Wednesday, May 03, 2006


Χριστός Ανέστη. The news that the Victorian branch of the RSL would this year permit descendants of Turkish troops who fought the Australian Anzacs to march side by side with the ANZACs’ descendants did not rouse feelings of outrage in me, as it did in other compatriots. The First World War took place some ninety years ago, relations between the two erstwhile enemy countries have been cordial ever since and nothing is more eloquent a symbol of forgiveness than demonstrating to one’s former enemy that old enmity is laid aside, than inviting him to honour dead ancestors together. It is a magnanimous gesture on behalf of the RSL, similar in calibre to the monument set up by the stout-hearted Cretans, to the fallen murderous and barbaric Nazi soldiers of the Second World War and the keystone in a process of reconciliation and purging of the toxins of ill will.
What I did find objectionable and implausible however, was Victorian RSL President Major-General McLachlan’s assertion that the Ottomans were a “very honourable enemy.” It is an assertion that does not seem to be borne up by historical fact. One cannot help but think that its timing comes cynically close to media reports of the parlous state of Australian memorials on the Kallipolis peninsula and is a sop intended for the maintenance of eroding soil, as well as privileges. Finally, it is an assertion that offends the sensitivities of significant portion of Australian society and as such, it is indicative of the regard the RSL appears to have for that sector that does not fit into the Anglo-Celtic ‘ANZAC’ stereotype, regardless of their efforts both as allies and subjects.
The Major-General’s arbitrary selection of “honourable” enemies seems to contradict eyewitness testimony from Australian prisoners of war, notable George Handsley of the Light Horse Regiment, whose ordeals were published in 1919 in his book “Two and a Half Years a Prisoner of War in Turkey.” Documenting his ordeal, Handsley wrote: “This camp was described by the prisoners who had been there some time as the worst in Turkey, a ‘hell on earth.’ Floggings were given daily on the slightest pretext and very often we received thrashings for offences of which we were ourselves totally ignorant.”
Further telling accounts are archived in the Australian War Memorial in Canberra. According to the official memorial website: “Food was poor, medical care primitive and all experienced a casual brutality. Many laboured to build the Taurus railway in southern Turkey in extremes of heat and cold. “It was hell,” an Australian recalled, “we had to fight to keep alive.” Indeed, it is further stated that of the Australians captured by the Ottomans in World War One, one man in four died in captivity. "
Just how ‘honourable’ the ‘enemy’ in question was is encapsulated in the British White Paper titled ‘British Prisoners of War in Turkey, published in 1918, which includes the following excerpt: “It is a story of national crime. The Turks killed our men slowly, deliberately and with a luxury of torture.” Is the President of the RSL therefore displaying a flawed understanding of history or are we witnessing something more insidious, a spin-doctoring of history to achieve a particular aim?
This would come as to surprise at any rate. In considering whether the appellation of “honourable enemy” befits the Ottomans, one immediately recalls the alleged ethnic cleansing and alleged genocide of alleged Armenians, Greeks and Assyrians at the same time that the ANZACs were battling to take Kallipolis. Yet is it worthwhile to point out to the Major-General and others like him that the Ottomans were only able to fortify themselves in Kallipolis after cleansing the peninsula of its native Greek population? Probably not. For the Major-General’s comments clearly show that what allegedly happened to an alleged bunch of dagoes, who by the way were fervent supporters of the Triple Entente and in the case of the Assyrians actively enlisting in the British army, is totally irrelevant, falling as it does outside the canon of pure Australian military history.
Funnily enough, the Australians’ obsession over honourable enemies is paradoxical when juxtaposed against their own conduct during the war, especially towards their own minorities. At the commencement of the First World War, Greece sought to remain neutral, its people sympathizing with the Entente and its Germanophile King, with the Kaiser. Thus until 1917, after our most honourable allies bombarded and occupied Piraeus, the Greeks of Australia were treated with suspicion and contempt, despite their vociferous support for the war and the fact that no less than fifty seven members of the Greek community volunteered to fight for the Australian forces.
Thus, though as Hugh Gilchrist tells us in Volume II of his monumental work: ‘Australians and Greeks,’ Greek shopkeepers decided to donate all their profits to the Australian war effort and the Greek Community of Melbourne and Victoria bravely denounced Greece’s decision to remain neutral at a meeting in Evangelismos Church, this is how the Australian press saw Greek affirmations of loyalty and patriotism: “Da Greeka people off Melbourne gotta together one big crowd last night and saya altogetha and shout… Venizelos he good man, we helpa send him big telegram and saya you plucky chup, bog in, ‘ooray. Then we eata steaka oyst, drinka wine of country, go home verr’ happy. Ah! Brava chap da Greek.”
The method in which honourable Australians tried to convince Greeks to become honorable allies was by beating them up. In Newcastle, Brisbane, Sydney mobs ransacked Greek businesses whereas in Perth, Kalgoorlie and Boulder, mob violence against Greeks was extensive and brutal, while honourable Australian soldiers ate in their restaurants and refused to pay for their food. The damage inflicted upon Perth Greeks by honourable Australians was so extensive that in October 1918, the Acting Prime Minister received a letter pointing out that “some of the Greeks had been forced into bankruptcy and nearly all had been turned out onto the streets,” whereas the Darwin anti-Greek riots were attributed thus: “Drink…was at the bottom of the trouble, the principals in which were some whites and Greeks.”
Despite the fact that Greeks were treated as sub-human and their genuine protestations of solidarity and donations spurned, they acted honourably by turning the other cheek and not allowing this to influence or in any way hinder their commitment to their country, so much so in fact that the authorities that spied on them and held back their citizenship, were forced to admit that they were decent and law-abiding people. The apogee of such patriotism was exemplified in Brisbane, where Hector Vasilios, an eleven year old boy who had spent much of his small savings on little gifts for the Australian returned soldiers was accidentally killed when he stepped off a footpath and was hit by a passing car carrying returned servicemen. The RSL would do well to remember this.
The RSL would also do well to remember that as allies, the Greeks of Lemnos and other nearby islands were instrumental in supplying Australian troops and seeing to their medical care during the time of their ill-fated Kallipolis campaign. Further the RSL should perhaps better extend the appellation ‘honourable’ to those Greek families that had their homes and villages burned down or family members tortured and executed by the Nazis in reprisal for their hiding of Australian troops during the Second World War. This is a blood debt that can never be repaid, though some formal gratitude would not go astray, as would some sensitivity and discernment.
History is a concept considered differently by nations. For Greeks, it is the yardstick by which all current and future progress is measured and as such we have interminably long memories, coupled with a deep sense of obligation, solidarity and affection for those that have joined us in our suffering. The Major-General’s comments on the other hand suggest that the custodians of Australia’s military history have rather short, or selective memories and that one’s heritage can be forgotten or bandied about at will in order to curry favour and expediency. Let it be so, if the lily-white historical narrative cannot bear to give up its intrinsic and underlying colouration. Yet at the sounding of the last post, when the Greek-Australians continue to give so much to their adopted country without seeking reward and caring not whether formal gratitude is forthcoming or whether it is afforded to the undeserving, in the setting of the sun and in morning, we shall remember them, lest they forget.

First published in NKEE on 1 May 2006