In April 2015 it was 100 years since the storming of Gallipoli. Four ANU academics discuss what the centenary means for Australia.

Gallipoli. One word that conjures millions of emotions. 

Often described as the birthplace of modern Australia, the First World War battle in which Australian and New Zealand forces aimed to take Gallipoli peninsula in Turkey for the Allied forces was a brave, but ultimately costly, one. 

By the time Allied forces left Gallipoli, more than 8,700 Australian soldiers and 2,700 New Zealand soldiers had died. 

The UK lost 21,255 soldiers and about 10,000 French soldiers were killed. 

This April marks 100 years since the storming of Gallipoli. Since then, the Anzac legend has grown, creating a culture of ‘mateship’ and it is a defining moment in Australian history. 

Each year on 25 April, millions of Australians commemorate the day in dawn services and thousands travel to Turkey. 

To mark the centenary, ANU Reporter asked four prominent ANU academics on the subject one question: What does the centenary of Gallipoli mean for Australia? 

What is Gallipoli?

In August 1914, many men recruited into the Australian Imperial Force at the outbreak of the First World War were sent to train in Egypt. 

After four months, they left for the Gallipoli peninsula with troops from the UK, New Zealand and France. 

On 25 April 1915, the Australian and New Zealand Army Corps (Anzacs) landed at Gallipoli peninsula to meet the threat of the Ottoman Empire. 

It was the first campaign in the First World War that led to major casualties for both Australia and New Zealand. 


The plan was to assist a British naval operation that aimed to capture the Turkish capital Constantinople (now Istanbul). 

The Anzacs landed on a cove on the peninsula and as they established a tenuous foothold on the steep slopes above the beach they met fierce resistance from the Ottoman Army. 

Thousands of Anzac soldiers died.

The Gallipoli campaign became a stalemate and dragged on for eight months.

At the end of 1915, Allied forces were evacuated due to massive casualties and great hardships. 


An Australian cemetery near Anzac Cove in 1915. Photo: Australian War Memorial (C02208)


The fight for security

The battle had a purpose beyond supporting Australia’s allies, Professor Hugh White writes.

It was the first occasion that a demonstratively Australian formation was involved in an operation that scale and intensity. 

Australia’s operation from Anzac Cove was self-contained, it gave us our own battlefield and our own battle. For inexperienced soldiers, they fought very well. 

It’s hard for us to recapture the sense that they had then, of being a new army for a new nation. 

They could have succeeded, and nearly did succeed at the beginning. Partly it was just bad luck, and luck always plays a big part in war. 

I think Gallipoli has a stronger impact on Australia’s thinking about defence today than it has had at almost any time since the First World War. 

The lesson Australians often draw, including Australian leaders like John Howard and I suspect Tony Abbott, is that Gallipoli represents the Australian way of war. That is, that we deploy our forces far from home to support our allies and in support of our values. 

I think that’s quite wrong, I don’t think that’s what we were doing in the First World War. I think we had a very clear strategic purpose in the First World War directly linked to Australian security. 

I think the key issue for us is to remember what we were really fighting for and we weren’t fighting for abstract notions of freedom or democracy. We were fighting for Australia’s security against Japan. 

It has left Australia with a very vivid image of the Australian soldier, partly accurate partly confected but very vivid. 

Just because it’s not true doesn’t mean it’s not important. 

At the end of the war, when people looked back at Gallipoli and the whole four years with 60,000 dead, nobody wanted to make war heroic. 

They were just sick of it. 

Hugh White AO is Emeritus Professor of Strategic Studies at the ANU Strategic and Defence Studies Centre.

History is more complex than myth

The Anzac legend overshadows other significant moments of Australian history, Professor Angela Woollacott writes.

In 2015, Australians need to think about the places of mythology and history in our culture, and the differences between them. 

Why have Australians chosen to mythologise Gallipoli, often ignoring the fact that it was a tragic defeat resulting from an ill-planned invasion? 

It is historical fact that Australian troops fought and died on the Gallipoli peninsula in 1915, but it is a myth that the Australian nation was born from the blood they shed. 

More Australian soldiers died on the western front in the First World War than at Gallipoli. 

If it is Australians’ bravery and sacrifice for the British Empire in that war that we commemorate, why not focus on the larger and longer front with its even more staggering losses? 

And what are the costs and consequences of choosing to imagine Gallipoli as the foundational moment for our nation? What gets left out? 

Firstly, it robs our actual national founding on 1 January 1901 of its deserved historical significance. 

Many Australians from a range of backgrounds worked for colonial self-government in the 1850s and for federation as one nation in the 1890s. 

Aboriginal people struggled against their exclusion from the new nation and significant numbers fought as soldiers. 

