‘Gallipoli in a nation’s remembrance’ Anniversary Oration 2004

25 April 2019

11 November 2004
Les Carlyon AC
Australian War Memorial, Canberra

Alan Bond, that case-hardened warrior from the corporate wars, was in a little trouble in 1983, and this time it wasn’t financial. The Australian yacht -- his yacht -- was trailing by three races to one in the America’s Cup. Bond still thought victory possible. He made a reference to Gallipoli. Then he spoke the deathless words: ‘We had our backs to the wall there and we won that one.’ We shouldn’t take easy shots: this man later bought his own university.

A few years ago Steve Waugh took the Australian cricket team to Gallipoli before going on to England to begin the ritual war against the old enemy. The idea, one presumes, was to imbue the team with the spirit of a story that has become our Homeric tale. I guess all of us here tonight would understand what the cricketing authorities were trying to do. Gallipoli is a good and feisty spirit to take to the battlefields of Lords and Old Trafford. But outsiders -- Americans, say, or Russians – might have been puzzled by the pilgrimage. Wasn’t Gallipoli a defeat? Didn’t the Turks enforce the follow on? My own theory is that Steve Waugh really wanted to take the team to Suvla, the scene of one of the great British batting collapses. There’s an old adage that says victory has a thousand fathers but defeat is an orphan. No orphan has ever been so warmly embraced as Gallipoli.

 And here’s another unusual thing. The casualties on both sides for the eight months of the Gallipoli campaign came in at around 400,000. It therefore ranks as a terrible battle, nothing like as terrible as Passchendaele or the Somme, but bad enough. Terrible battles usually throw up grievances and hatreds that are passed down the generations. I have the feeling that the Russians still haven’t forgiven the French for 1812. There is still ill-feeling between Japan and countries it occupied in World War II. Some Turks have not quite forgiven Britain for its opposition to Ataturk during the Turkish war of independence. It is unusual for a war to end without some incident or atrocity that refuses to go away. It is more unusual for adversaries to admire each other.

Yet this is what has happened with the Turks and Australians. There is mutual admiration. There is no incident that rankles, and it may have helped that very few civilians were caught up in the campaign. There is no perception that good and evil faced each other on the battlefield there. Both nations celebrate Gallipoli, although for quite different reasons, and one has to say here that the Turkish reasons are easier to understand. There is good humour, affection even, between the descendants of the men who fought each other with such brutality. The phrase ‘war with honour’ is often an oxymoron, but perhaps not at Gallipoli.

 On Anzac Day in 2000 I was walking up to Lone Pine. A retired Australian army officer paused, turned to another retired officer, pointed towards the scrubby hills above Russell’s Top and said: ‘Now if we’d turned left here instead of right…’ A young school teacher from Canakkale overheard this. ‘You Australians never learn,’ he said, a grin on his face and a twinkle in his eyes. We all laughed, Turks and Australians.        

 I begin with these anecdotes in an attempt to attract a little sympathy. I’ve taken on a difficult topic tonight, not because I’m adventurous but because Steve Gower told me I wanted to talk about Gallipoli in a Nation’s Remembrance and generals must be obeyed, lest order break down completely. Part of the trouble is that Gallipoli means different things to different people. It is a set of facts and these facts are impressive enough by themselves and, I think, say enough by themselves for Australians to feel proud about what happened at Gallipoli. But these facts are also mixed up with legends and myths and symbolism and sometimes, most of the time perhaps, these latter things become the larger part of the story.

 Gallipoli is an episode of military history and in the context of the Great War it is not a big one. In Australia Gallipoli is also a state of mind, a place in the heart, and the stuff of warm inner glows for those of us who were lucky enough not to have been there or to have suffered from its after-effects. Gallipoli is part of the folklore, one of the few words spoken in Australia with something approaching reverence. Gallipoli has become a church and even secular churches need myths. Gallipoli had become a faith and faiths are hostile to analysis. As Bill Gammage wrote long ago, Gallipoli is bigger than the facts. And as someone else said, Gallipoli just is.

