Was the Gallipoli experience a turning point in Australia's history? For many people this momentous event represents the very essence of Australia's identity. It was the first major step made by Australians towards nationhood. Through the confrontation of Australians and their British 'brothers', the two nations discovered their ignorance and lack of understanding of each other. This made the Australians question their true identity. As a result, the Australian stereotype was formed, one of loyalty, dedication and extraordinary fighting skills. A stereotype Australian men and women can relate to and aspire to. The Gallipoli campaign also acted as a 'coming of age' event for Australia where for the first time, Australia, as a unified country with a common goal was recognised as an independent state. The ANZAC legend is kept alive today by the Australian public who truly believe that the Gallipoli experience represents the birth of our nation.
For many Australians, ANZAC Day is a day to remember the turning point in Australia's history, the beginning of Australia as an independent and freestanding country. But, in some aspects the Gallipoli experience falls short of the mark as a singular event responsible for this development. ANZAC is one of the many events that should be recognised for its part in forming an Australian identity. Federation, the influx of migrants in Australia in the 1950's, the Election of the Labor Party in 1972 and the subsequent Constitutional Crisis of 1975 all contributed to the formation of the Australian nation. Another short coming of Gallipoli as the turning point of Australia's history is the fact that it remains in every part a 'White Australia' celebration. It does not reflect indigenous Australians or the large Asian community who also called Australia 'Home'. ANZAC day owes a lot to the considerable romanticizing and advertising given by the Returned Soldiers League (RSL) to the public. But, for most Australians, even in its most simple form, the Gallipoli experience can be recognised as a major event in the shaping of Australia's identity.
On January 1901, the six independent colonies of Australia were federated to form the new Commonwealth of Australia. From this came a new political system, a new relationship with Britain and a new identity. Australians began to seem themselves as Australian people rather than British colonists. "We have learnt from our wistful mothers to call old England 'Home' but the use of that fond expression is incorrect. Our home is Australia". Federation was the first major step for Australia towards nationhood.
At dawn on 25 April 1915, 16 000 ANZAC troops went ashore at Gaba Tepe, in an area later called ANZAC Cove. Many of them going into battle for the first time. The Turkish defenses were not strong but they were prepared and kept heavy fire on the landing ANZACS. "The Australians rose to the occasion. Not waiting for orders, they sprang into the sea, and forming a rough sort of line, rushed at the enemy's trenches." During the eight months that followed, the Australian troops gained a reputation for bravery and their exceptional fighting skills.
Ever since the establishment of Australia as an English Colony, Australians thought of themselves as a British people. Little was known about the 'mother country' and the British had little knowledge of the Australians. "I am sure that there are hundreds of thousands at home who think that all Australians are black. I heard one fellow who was astonished to find you spoke the same language as he did." This troubled the Australian troops. If they were not a British people, then what were they?
In the beginning of the Gallipoli campaign, the Australians were considered by some to be incompetent and incapable. But, by the end of the eight month campaign, the Australian troops had demonstrated a remarkable aptitude toward battle, gaining respect and recognition from soldiers from other nations. This change in attitude towards the Australian soldiers helped instil in them a sense of national identity and pride. It helped create the Australian stereotype, as disregarding of authority, an egalitarian, a brilliant fighter, and above all, loyal toward his mates. With the establishment of this ANZAC legend the Australians now had something that set them apart from the soldiers of other nations. They were Australian men, and they were proud of it.
"Before the ANZACS astonished the watching nations our national sentiment was of a flabby and sprawling character". Australians had no character, no identity, and still thought themselves as a British people. Gallipoli changed all that. It acted as a 'coming of age event'. The immature, naïve state of Australia was tested and, rising to the occasion, performed admirably, coming through as a strong country with a clear identity, ambition and aspiration.
Gallipoli, a turning point in Australia's history. This momentous event has ever since been recalled and commemorated on the anniversary of the 1915 landing, has inspired and influenced many Australians since. What is remembered on that day is not the defeat at Gallipoli, but rather the extraordinary courage and honour of the ANZAC troops and the men and women who have since served Australia in other military campaigns. The Gallipoli experience remains an important event in Australia's history, a heroic step on the path to nationhood. A whole fourteen years after federation, Australia as a nation was coming of age, as many nations do, through the tragic experience of war.
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The Age (Melbourne) 25/4/1998
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