FROM GALLIPOLI

May 2, 2015
Deirdre Bean, Image 1: 'Cape Helles', 2014, watercolour on paper and vellum. Image 2: '303 inch British Mk VII', 2014, watercolour on paper and vellum. Courtesy the artist
Deirdre Bean, Image 1: 'Cape Helles', 2014, watercolour on paper and vellum. Image 2: '303 inch British Mk VII', 2014, watercolour on paper and vellum. Courtesy the artist

There’s a lonely stretch of hillocks:

There’s a beach asleep and drear:

There’s a battered broken fort beside the sea.

There are sunken trampled graves:

And a little rotting pier:

And winding paths that wind unceasingly.

There’s a torn and silent valley:

There’s a tiny rivulet

With some blood upon the stones beside its mouth.

There are lines of buried bones:

There’s an unpaid waiting debt:

There’s a sound of gentle sobbing in the South.

Leon Gellert penned his poem, Anzac Cove, in 1918. There’s no longer any blood to be seen on the stones of Gallipoli, but the lonely hills, silent valleys and empty beach remain intact. No-one has ever proposed a development for this “sacred site” for Australians, New Zealanders and Turks.

We are still paying our debt to the Anzacs, still quietly mourning at the Dawn Ceremony. The angry protests of the 1960s have died away, along with the last of those World War One veterans who would spend Anzac Day getting drunk and playing two-up. The Anglo-Celtic heritage these men defended so fiercely seems like ancient history in an age in which one in three Australians hails from a non-English-speaking background. Yet this culturally diverse Australia has rediscovered a reverence for Anzac Day that was almost lost in the 1960s.

The historian, Bill Gammage, who wrote the classic oral history of WW1, The Broken Years (1970), recently told me that during the Vietnam era he and his colleagues believed Anzac Day was destined to disappear. The rage against war was so strong among a younger generation it seemed inevitable that a day commemorating a battle would be rejected and forgotten. This confrontation between past and present was dramatised by the late Alan Seymour in his play, The One Day of the Year (1958).

If young Australians of all backgrounds have embraced Anzac Day it is partly due to a less exclusive attitude from veterans organisations that previously banned non-combatants from the ceremonies. The realisation dawned that this policy meant there would soon be nobody left to carry the flame.

I was still at school during the Vietnam years so the rejection of Anzac Day and all it symbolises never made much of an impression. Later on it was impossible to study Australian history and not recognise the significance of the Anzac landing and the impact it had upon this country’s cultural identity.

So when Robert Linnegar of King Street Gallery on William St. suggested I accompany a group of Australian and New Zealand artists to Gallipoli for an extensive tour of the battlefields, it was an irresistible invitation. It was Linnergar’s second artists’ trip in two years, the first provided only a brief glimpse of the peninsula, the second would last eight days, with expert commentary from Brad Manera, historian for the Anzac Memorial in Hyde Park.

The original idea was for the artists to work en plein air, responding to the landscape where the Anzacs lived and fought from 25 April to late December 1915. The trip would lead to an exhibition, and a special publication by Artist Profile magazine, titled Your Friend, the Enemy, for which I’ve acted as guest editor.

There turned out to be enough work for three exhibitions: at the S.H. Ervin Gallery in Sydney; the Drill Hall Gallery, Australian National University, Canberra; and a smaller selection at Goulburn Regional Art Gallery, as part of a show called A Salute.

The phrase, Your Friend the Enemy, comes from a cache of letters discovered by Sydney artist, Idris Murphy, who went on both Gallipoli trips. The letters were written by his grandfather, Anzac veteran, Idris Charles Pike, and addressed to Violet Clapton, who became the artist’s grandmother.

In one of the letters Pike describes a brief armistice called to allow both sides to bury their dead, the decaying corpses having become a health hazard. The opponents met and exchanged food and tobacco. At the end of the day the Australians received a courteous note written in French thanking them for the goods, signed “Your friend the enemy”. The throwing of the first bomb signaled the resumption of hostilities and that strange interlude of peace became an historical footnote.