 What we all know is that it has become a larger part of this nation’s remembrance. When a lot of people thought the story might begin to fade, when all the Australians who fought there have passed on, the tale has taken on a lambent glow. When I was a kid the mood of Anzac Day was rather different, perhaps because the day usually ended up being linked to the latest crisis of the Cold War. It was also probably true that Gallipoli was not a happy word in many families then, because men had come home moody and morose, wives and children had suffered, and the memories were still fresh. Gallipoli is more appealing to modern generations who did not have to live through the aftermath. Gallipoli and Anzac Day when I was a kid seemed to belong to the returned servicemen. We others looked on, politely and from a proper distance. Now Gallipoli, it seems, belongs to all of us, all of the nation. It is above politics. It is not linked to the military causes of the present day. It stands alone and apart. It has found a place of its own.

 To sit above North Beach on Anzac Day is these days a thing of wonder. As the dawn breaks, as little waves rattle the shingle, you see thousands upon thousands of Australians, far from home, huddled against the cold, spread out around the amphitheatre and silhouetted high above on Walker’s Ridge: young people using the flag as a shawl, middle-aged Australians in Wallaby guernseys, older Australians wearing ties and sports coats and medals, grandmothers cupping their hands around flickering candles.

 Why are they here, so many of them? What has changed? Why has the place of Gallipoli in a nation’s remembrance become more secure?

 Perhaps we need to look at how Gallipoli first came into the nation’s consciousness. The first reports linking Australians to the Gallipoli landings appeared in the Australian press on April 30, 1915. Most of the newspaper editors didn’t know what to do with them. For days the main story had been about the fighting at Neuve Chapelle in French Flanders. That’s where the war was supposed to be, not at the Dardanelles, and that’s where the Australian contingent was assumed to be heading.

 What was to become one of the strongest strands in our folklore began with falsehoods. The papers ran a British War Office announcement saying that the Allies were advancing steadily up the Peninsula and that the Turks had prepared deep pits with spiked bottoms. The papers ran patchy reports for several days, including a story that 8000 Turks had surrendered and another that the Turks were burning every village from which they were driven, which was really something because the Turks hadn’t lost a single village, and didn’t. According to the press, the Australian death toll had crept up to forty-one. Then Ellis Ashmead-Bartlett’s story appeared.

 Ashmead-Bartlett worked for the London Daily Telegraph. He was an experienced and intelligent war correspondent and a stylish writer who was occasionally careless with facts. But the best thing about him, as far as Australian editors were concerned, was that he was English, and here he was writing admiring words about Australians. England was the mother country and the child craved approval. Australia, the nation, was only fourteen years old; it had never done much in the wider world before. Ashmead-Bartlett had the Australians jumping out of their boats and rushing trenches with bayonets. He had men who had been ‘shot to bits’ lying on the beach and cheering throughout that first night. He declared that the Australians were the equal of the heroes of Mons, the Aisne, Ypres and Neuve Chapelle.

 Clergymen quoted from Ashmead-Bartlett’s piece in their Sunday sermons. People cut out his words and pasted them in scrapbooks. Enlistments soared, reaching heights in July and August of 1915 that were never again reached. Ashmead-Bartlett, without meaning to, had started the Anzac legend. He had done for Gallipoli what Shakespeare did for Agincourt and Tolstoy for Borodino. The trouble was, there was also an Anzac reality. It too was something to be proud of, but it was not the same as the story Ashmead-Bartlett had created.

 Censorship is inevitable in war and Ashmead-Bartlett had to leave things out. The result of these omissions, plus Ashmead-Bartlett’s rush of enthusiasm, meant that Australians became captivated by a story that wasn’t quite accurate and sounded like an adventure written by Kipling. Ashmead-Bartlett made Gallipoli sound romantic and it wasn’t. Rather than fleeing, the Turks were fighting with extraordinary courage. In military terms the landing was nearer to a failure than a success. The Australians were clinging to around 400 acres above the beach and in the rough shape of a triangle. After that first day they could not advance; they were already in the early days of a siege. The casualties were not the few hundred the newspapers were suggesting. By the time Ashmead-Bartlett’s report appeared the Australian and New Zealand casualties were approaching 8000, of whom more than 2000 were dead.

