Is The End Nigh For The Gallipoli Pilgrimage?


As we are exposed to a saturated media coverage of the Centennial commemorations at Anzac Cove, it tempting to think that public engagement with this hallowed ground is at its zenith.

In fact, the pilgrimage tradition to Gallipoli as we know it is already under threat, and the existence of the pilgrimage was always tenuous.

Historians often speak of visits to the battlefield throughout the 20th century. The journalist-come historian Charles Bean, for example, toured Anzac battle sites in 1919 to report on the state of the graves and advise on appropriate memorial formations, thinking that the whole Gallipoli area would become "… one big graveyard, which would probably be visited by thousands of Australians”.

Bean’s prophesy was misplaced. Not only could relatives of the fallen not afford the long trip to Turkey, but up until the 1980s the battlefields were a military zone requiring special permission by Turkish authorities to enter.

Certainly there were a number of individual and organised veterans tours who visited over the decades, but these were scarce. And counter to popular belief these early tourists did not receive the warm welcome they do today.

Despite question marks over its historical authenticity, Australian politicians now frequently quote Ataturk’s address to an Allied party, mostly made up of veterans in 1937, principally the passage stating that, “There is no difference between the Johnnies and the Mehmets to us where they lie side-by-side here in this country of ours”.

It is never noted that the message, if it in fact was the one delivered by The Minister for the Interior to the visitors, occurred against a background of a growing discontent with the pro-Western reforms in the country, with his speech looking to appease local hostility towards permission being given to foreigners but not locals to visit the sites of fallen relatives.

The various memorials at Gallipoli built in the 1980s created a sanctioned commemorative space for the Hawke government’s return there for the 75th anniversary in 1990.

In addition, in memorialising Ataturk’s 1937 quote there are a range of sites that narrate the battle emphasising kind acts between Allies and Turkish soldiers.

While the original memorialisation occurred in the afterglow of Allied Victory in the Great War, and was forced upon Turks by the Treaty of Lausanne, the late 20th century wave of memorialisation was possible as it occurred against a backdrop of low levels of commemorative engagement by Turks with the fighting around Anzac Cove, with the local as well as national focus in Turkey traditionally being on their victory in March 1915 over the mighty British navy.

Of course memorials are only significant if they are visited. While the 75th anniversary commemorations were carefully orchestrated, and despite the many millions of dollars the Australian federal government spent on memorialisation, it was largely presumed to be a one off event; or certainly something that would not be repeated again until the centennial.

In between, though, we have seen thousands upon thousands of the most surprising of visitors – young Australian backpacker travellers. Not only did this group, typically marginal to Anzac rites in Australia, turn up in large numbers on Anzac Day, but throughout the year.

Their presence helped build a tourist infrastructure in nearby towns and fostered increasing visits by more mainstream tourist types.

Ironically, this popularity in visiting the battlefields may result in its demise. After two decades of fairly unrestricted access to the battlefields, we are again seeing Turkish authorities regulating access, with a mere 8,000 Australians being able to attend the centennial dawn service and ceremonies later in the day.

There are a variety of reasons for limiting numbers. One infrequently discussed though is the increasing popular interest Turks have with the campaign.

In the late 20th century we saw a high number of Turkish memorials established on the battlefields, largely to counter the presence of Anzac ones, attracting public interest.

The tourist infrastructure of hotels and Turkish battlefield tour companies was something that also created to be utilised by the growing middle-class in Turkey. And, most importantly, as successive Australia prime ministers romanticised Ataturk’s role in the campaign in their diplomatic missions, the Turkish public, academics and politicians started to take notice, with the battlefields declared as a place every Turkish school child should visit.

Now, 20,000 young Turks annually engage in their own avant-garde ritual, a four-day re-enactment march of Ataturk’s 57th regiment to protect the high ground from the Anzac invaders.

More than 20,000 youth participate in this, and it ends at the increasingly symbolic Turkish cemetery that was established in 1992, and which sits in close proximity to Lone Pine.

There is also an indication that the latest generation of young Australians have less interest in visiting Gallipoli, with the numbers attending Anzac Day on the battlefields being less than 10,000 in recent years.

The greater involvement of the Australian and Turkish government in overseeing its organisation is one reason for this decline. It certainly has taken away from the spontaneous and independent character of the event, which originally attracted the participation of backpackers.

While older Australians will dominate those selected by the Department of Veterans Affairs to be present at the centennial commemorations, it is unlikely this age group will continue visiting the battlefields in future years, if political and security conditions in Turkey continue to worsen.

At the same time, local tour companies nearby Gallipoli are less interested in facilitating Anzac Day for any Australian tourist, with the event seen as a distraction from their main source of profit – the large number of international tourists who now tour the battlefields, typically undertaking a day tour from Istanbul.

Where it was the case that Australians dominated tour groups, facilitating a type of social togetherness and shared sense of experiencing the site, in recent years they are but one nationality in an increasingly cosmopolitan landscape.

* Brad West is an Associate Professor in Sociology at the University of South Australia. His most recent book is Re-enchanting Nationalisms: Ritual and remembrances in a Postmodern Age (Springer, 2015).

Launched in 2004, New Matilda is one of Australia's oldest online independent publications. It's focus is on investigative journalism and analysis, with occasional smart arsery thrown in for reasons of sanity. New Matilda is owned and edited by Walkley Award and Human Rights Award winning journalist Chris Graham.