I’m ambivalent in my feelings toward Anzac Day. I know it’s important to remember those who served and I think it needs to be marked with a holiday. But the tone of Anzac Day is a little too celebratory for my taste. And a bit too parochial. Remembrance Day is more my kind of commemoration – a day that strives to ignore national boundaries and focuses on the universality of war and its common suffering.
I read some time back of the behaviour of young Australians at Gallipoli at an Anzac Day service. Draped in Australian flags, and the worse for alcohol, they strutted around, laying claim to a vicarious heroism and expressing their disdain for Turks, whose arses we had kicked, apparently. A woman told of others walking and even sleeping on graves. I’ve never been to Gallipoli. I want to go there. But I don’t want to see that.
It seems odd to me that we choose to remember Gallipoli as our coming of age. Whilst it’s true that we, along with our New Zealand cousins, joined the grownups at the adult’s table, it’s also true that we invaded a people with whom we had no quarrel, at the behest of our colonial master. We sacrificed young lives, full of hope and promise, on the altar of a spurious national interest. It was hardly the act of an adult.
When I was a child at primary school, we were told each year about Simpson and his donkey. The narrative depicted him as a Christlike figure: gentle, meek and mild, traversing the battlefield like some angel of God.
Although the making of the legend is a fascinating and labyrinthine story, the real Simpson was nuanced and far more interesting than the legend that emerged. He was an Englishman, who enlisted under a false name – a Geordie with scant regard for ceremony or authority, a practical joker who liked a drink. A bit of a troublemaker, even. But we appropriated the Geordie and sanitised him to make him fit for children. Because nothing else in that awful war was.
As I grew older and began to learn more about our involvement in the War to End all War, I discovered our men had fought in France and Flanders. I learned that in our two-and-a-half years on the Western Front we lost six times the number killed at Gallipoli. Fromelles, the Australians’ baptism of fire on the Western Front saw almost 2,000 killed in twenty-four hours. At Pozieres, in seven weeks, almost as many Australians fell as had been lost in the eight months at Gallipoli. The shellfire at Pozieres was so intense that men were buried alive.
But for so long we turned our backs on this blood- and mud-soaked horror. We preferred to commemorate the defeat at Anzac Cove, in order perhaps to justify it. We have annexed Gallipoli, in our minds, if not quite literally, and while paying lip-service to our Kiwi allies, we largely ignore the others. Yet French casualties matched our own and the British lost four times as many. The Turks, in defence of their homeland, lost almost as many killed as we did in the entire war.
What is remarkable to me is that the Turks have been generous in their treatment of us ever since. Cynics might argue that they have, today, a vested interest in such generosity, but this attitude manifested itself early. It was expressed most eloquently, less than twenty years after the landings, by the man whom our troops had the great misfortune to oppose. Mustapha Kemal was a brilliant and ruthless commander who led the defence of the peninsula. He later became Kemal Atatürk, the father of modern Turkey. He was a remarkable and enlightened man. His tribute to the dead is carved in stone on the memorial at Anzac Cove:
‘…You are now lying in the soil of a friendly country. Therefore rest in peace. There is no difference between the Johnnies and the Mehmets to us 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.’
These words should inspire us for their generosity and humanity. And as Australians they should humble us as well. What would our response be, had the Turks invaded our shores? Would we allow them to build monuments to their dead? What would we think of flag-draped, braying oafs swaggering over hallowed ground?
I want to go to Turkey before I die. I want to see Constantine’s city. I want to see the Hagia Sophia and the Blue Mosque and I want to walk the streets of this metropolis that was once the greatest in all the world. And I want to go to Gallipoli. But not on Anzac Day.
I’m not the first person to say this, and I hope not to be the last, but I believe our greatest martial glory belongs not to those young men who braved the storm of bullets at Anzac Cove in April 1915. It belongs instead to a group of dishevelled boys, some quarter-century later, who, ill-equipped, mal-nourished, diseased and frightened, stopped the onslaught of the battle-hardened Japanese, inflicting upon them their first defeat on land in the Second World War.
We are starting at last to acknowledge the sacrifices made in that later and greater conflagration. Despite instances of moral ambiguity, it might be the only virtuous war in history.
Yet we continue with our fascination for the First World War and in particular for this relatively minor dispute in one of its sideshows. But the death of John Simpson Kirkpatrick, the Man with the Donkey, was no sideshow for those who loved him. It was a monumental tragedy and it was repeated 60,000 times throughout the length and breadth of our land. And 17 million times across the globe. The tears that were shed drowned a continent in grief. And engulfed a world beyond.
Some four weeks after Simpson died at Gallipoli, his sister, Annie, unaware of his death, wrote him a letter. It was returned unopened, with the word ‘killed’ pencilled on the envelope. It contains several typographical and grammatical errors and I will not correct them. It read in part:
Dear Jack… Isn’t this card nice. So appropriate for you. It brought the tears to Mother’s eyes when she read it. Mother is not keeping well at all. You are for ever in her thoughts night and day she is talking and praying for you safety. If only this cursed war was over and you safe beside us once more. But of course, it will have to be fought to a finish now. But it is cruel for men to be fodder for guns…Now my dear Jack, I have not room for more, so with love and the best of wishes for your safely, from Mother and myself. I remain your ever loving Sister Annie xxxx