‘And the band played Waltzing Matilda’

Published in Editorial, Issue 2 (March/April 2015), Volume 23

Tommy Graham portrait

No doubt we will be hearing a lot of Eric Bogle’s song—perhaps the greatest anti-war song ever written—over the next few weeks and months as we mark the centenary of the Battle of Gallipoli, in which over 130,000 died, including c. 5,000 Irishmen. What seemed like a strategic masterstroke—that would knock out one of the Central Powers, open up the Dardanelles to supply Entente ally Russia and consequently take pressure off the stalemated Western Front—turned into one of the greatest military disasters in history. Far from being the ‘sick man of Europe’, ‘Johnny Turk he was ready . . .’ and put up an effective and well-motivated resistance. Hardly surprising, really, since, unlike the Entente, the Turks were fighting for the defence of their homeland, at the very gates of their capital city.

No other theatre of the Great War exemplified more clearly its imperial nature or exposed more ruthlessly the hollowness of its claims to moral justification. Over the previous century the great powers of Europe had picked off Ottoman territory—Algeria (France), Libya (Italy), Crimea and Kars (Russia), Bosnia (Austria-Hungary) and Cyprus and Egypt (the United Kingdom)—and would continue to do so after the war behind the fig-leaf of League of Nations mandates in the Middle East. (The ‘small nations’ of that region are still living with the consequences.)

The Turkish theatre is an exemplar of the conflict in another sense. This was the first ‘total war’, in which civilians were targeted through starvation (blockades) or indiscriminate attacks on shipping. Moreover, this was justified by propaganda that characterised enemy populations as vermin and targeted ‘enemy aliens’ (the enemy within) in particular. It is not surprising, therefore, that in Turkey, assailed on all sides as it was, this hysteria reached fever pitch. The Armenians within its borders, incited to rebellion by the Entente, and by Russia in particular, paid a terrible price and a new word gained common currency—genocide. The first round-up of Armenians (in Constantinople) was in April 1915 as the Gallipoli campaign began.

‘I see the old men all twisted and torn,
The tired old heroes of a forgotten war,
And the young people ask me “What are they marching for?”
And I ask myself the same question.’

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