Photo by Rita M. on flickr.

Photo by Rita M. on flickr.

Looking beyond the legend

24 April 2015

As Australia marks the centenary of the ill-fated Gallipoli campaign, four war historians examine what Anzac means and dig a little deeper into the myths and legends surrounding one of the nation’s most powerful memories.

One hundred years ago, Anzac soldiers landed at Gallipoli in modern-day Turkey as part of an Allied force attempting to knock the Ottoman Empire out of the First World War.

The campaign was a disaster, with many young Australian and New Zealand men losing their lives and never returning from fatal foreign shores.

Today, Anzac Day has come to represent the ‘birth’ of a young nation and the courage, mateship and sacrifice synonymous with what it means to be ‘Australian’.

But is this a fair image and true to history?

Four war historians give their insights on the significance of Gallipoli 100 years on. 


“Gallipoli understandably dominates our consciousness when it comes to Anzac Day. To a certain extent, the epic Australian battles of the Second World War, like Kokoda, are included in our commemorations and, in recent years, Australia’s Vietnam War experience as well. These campaigns are now well documented. Official histories, biographies, regimental accounts, and works on the impact of war on society have generated renewed meaning and significance for Anzac Day in the nation’s collective consciousness.
“Events involving our armed forces since the Vietnam War, however, remain largely unexplored.

“There is a gaping hole when it comes to the more recent and significant military operations in East Timor, Iraq and Afghanistan. In the past, official historians were commissioned early on to write a detailed account of these conflicts and their efforts have played a pivotal role in shaping our collective understanding of what happened and why: Charles Bean for the First World War, Gavin Long for the Second World War, Robert O’Neill for the Korean War and Peter Edwards for the Vietnam War. Yet to this day no one has been appointed to write, with unfettered access, an account of what our servicemen and women have done on our behalf in these significant and contentious events.

“As we reflect on the significance of Anzac, we should also look to remember the actions of the living – including our servicemen and women who served the nation on our behalf in the years from Whitlam to Howard, to Rudd and Gillard, and now Abbott. On a range of deployments far and wide the people of Australia’s armed forces have been our representatives abroad – often in trying and risky situations – acting as soldiers, teachers, ambassadors and peacekeepers. Understanding what they did and why is important not just as we reflect on the meaning of Anzac, but as we think about what we might ask of them to do on our behalf in future.”

Dr Blaxland is author of the ‘The Australian Army from Whitlam to Howard’ published by Cambridge University Press.


“Such is the centrality of Anzac Day to the national political culture that no one denies that there should be a dawn service on 25 April 2015 at the site of Gallipoli landing. The refurbishment of the World War 1 gallery at the Australian War Memorial is also overdue, though whether it should cost $32.5 million (excluding GST) is another matter.

“But beyond this, much of the commemorative activity threatens to be commodified or trivialised. Poppies already adorn everything from neck ties to oven mitts. Cruise ships promise to offer ‘moving and heartfelt experiences’ offshore for those Australians who have failed to win a ticket in the national ballot for the Gallipoli dawn service. There is even talk of a surf boat race off Gallipoli. 

“One thing is certain: how we will remember the First World War in the next four years will not be the way that Australians remembered it a century ago. This should not surprise us. Memory is not history. Rather, it is a changing, dynamic process in which individuals and communities select, interpret and revise the past according to their current values and priorities.

“The Anzac legend has survived and continued to thrive because it has maintained a plasticity which has allowed it to be invested in multiple meanings that shift with the times and continue to garner public support. Whether that plasticity, which is mirrored in the plethora of centenary activities now in the offing, will ultimately prove to be the strength of the Anzac legend, or rather its dilution to the point of banality, remains to be seen.”

Professor Beaumont is author of the joint 2014 Prime Minister’s prize for history winning Broken Nation: Australians in the Great War published by Allen & Unwin.


“The story of Gallipoli does not begin with the Anzacs at dawn on 25 April 1915.

“By April, the Royal Navy had been operating in the waters off the Gallipoli peninsula for months, losing many men and ships in the process. Our focus on 25 April and a few famous battles in the months that followed, has relegated the navy to the backwaters of history.

“But in reality, the navy performed a crucial role every day of the campaign. Aside from providing fire-support for the troops ashore, the navy was responsible for keeping the allied force fed and watered and attacking Ottoman lines of communication. The troops ashore, including the Anzacs, were there simply to secure the Gallipoli peninsula for the navy. Overall success would have required a large-scale offensive effort by the navy to force the Dardanelles.

“We should also not forget the important role performed by our allies at Gallipoli. The Anzacs were a small component of the overall allied army consisting of Indian, French, British (and later, Newfoundland) troops. Any account of 25 April that ignores the role performed by our allies risks rewriting history and overstating the role of the Anzacs. It was British units that were given the main and most difficult objectives on 25 April. The Anzacs were there to support them.

“There is still much we can learn about Gallipoli, but we have to look beyond ourselves and beyond fiction. We have to view Gallipoli for what it was – another First World War battle – and we have to look beyond the actions of Anzac forces if we truly want to appreciate the role that they performed in the broader war. We should recognize the important role performed by our allies, including France and Britain, and we should remember that Gallipoli was a combined operation, where there was just as much happening above and below the water as there was on land.

“Above all else, we need to understand what was happening on the other side of the hill.”

Dr Crawley is author of ‘Climax at Gallipoli: The Failure of the August Offensive’ published by University of Oklahoma Press.


“Anzac Day is our most important day and certainly it’s a very popular day where the public shows a high regard for the military. But more broadly I do have a concern about where that’s going.

“There’s a concern about whether the mood will move from commemoration and remembrance to celebration. And as Anzac Day is seen as an embodiment of many ideas in Australian society, in what we like to think about ourselves, there’s also a bit of a risk.

“It’s estimated we’re going to spend three times the amount on the Centenary of the First World War as the English, for instance. Great Britain contributed vastly more resources, men, economic power and cost in lives. So while it’s a very important day I think it’s a really important time because, depending on how this plays out, there’s a risk of how it will evolve over the next four or five years and what that will mean.

“Because it is now the Centenary of the First World War, there’s a risk that that conflict – a conflict of which we have no living survivors left, becomes too dominant in what Anzac Day is about. Because, beyond that, it goes across to our largest conflict, the Second World War but also the other conflicts and particularly more recent ones. We have a lot of recently returned veterans.

“If we promote the First World War too much, I think, could potentially have some negative consequences more broadly about what it means for current returned service people and for where the direction of Anzac as a day and as a commemoration activity and part of our national culture goes." 

Dr Peter Dean is editor of the books ‘1943: The Liberation of New Guinea’, and ‘1942: In the Shadow of War’, published by Cambridge University Press. 

Read more insight from our experts on the centenary of the Gallipoli campaign at the ANU news website. 

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