Vicken Babkenian. Gallipoli’s inconvenient ‘other side’.

Apr 10, 2015

Leading up to the Gallipoli centenary, a growing trend emerged in Australia of presenting the ‘other side’ of the story. From popular books, official histories, films and academic conferences, the ‘Turkish’ perspective of Gallipoli became widely told.[1] According to this perspective, as illustrated in a recent article by Dr Jennifer Lawless, the allied landing at Gallipoli was an invasion of the ‘Turkish homeland’ and by the end of the campaign, many more ‘Turks’ (87,000) than Anzacs (8700) died.[2] The campaign is portrayed as an almost wholly Turkish and Australian affair, contributing to the birth of both nations and a symbol of a centenary of friendship.[3] A deeper understanding of the history, however, reveals that many of these narratives are anachronistic interpretations, promoting nationalist agendas with fundamental errors and omissions.

In reality, when the Anzacs landed at Gallipoli on 25 April 1915, they were part of an Anglo-French invasion of the Ottoman Empire, not Turkey. The republic of Turkey was not established until 1923. Like the British and French imperial forces, the Ottoman Army reflected the multi-ethnic make up of the Ottoman Empire. While most of the officers were ethnic Turks, the army included large numbers of Arabs, Kurds, Armenians, Greeks, Circassians and Jews. According to Australian military historian Bill Sellars ‘two thirds of the troops who made up Colonel Mustafa Kemal’s 19th Division that faced the first wave of the Allied invasion were Syrian Arabs’.[4] A more comparable casualty comparison should be made between the empires and not ‘Turks’ v Anzacs.

During the war, the Ottoman Empire was led by a dictatorial triumvirate of Young Turks – Enver, Talaat and Djemal. Since coming to power in a violent coup in 1913, the Young Turks had been pursuing a policy of ethnic and religious homogenisation of the empire in order to create a ‘Turkey for the Turks’. The Young Turk participation in the First World War on the side of Germany allowed them to speedily accomplish this goal under the cover of war.

‘Gallipoli’, derived from the Greek word for ‘beautiful city’, was historically a Greek peninsula but had been absorbed by the Ottoman Empire in the 15th century. Just two weeks prior to the Anzac landings, the Ottoman authorities deported about 22,000 of the peninsula’s native Greek population into the interior of Anatolia (current day Turkey). [5]Many would die of harsh conditions. This was only a precursor to the larger persecutions to follow. Triggered by what many scholars argue was the impending landing by the Anglo-French forces on the Gallipoli peninsula, the Young Turk government arrested some 250 Armenian intellectuals in the capital of the Empire, Constantinople (now Istanbul), on 24 April 1915. This marked the beginning of what Henry Morgenthau, the United States ambassador to the Ottoman Empire in 1915, described as a ‘campaign of race extermination’. As a representative of a neutral nation, Morgenthau stood at a critical juncture in the flow of information. His key informants were US diplomats, missionaries and businessmen stationed throughout the Ottoman Empire.

In almost every town and village in the Empire, the Armenian population was arrested and deported by orders from the central government in Constantinople. The men were in most cases killed just outside their towns and villages. A much worse fate awaited the women and children. After being uprooted from their homes, they were forced to walk southwards in huge convoys to the burning deserts of northern Syria. Most would die of starvation, murder and disease. In the Ottoman war theatre, Anzacs witnessed the Armenian tragedy—some even helped rescue survivors of the death marches. Many Anzac prisoners captured by the Ottoman Army were held in abandoned Armenian churches and homes and they became key eyewitnesses to the unfolding events.

Every major newspaper in Australia covered the genocide with regularity—the Melbourne Age having published more than 40 articles on the event in 1915 alone. Headings such as ‘Armenians Butchered’, ‘Million Armenians Massacred’ and ‘More Armenians Massacred—girls sold in open market’ were indicative of the tone of the articles being published around this time.[6] By December 1915, the United States consul in Syria reported that some one million Armenians had died and another half-a-million destitute refugees were scattered in or around his consular district. Australian prisoner of war, Private Daniel Creedon of the 9th Battalion AIF, wrote in his diary just two months later: ‘The people say that the Turks killed 1¼ million Armenians.’ Creedon was held captive in an isolated internment camp in the Taurus Mountains of Anatolia and died a few months after he made his diary entry. His figure was close to the figure accepted for the death toll of the massacres and suggests that the magnitude of the outrage was known and discussed by the Anzac prisoners of war.

