Some thoughts about Anzac Day

During the early 1990’s my father–in-law was invited to a luncheon sponsored by Ku-ring-gai Council. He and other old diggers from World War 1 were congratulated and thanked for the brave deeds of their young lives on the other side of the world. My father-in-law was amused because he fought as a teenage Calvary Offices in the Austrian-Hungarian Army.  In World War 1 he was the enemy.   The only thing he had in common with the old diggers was his age and the fact that he was a proud Australian.

Tonight Australians at Anzac Cove will hold a vigil. As they wait for the dawn they will remember the many young Anzacs who lie beneath the little white crosses on the hillside.

Last week I was sent a wonderful story about a visit to Anzac Cove.  Like many Australians before the beauty and the sadness place had a profound impact on the visitor. She was particularly affected by the crosses marked ‘Known only to God’. But, unlike many others, she remembered the deaths of thousands of Greeks who also lost their lives along the Dardanelles shores in a war that began just a year after World War 1 ended.

During World War 1 the British were determined to open the Dardanelle and Bosporus Straits to shipping. This would allow supplies, desperately needed by Russia, to be transported from the Mediterranean, through the Sea of Marmara   and on to the Black Sea. Churchill thought that the Turks could be defeated and initially sent a number of British and French war ships through the Dardanelles to accomplish this aim.  They found the Turks were much better prepared than expected.  The waters of the Dardanelles were mined and the shores lined with well armed forts. Both the British and the French lost ships and the remainder of the fleet was forced to retreat. Churchill’s next idea was to go overland and attack the forts from the rear. As every Australian knows the Australians and New Zealander troops landed at Anzac Cove on the Aegean side of the Gallipoli peninsula. The British and French landed further south on Cape Helles.  We all know that our Anzac legend grew from the defeat of the invading forces.  The Turks proved to be formidable opponents. They had the higher ground and rained gun-fire down on the allies in the trenches below. The Anzacs were unlucky because the Turks were lead by the heroic commander Mustafa Kemal. He ordered his men not to fight, but to die for their country. They did as ordered. Every man in the 57th regiment was either killed or wounded in the Gallipoli battle. The Allies learnt, as many others have before and since, that men gain extra strength when fighting for their country; a strength that comes from the desire to protect wives and children and to provide a homeland for their future.

For most of the First World War Greece was neutral. It was pressured to join the allies in their fight against Germany, Austria and the Ottoman Empire. To encourage Greek support, England promised that Thrace and other enclaves with high Greek populations would be ceded to Greece, when the Ottoman Empire was broken up at War’s end. Greece was finally convinced. She declared war against Germany, Austria and their allies in June 1917.

There is a tendency to believe that after peace was declared on 11th November 1918 all the fighting stopped and the soldiers went home and got on with their lives. This was not the case. Three empires ceased to exist after World War 1. Russia was locked in bloody civil war as was Germany.  The Austrian-Hungarian Empire was already fracturing and heaving with rebellion before the War. Many of its peoples desired their independence.  The Empire had lost some states to the new German and Italian nations in the 1870’s and Poland, Czechoslovakia and Yugoslavia all became independent countries when the Empire collapsed at the end of the War. Similarly, the Ottoman Empire had been breaking up throughout the nineteenth century. Greece broke free from the Empire through a war of independence between 1821 and 1829.   Other countries such as Serbia and Bulgaria also earned their independence. These empires were fracturing long before World War 1 and their defeat during the War merely speed up a process that had been occurring for much of the 19th century.

After the War, England and France encouraged Greece to occupy Smyrma (Izmir). Aided by ships from the French and British navies, the Greeks landed on 15th May 1919. Thus began the Greco-Turkish war.  In 1920 the Greeks pushed inland and occupied a large area of Anatolia, or Asian Turkey. As they advanced, opposition from the Turks increased. By the end of the year, the Greeks found themselves increasingly isolated.  The new Soviet Union began supporting the Turks, who were once again led by Mustafa Kemal. In 1921, the French changed sides and, with the Italians, also gave their support to the Turkish forces.  Once again armies faced each other in bloody trench warfare. By the time the slaughter ended in 1923, the Greeks had lost all the lands they had won and been given after World War 1, Turkey had emerged as a new independent nation and the two armies had suffered over 160,000 casualties. Some estimates of civilian death eclipse 300,000. So much for peace!

We Australian’s have ancestors from many nations. It is natural that in addition to the Anzac spirit, many of us remember brave young men from other nations, some who fought on the opposition side in World War 1 and others who were involved in battles after the War ended.  Like our Anzacs, these young men bravely fought for their country. They are also the ancestors of many of Australia’s citizens and should be remembered on Anzac Day.

‘Surprised by Anzac’ is posted in the Short Story section of Australian Family Stories. I hope it gives you another perspective on the Anzac story as it did for me.

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