100 years later, Australia remembers 'baptism of fire' at Gallipoli

In some ways, Australia shed its image as a penal colony and was born as a unified nation on the beaches of Turkey in the early days of World War 1. 

Lefteris Pitarakis/AP
People look at a Gallipoli memorial site at the coastal town of Eceabat in Gallipoli peninsula, Turkey, Thursday. As world leaders gather with the descendants of the fighters in Gallipoli, the memories of one of the most harrowing campaigns of the 20th century have come surging back to life. The doomed Allied offensive to secure a naval route from the Mediterranean to Istanbul through the Dardanelles, and take the Ottomans out of the war, resulted in more than 130,000 deaths on both sides.

To many Australians the real birth of their nation took place not at federation on Jan. 1, 1901, but in the pre-dawn hours of April 25, 1915, when the first of 60,000 volunteer soldiers landed on the beaches of Turkey’s Gallipoli peninsula.

Eight grueling months later, 8,709 Australians and 2,721 New Zealanders were dead without a single inch of Ottoman territory being gained, in what came to be one of the most significant unifying myths and moments for Australia as it participated in World War 1. 

Australia actually suffered far greater casualties in the battlefields of France during the Great War, as it was called here. But it is the ANZAC legend, with its emphasis on heroism, fellowship, sacrifice, and egalitarianism, that has become the defining event in Australian history.

Today, hundreds of thousands of Australians are expected to take part in services and marches, including more than 10,000 at Gallipoli, to mark that national “baptism of fire.”

Thousands more New Zealanders will also mark the anniversary of ANZAC Day — named after the Australian and New Zealand Army Corps, the unit that spearheaded the doomed assault against the well-entrenched Ottoman forces of Mustafa Kemal (later known as Ataturk).

The ANZAC legend 

Robert Manne, professor of politics at La Trobe University in Melbourne, says the ANZAC campaign marked Australia’s first significant break with its British-defined conception as an erstwhile penal colony.

“The [ANZAC] story gave the sense that Australia was born as a nation, because it had shown itself in the eyes of Britain not to be compromised by the convict stain, but as courageous, manly, and effective militarily,” Prof. Manne says, referring to Australia’s founding in 1788 as a faraway shore for British convicts.

Not only did Australia begin “to think of itself as being born,” says Manne, “the Australian character was shown to the world for what it was.”

Writing on the eve of the anniversary, Peter FitzSimons, author of the book Gallipoli, said the idea of a modern Australian identity emerging from Gallipoli was unfortunate, but true.

"There was a tragic notion at the time that even though we had a constitution, even though we were federated, even though we had a parliament and all the rest, we weren't a real nation until we had shed blood," Mr. FitzSimons said.

Today Gallipoli is sacred ground, not only for Australia and New Zealand, but also Turkey, which lost more than 86,000 soldiers in the campaign.

The ANZAC Day commemorations in Turkey will culminate with a special dawn service attended by Australia’s Prime Minister Tony Abbott, his New Zealand counterpart John Key, and Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan.

A foundation story 

The ANZAC story is so ingrained in the Australian psyche that few leaders have dared to question its significance.

In 1992 former Prime Minister Paul Keating dared to elevate Australia’s World War II campaign in Papua New Guinea above Gallipoli because Australian soldiers who died there were defending their own country rather than fighting someone else’s war.

Mr. Abbott, however, used a speech ahead of his departure for Turkey to describe Gallipoli as one of Australia's “foundation stories.”

"We should be a nation of memory, not just of memorials, for these are our foundation stories," he said. "They should be as important as the ride of Paul Revere, or the last stand of King Harold of Hastings, or the incarceration of Nelson Mandela might be to others.”

In Australia, record crowds are expected to attend dawn services followed by parades in every major city and town. Security has been stepped up at major events following the arrests of five men in Melbourne earlier in the week on charges of planning an ANZAC Day terrorist attack.

Over the decades, the ANZAC legend has been popularized in books and films, in dramas and poetry, in songs and social media campaigns, as what was once marked as a military anniversary has taken on increasingly nationalist overtones.

The Australian government is spending $250 million on ANZAC Day-related events this year. James Brown, a former Australian Army officer and author of the book author Anzac's Long Shadow, says the funds could be better spent on official histories of recent conflicts Australia has been involved in, such as Iraq, Afghanistan, and East Timor.

“In this tsunami of 1915 that we’re commemorating this week, it is hard to find the modern-day soldiers and the modern-day veterans and their families,” says Mr. Brown. "The risk is we 'Disney-fy' our military history and lose track of the costs of war as we sell trinkets and partake in festivals which, though loosely tied to commemoration, don't help us understand and value what soldiers did 100 years ago or do for us still today.”

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