 We should not be surprised that exact casualty figures were a long time coming: even in June the Australian newspapers were reporting only 688 dead. We should not be surprised that the papers were publishing despatches from men such as Sir Ian Hamilton, the Allied commander-in-chief, who announced, with a nice feel for the abstract noun, that ‘good progress’ was being made. But, as a result of all this, young men were lining up at the recruiting centres with a fraudulent picture of the war in their heads. And families with husbands and sons at Gallipoli were living with false hopes.

 Soon the Gallipoli campaign had a hero: Simpson the Christ-like figure, Simpson the one-man epic with the donkey, Simpson the man who didn’t carry a gun. In death he enjoyed a grace he never enjoyed in life. He became Everyman at the Gallipoli front. He was beatified, then canonised. He was described as a six-foot Australian when in truth he was a Geordie who wanted to go home and stood five foot nine. He lodged in Australia’s collective mind and grew bigger and bigger. And indeed he was a brave man who performed selfless acts. But – and I hope this doesn’t sound unkind, because it isn’t meant to be – there were larger heroes on Gallipoli, dozens and dozens of them.

 Men like Harry Murray, who became the most decorated Australian of the war; his mate Percy Black, who died at Bullecourt; Alfred Shout, who won the VC at Lone Pine and talked cheerfully as they carted him off to die; Walter Cass, who the following year became one of the heroes of the battle of Fromelles in French Flanders; Fred Tubb, who won the VC at Lone Pine and died two years later trying to win another one during the battle of Menin Road; the irrepressible Pompey Elliott; Bert Jacka, who won the VC on Gallipoli and should have received another at Pozieres; and William Malone, the New Zealander who should have won the VC on Chunuk Bair. Gallipoli was also a fine training ground for future Australian generals. Monash, Glasgow, Gellibrand, Rosenthal, Hobbs, Holmes, Blamey and Morshead -- all these were on Gallipoli, but for some reason that is unclear we remember Simpson best of all.   

 In some ways the mould for the Gallipoli story was cast back then, back when the Great War was still going on. The story, so the legend had it, was essentially about the beach and the rushing of the hills. It was essentially romantic. And, as time passed and the Allies eventually had to evacuate the Peninsula, it became a sort of romantic tragedy, and eventually the best remembered tragedy in Australia’s military history, which surely sells short what happened to us at Singapore in 1942. Gallipoli was about Simpson and the beach.

 My dear friend Kenan Celik of Canakkale was a few years ago asked to go to the helicopter pad on Hill 971 and guide a Sydney couple around the battlefield. The couple arrived in a helicopter they had chartered in Istanbul and asked Kenan to drive them straight to the beach. They spend twenty minutes there, took photographs, said it was very moving, thanked Kenan for ‘showing them Gallipoli’, and at once flew back to Istanbul. In passing I like to think the man was a rich Sydney property developer.

 Whoever he was, he missed the real story, which was up on the escarpment. He missed seeing the scenes of real heroics. He missed seeing the wonder, the sheer improbability, of the Australian positions along that second ridge. He missed seeing Lone Pine where, in the grottoes, Australians did things so brave they beggar the imagination. He missed seeing Chunuk Bair, where the New Zealanders fought a battle as frightful as Lone Pine. In short, he missed the grander story of Gallipoli, which was about the hanging on, rather than the rush across the beach.

 From those days in May, 1915, when the first reports appeared in the press, Gallipoli has overshadowed all our military history. It is a word that immediately evokes an image, the way El Alamein, say, does not. Gallipoli took two volumes of our official history of the Great War, against four volumes for France and Belgium, and one has to wonder if we got the proportions right. Six times as many Australians died in France and Belgium as did at Gallipoli. As one historian has put it, the western front is the major episode in Australia’s military history. There, he said, we engaged the main army of the main enemy in the main theatre of war. Never was this more obvious than in the victories of 1918.

