Monday, April 28, 2008

Anzac Day

Mytho-poetic vapours… clouded many a mind during the Gallipoli campaign of 1915: in many ways an attempt to liberate the ‘holy land’ of Attica, so dear to the West’s imagination, from the Ottoman scourge. Young hoplites from Britain, France and the dominions were sent into battle against walls of flying metal because this place was still an ideal. When the time came to address his troops before their blooding, the romantically minded Commander-in-Chief of the expeditionary force, General Sir Ian Hamilton, invoked the eternal fame of the Homeric heroes. ‘You will hardly fade away until the sun fades out of the sky and the earth sinks into universal blackness’ he declared, ‘for already you form part of that great tradition of the Dardanelles which began with Hector and Achilles…’

By the time of the Great War, glamorous myth had replaced hard-edged history as another armada sailed for the Hellespont. The Englishman Patrick Shaw-Stewart, combatant and classicist, took an old copy of Herodotus on the boat to Gallipoli. ‘The flower of sentimentality expands childishly in me on classical soil,’ he wrote. ‘It is really delightful to bathe in the Hellespont looking straight over to Troy’...

The much-loved Rupert Brooke, sailing to the Dardanelles- he was to die off Skyros of an untreated mosquito bite two days before the dawn landing of 25 April 1915- also pictured the impending battle in the colours of a glorious past:

They say Achilles in the darkness stirred…
And Priam and his fifty sons
Wake all amazed, and hear the guns,
And shake for Troy again.

The officers and soldiers of the Australian Imperial Force were hardly immune to the resonance of their surroundings. An Australian contingent, pushing out their trenches at Gallipoli, chipped away at the buried remains of an ancient settlement, but there was no time for amateur archaeology and enemy fire propelled them on. Charles Bean, the classically educated war correspondent and official military historian, later kicked at the dirt and uncovered a coin of ancient provenance. The Australians may not have penned war poetry of lasting merit, but their waggish doggerel offers a distinctly ironic counter to the high-toned myth of war:

An then ol’ Joe- ‘e was a well read chap-
Starts tellin’ us about a ten years scrap
They ‘ad in Troy which wasn’t far away
So Joe made out, from where we were that day.
A bloke ‘ad pinched a bonzer tabby, then
‘Er own bloke came to get ‘er back again,
An all ‘is cobbers came to see fair play,
An’ in the end they got ‘er safe away.
But Bill ‘e didn’t think a scrap could start
And last ten years about a blanky tart;
No Jane ‘e’d ever met was worth a brawl.
There must be something else behind it all.

Within a few short years of the homecoming the Anzac experience of blood, mud, and gore had been burnished into the much more brilliant Anzac legend; the hard-bitten Australian digger was openly likened to both the Greek citizen-soldier and the Homeric warrior of myth. For the author of The Trojan War 1915, a member of the Australian Field Ambulance on Gallipoli, the digger was already a reincarnated Greek hero:

Homeric wars are fought again
By men who like old Greeks can die;
Australian backblock heroes slain
With Hector and Achilles lie.

Dating Aphrodite; modern adventures in the ancient world
Luke Slattery, pp 3-8

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