Sinan and Gelibolu.

In the European autumn of 2002 I spent a month in Turkey.  Apart from experiencing another culture I wanted to fill a gap in my architectural background by seeing the mosques and other buildings designed by Sinan, the great architect of the Ottomans. 

There isn't much written about him in the West but I found one good biography by Arthur Stratton (SINAN: MacMillan 1972).  He was born in 1489 in a Greek Orthodox village in the Anatolian highlands, and forcibly inducted into the Ottoman army as a young man.  From 1512 to 1538 he was a soldier, first as a cadet, then as a Janissary, then general of the engineers (when he helped rebuild the walls of Jerusalem) and finally as commander of the Sultan's bodyguards.

Then Suleyman the Great appointed him Royal Chief Architect at the age of forty-nine.  It was the Golden Age of the Ottomans and for the fifty years until he died at age ninety-nine, Sinan is reputed to have built more buildings than any other architect who has ever lived.  The best of them are still standing and three of them are Imperial Friday Mosques, two are in Istanbul and the other one is in Edirne.

Which is a long winded introduction of how I went to Gallipoli, or Gelibolu as it's called in Turkish.  Sinan had nominated that his best and favourite mosque was the one in Edirne, which is in the top corner of Turkey near the Greek and Bulgarian borders.  Our aim was to go south from Istanbul to see the classical ruins at Pergamum, Ephesus and Aphrodisias on the Agean Sea, and Edirne was in quite the opposite direction.  So we went to Edirne first and instead of back tracking, went due south and crossed the Dardenelles back to the main part of Turkey at Gallipoli. 

Visiting Gallipoli hadn't been high on my agenda after all those boring Anzac Day ceremonies when I was at school, but I'm pleased now that Sinan at Edirne caused us to return via Gallipoli.  It was before the current enthusiasm for attending Dawn Services peaked at this year's centenary, we had the place to ourselves, which seemed appropriate for such solemn surroundings; it was a much more moving experience than I had expected.   My photographs show a site that was rougher and less developed than the place that has been reconstructed for mass tourism. 

It was moving on the simplest level of appreciating the difficulty of fighting on such difficult terrain and the courage and bravery that the Anzacs had exhibited in such an adverse environment. Despite my understanding of what a total disaster the overall exercise had been right from the start, there was an aura about the place that demanded sympathy as well as understanding.   Theirs not to ask why, they were landed in the wrong place, were unprepared with out of date maps and the inept British generals were twenty five miles away on a boat without any means of communication; nothing went right until the final successful evauation eight months later.

The British navy had been decisively defeated by the Turks at the Dardenelles the previous year, so the simple-minded idea that all the Allies had to do was to rock up to Istanbul and the Ottoman Empire would collapse, beggars belief when so many lives were at stake.  It's in the same order of self deception as the non-existent 'weapons of mass destruction' used to justify the invasion of Iraq. Without putting too fine a point on it, I find it monstrous that the Australian troops who landed at Gallipoli were sacrificed  in pursuit of such a casual idea. 

I hate hearing that those young men made the supreme sacrifice as though it was something noble that they chose.  It would be more accurate to say that they were sacrificed at Gallipoli to the totally inadequate planning of a highly doubtful strategy by the British High Command.  The British and French Gallipoli invasions are rarely mentioned, yet the French had the same number of men, as high casualties and it was just as great a failure. 

It was of course, one of Churchill's great strategic ideas!  He may have been the right man to lead England during the Second World War, but that didn't stop him making quixotic gestures that were indifferent to the human cost. He sent Australian troops for example, in a clearly doomed and vain attempt to help the Greeks when they were attacked, and as a result, many Australians, including two of my mother's cousins, were killed and lie in a cemetery at Cap Sounion..

Yet when one sees the faces at the Gallipoli Dawn Service and think of the courage and heroism of those they lost it seems both unkind and totally unnecessary one hundred years later to rub their noses in the fact that Gallipoli was even more futile and unnecessary than most wars.

I find it surprising that so many volunteered such a short time after Federation had made us a self governing Dominion.  I have a photograph taken in Martin Place totally crowded with people in hats, and a banner on the George Street buildings that simply said, 'Enlist, the Empire calls'.  Was that all it took to have them flocking so readily to go and be killed?

Not that it's changed all that much.  I clearly remember John Howard declaring that no decision had been made to go to war in Iraq and the next day it was announced that Australia was at war.  Ditto Afghanistan.  And it's quite clear by now that both Iraq and Afghanistan have been just as unsuccessful as Gallipoli? 

Prime Minister Abbott has argued that fighting there is defending us here, but that's not by any means a universal view.  Quite apart from the European countries, many comparable sized countries like Canada are not at all persuaded that fighting in Afghanistan and Iraq is in their national interests.  We are clearly there because the US is there. 

I'd shut up completely about Gallipoli if I was sure we'd learnt the lesson that we need to take a much more cool and independent stance before going to war. Malcolm Fraser wrote in his last book that Australia should cut all military ties with the US before they drag us into more wars.  He also thought we should be independent in our relations with both China and the US and become the Switzerland of the South Pacific. This is a debate we need to have before we cut welfare and spend billions on US jet fighters:  Read more.

It took wartime Prime Minister John Curtin to stand up to Churchill when he wanted to divert Australian troops to Burma when they were needed here to defend Australia from the Japanese advance.  And while Kokoda had a more real basis in serving Australia's needs than Gallipoli did, they were all heroes and require our respect no matter what the history was.  

One hundred years after 50,000 troops from Australia were involved in a pointless conflict in an ill thought-out defense of the Empire, and 0ne hundred years after 8,700 of them were killed, we should be clear eyed about what is in danger of becoming a romanticised myth,  and never forget the 'never again' real political lesson of Gallipoli!

Don Gazzard LFAIA
May 2015