 At Fromelles, in French Flanders, on one night in July, 1916, the Australians suffered 5500 casualties. Some of our best spirits died out on that soggy plain, mown down, as one man present put it, like great rows of teeth knocked from a comb. Fromelles was arguably the worst night in Australian history. It was a blunder by British and Australian generals. But who remembers it? Who goes there? Not many, if you look in the visitors’ book at the Fromelles cemetery

 Pozieres, down on the Somme, began a few days later. Three Australian divisions went through here twice. They fought under artillery bombardments that reduced the village to piles of ash and caused strong men to go mad. When, after six weeks, the last Australians were pulled out, the casualty list stood at 23,000. Twenty-three thousand Australians dead and wounded to reclaim about 600 acres of France. The losses at Pozieres were the spur for the first conscription referendum in Australia and all the divisiveness that came with it. Men who had been at Gallipoli said Pozieres was worse, almost certainly because, by the standards of the western front, the artillery fire on Anzac Cove was relatively light. Pozieres is not that well remembered either, and it should be.

 Nineteen-seventeen was the worst year of the war for Australia. First there were the two battles of Bullecourt. Another 7500 casualties. Then came Passchendaele, or, more accurately, the series of battles that were called Third Ypres, a campaign that ended when men and horses were drowning in the mud. If you stand at Tyne Cot cemetery, look up the hill towards Passchendaele village and let your imagination run, you can see the hopelessness of the final assaults there. That field in front of you was a sea of craters, lip to lip, all of them filled with slime. The mud had become glue. Men couldn’t move and rifles wouldn’t fire.

 You can stand at the Menin Gate and, if you have a few days of spare time, read the names of 6176 Australians who were lost in the Ypres Salient and have no known grave. Australia’s casualties from Third Ypres were 38,000. The British remember Passchendaele. There are buses of English pilgrims in the streets of Ypres just about every day. We don’t remember Passchendaele so well here.

 And now we move on to the strangest thing of all, the famous victories of 1918 that led to the first Remembrance Day: the battle in front of Amiens, the taking of Mont St Quentin and the breaking of the Hindenburg Line. Much is made these days of small detachments of Australian troops being under some form of American control. It is not generally known in this country that Monash at the Hindenburg Line had temporary control over two American divisions. The Australian and Canadian corps in 1918 were important in a way quite out of proportion to their size, and probably didn’t receive the credit they deserved because that would have implied some criticism of the divisions from the United Kingdom. Monash and Arthur Currie, the Canadian commander, were perhaps the two best generals in the last year of the war. This wasn’t going to be mentioned much in Britain either. The British generals came from the officer classes of Victorian England; Monash and Currie were citizen soldiers.

 We could have talked and written about these events in France and Belgium, but we didn’t much, and still don’t. Gallipoli is the campaign that goes past the brain and wriggles into the heart. It dominates popular discussions not only of the Great War but also of all Australian wars, and in objective terms this is surely wrong. But here we come to the essence of the matter. Gallipoli is part of the national mythology and mythology is seldom objective.

 Ned Kelly is a lesser part of that same folklore and one might argue that he fails the test of objectivity too. Kelly fascinates people, generation after generation. We don’t remember Redmond Barry, the judge who sentenced him to death, and yet it might be argued that Barry, through his interest in libraries and Melbourne University, was a civilising force in the Victorian colony, whereas Ned Kelly was a colourful step towards anarchy. We remember Bradman from the thirties and forties, and rightly so, but we don’t much remember Howard Florey, the pathologist from Adelaide, who saved the lives of hundreds of millions. There are no rules to these things, and we should not try to find them.

 Military history has its paradoxes too. I sometimes get the feeling from things people say that World War II was won when Steven Spielberg landed Tom Hanks on Omaha beach. I read a particularly silly piece in the New Yorker recently, a triumph of style over content that suggested that the lore of World War II remains ‘on the whole heroic’, while the imagery of the First ‘remains that of utter waste’. There were Sommes and Passchendaeles in World War II, lots of them, but they mostly happened in Russia and outside Berlin. I doubt Ukrainians would say that World War II was ‘on the whole heroic’. We in the west will one day need to accept that that the worst horrors of the second war against Germany happened in the east and that the war was actually won there.

