Bruce Scates, On Dangerous Ground: A Gallipoli Story(2012)

If Walker relegates Gallipoli to her novel’s margins, Bruce Scates places the Peninsula right at the heart of his novel, on Dangerous Ground. Here Gallipoli becomes animated, as a complex, multilayered realm of memory very much in need of care and protection—almost a character in its own right. And while Walker transports her readers back in time, the narrative arc of Scates’ novel straddles three different time periods reaching from 1915 to 2025.

Written with an eye on the centenary and launched at the Melbourne Shrine of Remembrance in the lead-up to Anzac Day 2012, On Dangerous Ground was also advertised as offering a fresh look at Gallipoli and its place in the Australian imaginary.27 The novel is perhaps best described as memory activism—an extension of Scates’ work as researcher, teacher, and public advisor, for example on the Anzac Centenary Advisory Board and the National Committee investigating the missing of Fromelles. Scates’ scholarship describes the war’s remembrance as diverse, complex and contradictory, profoundly subjective rather than simply orchestrated from above, emotional as well as intellectual. “From the 1920s to today,” he writes in his history of the Melbourne Shrine of Remembrance, “responses to the Shrine have been as varied as the visitors themselves.”28 “From the 1920s to today,” he concludes his account of Australian journeys to the battlefields of the First World War, “battlefield pilgrimage has straddled a vast emotional and political spectrum, incorporating conflicting strands of nationalism and pacifism, scepticism and nostalgia, commemoration and adventure.”29

Inspired by the work of cultural historian Jay Winter, Scates insists that many present-day battlefield pilgrims respond so emotionally to Gallipoli because they work through the loss of an earlier generation. These travellers, he argues, are best understood as embodying “the lingering trauma of war,” “a nation’s enduring grief.”30 This line of argument has met with some scepticism: Mark McKenna and Stuart Ward have accused Scates of a tendency to view uncritically the emotional responses he is documenting and to neglect the specific political and commercial factors motivating and shaping recent Australian journeys to Great War battlefields. “Scates’ sanctification of memory,” they write, “his veneration of emotion, grief and the personal loss wrought by war, reveals that like many of the pilgrims he interviews, he too is caught up in the lure of Gallipoli as a sacred parable.”31

Scates has addressed these criticisms in a scholarly article, and in his novel. With the privileges of fiction, On Dangerous Ground unfolds a philosophy of history as messy, layered and unfinished, but also accessible to those who care. The book comes as a palimpsest of stories, quotations and documents; maps and photographs, etchings and water colours break up the text, chapter headings are borrowed from Rupert Brooke’s poem “1914,” allusions to other writers—from Homer to Australian historian Joy Damousi—abound.32 The narrative is similarly complex and follows what Maria Tumarkin, writing about trauma, has called “a memory loop or at best a memory zigzag.”33 It unfolds through three criss-crossing plotlines: the (authentic) 1919 story of George Lambert, Charles Bean and others, sent to Gallipoli for evidence of the fighting and reports on the construction of the cemeteries, is juxtaposed against the narrative of a similar investigation carried out in 2015 from Canberra where bureaucrats, military staff and historians have been called upon to provide advice on how to deal with a mass grave on Gallipoli. These two plots encircle a third: that of an Australian soldier involved in the Gallipoli campaign, Roy, and his sweetheart nurse. Other novelists have used such temporal disjunctions to ruminate about the possibility of truly knowing the past. Not Scates: he takes his cue from Sebastian Faulks’ Birdsong (1993), whose 1970s protagonist feels that “she had touched the past,” that “it had stopped being history and turned into experience.”34 “It isn’t hard to imagine,” muses war artist George Lambert, one of Scates’ authentic historical characters, seeking to transport himself (and Scates’ readers) back to the battle he has been asked to paint as part of Charles Bean’s historical mission to the Peninsula in 1919.35 Just under one hundred years later, trained historian Mark Troy is “mindful of the need to seem measured and dispassionate,” but cannot help himself: “‘Sometimes... going through family papers, it’s as if these men were killed only yesterday. It gets under your skin, rattles you... ’”36