The story of Armenian suffering evoked a strong humanitarian response in Australia at the time leading to the establishment of the Armenian Relief Fund, which began in Victoria in 1915, spread throughout the country, and continued its work for over a decade. The Victorian state war council recognised the Armenian fund as a ‘patriotic fund’ – one considered as having been formed for the purpose of supporting Australia’s allies as well as its own soldiers. The relief movement culminated in the establishment of an Australian-run orphanage for some 1700 Armenian orphans in Beirut, Lebanon.

When the war ended, the victorious Allies arrested over a hundred Turkish officials for their role in the ‘Armenian massacres’ and the ‘ill-treatment’ of Allied (including Anzac) prisoners of war. However, the subsequent rise of a new Turkish nationalist movement headed by Mustapha Kemal (Ataturk) succeeded in revoking the post-war Treaty of Sevres which had stipulated an international trial of the Turkish offenders. When the new Turkish republic was established in 1923, the multi-ethnic Ottoman Empire had become a mostly homogenous Turkish nation state.

By the mid-1930s, the Armenian genocide had largely faded from the world’s collective memory. It was an observation not missed by Adolph Hitler when he made his infamous remark in 1939: ‘Who, after all, speaks today about the annihilation of the Armenians?’ Raphael Lemkin, a Polish Jewish lawyer who lost 49 members of his family during the Holocaust, coined the word ‘genocide’ in 1944. Lemkin cited the Armenian case as a defining example of what the word meant. International jurist Geoffrey Robertson calls the event an ‘inconvenient genocide’ because recognising and remembering the crime in many countries often results in harsh diplomatic reactions from Turkey. In the case of Australia, the Turkish foreign ministry banned some NSW MPs from visiting commemorations at Gallipoli after having voted in favour of an Armenian genocide resolution in the NSW parliament in 2013.

It was not until 1967, some 50 years after Gallipoli, that Turkey and Australia formally established bilateral relations. Since then, the relationship between the two nations has developed rapidly with frequent high-level visits and expanding bilateral trade and investment.[7] On the issue of the Armenian genocide, the Australian federal government has been faced with a moral dilemma. For decades, the government has maintained a policy of non involvement in ‘this sensitive debate’. However in 2014, for the first time, Australia’s foreign minister, Julia Bishop, expressed her Liberal government’s position on the issue in a letter to the Australian Turkish Advocacy Alliance organisation. She wrote that the Australian government does ‘not … recognise these events as “genocide”’ adding further that ‘Australia attaches great importance to its relationship with Turkey, which is underpinned by our shared history at Gallipoli, and by the recent cooperation in the G20’.[8] Diplomatic cables between Ankara and Canberra obtained under Freedom of Information laws revealed that last year the matter arose in a letter from Ms Bishop to her Turkish counterpart, Ahmet Davutoglu. Ms Bishop wrote that ‘recognising the important interests at stake for both countries, I assure you that there has been no decision to change the long-standing position of successive Australian governments on this issue’.

It seems that our nation’s collective memory of Gallipoli and the government’s position on the Armenian genocide are influenced more by current economic and political relations than a true reflection of the past. If, as some historians have suggested, that telling the honest truth about Australia’s First World War experience is the best way to honour our war dead, than it’s time for a more truthful representation of the ‘other side’ of Gallipoli.

Vicken Babkenian is an independent researcher for the Australian Institute for Holocaust and Genocide Studies, Sydney. He is the author of a number of articles on Australia’s humanitarian response to the Armenian genocide.


[1] Russell Crowe’s movie, The Water Diviner is an example.

[2] See Dr Jennifer Lawless, ‘Gallipoli: A Turkish Perspective’, Teaching History (NSW), March 2015.







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