McCay’ (p. 229), many sloppy footnotes – and even the occasional syntactical clanger, the first occurring in an important sentence bang in the middle of page 2.
Some of these errors may be acceptable in blogs thrown together rapidly – Honest History often doesn’t bother about diacritics and nor do some Turks – but not in books. Finally, some of the lengthy footnotes are so off-putting as to suggest that publishers should make endnotes the non-negotiable standard.
All that said, the conference politics and the packaging glitches do not detract greatly from the overall effect of the book. Great War buffs and ‘agile’ academics should welcome it though organisers of future conferences in Turkey might check carefully for pigs in pokes.
 The most frequently heard comment commences ‘My great-grandfather was at Gallipoli …’, which frequently implies that the speaker is uniquely qualified to comment.
ANZAC, the Landing 1915 (GW Lambert/NGA/AWM)