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Friday, April 25, 2014

Anzac Day 2014 - the truth about Gallipoli

More than 8,000 Australians died trying to capture the Turkish capital of Constantinople and for the first time, we are confronted with the truth of what really happened.

Professor Peter Stanley is Professor of History at the University of NSW and award winning author of 25 books.  ABC Fact Check today published his thoughts on the myths surrounding the Gallipoli conflict. 

Charles Bean

Charles Bean is responsible for the establishment of those myths. He was editor of the 12 volume Official History of Australia in the War 1914-1918.  He wrote about the Australian Imperial Force at Gallipoli, France and Belgium and helped establish the Australian War Memorial and created the ANZAC legend.  He also took poetic licence to distort the facts.

We were led to believe that the troops landed in the wrong place. Not true says Professor Stanley. "For decades, people have tried to explain the failure at Gallipoli by blaming it on the Royal Navy, but the Royal Navy did land the troops at the right was what happened after that landing that things went wrong" he said.

Ashley Ekins, author of Gallipoli: A Ridge Too Far and head of military history at the Australian War Memorial in Canberra agrees. "It's a common misconception" he said.  "In fact, the ANZACs landed pretty well right in the centre of the originally selected landing zone."  There were also incorrect claims that currents drew the landing boats away from where they should have landed but there were no currents in that area.

PM Billy Hughes was the first to blame incompetent British generals for the massacre and the myth has been carried on ever since.  Professor Stanley says "The first landing was opposed by only about 80 Turks, and the defenders were soon massively out-numbered, but the invaders failed to advance inland, as they had been ordered.  The Australians were ordered to push on and capture a hill called Maltepe, seven kilometres inland but Australian brigadiers got nervous and told their men to dig in on the second ridge, and that's where they stayed for the eight month battle."  

The myth that Australians were tall, athletic bushmen is also untrue. The minimum height for an Australian soldier at the beginning of the war was 5ft 6in  and went down to five feet towards the end of the war. 

It was a shock to learn that Ashley Ekins said that Australians weren't good soldiers, at least not at first.  "At the outset when they landed, they were actually very inexperienced amateurs...they had to learn in a very hard school and there was much about war they had to learn" he said.

Journalist Charles Bean created the misconception that ANZACs were all bushmen, natural soldiers, fine horsemen and crack shots. They weren't, the majority lived in towns or major cities. 

Another shock myth buster was about Simpson and his donkey. John Simpson Kirkpatrick was the hero who used his donkey to bring wounded men back from the front.  He landed at Anzac Cove on 25 April 2015 and was killed by a sniper four weeks later.  He was a Geordie from the North East of England who jumped ship in Australia and went looking for adventure. He only joined the army to get a free passage back to the UK.

Now we learn that Simpson may not have saved any lives at all. Ashley Ekins said "He did very brave work, he went into the gullies, he rescued men who were wounded, but mostly men with leg wounds...he may not have saved a single soldier who was going to die."

And then there were the "drip guns" - crude timing devices made from tins or cooking pots that kept unmanned guns firing while the men evacuated.  The inventor, Lance Corporal W.C. Scurry was awarded the Distinguished Conduct Medal for his efforts and promoted to Sergeant.  But Professor Stanley says the drip guns contributed nothing to the evacuation because by the time the first one went off, the men had gone.

Author's proud family link to WWI & WWII

Journalist Charles Bean wrote about the battle as he wanted to see it and we were ready and willing to believe him. When the extent of the slaughter became known, we were shocked and appalled and even though we lost the battle, we remember Gallipoli as the tragic event that brought about a fiercely independent identity. 

When the penny finally dropped that we were no longer a part of England, but a brand new independent country, we were happy, and every year on Anzac Day, we remember those who made it possible.