David Stephens. How did Canberra get its memorial to Kemal Atatürk?

Apr 20, 2016

The Atatürk Memorial in Anzac Parade, Canberra, was unveiled on Anzac Day 1985. Over the signature ‘Kemal Atatürk’, the memorial bears an inscription which commences like this:

Those heroes that shed their 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
Here in this country of ours …

Research by Honest History and its associates shows there is no strong evidence that Atatürk, an Ottoman commander at Gallipoli and the founder of modern Turkey, ever said or wrote these words. This article looks at how Canberra got a memorial including them. It draws upon the files of the then National Capital Development Commission (NCDC).

In September 1984, the Department of the Prime Minister and Cabinet (PM&C) advised NCDC of a proposal for a commemorative plaque referring to the Australians at Gallipoli. At the same time, discussions were underway about how Australia could reciprocate the Turkish gesture of officially renaming part of the Gallipoli area ‘Anzac Cove’. Calling a stretch of Limestone Avenue outside the Australian War Memorial ‘Gallipoli Avenue’, or perhaps even ‘Atatürk Avenue’, had been suggested but seemed unlikely to satisfy the Turks – or the Memorial, which objected to ‘Atatürk Avenue’.

After the federal election on 1 December and the Christmas break, things began to move. At the end of January, Prime Minister Hawke’s office (PMO) advised the Turkish Ambassador that Australia was attracted to a proposal that Turkey would provide a brass plaque bearing a depiction of Atatürk’s head and the text in English of his famous saying.

Soon after, PM&C advised that the prime minister wanted the plaque in place by Anzac Day, NCDC was told that the prime minister’s ‘personal interest’ dictated haste, and the prime minister himself wrote to the responsible minister, Gordon Scholes, asking him to take ‘personal responsibility’ for the project. The Australian War Memorial vetoed putting a plaque next to the Lone Pine in the grounds of the Memorial. (This was because Atatürk was not Australian.) Somehow – NCDC files are unclear on the details – the decision was made to place a plaque – and a memorial – in Anzac Parade.

The PMO’s January advice hinted at the strong involvement from the Turkish government: it wanted to supply both the likeness of Atatürk for the memorial and the accompanying text. A few days later the Australian Embassy in Ankara advised PM&C that it had seen the Turks’ proposed words and thought they were satisfactory.

The files do not disclose whether anyone knew the translation they were getting from the Turks had been worked up seven years earlier in an exchange between the Turkish Historical Society and Alan J. Campbell of the Gallipoli Fountains of Honour Committee in Brisbane. They reveal, however, the gradual dropping of the word ‘attributed’, as in ‘words attributed to Atatürk’. When Minister Scholes unveiled the memorial he simply referred to ‘Atatürk’s own moving tribute’. Reciprocity apparently eschewed caveats like this.

Strike action during March delayed the work and the files include suggestions that the Anzac Day deadline would not be met. Senior NCDC officials speculated that an Anzac Day ceremony might be avoided anyway to avoid upsetting Armenians commemorating the anniversary of the Armenian Genocide on 24 April.

Relying on Ankara added further uncertainty. The Turkish Ambassador was, said PM&C, ‘adamant that his Government provide the plaque(s) for this Memorial’. Atatürk’s bas relief head had still not arrived from Ankara but PM&C were disinclined to press the Ambassador. In early April the head was still absent.

As it turned out, the memorial was unveiled on schedule on Anzac Day. Questions remain about why the Turks pushed so hard for the project. A partial answer may lie in the Turkish Constitution of 1982, which set up the Atatürk High Institution of Culture, Language and History, incorporating the Turkish Historical Society, ‘to disseminate information on the thought, principles and reforms of Atatürk, Turkish culture, Turkish history and the Turkish language’.

At a time when Turkish relations with ‘Western’ countries were patchy, there may well have been attractions in using the ‘Atatürk words’ in cultural diplomacy with an American and British ally in the Southern Hemisphere. With Prime Minister Hawke’s strong support a new memorial appeared in Anzac Parade.

David Stephens is secretary of the Honest History coalition and editor of its website (www.honesthistory.net.au). The views in this article are not necessarily those of all supporters of Honest History. A longer version of this article, with links, will appear on the Honest History site.


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