A hundred years later “your friend, the enemy” is a perfect description of the bond that exists between Australia, New Zealand and Turkey – former antagonists united in their desire to commemorate a brutal campaign fought on behalf of two great powers. The events at Gallipoli played a major role in shaping the national self-perceptions of all three countries. Australia and New Zealand believed they had earned their right to nationhood in this “baptism of blood”, while Mustafa Kemal Ataturk who rose to prominence with his success in the Dardanelles, would go on to be the founder of a new secular state.

Australia lost 8,709 men in the campaign, and New Zealand 2,271. Turkey lost 56,643 soldiers, with 107,007 wounded. These figures do not include those who died from illnesses such as typhoid and dysentery. Estimates of Turkish casualties alone were in excess of 250,000, while at least 21,000 Britons never returned home, although some sources give much higher figures.

Everyone who travelled to Gallipoli in 2013 and 2014 had studied the history of the site.

The artists on the 2104 trip were Deirdre Bean, Steve Lopes, Guy Maestri, Euan Macleod, Idris Murphy, Michael Nock, Amanda Penrose Hart, Luke Sciberras and Jonathan Throsby. They were joined by New Zealanders, Stanley Palmer, Michael Shepherd and John Walsh. Almost every traveller had a relative who had fought, and usually died, on these battlefields.

Photograph: Robert Linnegar, 2014

Photograph: Robert Linnegar, 2014

The trip held a special significance for Throsby, who is descended from Major General Sir William Throsby Bridges, commander of the 1st Australian Division in Gallipoli, where he died of wounds on 18 May 1915. The artist was accompanied by his ten-year-old son, Orlando, who painted alongside his father. The turbulent pictures Throsby produced reflect his ambiguous responses to “a wasted carnivorous skeletal landscape.”

Most of the artists took a more ambiguous view, being struck by the disjunction between picturesque vistas of hills, valleys and beaches, and the knowledge of the slaughter that took place in 1915. The peninsula is a vast graveyard, a last resting place for the bones of thousands of soldiers who will never be identified. It is a landscape of memory in which the impressions of the senses cannot be divorced from thoughts of the past.

That past stretches even further back than 1915, to the war between Greeks and Trojans in 1250 BC, on the other side of a narrow strip of water. One gazes from the top of a ridge towards the island of Samothrace, perpetually wreathed in clouds. It was a place where Alexander the Great went to commune with the Gods and be initiated into the mystery cults. Did the Anzacs think of the Greek Gods when they looked out at the same island? Do the tourists who flock to Gallipoli peer at this island and wonder about the mysteries it held?

We arrived in Gallipoli shortly after Anzac Day, but the temporary grandstands and barriers were still in place. The phenomenon of mass tourism sits oddly with the funereal nature of the site. Over the years there have been complaints about visitors acting in a disrespectful manner – playing loud music, getting drunk, leaving rubbish and used condoms.

Nobody on the artists tour, not even the irrepressible Luke Sciberras, saw Gallipoli as the ideal place for a party. Brad Manera took us from one landmark to the next, describing the battles that took place, and the personalities involved.

As with any artists trip there was a degree of unspoken rivalry, as one painter would strive to keep pace with the next. There were also those who preferred to go off by themselves to seek their own entry point into an unfamiliar subject.

Botanical artist, Deirdre Bean, felt she was the odd one out in a group of landscape painters. Known for small-scale studies of plants, she found herself affected by “the brutality of the campaign and the loss of innocence,” and began painting bullets and other remnants of the battlefields. Her major works were two life-sized watercolours of Lee Enfield rifles.

Guy Maestri, who has painted many plein air landscapes in Australia, found he could not adjust to the idea of painting “calm” pictures of a place so steeped in tragedy. As Maestri held fragments of bone picked up in one of the gullies, he realised a different approach was required. Back in his studio he produced a series of still lifes in the tradition of the memento mori – skulls, flowers and dead birds.