Agincourt has a special place in British history, thanks mainly to Shakespeare. In truth the tale is rather seedier than he would have it. The Englishmen didn’t look nearly so handsome as they did in Laurence Olivier’s film and one probably needed to be upwind of them. They were ragged and suffering from dysentery. And they weren’t quite gentlemen either, because they methodically set about slaughtering prisoners. The incident at San Juan Hill has a place in United States history way beyond its true significance, even if it did help with the election of a very fine president. There is also the Russian veneration of Marshal Kutuzov for his defeat of Napoleon. I wonder if Kutuzov really was as crafty as he is made out to be. Might it be that Napoleon was beaten by his own vanity, by miscalculations, and by the snows of a Russian winter? 

 No, these things are not objective. But we should not be in hurry to say that Gallipoli doesn’t deserve its tender place in Australian life simply because it is shrouded in myths and half-truths, or because it is occasionally reinterpreted by adjunct professors like Alan Bond.

 There are several things about Gallipoli that make it special. It is the first big thing that Australia, the new nation, did in the world. Then there is the place itself. It gets into your soul. Every time I smell thyme I think of Gallipoli. Every day I turn to the weather page of the Australian to see what the weather is like there. Gallipoli is a harsh landscape, more Asian than European, and yet is has a pagan beauty. The water has all the colours of a peacock’s tail. The sunsets make you wish you could paint. You look across to the island of Samothrace, a mountain peak exploding out of the sea, the home of gods with a corona of mist around the summit to prove it. There is a sense of timelessness. Every now and then you think you are lost in antiquity. You climb a hill and you can see Troy on the plain over the water. Climb another and you can see where Xerxes crossed on his way to Athens 2400 years ago. Look out from one of the abandoned forts on Kilit Bahir plateau and you can see pretty much what Alexander the Great saw. 

You wander up Gully Ravine, down at the old British front at Helles and probably the worst hellhole of the whole Gallipoli campaign, and you swear you are walking with ghosts and that you have entered a place of corruption. You can stand below the Nek at Anzac, where the Light Horsemen crouched on that murderous dawn, and look, not at the ditch of perdition up ahead, but behind you, over the Aegean; and it is such a shade of pale blue that you cannot tell where the sea end and the sky begins. The Anzac position has a charm, a sense of foreboding and foreignness, on the one hand, and of uncommon beauty on the other. It is like no other place on earth. To me, the battlefields of France are sad and evocative places and are set among some of the prettiest farm land in the world, among beech and plane trees and stands of corn seven-feet tall. Yet they are not exotic; they are not Gallipoli.

 The poetic associations go beyond the place itself. The story has a poetry to it, which might explain why it has produced so many books, not just here but in Britain. It is a natural story in three acts. It has heroes and villains. It has the Hamlet-like figure of Ian Hamilton, a brave man but a poor commander, cultured and courtly, more a man of letters than a general, a man of real substance and a ditherer, a man looking back to some Arthurian age of chivalry, a man who did not understand the industrial age and its howitzers.

 And there is Kemal Ataturk, a man who believed in himself, who made his mind up quickly, who could reduce a problem to its essentials and never shrunk from the solutions that he deemed necessary. Hamilton was a romantic and Kemal a realist, and they are both the stuff of literature.

 And then there is the supporting cast: Enver Pasha, the intriguer who put his country up for auction; Churchill, a brilliant man consumed by the need to make a mark; Kitchener, the gloomy lighthouse who every now and then gave off a flash of light; Asquith, a good man who seemed terrified of the things a prime minister has to do in time of war.

 Part of the folklore is to see Gallipoli as an example of British military incompetence and we Australians as victims. There were some poor English generals there, notably Hunter-Weston at Helles, who had clearly envisioned Blackadder, Godley, the robotic soldier, and the doddering Stopford at Suvla. But there was also Birdwood. He was no tactician, but he had affection for his Australians. And there was Harold Walker who took over our 1st Division and to whom this country owes a large debt. For reasons I don’t understand Hooky Walker is not remembered here. The truth is that some of our senior officers didn’t perform that well either, particularly in the shambles that followed the landing and in the August offensive.

