Friday, 17 April 2015

The Absurdity and Obscenity of Gallipoli

As we appoach the Gallipoli centenary, I have set myself the task of re – reading some of the best examples of New Zealand writing about the disastrous invasion. There are three books, Ormond E Burton's 'The Silent Division', Robin Hyde's 'Passport to Hell' and Alexander Aitken's 'Gallipoli to the Somme', all based upon first hand experiences of New Zealanders who fought in the bloody trenches of Gallipoli. I'll start with the horror and some images of the 'fallen'. Here is Private J. D. Stark (8/2142, Fifth Reinforcements, Otago Infantry Battalion) describing the bodies of the dead:

But the dead who waited in No Man's Land didn't look like dead, as the men who came to them now had thought of death. From a distance of a few yards, the bodies, lying in queer huddled attitudes, appeared to have something monstrously amiss with them. Then the burying-party, white faced, realised that twenty four hours of the Gallipoli sun had caused each boy to swell enormously – until the great threatening carcases were three times the size of a man, and their skins had the bursting blackness of grapes. It was impossible to recognise features or expression in that hideously puffed and contorted blacknessi.

This powerful and disturbing image, although surely important, is actually not the dominant narrative theme of these memoirs. Although each is distinctive and different, all three agree on one central feature of the Gallipoli experience: the awful monotony, boredom and sense of meaninglessness which dominated their cramped existence inside the trenches. Aitken for example waxes lyrical about Troy, Homer and Milton when he is recounting his Lemnos memories (just before Gallipoli), but this sense of passion and meaning is completely absent from his actual Gallipoli narrative:

I set down these particulars once and for all, not to be referred to again, dull as they must seem to anyone except a New Zealand infantryman who had manned those terraces. But the greater part of modern war, when of the static type, consists precisely of such monotony, such discomfort, such casual death. And so let it be stripped of glamour and seen for what it isii. (Aitken 1963)

Burton's description of Gallipoli is mostly about the mundane and uncomfortable details: the terrible food, the lice and the unsanitary conditions:

Scorching heat, swarms of venomous flies, hosts of never-resting lice, thirst, the pervading stench of the unburied dead, and then a new experience – the frightful monotony of war. A dangerous life is not necessarily an exciting one. A man is not less bored at living in a clay ditch six feet wide and eight feet deep for week on end without being able to move more than fifty yards to the right or left, because at some unknown moment a shell may blow him to smithereens. In war danger is part of the very atmosphere. Beyond a certain point it could not be guarded against. Snipers were always busy – shrapnel burst everywhere. These dangers could not be avoided. They were exceedingly annoying – sometimes even terrifying – but as a general rule not exciting. After the fierce rush of the Landing battles, a daily routine was established. Soon nothing was new, nothing was interesting, nothing was profitable. The bully beef was always salt and stringy; the biscuits were like armour plate bruising, rasping and scraping along the tender gums, smashing gold crowns and splintering plates. Nothing mattered. One thing was just as bad as another and nothing could be worse than some of the things that had gone before. This strain and weariness reacted upon the mental tone. The bad food, the tropical heat, the flies, the smell, wore down the physical condition. Then came the spectre of disease. In June scores of men were going down with diarrhoea, dysentery and enteric; in July they were being evacuated in hundredsiii.

There are of course other narratives to be found: the military story which revolves around questions of strategy and seeks to explain why Gallipoli was such a disaster for the Allied forces. Burton's famous quote ‘somewhere between the landing at Anzac and the end of the battle of the Somme New Zealand very definitely became a nation’ provides the starting point for the famous and heavily promoted narrative of national identity. These sorts of narratives strike me as somewhat desperate attempts to provide a higher meaning or purpose for an event which lacks any redeeming features. The tediousness, horror and death of Gallipoli is what stands out as the most solid and truthful aspect of these first hand accounts.

The fact that the Allies were defeated at Gallipoli can be looked at in different ways. From the Turkish perspective the victory served as a powerful source of impetus for Ataturk and Turkish nationalism. There were surely other historical aspects to this process, but Gallipoli is a part of that story. The 1915 victory was a precursor to the eventual establishment of an independent Turkey in 1923. This victorious nationalism is personified by Kemal Ataturk. If you travel through Turkey you will see statues and photos of him everywhere, often posing on top of a rearing horse. It's a powerful, masculine and militaristic image.

This victorious story of Turkish nationalism which took place between 1915 and 1923 contains a darker side: the Armenian genocide. Estimates differ, but most historians agree on a figure of around 1.5 million deaths. Thousands of other Christian minorites were also killed. Nationalism may have a sense of pride and honour and duty, but it also tends to kill the people it excludes.

From the Allied perspective Gallipoli was merely a battle in a much larger war. The battle may have been lost but the war was won. British and French imperialism triumphed over the Ottoman Empire. Maps were redrawn, promises were made and broken, new countries were formed out of the wreckage of the Ottoman Empire. There's a very convincing line which can be drawn from the outcomes of 1918 to the terrible conflicts we see raging across the Middle East region today. The interference of Britain and France in the region created the seeds of discontent which are still playing out in the conflicts in Iraq, Syria and Palestine.

This is the truth about Gallipoli: the outcomes are all negative. Looked at narrowly, it was a cynical and callous act of power politics which claimed the lives of thousands of men fighting each other in horrible conditions on a tiny strip of coastline. Looked at from a broader perspective Gallipoli was part of a nationalistic project which in its turn claimed the lives of 1.5 million Armenians. As an aspect of British and French imperialism, Gallipoli is also a part of a terrible legacy of Western intervention in the Middle East.

With these facts in mind it is hard to resist the conclusion that the nature and character of the Anzac commemoration in 2015 is both absurd and obscene. Absurd, because in its relentless and narrow focus upon the moral qualities of the dead soldiers, and a sentimental ideology of “remembrance”, it completely ignores the fact that absolutely nothing good resulted from all of those deaths. Obscene because of the silence it fosters about parallel events which have great relevance and very real connection with Gallipoli seen from a broader historical perspective. Isolating Gallipoli from the Armenian genocide, from the conflicts in Syria and Iraq is an act of historical bad faith. The fact that the rituals of Anzac are conducted with a solemn sense of moral duty makes them even more despicable.

iHyde, Robin. 'Passport to Hell', Auckland University Press 1986 (1936), p.84

iiAitken, Alexander. 'Gallipoli to the Somme', Otago University Press 1963

iii Burton, O. E. 'The Silent Division', John Douglas Publishing Limited 2014 (1935), p. 82)

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