Tuesday, 14 April 2015

Haunted Gold: the dubious profits of Gallipoli

Based on interviews with war veteran Douglas Stark, Robin Hyde's book Passport to Hell is one of the most readable and insightful books about the New Zealand experience of the trenches of World War One I have read. Starkie is a rebellious, tough and frequently violent character who gives a raw and completely unsentimental picture of the reality of trench warfare. As we approach the Gallipoli centenary it is his descriptions of the blackened and bloated corpses lying in No Mans Land which stick in my mind most of all. What also comes to my mind is the focus of Hyde's Gallipoli narrative: money. After the horror and sense of disgust has worn off, Starkie and his mates focus on gambling. Trench warfare involved a huge amount of boring waiting, and Anzac soldiers filled up the hours with coin games of 'Two Up' and card games to distract themselves from both the tediousness and the horror of the war:

It was tremendously important, on the way back to the trenches, that he should think of the gold in the money-belt and not of the corpses piled up above it. If you started thinking of the expressions on a dead man's swollen face, you being stowed away in a rabbit-hole where the next whirling, twisting fire-cracker coming down from heaven may be your own packet, what's going to happen to you? Back in the Otago lines he told the story of the money-belt with a swagger.

Starkie and his mate 'Fleshy McLeod' sneak into No Man's Land and dig amongst those hideous bloated corpses. They find the money belt – English gold, twenty sovereigns – and use it for games of Two Up. After their ghoulish deed has allowed them to make upwards of sixty pounds profit, they get too cocky and spill the beans as to where the money has come from. The other players have qualms about playing with the dead man's gold and refuse to play any more. The haunted gold fails to raise any more profits: it is tainted by its past, and the men dare not disrespect the dead.

This act of making money off of the corpses of Gallipoli has contemporary relevance. Two very recent examples come to mind. The Camp Gallipoli saga, which involved $100 tickets and also marketed souvenir 'swags' for $375. And most recently, the Woolworths 'Fresh in our memories' marketing campaign, which encouraged shoppers to create a cover photo for their facebook page featuring an Anzac digger – alongside the Woolworths logo. Just like the men in the trenches playing Two Up with Starkie, New Zealanders have rejected these distasteful acts of profiteering off of the memory of the Anzac dead. Whereas readers of Hyde's book will tend to sympathise and forgive Starkie his ghoulish deeds – the reality of the trenches clearly fostered a very nihilistic mindset which was crucial for psychological survival – there are no such extenuating circumstances for the corporate sponsors of Camp Gallipoli or Woolworths. They are capitalistic ghouls of the worst kind. We should remember the haunted gold of Gallipoli, and the dubious legacy it contains.

(Quote from p.88 of Robin Hyde's 'Passport to Hell', Auckland University Press 1986. Originally published in 1936)

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