 In folklore Gallipoli is all about ‘what ifs’. What if we had been landed on Brighton Beach instead of at Ari Burnu? What if the New Zealanders had reached Chunuk Bair on time? What if the Suvla landing had worked? What if the Turks had not been warned that a landing was coming? What if Vice-Admiral de Robeck’s navy had shown more interest in fighting the Turks?  

 Speculating about those ‘what ifs’ and concentrating on failures of military command tend to miss a much larger point. Gallipoli was first of all a political failure. The ‘Easterners’ in the political salons of London believed that the war could best be won by opening up fronts on the flanks, by niggling not at Germany but at Austria- Hungary and the Ottoman empire. It is easy to see from this distance that this policy was wrong-headed. As someone said, it was like a boxer trying to win the fight by knocking out his opponent’s seconds.

 The truth, I suspect, is that the Gallipoli campaign, and what was supposed to follow from it, could never have succeeded. Thus the ‘what ifs’ don’t matter. I don’t think the Gallipoli campaign could have worked if ten, rather than five, divisions had been landed. It’s a long way from Gallipoli to Vienna. The war was always going to be won or lost on the western front.

 And I don’t think it matters if there are two Gallipolis, one that belongs mostly to folklore and mythology and another that belongs to facts and reality. But I do think the factual story is the more affecting, the more worthy, if you like. The story of what happened to the infantrymen, the volunteers from Ballarat and Bathurst, stands the scrutiny of ninety years.

 Getting ashore was not that hard. Hanging on, up on that second ridge, for eight months – that was hard. The Australians defended absurd positions like Pope’s Hill, with a cliff behind them and the Turks a few yards ahead of them. They looked after each other: Gallipoli was all about mateship. They kept their good humour. There is indeed a cheerfulness in soldiers’ letters from Gallipoli that one seldom comes upon in letters from France. There were no back areas: even when you were out of the line you were still under artillery and sniper fire. The food was unspeakable and almost inedible. The flies were a plague. At one point up to seventy per cent of the Anzac force was thought to have dysentery. Everyone had lice: they made no distinction between generals and privates. Men who went briefly to the island of Imbros marvelled at sounds they hadn’t heard for months: a woman’s voice, a dog’s bark, the tinkle of a piano.

 The miracle is simply that these men didn’t lose heart -- and they didn’t, not even when they knew it was all lost and they were creeping away by night, leaving so many of their mates dead in the ground.

 That, to me, is why we are right to remember Gallipoli – because of what it says about the spirit of the men who served there. If we are to have a foundation story, we could do worse than a tale that is a compound of mateship and endurance, cynicism and rough humour, bungling and heroics.

 These, in Charles Bean’s words, were great-hearted men. They were not necessarily better than the other men who fought at Gallipoli. But they were our great-hearted men, and they were not like those of any other nation. We are surely right to honour them. We are surely right to walk past the political intrigues and the military blunders and say that Gallipoli says something good about the Australian people and the Australian spirit.

 And it says something too that almost ninety years after the event we believe in the Gallipoli story more ardently than we ever have. Maybe Bondy was right. Maybe in some unexplainable way we did win.

 But it hardly matters at all what I say here tonight. To paraphrase from Lincoln’s Gettysburg address, the world will little note nor long remember what we say here, but it can never forget what they did there.

Les Carlyon

Les Carlyon on Russell’s Top, near The Nek, Gallipoli, March 1998. Image courtesy of © Denise Carlyon

Vale Les Carlyon AC

1942–2019 

The Council and staff of the Australian War Memorial mourn the passing of pre-eminent historian, author, journalist, and long-serving Council member Mr Les Carlyon AC.

Les Carlyon gave our nation many gifts. He was a recipient of two Walkley Awards and was honoured with numerous other awards for journalism. Perhaps his greatest contributions were his book Gallipoli and its successor volume, The Great War, recounting the story of Australian forces on the Western Front in France and Belgium, for which he was awarded the inaugural Prime Minister’s Prize for Australian History. 

Les Carlyon made a towering impact on the deliberations of the Council of the Australian War Memorial. When he spoke, all would listen, reflecting the respect in which he was held and the wisdom of his contribution.

He will be missed, and our thoughts go out to his wife, Denise, and their family.