April 25 in Australia is Anzac day. It is a time when Australians and New Zealanders stop to remember those who have served and given their lives for the nation. The tradition goes back to WWI when the Australian and New Zealand Army Corps fought at Gallipoli.
In 1915, Australia was only 14 years old as a nation, and now literally hundreds of thousands of young men and women were being mobilised to fight a war on the other side of the world. It was seen by many as the adventure of a life time. Over the course of the war, over 400,000 Australians enlisted, and some 330,000 actually went to war. To put this into perspective you need to remember that entire population was less than 5 million. The statistics are staggering. In some states, like New South Wales, 39.8% of working age males were at war. Casualties were astronomical, running to about 65%, an extraordinary 215,000, including over 61,000 dead. Over 7,000 of these were at Gallipoli. Britain, or ‘the mother country’, had casualties of 50%.
The Gallipoli campaign took place in an area around a strait of water known as the Dardanelles, the narrow stretch of water connecting the Mediterranean with the Black Sea. The basic idea was to get control and take Turkey out of the War. For a range of reasons which I won’t go into, the campaign failed (a mixture of strategic blunders and inspired leadership among other things). After 8 months of stalemate penned onto the beaches, the Allied forces, including the ANZACS, beat a stealthy retreat. Reading the records of the official Australian War Memorial, the retreat is actually regarded as the most successful part of the operation. Total casualties on both sides ran to about half a million, an average of over 2000 per day. The numbers really are shocking.
The battlefields are a site of pilgrimage now and thousands flock there every year for the Dawn Service at Anzac Cove, the small beach where the troops first landed under heavy fire from the guns above. I went there 10 years ago, and it was a very moving experience. Interestingly, it is only a few kilometres from the site of the legendary Trojan War. Alexander the Great, who consciously modelled himself on the great hero Achilles, also made his own pilgrimage here when he landed on the way to conquering Asia. Diaries of some of the soldiers reveal how conscious they were of the legacy of this site. They were reading Homer’s Iliad, the greatest epic of the Trojan War, while waiting in the trenches. Digging these trenches, these young men were brought even closer to their ancient counterparts as they uncovered material remains including pottery, coins and even remains of buildings.
Since the war, the Turkish and Australian people have developed deep bonds and so Australians pay tribute to the Turkish dead as well as the ANZACS. The spirit of this relationship is expressed most beautifully in an epitaph written by the a the commander of Turkish forces, Mustafa Kemal, who would later simply become known as the father of the Turks, Ataturk.
In 1934 he wrote:
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 the Mehmets to us where they lie side by side now here in this country of ours… you, the mothers, who sent their sons from faraway 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.
The origins of Anzac Day are very historically and culturally specific. But for me, the relevance is more universal than that. It’s not just about Australians and New Zealanders at war. Anzac Day is about honouring the spirit of selfless service that inspires men and women to go beyond the call of duty in the hope that others can live in peace and freedom. This is the spirit of the hero.