ANZAC Day and Post Conflict Reconciliation

ANZAC Day and Post Conflict Reconciliation

[Chris Jenks is an associate professor of law and directs the criminal justice clinic at the SMU Dedman School of Law in the US.]

On April 25th, I had the privilege of attending an ANZAC Day dawn service at Kranji War Memorial Cemetery in Singapore jointly sponsored by the Australian and New Zealand High Commissions. While the significance of ANZAC Day is innate to the Aussies and Kiwis, I’m betting that the ANZAC Day story, and particularly the unique relationship with World War I enemy Turkey, is largely unknown to the wider OJ audience.

ANZAC (Australian and New Zealand Army Corps) Day is April 25th, the day in 1915 some 16,000 Australian and New Zealand soldiers landed on the beaches of what was then Ari Burnu Turkey, as part of the Gallipoli Campaign during World War I. By day’s end over 2,000 ANZACs and 3,000 Turks would be dead, though this would prove but a bloody down payment on the total human cost. Britain’s First Lord of the Admiralty, Winston Churchill, was the campaign’s architect. Employing a force of British, Commonwealth and French forces, the mission was to seize the Gallipoli peninsula in order to allow the allied navies to transit supplies to Russia and to threaten and ultimately capture Constantinople (now Istanbul) the capital of Turkey, a wartime ally of Germany. While Winston Churchill’s grandson has continued to defend the Gallipoli campaign as ‘the right thing to do’ , the chief historian at the Australian War Memorial contends that “really it was a foolish plan that was ill-conceived and resulted in a useless waste of far too many lives for no good effect.” Arguably the key to the Turkish defense was the efforts of Turkish Army Colonel Mustafa Kemal. [After WWI Turkey became a Republic and Kemal its first President. The Turkish National Parliament later honored him with the title Atatürk or Father of the Turks.]

On that first day the allies established such a minimal beachhead that they considered evacuating, to which the General Sir Ian Hamilton, the British commander of the operation replied “[y]ou have got through the difficult business, now you dig, dig, dig, until you are safe.” Wrong on all counts, other than that the allies, and the Turks for that matter, most certainly did dig. What followed was eight months of stalemate warfare that killed or wounded over 130,000 allied troops (roughly 28,000 of which were Aussies and close to 8,000 Kiwis) and well over 200,000 Turkish soldiers. The First World War was defined by horrific trench warfare yielding minimal strategic or even tactical advantage at the expense of millions of lives lost. What makes the Gallipoli campaign so significant? While I’m quite sure I at best know only part of the answer, here’s my attempt. For the Aussies and Kiwis, ANZAC day seems to have profoundly impacted and to some extent defines their national identity and spirit. It’s about courage in the face of the unknown, perseverance, and maybe above all mateship – friendship and loyalty. ANZAC Day is a national holiday and features a dawn vigil, military reunion marches, and memorial services. ANZAC Day has come to commemorate war dead not just from WWI but all military operations which the ANZAC coalition has participated.

While by no means diminishing what ANZAC day means to Australia and New Zealand, all countries have their holidays commemorating wartime service and sacrifice. But what makes ANZAC day so compelling to me is how the relationship between former battlefield enemies has evolved.

Flash forward from the 1915 Gallipoli Campaign to 1934. Attaturk, President of Turkey, purportedly authored a tribute to the ANZACS who fought, and died, in Turkey:

Those heroes that shed 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 in this country of ours… you, the mothers who sent their sons from faraway countries, wipe away your tears. Your sons are now lying in our bosom and are at peace. After having lost their lives on this land, they have become our sons as well.

I say purportedly as there are questions as to whether Attaturk authored those exact words.   Contemporary, almost gleeful, attempts by Australian and UK media to debunk the quote’s bona fides claim the origin of the exact wording no earlier than 1953 while documenting similar sounding comments by Attaturk praising the ANZAC spirit as far back as 1931 (“Whatever views we of the present or future generations of Turks may hold in regard to the rights or wrong of the world war, we shall never feel less respect for the men of Anzac and their deeds when battling against our armies … The Turks will always pay our tribute on the soil where the majority of your dead sleep on the windswept wastes of Gallipoli.”)

I don’t claim to know where truth lies, but in this context I feel like the historical analysis misses the mark and the broader symbolic importance. At the 2018 ANZAC Ceremony I attended, the Turkish Ambassador to Singapore read the “Johnnies and Mehmets” quote attributed to Attaturk and placed a wreath at a memorial in the cemetery, just the latest demonstration of the unique post conflict relationship between the ANZACS and Turkey, not despite their being wartime enemies but because of it.

Australia and New Zealand built monuments to Attaturk in their capital cities, Canberra and Wellington. The Australian Attaturk memorial is prominently positioned on ANZAC Parade, a boulevard lined with military memorials which connects the Australian War Memorial at one end with Parliament House at the other. The Attaturk memorial is literally the closest memorial to the Australian War Memorial. In New Zealand, the Attaturk memorial is located on a ridge outside Wellington which was chosen for its similarities to the landscape of the Gallipoli peninsula. For its part, Turkey changed the name of Ari Burno to ANZAC Cove and established the Gallipoli battlefield as a national park. The park contains a number of monuments, including one which includes the “Johnnies and Mehmets” quote, which the monument attributes to Attaturk.

I find the manner by which the ANZACs and Turkey not only reconciled following WWI but share commemorative efforts fascinating, compelling and in some ways contradictory. There have not been comparable efforts between the ANZACs and WWI (and obviously WW II) enemy Germany. And Turkey has struggled to acknowledge and reconcile its WW I role in the deaths of hundreds of thousands Armenians in Turkey. So I wonder if ANZAC Day offers all of us, Australia and New Zealand and Turkey included, a contemporary lesson in reconciliation.

I submit that the shared ANZAC/Turkey commemorative efforts are proof, yet again, of the connection, the bond, which exists between those facing similar and staggering adversity. The perverse irony here is that of course each side caused a large portion of the other’s suffering. But from there my analysis breaks down. I want to draw some broader post-conflict lesson from these efforts that might aid in their not being war in the first place. But the predicate to the commemorative efforts is, of course, the underlying armed conflict.

On the other hand, one would think that the ANZACs and Turkey’s efforts to not necessarily honour their former enemy but recognize them have made it at least less likely that those countries will fight each other again. And if all countries which fought each other were able to engage in similar commemorative efforts perhaps we might tip the balance in the debate on whether armed conflict is a normal or abnormal aspect of the human condition. Much easier said than done to be sure. I confess to being amazed at what and how the ANZACs and Turkey have done what they’ve done, while also pessimistic of those efforts being replicated. But their efforts are proof that it’s possible.

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