Words likening Australia’s dead ‘Johnnies’ to Ottoman ‘Mehmets’ disappear as 1985 Gallipoli monument is restored
The Turkish government of Recep Tayyip Erdoğan has removed from a revered Anzac Cove memorial the familiar words attributed to Turkey’s founding father, Mustafa Kemal Atatürk, likening Australia’s dead “Johnnies” to Ottoman “Mehmets” and welcoming them to rest in his country’s soil.
The renovation of the 1985 monument has heightened suspicions in Australia and Turkey that the refurbished memorial could reflect a growing Islamist interpretation by the Erdoğan administration of Australia’s part in the 1915 British-commanded Anzac invasion of – and later retreat from – Gallipoli.
The near demolition of the monument bearing Atatürk’s words, which began in mid to late May, is part of a process of “restoration” of all Turkish memorials and epitaphs on the Gallipoli peninsula. But sources in Australia and Turkey believe the motivations behind the restorations could be in part political and are likely to reflect Turkey’s greater emphasis on religion in history and culture under Erdoğan.
Australian and Turkish sources, including historians in both countries, believe that when the restoration is complete the sentiments on the Anzac Cove Atatürk memorial may be markedly different.
While the precise words attributed to Atatürk – also inscribed on monuments in Australia and New Zealand – are most likely not those of the Turkish Gallipoli commander and first president of the republic, they have been afforded a special place in Anzac mythology and in close diplomatic relations between Canberra and Ankara.
They have been agreed to by Turkish and Australian governments, and have offered comfort to generations of descendants of the 8,000-plus Australian Anzacs buried at Gallipoli.
Until the words were demolished from the memorial in mid to late May, the Ari Burnu monument read:
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 faraway 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.
A photograph of the monument, taken by a Gallipoli tour guide, from which the purported Atatürk words had been removed, was posted on social media this week.
After the Honest History website brought the photograph to the attention of the Australian government, the minister for veterans’ affairs, Dan Tehan, said: “The Turkish government have advised the Department of Veterans’ Affairs they are undertaking refurbishment work on Turkish memorials on the Gallipoli peninsula. No Australian memorials or cemeteries are affected by this work. The Australian government is grateful for the work of the Turkish government in ensuring the peninsula remains in good condition and is cared for in perpetuity.”
Historians in Australia and Turkey believe the “refurbishment” could be part of the Erdoğan administration’s moves to cast Gallipoli as part of a clash between jihadi defenders (the Ottoman empire did declare a jihad) and invading crusaders on the shores of Islam.
Peter Stanley, an author of more than 30 books, many about the first world war, and a professor of history at the University of New South Wales Canberra, said the erasure of the purported Atatürk words reflected a “new theocratic interpretation” of the conflict in Turkey.
“It’s not always apparent to Australian visitors to Gallipoli, who tend to focus on the Anzac story, but another, Turkish, battle for Gallipoli has been going on for the past decade at least, between the formerly universally accepted Atatürk interpretation and the increasingly strong Islamist view,” he said.
“Because the Erdoğan government is in power, Islamists are now in the ascendant – as the new Gaba Tepe interpretative centre [at Gallipoli] shows. It depicts Turkey’s 86,000 Gallipoli dead as “martyrs”, dying in a fight against Christian invaders.
“Hitherto, Turkish memorials on Gallipoli have praised Mustapha Kemal Atatürk’s leadership. Their destruction preparatory to “renovation” [of the Anzac Cove Ataturk monument] signifies that the secularist adulation, formerly the orthodoxy, is being challenged and supplanted by a new, theocratic interpretation.”
For Erdoğan, amending the monument – subtly or otherwise – could play a dual political purpose, at once altering the sentiments attributed to Atatürk and making the memorial more Islamist in nature by removing the equality between the Johnnies and the Mehmets.
Some Turkish politicians have been openly concerned about the line “There is no difference between the Johnnies and the Mehmets”, believing it does a disservice to the memory of the Ottomans who died defending their land from imperial troops, including Anzacs.
In 1985 Turkey renamed the area where the Australians and New Zealanders landed on 25 April 1915 Anzac Cove, while monuments bearing the supposed Atatürk words were erected in Canberra, at Ari Burnu on Gallipoli and in New Zealand.
Atatürk’s role as a commander of Ottoman troops defending the peninsula has been central to the nationalist narrative of the secular state, which airbrushed out other participants – including the German allies – in the 1915-18 war.
Since the defeat of the Ottoman empire in 1918 and the rise of the modern, secular Republic of Turkey in 1923, it has been largely cast as a non-religious campaign.
While Australia’s part in the British invasion and retreat at Gallipoli has increasingly been at the centre of debate in Australia about national identity, it is now becoming central to the culture wars associated with political Islam and military history in Erdoğan’s Turkey. The president has been at the forefront of conflating the Ottoman success at Gallipoli with Islamic conceptions of the modern Turkish state.
He has said: “The crusades were not [finished] nine centuries ago in the past! Do not forget Gallipoli was a crusade.”
Writing in the Conversation last April, Brad West of the University of South Australia and Ayhan Aktar of Istanbul’s Bilgi University said that after his security forces put down a 2016 coup, Erdoğan evoked Gallipoli and the battles against the Anzacs. In a pro-government rally in Istanbul’s Taksim Square large video screens displayed recreated scenes of Ottoman victories in some battles against the Anzacs.
The Turkish embassy in Canberra has been approached for comment.
This article was amended on Sunday 19 June 2017 to include the following clarification:
The Canakkale battlefield Gallipoli historical area directorate, a Turkish national agency responsible for monuments on the Gallipoli Peninsula, issued a statement on 19 June saying that the wording on the restored monument “will be the same as in the past”.
The statement reads: “There has been misunderstanding and rumours in some media outlets regarding the Turkish monument at Ariburnu. The monument at Ariburnu is not being destroyed or altered. The stonework has been removed due to deterioration that has occurred over the years, and will be restored and replaced.
“Fifteen similar monuments on the peninsula are also being restored in the same way as part of a programme. With regard to those monuments, history is not being destroyed or rewritten, and Ataturk’s words will not be lost. The wording will be the same as in the past.”