In 1902, white Australian women’s enfranchisement combined with the right to stand for parliament – a world first. 

Significant industrial and welfare reforms would follow establishing Australia as a path-breaking new nation.

The Gallipoli mythology puts the spotlight on the heroic, manly soldier to the exclusion of support and medical personnel, including the many women who served. 

The focus on the moment of battle obscures the post-war suffering of the huge numbers of men who returned wounded, disabled and disfigured, as well as the families who cared for them, often for many years. 

We should also remember that, unlike most other belligerent nations, Australians twice defeated proposals for conscription in the First World War. 

History is more complicated than mythology, but it compels us to see the real triumphs and achievements, as well as the challenges and suffering in our shared national past. Knowing the actual historical past equips us to understand ourselves in the present and better prepare for the future. 

Professor Angela Woollacott is the Manning Clark Professor of History at the ANU College of Arts and Social Sciences.

A defining moment for the nation

Australia’s defeat at Gallipoli has created a lasting legacy for today’s army, writes Professor John Blaxland.

The centenary means many different things to different people. 

How strange it is that this defeat should turn into a moment of such commemoration, if not celebration. 

Set against the backdrop of the haunts of ancient writers like Thucydides and Herodotus, the events at Gallipoli had an air of a Greek comic-tragedy.  

Only a few years after celebrating a peaceful yet uneventful federation of the colonies, soldiers from every corner of Australia marked the moment of pathos that Gallipoli came to represent. 

The storming of the beach under fire and the scaling of the steep hills became a defining moment for the nation that otherwise lacked the dramatic storming of a bastille or a hard fought-for declaration of independence. 

Today, despite gallant efforts by some to find other defining moments, Gallipoli remains identified with the very essence of being Australian. 

Taking on a challenge against overwhelming odds, stoically standing up for ones mates, being the underdog, revelling in defeat and turning it into an inverse moment of achievement. 

Perhaps of most interest is what it says about continuities and discontinuities. 

The imperative to stand united in defence of the British Empire in places like the Middle East has long since passed and yet today we still feel compelled to join coalitions on ventures in such foreign lands. 

This speaks to an enduring sense of insecurity of which Gallipoli is perhaps a touchstone. 

For the Australian Army of today, Gallipoli also points to continuities and discontinuities. 

Although also a volunteer force, today’s Army is a small professional force – and one that is arguably more removed from the community than at almost any time in Australia’s history. 

Soldiers today have the Anzac mantle on their shoulders, conscious that their deeds are an echo of the past. 

The legend of Gallipoli informs their actions and the ‘sons and daughters of Anzac’ feel the legend almost palpably. 

John Blaxland is a Professor of International Security and Intelligence Studies at the ANU Strategic and Defence Studies Centre.

A legend that changes with society

As Australia has changed and evolved, so too has the Anzac legend, Professor Joan Beaumont writes.

The Australian War Memorial’s website claims that “almost every Australian has some knowledge of the Gallipoli campaign”. 

It is probably right. 

It is not hard to understand why Gallipoli inspired such enthusiasm in 1915. 

It was the baptism of fire for the Australian Imperial Force and the first media reports of the landing on 25 April were extravagant in their praise of the Australians’ performance. 

With victory nowhere in sight and voluntary enlistments declining in early 1916, it suited the governments of Australia and Britain to use Gallipoli’s dramatic narrative to re-energise the war effort at home. 

Soon the Anzac legend, celebrating the Australian soldier as the quintessential citizen in arms, gained a powerful hold on the Australian cultural imagination. 

It is more difficult to explain why this legend continues to have that hold 100 years later, when all those who fought in the First World War have died. 

The answer lies partly outside Australia. 

Across the globe there has been a memory boom which has occurred since the 1980s. 

This remarkable turn to the past seems to have been fuelled by a mix of top-down orchestration by governments seeking to use the memory of past wars for political purposes and bottom-up engagement by individuals and groups. 

The Anzac legend, too, has changed with Australian society. 

It is no longer simply a story about soldiers, although it continues to honour the service of the men and women of the Australian Defence Force and, thereby, making public criticism of their deployment in current conflicts difficult. 

Today the core values of Anzac are civilian ones of compassion, endurance, sacrifice and mateship. 

Hence, in a highly materialistic and individualistic society, Anzac serves the important social purpose of validating any sacrificial behaviour, be it by police officers, civil defence forces or firefighters, who voluntarily expose themselves to risk and subordinate their personal interests to those of the collective good. 

Joan Beaumont is Professor Emerita at the ANU Strategic and Defence Studies Centre.

Top image: Troops, supplies and tents along the beach at Anzac Cove not long after the landing in April 1915. Photo: Australian War Memorial (A03092)

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