The taking of Lone Pine by Fred Leist. Image: Wikimedia Commons.

An Anzac myth

21 April 2016

In this essay for The Monthly, Professor Mark McKenna considers whether Turkey and Australia have memorialised a romantic image of Gallipoli. 

"Could you explain to me this custom?" We had spent three days with our Turkish colleague, and by our final evening together in Çanakkale, on the eastern shore of the Dardanelles strait, the conversation had become more expansive. "Why do Australians insert newspaper into their backsides and set fire to it as they leap into the sea?" Confused, we asked where on earth he had witnessed such an exotic cultural practice. "Right here in Çanakkale, many years ago. All of them completely naked, taking turns to jump off the jetty. They assisted each other with the newspaper and matches."

His memory harked back to the late 1980s, a time when the backpacker "pilgrimage" to Gallipoli was in its infancy, before the torrent that was to follow. The Australians in question had been touring the battlefields between bouts of boozing and incendiary bathing, and their outlandish behaviour was widely frowned upon by their hosts. Reports appeared in local papers and, perhaps inevitably, spontaneous brawling erupted with local youths who took it upon themselves to police the boundaries of decorum.

Such a spectacle seems entirely incongruous today, and would embarrass the majority of Anzac tourists, whose journeys are more reverent and restrained. Yet the episode had lodged in our friend's mind as an Australian "custom". He told of other incidents of contemptuous conduct and deliberate disregard, not out of moral indignation but more as a historical curiosity. He explained that the annual sleep-out at Anzac Cove in those early years intrigued the local community, fuelling rumours of drunken orgies and general debauchery on the shores of Ari Burnu.

We had come to the Gallipoli peninsula in early May, only weeks after the centenary of the Anzac landing. Remnants of the production were being dismantled: the scaffolding of grandstands at Lone Pine stacked in piles near the cemetery; the pilgrims' handwritten letters to "the fallen" still stuck to the gravestones of Australian soldiers at Anzac Cove. With the enormous video screens, loudspeakers and thousands of participants gone, the landscape had returned to some semblance of normality.

Tales of Turkish–Australian friendship are repeated out of all proportion to the number of times the events actually occurred.

Unlike the Anzac landings in 1915, the invasion of 2015 was marked by Australia's "friendship" with the Turkish people. This sentiment has recently become a pillar of the Anzac legend, both for Australians and their former enemies. Shorn of the horror of combat, the friendly wartime encounters – foes burying one another's dead, soldiers sharing cigarettes or singing across the trenches – have become integral to our understanding of what took place a century ago. Tales of Turkish–Australian friendship are repeated out of all proportion to the number of times the events actually occurred. All across the peninsula – in monuments, museums, souvenirs, and even on the floor tiles of one popular local restaurant (which shows a khaki-hatted Australian tourist shaking hands with a Turk) – this narrative exalts the camaraderie of the two nations.

Gentleman’s War is the portentous title of one locally sold guidebook, conveniently recasting Gallipoli in a pacifist guise. Another Turkish publication claims that Simpson and his donkey would often rescue wounded Turks. Official battlefield tours emphasise the comradely nature of the conflict and the absence of any deeply felt enmity – a message largely reserved for the Anzac sector rather than the British, Irish and French battlelines to the north and south.

Some historians continue to cultivate this perception. Days before centenary events, the Australian Financial Review told of Australian historian Les Carlyon"puffing" his way up the hills of Gallipoli with his Turkish counterpart Kenan Çelik. Asked what Anzac meant to him, Çelik enthused, "it's the message of Christians and Muslims embracing". Carlyon was equally determined to peddle a sentimental view. He recounted that when an armistice was declared in May 1915, allowing both sides to bury their dead in no man's land and speak to their adversaries, a "change" occurred in the Australian soldiers' diaries; they started writing things like, "These Turks aren't bad blokes."

As with so much Gallipoli mythology, this particular strain has its origins in the all-seeing eye of Australian war correspondent Charles Edwin Woodrow Bean. "It is extraordinary how the men have changed in their attitude to the Turks," he noted in his diary after the May armistice. "Since the slaughter of May 19th…they have changed entirely. They are quite friendly with the Turks."

But this was not the whole story. Bean was equally frank in recording mutual distrust during the ceasefire, with the Australians repeatedly firing on Turks caught collecting rifles and reconnoitring the Anzac trenches. He glumly concluded, "This quite disillusioned me as to truces…I don't think I would ever desire a truce again." Bean's later diary entries show why we should be wary of tales of frontline fraternity. During one exchange of gifts, the Australians launched tins of bully beef onto the Turkish parapet with dubious intent. "When a Turkish hand appeared reaching for the tin they would blaze at it. On one occasion I believe they threw a ham bone over – an abhorrence to the Turks – and caused quite a disturbance."

The Çanakkale Martyrs' Memorial in Turkey. Image: Wikimedia Commons.

The Çanakkale Martyrs' Memorial in Turkey. Image: Wikimedia Commons. 

It is only more recently that the myth of mutual regard has gained such acceptance. The Çanakkale Martyrs' Memorial, for example, was originally opened in 1960 but it was not until the 1990s that a new frieze portraying a solemn scene of reconciliation was added. Here, Turkish soldiers are depicted bearing a wounded Anzac, while their officers warmly greet a slouch-hatted Allied soldier. The shoreline of Anzac Cove itself is adorned with an imposing sandstone edifice built in 1985, inscribed with the words now famously attributed to Mustafa Kemal Atatürk, founder of the Turkish republic.

Those heroes that shed their blood and lost their lives…You are now lying in the soil of a friendly country. Therefore rest in peace. There is no difference between the Johnnies and Mehmets to us where they lie side by side here in this country of ours…You, the mothers, who sent their sons from far away 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.
Atatürk, 1934

Atatürk's adage has become the defining motif of the redemptive myth, reproduced across the battlefields and featuring prominently in official commemorations. Yet as Paul Daley showed recently in the Guardian (drawing on the work of Turkish historian Cengiz Özakıncı), no credible source can be found that clearly links Atatürk to these hallowed words. The celebrated image of "Johnnies and Mehmets…side by side" seems almost certainly a latter-day invention concocted in a Brisbane suburb in 1978.

It was the Gallipoli veteran and former Queensland Country Party trustee Alan J Campbell who first ushered the celebrated passage into the Anzac liturgy. Charged with the task of erecting a fountain in Brisbane's city centre to honour Gallipoli veterans, Campbell drew from an account shared with him by another veteran who had heard of Atatürk's stirring speech during a visit to Gallipoli the previous year. Although Campbell attempted to confirm the purported speech, no evidence was found.

The Turkish Historical Society did send Campbell a newspaper interview with former interior minister Șükrü Kaya, in which he referred vaguely to sentiments apparently voiced by President Atatürk in the 1930s. Without confirming the source (and adding a few embellishments of his own, including the "Johnnies and Mehmets" phrase), Campbell nevertheless had the words transcribed onto a plaque adorning the fountain a few months after its inauguration in March 1978. In this way, hazy testimony and a contemporary creative flourish combined to produce an image far more in tune with the 1970s than the age of Atatürk.

This extract was first published in The Monthly - read the full article. This essay was written by Professor Mark McKenna from the Department of History at the University of Sydney, and Stuart Ward from the University of Copenhagen.

Jennifer Peterson-Ward

Assistant Media and PR Adviser (Division of Humanities and Social Sciences)