The ongoing impact of Gallipoli

22 April 2015

I think Gallipoli has a stronger impact on Australia's thinking about defence today than it has had at almost any time since the First World War.

It was the first occasion that a demonstratively Australian formation was involved in an operation that scale and intensity.

Australia's operation from Anzac Cove was self-contained, it gave us our own battlefield and our own battle. For inexperienced soldiers, they fought very well.

It's hard for us to recapture the sense that they had then, of being a new army for a new nation. They could have succeeded, and nearly did succeed at the beginning. Partly it was just bad luck, and luck always plays a big part in war.

I think Gallipoli has a stronger impact on Australia's thinking about defence today than it has had at almost any time since the First World War.

The lesson Australians often draw, including Australian leaders like John Howard and I suspect Tony Abbott, is that Gallipoli represents the Australian way of war. That is, that we deploy our forces far from home to support our allies and in support of our values.

I think that's quite wrong, I don't think that's what we were doing in the First World War. I think we had a very clear strategic purpose in the First World War directly linked to Australian security.

I think the key issue for us is to remember what we were really fighting for and we weren't fighting for abstract notions of freedom or democracy. We were fighting for Australia's security against Japan.

It has left Australia with a very vivid image of the Australian soldier, partly accurate partly confected but very vivid. Just because it's not true doesn't mean it's not important.

At the end of the war, when people looked back at Gallipoli and the whole four years with 60,000 dead, nobody wanted to make war heroic. They were just sick of it.

Professor Hugh White, ANU School of International, Political and Strategic Studies

This article was first published in ANU Reporter magazine.