Gallipoli and Commemoration in the 1920s and 1930s

In Ireland the War of Independence and Civil War followed the First World War, and as such the commemoration of 1914-18 became fraught with difficulty. Service in the British Army was not a part of the new nation’s past that many were keen to burnish. Nonetheless, there were too many veterans for commemorations to be suppressed completely and there were strong turnouts for local memorial unveilings and on Armistice Day.45 In this period, it is significant that most of the references to such events are to be found in the unionist Irish Times. Thus, for example, in 1935 it espoused something like an Irish heroic-romantic myth, bearing all the hallmarks of the British myth—classical references, the celebration of heroism, an assertion of Gallipoli as a war-winning strategy—but additionally featured a sideswipe at “bungling politicians” and an extended claim for the Irishness of many of the campaign’s participants.46 Here was the bones of what might have been, an Irish legend of Gallipoli, but the romantic view of the Irish Times did not resonate more widely in Irish society.

In Britain, the romanticising habit of referring to Gallipoli’s classical associations lived on, and was used to defend the disastrous campaign and its strategy, notably by those whose reputations had been most damaged. Winston Churchill used the power of his pen to gloss over his strategic failings: he presented his evidence selectively, made contentious claims for the potential benefits of the scheme, and described the fighting as exciting and momentous. Thus, Mustafa Kemal was a “Man of Destiny,” the Anzacs “thrust inland in all directions with fierce ardour,” and Lieutenant-Colonel Doughty-Wylie’s English and Irish soldiers attacking Sedd-el-Bahr “stormed the redoubt and slew its stubborn defenders” in a “feat of arms” rarely “surpassed in the history of either island race.”47 Meanwhile, General Sir Ian Hamilton, whose career never recovered from his defeat as commander-in-chief, employed his most grandiloquent written style in his Gallipoli Diary (1920), an account that is shot through with references to its classical setting and his own deeply romantic view of war. Here, for example, are his reflections on the grim business of the landings and the historic potential of the strategy:

Blood, sweat, fire; with these we have forged our master key and force it into the lock of the Hellespont, rusty and dusty with centuries of disuse. Grant us, O Lord, tenacity to turn it; determination to turn it, till through that open door Queen Elizabeth of England sails East for the Golden Horn!48

Such portrayals of the campaign may have softened the defeat, but they did not help to build a widespread commemorative phenomenon. From 1919, Britain’s commemorative focus was on 11 November as the anniversary of the end of the war, and each April the campaign was only commemorated in localities with a regimental connection, such as Bury, Manchester, Scottish Borders, Bristol, and Eltham (south east London). Meanwhile, its significance as Anzac Day continued to be acknowledged in London.

In New Zealand, reaffirmations of the country’s part in empire remained fairly commonplace into the 1930s.49 Commentary on Gallipoli was often coupled with calls to service, citizenship and selfsacrifice. There was a deeply religious tone to Anzac Day there, such that in 1929 Governor-General Sir Charles Fergusson suggested that the day had become too mournful.50 Most significantly, there was no great nation-building project attached to the commemoration of Gallipoli. There was no true equivalent to Charles Bean’s official history, and no equivalent to the Australian War Memorial, the museum, archive and shrine built on the central axis of Australia’s new capital Canberra and formally opened in 1941.

It follows, conversely, that with very active support from the Australian public, the memory of Gallipoli attained a central role in Australia’s national life. Unlike in other countries, the habit developed in Australia of emphasising the personal qualities of the Anzacs, their sacrifice and their heroism. The purple prose that had once celebrated empire went out of fashion, and yet the achievement of nationhood through blood sacrifice could still be understood and given significance through its relationship to empire. Thus, for example, the Hobart Mercury editorial for Anzac Day in 1935 argued:

The name and title, and the annual celebration of ‘Anzac,’ carries with it far more than the remembrance of a military feat of outstanding merit, marked and made famous by heroism and devotion to duty. It goes beyond the memory that on that day 20 years ago an Australian army first took the field in a struggle which transcended the bounds of Empire, and thereby acquired for the Commonwealth a right to a voice in the councils not only of the Empire but also of the world.51

 
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