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Our Global Neighbours: Weapons from Gallipoli

By: Dr Stan Florek, Category: Science, Date: 06 Jan 2015

Historical relics and a mythology of war.

Nepalese Sword - Handle: E28583

Nepalese Sword - Handle: E28583
Photographer: Stan Florek © Australian Museum

Our Global Neighbours is a blog series containing stories from and about cultures around the world.

Mythologies in art and literature are enriching; in history – misleading.

Our campaign at Gallipoli in 1915 became an important part of national mythology. According to common belief the operation of taking a foothold on the peninsula at Gallipoli was poorly planned, incompetent and disastrous in number of soldiers killed and wounded. But it made our nation and is essential to our collective identity – as many of us are lead to believe.

This quote from the Australian War Memorial exemplifies this sentiment.

25 April 1915 is a date etched in Australia’s history. Its anniversary is commemorated across the country each year as Anzac Day. To many this is Australia’s most important national day. In the morning of this day Australian troops made a landing on a hostile shore along the Gallipoli peninsula in Turkey. Some saw it as Australia’s ‘baptism of fire’ and ‘the birth of nationhood’. This is also the most thoroughly documented day in Australia’s history. Charles Bean devoted most of the first volume of his official history of the war, 'The Story of Anzac,' to the events of the day: nine chapters and over 90,000 words.

When the history is stripped of mythology a much more interesting picture emerges. As historian Hugh Dolan demonstrates in his recent book Gallipoli Air War (published Pan Macmillan 2013), our invasion of Turkey was one of the best prepared operations of the Great War, using sophisticated (at that time) air reconnaissance and intelligence gathering, deploying the most modern technology available, including an observation of Turkish defences from balloons high in the air. And the battle of the ground forces was accompanied by intense fighting in the air, including 2000 raids.

The landing did not happen at dawn (as was common for British forces) in the hail of bullets and artillery shelling. To the contrary it happened at night, in total silence, with soldiers carrying firearms without ammunition in them to prevent accidental discharge. The decks of the cargo steamers were covered with carpet to muffle the steps of invading troops. The initial operation was a complete success with minimal casualties.

The following stalemate and eventual failure of the operation was the result of strategic decisions of British generals reluctant to provide sufficient force and sustained support.

It is refreshing to know that for years after the war casual visitors could walk over the fields and collect various objects, including abandoned weapons. Two weapons allegedly collected in such a manner made their way to the collection of the Australian Museum in the 1920s. They are interesting relics of the war from the lower end of the technological spectrum. One is the Goorkha (Gurkhas) kukri knife and the other a short sword of probably Nepalese origin. Australian soldiers were considered colonial forces and fought alongside a sizable contingent of Goorkha troops - military units in the Nepalese, British and Indian armies who enlisted in Nepal, effectively mercenaries.

Gallipoli did not become Australia’s equivalent of a Holy Land until later in the second half of the 20th century, and for the wrong reason – incompetence and heroic failure rather than inventive ingenuity against the backdrop of the war that was the wrong conflict, executed with vicious savagery by incompetent governments and generals, and lamentable loss of human life.

And Australia actively prompted Britain to go to war, favouring force over diplomacy as historian Douglas Newton demonstrates in his new book Hell-Bent – Australia’s Leap into the Great War (published Scribe 2014)