Archive for April 27th, 2012

Anzac Day

In Australia and New Zealand April 25 is Anzac Day. The term ANZAC refers to the Australian and New Zealand Armed Corps, and the day commemorates the first landings of these forces at Gallipoli, in the Dardanelles, on the Aegean coast of Turkey in 1915. It was a controversial strategy designed to give the allied British, French and Colonial forces a springboard from which to choke Turkish shipping and troop movements, secure a sea-route to Russia, and also to prepare for a push towards Istanbul.

The campaign was not a success to say the least. It began badly in March with a failed attempt to force a way through the Dardanelles by the British and French navies. The older and, in some cases, obsolete battleships tasked with clearing the straits met with unexpectedly heavy concentrations of mines and the attack was called off after a number of ships were severely damaged. Ground forces were then deemed necessary to secure the coastline and allow the minesweepers to clear passage for the larger warships.

Without wishing to go into too much detail about the campaign, it will suffice to say that ultimately the Turkish forces, led by a man who was later to become the founding father of modern Turkey, Mustafa Kemal Ataturk, proved more than capable of meeting the allied attack. Like so many battles of the First World War, the Gallipoli campaign was characterised by wave upon wave of men charging across artillery-harassed killing fields towards trenches and well dug-in machine guns. Between April 25 and January 9 of the following year, when the allied forces finally relinquished their toehold on the Turkish coast, both sides suffered heavy casualties, with an estimated 250 000 Ottoman and 140 000 allied dead or wounded. Ironically, as was later to be the case with Dunkirk, the most successful part of the campaign  was the evacuation.

For the allies, the campaign was an unmitigated disaster. It failed to achieve any of its major objectives and gave the Ottoman forces a significant moral boost at a time when they were struggling to maintain the integrity of their empire on all fronts. Yet, the Gallipoli campaign also came to mark a defining moment in the development of national consciousness in Australia and New Zealand. It was also a defining moment for modern Turkey – a last great success for the Ottoman Empire, which laid the grounds for the Turkish war of independence and the foundation of the republic of Turkey in 1923.

The brutal nature of the Gallipoli campaign instilled in the soldiers of both sides a healthy respect for their opponents. This was in no small part due to various outstanding acts of chivalry and an empathetic understanding of the difficult conditions under which all the soldiers were forced to operate. Nowhere is this respect more visible than in the strikingly powerful words of Kemal Ataturk, composed in 1934 as an epitaph for those who lost their lives.

Those heroes that shed their blood and lost their lives… you are now lying in the soil of a friendly country. Therefore rest in peace. There is no difference between the Johnnies and the Mehmets to us where they lie side by side here in this country of ours… You, the mothers, who sent their sons from far away countries, wipe away your tears; your sons are now lying in our bosom and are in peace. After having lost their lives on this land they have become our sons as well.

Australia and Turkey continue to enjoy close relations as a consequence of the Gallipoli campaign.

Every year, on April 25, the returned service men and women in Australia and New Zealand, parade to commemorate not only the Gallipoli campaign, but to show respect for the contribution of all men and women in the armed forces in both countries. The day has long been both a solemn occasion for reflection, and something of a carnival, as is the nature of any public holiday. There has always been some discomfort amongst those who mistakenly interpret Anzac Day as a glorification of war, and those who remain sceptical of overzealous national sentiment and flag-waving. Yet, irrespective of the rightness or otherwise of any of the conflicts in which Australia has taken part – far too many for my liking, particularly in the case of Vietnam and Iraq – it would be curmudgeonly not to acknowledge that the poor sods who have gone to war did so, in most cases, firmly in the belief that they were doing the right thing. There is little that is glorious to celebrate, but we can certainly recognise that almost all of these people have suffered in some way, and their suffering was, for better or for worse, done on behalf of the rest of us.

It has been some time since I have paid much attention to Anzac Day. The last time I actually attended any form of  public commemoration was in 2001 when, in one of the more out of character acts of my life, I travelled to Gallipoli on Anzac Day to camp on the beach and watch the dawn service. The idea was largely a result of homesickness, for I had been living in England for two years at the time. Once surrounded by a horde of Australians and New Zealanders, however, and after staying up all night only to hear the voice of Alexander Downer, the then foreign minister, at dawn, I wanted to get away from them all as quickly as possible. Still, it was a fascinating experience, and when I scaled the sandy cliffs at sunrise with a country-town west Australian called Scott Hardy, I felt a strange and eerie connection with the campaign and its setting.

After returning to Australia, I grew increasingly uncomfortable with expressions of national sentiment under the conservative Howard government, whose Nationalist agenda was disquieting to say the least. It was around this time that I developed a deep feeling of discomfort whenever I saw the Australian flag. Rather than being a symbol to which I felt I could relate, it seemed, for many years, as though it were being thrust in my face as the paradigmatic emblem of an Australia in which I didn’t believe.

I still remain deeply sceptical about overzealous expressions of national sentiment, yet am willing to accept that Anzac Day is an appropriate occasion on which these symbols might be deployed as a mark of respect for people who have risked their lives on behalf of others. Yet it does trouble me that in the modern world people are still willing to join the armed forces, despite a widespread understanding and awareness of the ugly, unjust nature of recent conflicts. I don’t wish to suggest that those serving in the various forces are bad people or that their decision to join was not well-intentioned, but let’s face it, if no one joined the army anywhere ever, however crazy and naive such an idea might seem, there would be little possibility of war. Ideally the entire world would put down its weapons and form peace corps of people armed only with tools to help the needy. Sadly, however, this is not going to happen in the near future, and whilst others bear arms, it seems everyone else will continue to do so.

It was thus an interesting opportunity to be given the job this year of heading out to take photos of people on Anzac Day. The photos, of people in uniform, spectators and “everyday Australians” celebrating Anzac Day, are needed for a teaser trailer for a television show pitch on which I am working. I can’t say any more about the project at this stage, except that it’s another collaboration between the dynamic duo of Dr Fantasy and Mr Plausibility. The basic remit for the shoot was wide, flat frames in colour. Dr Fantasy, behind the wheel, dropped me at a variety of locations and off I went looking for shots.

I mostly sniped people from a distance with the long lens, but was also looking for close and less candid portraits, so I often approached people and asked if I could take their photo. I especially enjoyed some of the conversations I had with veterans, all of whom were very obliging in letting me photograph them. After hitting the War Memorial in Hyde Park and various city pubs, we drove down to the very wealthy and decadent eastern suburbs, on the hunt for cashed-up Australians putting it out there. Many pubs hold Two Up competitions on Anzac Day, a form of gambling in which two pennies are tossed in the air and bets are placed on the outcome – either two heads or tails, with one of each a dud result. This usually results in some very boisterous scenes of hard-drinking and money waving. Precisely the sort of larrikin behaviour for which the Australian population likes to think its armed forces were responsible, out of a desire to be considered roguishly affable.

And on that note, enough said – here is a collection of portraits of people throughout the day, which I hope you will enjoy.

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