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Why Australians celebrate a defeat

Posted January 26th, 2011 at 12:37 AM by Son of Cathal
Updated January 26th, 2011 at 01:57 AM by Son of Cathal
Tags thanks.

Well, here's my first blog. Comments and constructive criticism welcome.

Why we celebrate a defeat

On the 25th of April, 1915, the men of the Australian and New Zealand Army Corps went ashore at Gallipoli. The eight month campaign saw some of the most brutal fighting in some of the most inhospitable terrain of the war. The fighting however was for nothing. In December of the same year, the Allied troops were evacuated from the peninsula leaving the Turks in control of the Dardanelles.

Since then, the 25th of April has become Australia's national day of remembrance, not only for those men who served at Gallipoli but for all the men and women who served during the Great War and every conflict in Australia's history. A common question arises from this unusual choice of date, a question that is asked by people both foreign and domestic, why do we celebrate a defeat? This is my answer.

When war was declared by the British Empire, Australia answered the call. The First Australian Imperial Force was formed and filled by the huge influx of volunteers. Many saw war as the great adventure, the writers of the age spoke of it as a gallant, romantic thing that would bathe those that followed it in glory. Others saw it as right of passage, something all men must do to reach sexual maturation or risk shame and embarrassment in front of women. Despite the various reasons for volunteering, one reason dominated all others, the chance for Australia to prove itself on the world stage. This would be the first global conflict that Australia would participate in as a nation, and a young one at that having only achieved federation thirteen years earlier.

The Gallipoli campaign came about after the failure to take the Dardanelles by the British Admiralty. Unable to pacify Turkey by sea, the decision was made to pacify it by land. The landings were a disaster, strong tides carried the landing boats away from the relatively flat country intended as the landing point to an area dominated by cliffs and steep ravines. Despite this mistake, the ANZAC, British and French forces secured a landing area and pushed inland only to be stopped by stiff Turkish resistance. The campaign became a stalemate akin to that already holding sway on the Western Front but instead of muddy ground and shell holes, Gallipoli was a maze of scrub, near vertical cliffs and deep ravines that heavily favoured the defenders and created the perfect recipe for a tactical and strategic nightmare.

The conduct of the campaign by those in charge has remained a point of discussion and criticism to this day. The failure of the staff to realise the seriousness of the situation the men they commanded were faced with is one such point. Soon after the landings, the Australian senior commander General William Bridges made an appeal to Ian Hamilton to consider evacuation. His appeal fell on deaf ears and Bridges was tragically shot dead by a Turkish sniper before he could do anything further. Instead of heeding Bridges' plea, Hamilton decided that landing more troops was the way to go. 25,000 British troops were landed at Suvla Bay while attacks were launched against Turkish positions at Lone Pine and The Nek in an attempt to divert Turkish attentions away from the landings.

While Lone Pine was a success and the position taken, the charge at The Nek by the now dismounted Australian Light Horse Brigade was a disaster. The Nek was a tiny valley the size of a tennis court that lay between the Turkish and Australian trenches. On both sides were steep hills that prevented any attempts to flank either position. The plan was for the Light Horse to take the Turkish trench after a whirlwind shelling by the Royal Navy. However the shelling stopped early allowing the Turkish troops to reoccupy their trench before the Light Horse had even left theirs. Despite reporting this to the British commanders, the attack was ordered ahead. The result was two hundred and thirty four dead, many of which were still there in 1919, a white patch standing out among the greens and browns of the Turkish countryside.

Like all soldiers, the Australians blamed any failures on those in charge. Any failings, they felt, were due to the misdirection of their leaders rather than a lack of bravery or commitment. In hindsight, this is very true. After the failure of the Suvla landings, morale amongst all troops fell. For the Australians, the realisation that their sacrifices were for nothing crippled their previous fervour and few welcomed more fighting. The conditions didn't help. Disease spread like a bushfire, fuelled by the flies drawn to the mounting corpses lying just out of safe reach of the parapet. In September, a survey conducted by the staff found three quarters of Australian troops unfit for active service. Despite being given the option to be evacuated to the hospital ships offshore and the convalescent camps on nearby Lemnos and Imbros, almost all refused to leave, preferring to stay with their mates and see the fight to the end.

This trait is what has exemplified Australians throughout the ordeals of both war and peace. Australians have developed a reputation of making light any dire situation, indeed while on Gallipoli, Australian troops played games of cricket on one of the few areas of flat ground, an area promptly named shell green due to the attempts by the Turkish artillery to shell the Australians during the second innings. However the trait that has firmly secured the Gallipoli campaign in Australia's national memory is the spirit of mateship. While always a prominent trait amongst Australians, what could be Australia's national trait was cemented in the Australian identity amongst the scrub, the flies and the death. It stemmed from the unique bond formed among the men of a country created by the cast outs and rejects from the mother country. While the majority of Australians were unswervingly loyal to Britain and her Empire at the time that war was declared, Australians also had, and in many ways still have, a deep aversion to authority.

Australians became notorious during the First World War for their refusal to salute superior officers, especially British ones who they saw as undeserving of a rank received solely through title and nobility. Their is an anecdote about an Australian soldier walking through a French town. He passed a British Colonel walking in the other direction. Upon failing to salute, the Colonel stopped turned and pulled the Digger up. The following conversation was said to take place:

"You there, don't you salute in your army?" asked the Colonel

"Not a lot." replied the Australian.

"But I'm a Colonel!" exclaimed the Brit.

"So you are, best job in the army, you keep it" said the Aussie, who then walked off leaving a stunned Colonel standing there.

Whether this actually occurred or not, it would be a testament to Australia's lack of respect for those in command. This is not to say that the men of the First AIF were incapable of being commanded, they had deep respect for those promoted from the ranks and that had proven themselves as leaders. The problem with the Gallipoli campaign was that the ANZACs were not commanded by men promoted from the ranks, or even by men of the own nationality. They were instead commanded by men who the Australians perceived as having no idea what they were doing nor deserving of their positions. This lack of trust in their commanding officers led to a deep trust and understanding between the regular ranks, the understanding that in times of war, the only men you can trust to get you through the trials ahead are your mates.
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