From Gallipoli to Ukraine
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Seemingly out of nowhere, imperialist war has returned to Europe, with the Russian invasion of Ukraine. Vladimir Putin is seeking to recreate the Russian empire, claiming that Ukraine is a historical fiction created by the Bolsheviks, after the 1917 Revolution. In this and many other respects, the current war is a continuation of the catastrophic Great War that began in 1914.
Anzac Day is a commemoration of the thousands of young Australians and New Zealanders who died in the course of that war, beginning with the Gallipoli campaign. We are now clearly reconciled with the Turks and mourn our dead together. But hardly anyone stops to ask why Australia and Turkey were at war in the first place.
Histories of the Great War mainly focus on the Western Front, where Germany was clearly the aggressor, and Britain and France could claim to be defending neutral Belgium. But the war in the east was about imperialism, brutal and simple. Britain and France had formed the Triple Entente with the Czarist Russian Empire, which had been steadily advancing at the expense of Turkey, the ‘sick man of Europe”.
As a consequence, Britain spurned approaches from the Ottoman (Turkish) Empire for an alliance of their own. Rather than face Russia alone, the Turks threw in their lot with the Central Powers. Australia, as part of the British Empire, was therefore at war with people with whom we had no quarrel and, indeed, hardly any knowledge.
After the Armistice, and with Russia now in the throes of revolution and counter-revolution, Britain and France divided most of the Ottoman Empire between them, as well as offering much of Turkey itself to their Greek allies. The constant wars in the Middle East flow directly from the outcomes of the Great War.
The war in the East was full of atrocities, the most awful being the Armenian genocide, which began on 24 April, hours before the Gallipoli landings, but several weeks into the Dardanelles campaign, which aimed to force a passage to the Black Sea and support the Russian war effort. Fearing that Armenian Christians in Turkey would side with Russia, the ruling junta launched a campaign to wipe them out with death marches, concentration camps and the like. As many as a million died. The Russians committed similar, though not so deadly. atrocities against potentially disloyal minorities in their own empire.
As we remember the bravery of the Australians who fought and died at Gallipoli, we should not forget that their deaths were not, as they were told, in defence of freedom. Rather, they were thrown into the pointless slaughter of a self-destructive war between empires.
Perhaps Putin’s war on Ukraine will be the last we will see of imperialist war. But it’s hard to be hopeful.