Monday, 28 April 2014

Gallipoli and memory

I was asked to write an 800 word essay for publication in a lifestyle magazine. There's a lot more I could have said, and maybe will say, about the concept of remembrance and the sense of moral imperative associated with the "Lest We Forget" slogan. There's a lot more I could say, and almost definitely will say, about the reification of Gallipoli. Anyway, here is the essay:

Gallipoli and our shifting Anzac memories

Gallipoli is a topic which somehow seems to get more and more bewildering and massive as time goes on. It is the hard core at the centre of the Anzac commemoration, the one battle that is chosen above all others as the essence of the sacrifice we so reverently pay tribute to on April 25th. There are many who argue against this narrow focus, and there are some who question the nature of the values and ideals which Gallipoli is supposed to exemplify. For the sake of argument I would like to put all these doubts (many of which I agree with) to one side, and ask the question: How is it that we respond to the imperative “Lest We Forget”? The 2721 New Zealanders who died on the Aegean peninsula in 1915 cannot speak to us, so we have to do some kind of work if we want to fulfill this command. What kind of “work” is this, and what kind of memory is this we are talking about?

Books and movies are the obvious place to start. There are hundreds and thousands of them, and probably millions after the centenary next year in 2015. As far as facts go, there is no shortage: photographs, letters, diaries, strategies, maps and tactics. As for the more subjective questions, who were these men who fought and what did they think about their experiences – the ground begins to shift, things are not quite so clear cut. Of course the dead cannot speak, but we can surely get a good idea of these men if we read their letters and their diaries? Again there is a mountain of text here, and another kind of problem: although diaries and letters are insightful, they tend to focus on the overwhelming reality of the trenches, rather than the individuals who inhabited them.

In my opinion the best sources are memoirs written by survivors of the Gallipoli campaign after the war had finished. These writings have the benefit of hindsight and years of reflection. Not just the facts of war emerge but the feelings, thoughts and questions of the men who were there. If we restrict ourselves to Gallipoli and the New Zealanders who fought there, we no longer have a mountain of books. Instead there are just two: Ormond E Burton's The Silent Division (1935) and Alexander Aitken's Gallipoli to the Somme (1963). Another book based on interviews with James Douglas Stark is also very significant: Robin Hyde's Passport to Hell (1936).

These memories, although fascinating and insightful, have their own problems. The most outstanding is the great differences which separate these three men from each other. Burton was a devout Christian who was initially deeply committed to the 'King and Country' cause who later had a radical change of heart and became a Christian pacifist. Aitken was an intellectual who smuggled his violin into the trenches to keep him company. Hyde's Starkie is a rebellious larrikin who steals coins from the bloated corpses in No Mans Land so he can gamble in games of Two Up. Apart from sharing a place of birth there really isn't all that much they have in common. Between these three extremes of character were thousands more who did not write books: about who these men were, we can only use our imaginations.

I find it strange and somewhat troubling that these are the only books of their kind. Surely someone could have interviewed some of the Gallipoli survivors after the war? If the “Lest We Forget” slogan was really taken seriously, surely somebody wrote such a book? Well actually they did, but not until 1988. Maurice Shadbolt interviewed twelve elderly Gallipoli veterans just before they died and recorded their accounts in his book Voices of Gallipoli. Again, they are the memories of twelve distinct personalities with their own interpretation of the war and the meaning of their experiences. One thing they do agree on is the fact that Gallipoli was harrowing and traumatic. They certainly do not all agree on the crucial notion of “sacrifice”. Several of the twelve share Bill East's point of view, with which I will close this essay:

That was how I finished on Gallipoli. Carried off. I looked back and saw a hash. A waste of time and lives. I put in four and a half years of my life, altogether, in the First World War. For nothing. Nothing. You wonder whether it's worthwhile or not fighting for freedom. There's no freedom when nobody's got a say in anything. Everybody's got a lot to say but nobody takes any notice. I wouldn't advise anyone to go to war again. Not the way we rode off into it in 1914. I wouldn't want anyone to go through what we went through. What is war for? We could have done with some information on that too.

(Shadbolt 1988, p.79)

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