To read Peter FitzSimon’s Gallipoli is to realize how great an evening it would be to have the man in front of a crackling fire in your living room, telling a good tale.
For it is the telling of a tale that FitzSimon promises us, a tale of how Australia ‘became a nation’ in the wrenching experiencing of bleeding for the British Empire on the hills of the Turkish coast.
FitzSimons puts a lot of himself in this story, not always a promising approach for a history writer. Yet this manages to illuminate rather than obscure the Gallipoli narrative. The author’s full-disclosure explanation of how his own understanding of the battle has changed gives the non-Australian reader a glimpse into the various ways in which that antiopodean nation itself has moved through various stages of engagement with one of its defining moments.
There is little to nothing good to say about a battle of this ferocity, one that concluded with surviving Anzac forces withdrawing to the sea under cover of darkness. But one can at least tell the awful story well. FitzSimons manages to write in—to speak in, for the reader can almost hear his voice—Australian, not a generic academic English.
The result is winsome, savage, feisty (for what is an Australian without a little feist?), and accessible. One emerges from reading this book made wiser not only about the flawed execution of what might otherwise have represented a victorious thrust by the Allied forces into the belly of the Turkish ‘sick man of Europe’, but also more intelligent about how Australian soldiers fought for the mother country’s Empire but died for Australia.
FitzSimons recognizes that many have told the Gallipoli story before him. His contribution is to write, one hundred years on, for Australians and friends of Australians like this reader, several generations hence, when a bit of cool reflection can both enrich and temper our understanding of the passions, ambitions, stupidities, and grit that produced Gallipoli.
A century is long enough for a certain empathy with the enemy of one’s forebears to develop in a way that does not trivialize the complex developments that led a country to war on a land whose name they barely knew. FitzSimons ably captures the privilege of this retrospective distance, not least by recording a recent re-encounter of Turkish and Anzac veterans on this very savage and sacred soil, and by resurrecting Mustafa Kemal’s generous words, penned in 1934:
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 now 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.
Has it really been a century?
Peter FitzSimon’s fine and well-researched retelling makes it seem just yesterday.