The novel’s 1915 plot contains elements of the familiar national tragedy. Scates’ nurse is “a bush girl unused to social pretension;” while on duty in one of the hospitals in Egypt she witnesses “ the passing of a generation.”37 Together with her bushman-turned-soldier she reminisces about an Edenic Australia with “iced tea on hot verandas, the blue mist of mountains, skies the colour of rusting iron, curling golden beaches that stretched on forever ... the cry of kookaburras serenading sundrenched land.”38 But in Scates’ novel, these memories of rural life resonate with those of another character, an Arab private in the Ottoman Army— Ahmed:

All the while the farmer read this strange and threatening place through the world he’d left behind him. Fired from the trenches, machine guns sounded like angry ducks. Mounted on planes that soared through the air, they rattled like nesting storks shaking their beaks at the heavens. Turkish guns, Ahmed thought, sounded something like a creaking oxcart. As bullets burrowed into sandbags he imagined grasshoppers leaping and clicking.39

Like the nurse and Roy, Ahmed, too, comes from “the southernmost part of the Empire” he has been called to defend.40 His life, like Roy’s, ends at Lone Pine, and not with thoughts of national duty: “In the minute before he died, Ahmed thought not of God or country but only of family and loved ones. The aging private was several hundred miles from home.”41 Ahmed dies quietly, unnoticed by the Australians who rush past. Another Turkish soldier—Major Zeki Bey, an authentic character who served as liaison officer to Charles Bean’s historical mission—has a more prominent role. Bey enters the scene with tasty cigarettes, stuffed vine leaves and sweet apple tea. The equivalent of the modern battlefield guide, he quickly assumes the role of “host, a reminder of whose land these men had died on.”42 He improves their understanding of the campaign and takes them to makeshift memorials—Australian and Turkish. In this way Bey helps Scates’ readers enact the kind of “dialogic memorialisation” that sociologist Brad West has observed in twenty-first-century battlefield pilgrimages. Along with their (compulsory) Turkish guides, battlefield tourists today, West argues, reinterpret Gallipoli as a space of mutual suffering with messages of respect and understanding rather than aggression and hatred.43 “‘We all suffered here, died here,’” Bey tells his guests, nodding at the trenches, “‘and here we became brothers.’”44

Scates’ Gallipoli is best grasped through three interlocking scales—it is at once a family tragedy, a national responsibility, and a “global calamity” that cuts across borders and across centuries.45 The very landscape of the Peninsula embodies these entanglements; to those visiting in 1919 the earth is “troubled,” “scorched,” “mauled by history.”46 Surveying the ground, Bean imagines “broken bones all tangled up, intertwined like the roots of a forest, a jumbled mass of rotting humanity.”47 This Gallipoli is a “traumascape”—a term Maria Tumarkin coined to describe “places across the world marked by traumatic legacies of violence, suffering and loss, [where] the past is never quite over.”48 Bean and his fellow men return compulsively to the site that reflects their own physical and emotional trauma: young Vickers, for example, a shell-shocked man whom Scates has added to the authentic cast surrounding Bean on his historic mission, has a face with “lines deep and furrowed like those trenches on the ridgelines.”49 This is a haunted landscape:

Down in the gully Lambert can hear the jackals howling. Shrill demented cries, the hungry sound of evil. The artist’s lips begin to quiver. He knows what grim feast brought the wild dogs together. The scavengers had dragged a body from its shallow grave. They snarl as they eat, breaking bones with their teeth, sucking dry the marrow.50

Tumarkin has tracked modern-day traumascapes such as Tasmania’s Port Arthur, Sarajevo and Ground Zero, to show that these places form “part of a scar tissue that now stretches across the world.”51 This is where Scates sees Gallipoli’s place too: on an almost planetary map of “war immemorial, from the battles of Troy to the carnage of Flanders,” a map whose sites are linked not through stories of duty and heroism (as current Australian commemorative rhetoric has it) but through the experience of loss.52

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