Saturday, April 25, 2015

Celebrating ANZAC Day - Another Centennial

It seems like every day of the week there is a new centennial celebration.  Today we celebrate ANZAC Day, perhaps the most important national day of commemoration in both Australia and New Zealand.  And this year is the centenary of the event it commemorates . . . the landing of the Australian and New Zealand Army Corps [ANZAC] and other element of the British Mediterranean Force, along the shores of the Dardanelles.  The Gallipoli Campaign of World War I was devised to lay siege to Constantinople and to force the Ottoman Empire to capitulate and abandon its alliance with Imperial German and the Central Powers.  It is ironic that this campaign is looked upon by the modern Turkish state as a defining moment in that nation's history.  Today Turkey is also celebrating the beginning of the Gallipoli Campaign as its most significant military victory during that war.  Some say it is an ill-advised attempt to draw attention away from the centenary of the Armenian Genocide which began the day before the ANZAC landing on the Gallipoli peninsula, an event Turkey denies to this very day.  Turkey may have won that battle, but it lost the war; a fact it seems to forget.

The Gallipoli Campaign was the first instance of the independent Australian and New Zealand expeditionary troops participating in active combat during World War I.  The campaign was devised to be brief, but it quickly deteriorated into a months-long trench war where little ground was gained at a terrible cost for both sides - of over 150,000 casualties, prisoners and missing matching the Turkish losses.  The ANZAC troops were finally withdrawn in November and December 1915 and returned to their staging bases in Egypt where they were disbanded and where the original ANZAC Day was celebrated on the first anniversary of the landing at Gallipoli.  The former ANZAC units were reorganized and many were transferred to Great Britain and later deployed to the Western Front, in France, while others were deployed in Egypt and in Palestine.

I knew next to nothing about the Australian and New Zealand Army Corps, or the celebration of ANZAC Day, until I saw Peter Weir’s 1981 film “Gallipoli,” released in both Australia and the United States that August.  SallyAnn, who had quite a big-time jones for Australian cinema (and for almost anything Australian, to be honest), was quick to suggest we see the film as soon as it came out.  The fact that the film starred a very young Mel Gibson in one of his early roles, probably had a great deal to do with it.  He and fellow Australian actor Mark Lee played two young diggers from Western Australia caught up in the nationalism brought on by the war in Europe.  Struck by the popularity of men in uniform, and being rather down and out, they sought new adventure and enlisted in the ANZAC.  Soon they boarded troop transports to training and staging bases near Cairo, Egypt, and we watch them go through their exercises near the pyramids while enjoying youthful debauchery when on leave.  Eventually they are deployed to the Gallipoli Peninsula and finally experience the war up close and personal; boh the boredom and the relentless misery of trench warfare.  Peter Weir had visited the battlefield prior to the film’s production and he was able to capture the senselessness of war; so much death and nothing at all to show for it.  The film demonstrates a lost innocence as the young mens’ youthful esprit de corps quickly disappear as friends die and disappear.  And for what?

Last week SallyAnn and I participated in the annual DC Filmfest and had an opportunity to preview “The Water Diviner,” starring Russell Crowe in his directorial debut; its official release in the USA was yesterday after a record breaking success in Australia.  The film revisits the events of the Gallipoli Campaign, focusing primarily on its aftermath.  Four years after the battle, an Australian farmer and douser played by Crow travels to postwar Turkey in what could only be a vain attempt to locate the bodies of his three sons who died during the ANZAC offensive.  Unlike the intense battle scene in Weir’s film, here we see only brief flashbacks of machine-gun fire from opposing trenches.  And whereas the death of the Mark Lee character is captured in a final freeze frame reminiscent of Robert Capa’s iconic photograph of a Spanish loyalist soldier as a bullet strikes him dead, the almost unbearable scene of the three sons being mowed down by Turkish fire only to lie alone moaning and bleeding to death in no man’s land seems to go on forever.  Such is war.  Death can be unexpected and quick, or it can linger for what seems to be an eternity.

So pin on a sprig of rosemary while we salute those brave young men who fought and died for king and country.  And while we are at it, let us keep all veterans and those currently serving in uniform in our thoughts and prayer as we dream of the day when their sacrifices will no longer be necessary.

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