No one can deny that the memory of the First World War is almost as doddery as its survivors. Save for two men and one woman, all aged 109, every veteran of that war, on both sides of the conflict, is now dead. Harry Patch, the oldest of them at 113, died last year within months of the two other surviving British veterans.
Today there are no surviving Australians from the conflict. This year, for the first time, only a riderless horse represented the fallen at the annual April 25 ANZAC ( Australian and New Zealand Armored Corps) Day Parade.
Growing up in Australia, I was well acquainted with how seared into the national consciousness was the Gallipoli campaign in Turkey which took place between April and November, 1915. I had watched for years as the aged soldiers of that forgotten war would amble down St. Kilda Rd. in Melbourne, bearing their medals and wearing their Digger caps.
It was First Lord of the Admiralty, Winston Churchill’s idea to attack the Turkish Dardanelles, the narrow strait that led to Constantinople( today’s Istanbul) which lay athwart the entrance to the Black Sea. Churchill’s idea – and it was a sound one – was that if Constantinople could be taken, Turkey and the Ottoman Empire it controlled, could be knocked out of the war and the British and Russian fleets could link up. This would give the Allies overpowering control of the Mediterranean and would inevitably tip the balance of the war in favor of the Allies.
In order to break the Turkish resistance on the Dardanelles and allow the British navy safe passage, the British High Command decided to send, with their own troops, the newly minted Australian and New Zealand Armed Corps, which had been training in Egypt. It was decided to attack the Gallipoli Peninsula on its Western coast which faced the Aegean.
The mistakes made – of underestimating the strength of the Turkish defenses, the steepness of the terrain, the absence of shade and difficultly of resupply have been heavily documented. The ANZACs in the north of the peninsula and the combined British and French forces in the south, could not break the Turks who had command of the highlands and far more effective resupply from their hinterland. After seven long months of attrition and nearly 15,000 dead, the Allies were forced into an ignominious retreat.
No Australian schoolchild grows up without knowing these facts. Although only a relatively small number of Australians perished at Gallipoli (8, 700), the Australian participation in the war was the first armed conflict with which the young nation had been involved and the devastating impact of the losses for a country with a population of only 5 million, began to meld a sense of national purpose and identity.
Like other schoolboys I had been quite taken with the stories of the courageous Australian”diggers ” who had fought in the trenches and endured shocking casualties in their assault on the Turks. So naturally my first trip to Turkey I felt should necessitate a trip to the Australian military cemeteries on the Gallipoli Highlands. Since I was riding a bicycle I knew the trip was going to be difficult.
But I didn’t realize how difficult. Impossible head winds, rutted roads, broken spokes and blown tires bedeviled the journey – and that was all in the first six days! I huffed up those hills under a scorching summer sun, not having endured anything quite like it before.
When I arrived, exhausted, at the Gallipoli Battlefield I traveled along ridges where the ANZAC and Turkish trenches could still be seen on opposite sides of the road – in places only ten yards apart. The ANZAC cemeteries were immaculately groomed and maintained and the numerous memorials told the story of the legendary battles which took place there.
I have always maintained an interest in military cemeteries. I am fascinated by how little remains of the men who fought and died in the places they are buried, save for a name, date of birth and date of death. There are very little other associations left for us to appreciate – the comradeship under fire; the relationships with commanding officers, nor the homesickness of boys eating bully beef out of tins cans longing for their mothers’ home cooking.
Among the grave stones I saw in the Gallipoli cemetery, I read the usual inscriptions one would read on any military tombstone in Australia.
Until I came to one in the middle of the field. It was a simple plinth with the name, date of birth and death of the soldier inscribed as usual. But below the inscription were just three words which seemed to tell me more about the soldier and his loved ones than any other memorial in the park.
“Well done Ted.”
Those three words spoke to me across the generations about two parents’ reverence for their lost son’s sacrifice, for his calm in the face of battle and for the sense that he stood for something beyond his own preservation.
We live in a cynical age where there is little respect or interest in the sacrifices of an older generation. But we shouldn’t forget how it all happens. Young boys, shipped overseas on a great adventure, come face to face with the sheer brutality of war, its indifference to human suffering and the shattering realization of how life can end in a split second. Under such circumstances one grows up in a hurry and the awakening maturity leaves its scar, not only on the men who come to fight, but on the nation that has sent them.
Western civilization has yet to recover from the shock of the First World War. We are all deeply scarred by it and almost everything that has occurred in history since that time can find its roots planted in the that conflict’s soil. Australians are generally nonchalant and casual people, not standing on ceremony, nor given to hyperbole. For their sacrifices, remembered on this 95th anniversary of the day Australia truly became a united nation, perhaps then the most fitting words spoken to the country’s First World War veterans might be “Well done boys ” – even if there is no one now left to hear them.