Euan Macleod felt the same need to personalise his Gallipoli pictures, painting both landscapes and more symbolic works. In one of his oils a colossal skeleton lies on a beach, in others we see faceless giants wrestling for supremacy. Two of the New Zealanders, Michael Shepherd and John Walsh, created works that might be best described as history paintings.

Although most of the travellers – Lopes, Nock, Penrose Hart – stuck to the brief and painted landscapes, perhaps only Idris Murphy managed to capture a truly melancholy atmosphere – in contrast to the expressionist vigour of Sciberras and Throsby, or the pristine freshness of Stanley Palmer’s paintings.

Gallipoli is a place in which the landscape will be forever marked by famous battles, with the scars easy to discern beneath the grass and shrubs. The peninsula is covered with cemeteries and memorials, none more moving than Lone Pine, with its lists of those whose bodies were never identified. On one of these lists I found my own great uncle, James W. Booley, of Warracknabeal, who died at the age of 27.

There have been many attempts to define the Anzac tradition. The creed of Sydney’s Gallipoli Memorial Club, which hosts an annual art prize, celebrates “loyalty, respect, love of country, courage and comradeship.” These are fine sentiments but hardly more than abstractions today.

Nowadays our most vivid experiences are often delivered through the media, ensuring an almost visceral jolt when we travel to a place where a sense of the past is so palpable. In Gallipoli one becomes conscious of the meaning of words such as ‘courage’ and ‘comradeship’. At the same time, surrounded by graves and memorials, one cannot see this sacrifice as anything but the most abject folly.

The assault on the Nek, on 7 August 1915, may be one of the most heroic episodes in Australian history, but it was also a tactical debacle that cost the lives of 372 men. To read about the battle and walk across the pitifully small stretch of ground where the Australians were cut down is an experience that defies description.

On this trip we approached Anzac Cove by boat, imagining what the soldiers felt 99 years ago when they headed towards those shores in the dim light of dawn, facing a wall of rock, a hail of gunfire and a strip of sand littered with bodies. We followed the winding trail from the top of Chunuk Bair taken by the NZ Corporal Cyril Bassett, as he repeatedly scampered from headquarters to the front lines under heavy fire, winning the Victoria Cross for his efforts. Bassett claimed he was so short the bullets simply passed over his head.

We stood at Courtney’s Post where Lance-Corporal Albert Jacka won his VC, launching a solo attack on an enemy trench, shooting five Turks and bayoneting two more, then holding the position singlehandedly for the rest of the night. Was it conspicuous bravery or sheer adrenalin rush? The desperation of kill-or-be-killed? Jacka was a man who never took a backward step, going on to further feats of heroism at Pozières.

In Gallipoli one understands the Anzac tradition as a force that takes us out of our habits of mind and asks us to imagine the unimaginable. To imagine what it was like to go to sleep, knowing, like those soldiers who charged at the Nek, that tomorrow would almost certainly be your last day on earth. To imagine crouching in a trench, awaiting the command to stand up and run towards enemy lines without a bullet in your rifle. To imagine the mind-set of men who had seen their friends murdered and disfigured, wondering if they could manage to dodge a bullet or a bomb.

For many Australians a visit to Gallipoli is the closest they will come to a mystical experience – a communing with history and with the dead. For artists, the problem of reconciling the past and the present took on a peculiarly concrete form. There are no obvious ways of painting a sun-drenched landscape so densely populated with ghosts. At the end of the trip many would have agreed with George Lambert, who painted Gallipoli in 1919 when it was still littered with skeletons and debris. “This place gives me the blues,” he wrote, “although it is very beautiful.”

Your Friend the Enemy,
S.H.Ervin Gallery, until 24 May

Return to Anzac Cove – Your Friend the Enemy
Drill hall gallery, Australian National University,
Canberra, until 17 May

A Salute: Aussie soldier from 1915 meets Young Turk in 2015
Goulburn Regional Art Gallery, until 1 May

Published in the Sydney Morning Herald, April, 2015