Opening Speech for International Conference: Gallipoli 1915: A Century On

Llewellyn Hall, The Australian National University

18 MARCH 2015

Good morning. I extend a warm welcome to some special guests amongst us today:

    • His Excellency Mr Reha Keskintepe, Turkish Ambassador to Australia
    • Vice-Chancellor Professor Ian Young AO, Australian National University
    • Rear Admiral Ken Doolan AO RAN (ret’d), National President of the RSL
    • The Hon Dr Brendan Nelson, former Defence Minister and now Director of the Australian War Memorial
    • International guests
    • Ladies and Gentlemen and friends

Today is a very important anniversary – as important to Turkish nationhood as Anzac Day is to Australians and New Zealanders. 100 years ago today, Turkey repulsed the British and French fleet at Chanakkale, decisively ending their attempt to force the straits. Four days later, the fateful decision was made to commit to amphibious landings at Gallipoli.

From this vantage point, the Gallipoli campaign marked a turning point in the history of our nations.  For Turkey, Australia and New Zealand this was a defining moment of a nation’s maturity.  The Gallipoli campaign was fought on terrain which, for thousands of years, was the birthplace of our myths and legends.

It was the site of the Trojan Wars, of the Greco-Persian Wars, of Hero and Leander. And in the 14th Century, Gallipoli became the Ottoman Empire’s first foothold in Europe. It stood, both symbolically and in reality, for the gulf between East and West.

But this place, which was for so long a barrier, is today a bridge. It is the bridge between Europe and Asia Minor, the bridge between East and West. And indeed, it is the bridge over which our respective peoples made their way to nationhood.

For the great imperial powers of Europe, locked in the lethal stalemate of the Western Front, Gallipoli was something of a sideline. A fleet of obsolete vessels and a relatively small force, reinforced by untested ‘colonials’, would attempt to break the stalemate by re-opening a sea route to the Russians in the Black Sea, and drawing Turkish troops away from the Caucasian theatre of operations. It ultimately failed in this objective.

So from the Anglo-French perspective, the campaign was merely one failed attempt to break the stalemate in Europe. For the Ottoman command, the campaign was critical to prevent the opening of a new front that they could ill afford.

From this perspective, the successful defence of Gallipoli should have been a victory that ensured the survival of the Ottoman Empire. But with the clear-eyed hindsight of history, we see this campaign in a very different light.

For the fledgling nations of Turkey, Australia and New Zealand, this encounter is now remembered as a critical juncture in the birth of independent nationhood.

Far from being a failure, this was the campaign in which Australia and New Zealand proved to the world, and to themselves, that they could survive the withering heat of modern warfare. And in a great historical irony, what appeared to be a great victory for the Ottoman Empire was, in fact, a watershed moment for the nationalist movement that was to replace it.

This was not least because the Turkish forces at Gallipoli were commanded by Mustapha Kemal Ataturk, soon to emerge as the leader of the Turkish nation, who would dismantle the Ottoman Empire. For the Turks, the Battle of Chanakkale fuelled an emerging national sentiment and the phrase, “Chanakkale is impassable”, became a proud slogan of this emerging national spirit.

The Gallipoli Campaign was commemorated in the stirring folk song, “A Ballad for Chanakkale”, which ended with the sombre words:

In Chanakkale are rows of willows
Brave lions rest beneath them, oh, my youth, alas.

This song betrays no hint of enmity or hostility to the Australians, New Zealanders, British and Indians who were these brave lions’ enemies.

This magnanimity is reflected in Ataturk’s own words, engraved in the memorial to the fallen at Ari Burnu, now Anzac Cove, and also in the Ataturk Memorial here in Canberra, which would be familiar to many Australians:

Those heroes that shed their blood and lost their lives. . . You are now lying in the soil of a friendly country. Therefore rest in peace. There is no difference between the Johnnies and the Mehmets to us where they lie side by side here in this country of ours. You, the mothers, who sent their sons from far away countries, wipe away your tears; your sons are now lying in our bosom and are in peace. After having lost their lives on this land they have become our sons as well.

Ataturk’s words are an example of the bridge of friendship between our nations.

Another example of this bridge is embodied by an Australian, Charles Snodgrass Ryan. Born in my home State of Victoria in 1853, as a young doctor, Ryan took up a post as a military surgeon with the Turkish Government and participated in the Turkish-Serbian War of 1876 to 1877 and the Russo-Turkish war of 1877 to 1878.

Due to his bravery at the siege of Plevna, during which he repeatedly ran to the aid of wounded Turkish soldiers at the front line, Ryan earned the nickname “Plevna” Ryan. After the war, he was awarded for aiding Turkish interests.

On his return to Australia, Plevna Ryan pursued his medical career until, at the age of 61, he was to return to Turkey, this time as Assistant Director of Medical Services in the Australian Infantry Force.

On 24 May 1915, a truce was called so that the Turkish and Australian medical teams could tend to casualties in no‑man’s land. Medical officers from both sides interacted at the scene, and Turkish medical officers were surprised to recognise Turkish medals on Ryan’s chest.

Questioning Ryan about the medals, they were still further surprised to realise that this Australian was a decorated Turkish war hero, “Plevna” Ryan! Ryan and the Turkish officers talked about the Siege of Plevna in Turkish for a time, and then the truce ended, they returned to their trenches and fighting resumed.

Charles “Plevna” Ryan retired in 1919 with the rank of Major General.

I understand Professor Haluk Oral, who will be presenting a paper on Friday, is responsible for recent research into “Plevna” Ryan. It is a wonderful example of the bridge of friendship that sometimes endured even in the midst of battle.

It shows that, even in the heat of a terrible campaign that cost over 60 000 lives on each side, those fighting were not motivated by hatred or malice.

For Australia’s official war historian, Charles E. W. Bean, 25 April 1915 was the day “the consciousness of Australian nationhood was born.”

Bean made it clear that the Australians did not fight because of any hatred of the Turks. Rather, he said:

The big thing in the war for Australia was the discovery of the character of Australians. It was character which rushed the hills at Gallipoli and held on there.

Ironically, the Australians and New Zealanders were to participate in, and even lead, some of the most important battles of the Western Front.

And yet, it was the sacrifice of the ultimately unsuccessful Gallipoli campaign that has become the symbolic bridge, in our cultural memory, between our identity as untested ‘colonials’ and our sense of independent nationhood. Next month, Australians and New Zealanders will stand on the soil of Gallipoli and commemorate Anzac Day.

Especially during the Centenary of Anzac period, Turks, Australians and New Zealanders around the world will pause to honour those who have served, and remember those who have given their lives in service during, conflicts and peacekeeping operations. The Turkish people will once again welcome us, not as enemies but as friends, as they always have.

Today, I have the privilege to welcome distinguished Turkish scholars, along with distinguished scholars from around the world, to Australia on this most important anniversary. I know that over the next three days you all will discharge your duty as historians to strengthen the bridge of common understanding and friendship between our countries. I wish you all the best for this important conference. Thank you.