BY ROBERT MANNE,
There are two puzzles about the story at the centre of Australian folklore, Gallipoli. One is obvious: why did the story of the Australian troops’ landing at the Dardanelles Straits on 25 April 1915, and their subsequent participation in one of the British Empire’s most comprehensive military defeats, become the country’s foundation myth? The other puzzle has never been discussed, but can be expressed as follows.
During the exact time Australian troops spent in hell on Gallipoli, another event of world-historical importance was taking place on contiguous ground: the Armenian Genocide. Some contemporary scholars think that during this catastrophe, one million people were murdered. The crime was committed by the leadership of the Ottoman Turkish Empire: the empire which Australian troops, as part of the Anglo-French force, invaded. The Gallipoli landings took place one day after the mass arrest of the Armenian intelligentsia in Istanbul, the date Armenians regard as the beginning of the genocide and thus have set aside as their day of national mourning. Australians remember 25 April as their most solemn national day; the Armenians remember 24 April. As it happened, the Dardanelles campaign failed. In the months between the landings at Gallipoli and the mid-December 1915 evacuation, the overwhelming majority of the million deaths took place a few hundred kilometres east of the Dardanelles Straits: in eastern Anatolia, Cilicia and, after the terrible death marches, in the deserts of Syria and Iraq.
And yet, despite the fact that the Armenian Genocide was one of the great crimes of history; despite the fact that it took place on Ottoman soil during the precise months of the Dardanelles campaign; despite the fact that that campaign is regarded as the moment when the Australian nation was born, so far as I can tell, in the vast Gallipoli canon, not one Australian historian has devoted more than a passing page or paragraph to the relationship, or even the mere coincidence, of the two events. Concerning the Armenian Genocide, in the space of two large volumes on Gallipoli, Charles Bean is silent; Les Carlyon gives the issue three or four lines; John Robertson allows half a page. Alan Moorehead, in his mid-’50s classic, is unusual by devoting a full three pages to the Armenian Question.
Among Australians, only the poet Les Murray has managed to hold the two events together in his mind. His strange creation, the German Australian Fredy Neptune, is accidentally attached to the Turkish Navy at the outbreak of the Great War. Fredy swears to himself that he will desert if forced to fight Australians at Gallipoli. Soon after, he witnesses, at the Black Sea port of Trebizond, Armenian women being doused in kerosene and set alight. He is numbed by this experience for the remainder of his life. Murray’s epic begins with the words of an Armenian poet: “These eyes of mine – How shall I dig them out, how shall I, how?” For Murray, Armenia prefigures the horrors of the twentieth century. For him and him alone, Gallipoli is imaginatively proximate.
Concerning the coincidence on Ottoman soil of the Gallipoli campaign and the Armenian Genocide, there are many questions – though Australian historians have not seen them – that are worth discussing. Here is one. The Germans on the Western Front were not held by the Australian troops in high regard: their Belgian atrocities were exaggerated and neither forgiven nor forgotten. By contrast, for reasons that are not easy to fathom, ever since the time of the Anzac presence at Gallipoli, the Turkish enemy, responsible for crimes against Armenians far more terrible, seems to have been respected, not so much by the Australian troops but by those who recorded the experience of Gallipoli on their behalf.
In the enormously influential Anzac Book, compiled by Charles Bean from contributions of those who served, Bean included a poem of his own, ‘Abdul’. It ended with the following verse:
For though your name be black as ink
For murder and rapine
Carried out in happy concert
With your Christians from the Rhine,
We will judge you, Mr Abdul,
By the test by which we can –
That with all your breath, in life, in death,
You’ve played the gentleman.
In all his subsequent work, Bean continued to claim that the Anzac troops left Gallipoli with respect for the basic decency of the Turkish troops more or less intact. In 1934, the founder of the Republic of Turkey, Mustapha Kemal Atatürk, reciprocated with fine conciliatory sentiments of his own. I use the translation of Adrian Jones:
Those heroes that shed their blood and lost their lives are now lying in the soil of a friendly country. Therefore rest in peace. There is no difference between the Johnnies and the Mehmets where they lie side by side here in this country of ours. You, the mothers, who sent their sons from faraway countries, wipe away your tears. Your sons are now lying in our bosom and are in peace. After having lost their lives on this land, they have become our sons as well.
Bob Hawke completed the cycle in 1990, moving from respect for the foot soldier, “Johnny Turk”, to highest praise for the commander and founder of the postwar regime:
It is remarkable to reflect that the tragedy of our first encounter has been the source of nationhood for both our countries. It was through his brilliant defence of the Gallipoli Peninsula … that the great Mustapha Kemal Ataturk demonstrated the singular qualities of leadership which enabled him subsequently to create the Turkish Republic.
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