I give Russell Crowe an F in Gallipoli history

If Russell Crowe had put what he’s reported to have said yesterday about Gallipoli in a history paper I was marking, I’d have given him an F.

Anzac Beach during the landing by 4 Battallion on 25 April 1915. Photo by Lance-Corporal Arthur Robert Henry Joyner. Public domain, via Wikipedia.
Anzac Beach during the landing by 4 Battallion on 25 April 1915. Photo by Lance-Corporal Arthur Robert Henry Joyner. Public domain, via Wikipedia.

The interview, on Australia’s Seven Network, included Crowe’s suggestion that the landing by Australian forces on 25 April 1915 – part of a wider landing on the peninsula – was the invasion of a sovereign nation that, he is reported to have said, ‘we’d never had an angry word with.

Sigh. The Gallipoli landings of 25 April 1915 weren’t an unprovoked invasion of sovereign territory. The British and Ottoman Empires went to war on 28 October 1914, on Turkish declaration. By the time of the Gallipoli landings there had already been fighting around Suez, also Ottoman sovereign territory.

Gallipoli was an attempt to end an existing war by knocking out the belligerent. Crowe is right to the extent that there was no earlier dispute between the Turks and the Australians or New Zealanders. Nor was there later, a point made clear in 1934 by Mustafa Kemal – Kemal Ataturk – who commanded the defence against the Anzacs and later became President of Turkey:  ‘Those heroes that shed their blood and lost their lives … You are now lying in the soil of a friendly country … You mothers, who sent their sons from faraway countries wipe away the 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…

However, the fact remains that the soldiers of both sides were doing their job, and the ethics of the war were not defined by the military operation intended to end the fighting. They flowed instead from a far broader picture, including the reasons why the Ottomans felt obliged to declare war in the first place. In this, Britain was not blameless, though it is facile to point to their taking over two Turkish dreadnoughts completing in British yards, in August 1914, as the provoking factor. The factors ran deeper than that, and German realpolitik cannot be discounted in the mix.

The cover of 'Shattered Glory'. Now out of print.
The cover of my book ‘Shattered Glory’ with a marvellous painting of the New Zealanders on Chunuk Bair, Gallipoli, by Ion Brown. Now out of print, but I have a few personal copies. If you want one, contact me.

From both the Australian and New Zealand point of view the more crucial historical issue remains the way the Gallipoli campaign has been mythologised. In New Zealand, Anzac Day – the anniversary of the landings – has become a nation-defining moment, upheld as the day when New Zealand strode forth on the world stage and began asserting itself as something more than just a scion of Britain.

I won’t go into all that here, other than to point out that the men were motivated to join the war not to assert New Zealand, but for Empire –  for ‘our nation’, Britain. This was the age when New Zealand was Britain’s imperial Boy Scout, all enthusiasm and jingoism, to the amusement and ridicule of everybody else.

New Zealand’s reinvention of that day as a nation-defining moment began in 1916 with the transformation, largely at the hands of the Bishop of Auckland, of the Gallipoli defeat into a victory. It was still defined as an Imperial victory; but the road led, eventually, to the re-conception of the whole campaign in that nation-defining sense.

One of the outcomes is that our day of remembrance, along with that of Australia, is 25 April – the day we landed in another country. Not the day the First World War effectively ended, 11 November, which is how just about every other Commonwealth country remembers it.

Because we are still buoyed by that mythology, few have yet questioned it – and given the way history works as a discipline, we probably won’t for another generation or two.

As for Crowe – well, sorry, mate, I know you’re a fellow Kiwi, fellow Wellingtonian and all that…but that really is an F-grade historical comment.

Copyright © Matthew Wright 2014


10 thoughts on “I give Russell Crowe an F in Gallipoli history

  1. Love the headline! The movie industry must feel a bit inadequate when historians like you dig into them!! How do they explain it – artistic license?

    1. ‘Publicity’, I think. The problem with Gallipoli is that both in NZ and Australia it’s loaded with emotional capital, tied up with national sentiment. There HAS been a lot of historical mythology surrounding it, but that prevails – re-imagined for each new generation’s present. From the technical viewpoint Crowe’s remark is ‘presentist’, in that the comment appears to be using the values of today to judge events of the past – which may well key in to present sentiment, but it’s not a useful insight into history. Of course, he’s not the only one. Don’t get me started on ‘Titanic’, which rammed 1997 social values into the Edwardian period (groan)…

  2. Hollywood history. Makes my eyes roll. My own pet peeve Hollywood History moment is in “Argo,” when George Clooney says at the beginning that America and the CIA put the last Shah of Iran in power. That’s such a popular fiction here in America that it was being taught in my son’s Foreign Relations class at college. Never mind that the Shah inherited his position from his father, who took the reins in the early 1900s. Never mind that the Shah took power years before the CIA even existed. Sheesh! Thanks for setting the record straight on Gallipoli. 🙂

    1. I haven’t seen that movie – but that’s amazing! The US had nothing whatsoever to do with Reza Pahlavi being in power. Nothing! He was absolutely the heir, and was put there by the British in 1941, after they knocked over his father by invasion. Of course, we get the same thing here in NZ relative to the way our own history was ‘reconstructed’ by some of my peers in the early 1980s. I’ve done what I can to counter the mythology, but it doesn’t seem to have achieved much other than to stop my colleagues speaking to me…

      1. Holmes and I face the same problem. Everything from the Shah to the “non-existant” chemical weapons in Iraq to Benghazi. People have no idea how much of the “history” out there is nothing but mass propaganda.

  3. Russell Crowe seems to think that the Ottoman Empire was an innocent victim of an invasion analogous to the German invasion of Belgium and Luxembourg. The facts are otherwise.

    In October 1914 the Ottomans attacked Russian naval forces in the Black Sea. In early November 1914 Russia, and Russia’s allies, Britain and France, responded by declaring war on the Ottomans.

    Nothing compelled the Ottomans to open hostilities in October 1914. They could easily have remained neutral indefinitely, but they chose to join the war against Russia, Britain and France.

    Russell Crowe seems to imply that any invasion is by its nature wicked. This really doesn’t make sense. When countries are at war it is a perfectly normal and natural thing for invasions to occur.

    In November 1914 Russian forces invaded the Ottoman Empire in the Caucasus.
    In November 1914 British Empire forces invaded the Ottoman Empire in Mesopotamia.
    In January 1915 Ottoman forces invaded Sinai, then a British protectorate.
    In February 1915 British naval forces bombarded the Dardanelles.
    In April 1915 British Empire land forces invaded the Ottoman Empire at the Dardanelles.

    Russell Crowe gives the impression of being ignorant of these simple historical facts, which he could have found in a quarter of an hour’s internet research.

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