By James Robins
A blue dawn broke over the hush, new light disputing the cool wash of lamp glow. Amidst the gathered thousands, drowsy, uncomprehending children wiped sleep from their eyes. In chill morning’s still apprehension, lapel-pinned poppies did not flutter. From the wan collage of faces, a dull glint of proud polished medallions, splinters of handed-down ribbon, the strong jutted chin and braced back of honour guards. Then, a mournful coda to stir hearts: The Last Post’s bugle blasts. It’s always the silence between notes which knots your throat.
All stiffen at the lamentations of remembrance, gaze cast downwards. There are fewer appeals to a high power than there once was, but this is still a congregation, a reverential scene repeated hundreds of times over – before the noble limestone Cenotaph in Auckland, in the bluster above Tarakena Bay, and in small towns where everyone knows everyone’s name. On Sydney’s Martin Place, eerie scenes of battles barely recalled are projected onto high-rises and office blocks. Over a calm Aegean Sea, its ripples barely visible in the gloom, pilgrims shudder themselves from sleeping bags atop Gallipoli’s sharp cliffs, where a century earlier, soldiers stormed shell-strewn beaches.
They came in the small hours to remember. Some had grandparents or great- grandparents – mere ancestors now – who fought, were injured and had been dashed against the rock face. The rest were moved by obligation, paying respects to those who, as the legend goes, gave their lives defending liberty.
Princes, presidents and prime ministers read their speeches. Wreathes burdened with the named fallen were laid at Lone Pine and Chunuk Bair. Pensive columns passed a dominating granite slab inscribed with the famed Words to the Anzac Mothers, taking comfort in their tone of peace and reconciliation.
This day, this lofty processional, enshrines Australia and New Zealand’s most exalted collective experience. The fitful birth of a nation’s narrative: an existence forged in steel, blood and courage.
One day earlier, an equally sombre ceremony took place. Princes, presidents and prime ministers too arrived at Tsitsernakaberd, a hilltop in Yerevan, the capital of Armenia. They read their speeches. They whispered prayers. They atoned.
A ring of jagged, imposing grey-black steeles reaching for a bright Caucasian sky encage a flickering eternal flame. Dignitaries approached it hesitantly, each bearing a single yellow rose, until the centrepiece was thick with flowers. Grandchildren, great-grandchildren, formed a sentry watch, cradling in worn arms heirlooms, portraits, weathered photographs, stories and fragmented memories. Mementos to be laid on the petalled memorial bed: evidence for the world to witness what their forebears had endured. The ache of inherited loss etched like old marble into every face.
Church bells tolled throughout the country. One hundred peals for one hundred years, repeated in Los Angeles, Beirut, Moscow and Montreal. Landmarks dimmed their lights: the Eiffel Tower and Colosseum going dark. Citizens in their abridged homeland, or flung into diaspora, crossed themselves, made their quiet vow of Never Again. Their tears, shed in compassion, anger or yearning for repair, are a measure of resilience.
Every last one of these commemorations, public or private, popular or minor, was reverent of lives lost, of lineages snuffed out before their time. But inherent in these days, 24 and 25 April, critical to their rituals, are denial, falsehood and forgetting, although we do not care to admit it.
To the very hour, on the night of 24 April and the morning of 25 April 1915, as Anzac troops swayed apprehensively in their ships off the Dardanelles coast, the intellectual and political elite of Armenian society in the Ottoman Empire were hauled from their homes, imprisoned and then banished.
And while those soldiers scrapped for mere inches of Gallipoli’s soil, killing squads swept swiftly through hamlets, cities and towns, hunting Armenian men. Those left behind – women, children and the elderly – were corralled south, to the desert wastes of Syria. Endless convoys. Death marches.
From the most fearsome man to the weakest child, from celebrated artists to feminist intellectuals, from the glittering capital to the most isolated village, few were spared the onslaught: a campaign by the ruling Committee of Union and Progress to transform by total cruelty and deprivation a plural, diverse empire into a homogenous and rigid nation state – to rid that land utterly of its minorities. During the First World War and its aftermath, perhaps over a million Armenians were destroyed, along with 250,000 Assyrians. These years also saw the expulsion of more than a million ethnic Greeks.
The Polish-Jewish jurist Raphael Lemkin had to invent the term ‘genocide’ in 1943 to describe what had happened, had to invent a new law to prohibit it. Yet the killers and thieves of the Ottoman regime – the very foe Anzac soldiers were battling to defeat – went free and unpunished. Instead, the guilty party morphed into the first government of the Turkish Republic, led by Gallipoli veteran Mustafa Kemal, a strongman who oversaw the final clearance of non- Muslim minorities from Anatolia.
Contrary to the folklore – the mythology – that envisions him as a liberator, saviour, secularist and modernizer, Kemal ruled with an iron fist. He broke utterly with the past, hauling his new country from a deleterious collapse into a future cleaved from anything recognizable. There was no reckoning with the genocide, no repenting. Rather, the Republic engraved into its foundational principles a belief defended with adamantine strength to this day: that the Armenian Genocide never happened.
Imagine for a moment if Germany said this of the Jews and the Roma, and we can begin to see the injustice.
And yet to deny such a thing would be to deny the interweaving, the imbrication of the Anzac story with Armenian experience. Anzac soldiers captured at Gallipoli held in the Ottoman interior as prisoners of war witnessed the genocide as it took place. Other soldiers fought bitterly to protect the persecuted, and gave their lives in doing so. New Zealanders and Australians alike signed up to the Armenian relief cause, lending their succour to survivors. In tandem with an unprecedented international aid effort, funds established throughout Australasia raised money and donated food and clothing to support a people who had been whittled down to the very marrow of their being.
The attrition of memory, the slow operation of history and the deliberate obscuring of scholars have separated these facts. This book, therefore, is an attempt to piece together these apparently disparate strands, to mend what Ian Buruma once called the ‘political corruption of historical memory’.
In salvaging these stories of bloodshed and terror, heroism and humanity, we must pick apart the grand mythology which has smothered and replaced them – the more palatable story that suits our yearning for reconciliation enshrined in the Anzac Special Relationship shared between Australia, New Zealand and Turkey. This myth makes us no wiser, nor does it bring us any closer to understanding the First World War and its vast, traumatic legacy. This new history explodes the myth from the inside, so that we might create something more honest and truthful in its place.
For the most part, this book is a narrative, a style chosen for its accessibility to an unknowing reader. It recounts a story – a maligned and traduced story though it is – and can give only a hint of trauma, of depravity and of unendurable experiences endured. We like to imagine that mere words can convey experience. Many have tried.
But no language, separated from feeling by distance to the past, can ever describe what it is like to have the soles of your feet worn away over seven months of walking; can never capture the sound of a knife slicing sinew and muscle; can never convey the smell of a rapist to his young victim. Nor the sound of a whimper when long-separated parents and children reunite after a decade of mourning; nor the shade of blushed cheek warmed by basic comforts; nor the sound of a town hall that resounds with passionate solidarity.
It will only ever be an approximation of feeling: An echo, or a lingering murmur. But that feeling must be imprinted no matter how vague or faint, for the sake of history and understanding, and for justice.
This book can therefore only grasp at lives, and arrest their long shadows.
You can read more in James Robins’ book “When We Dead Awaken: Australia, New Zealand, and the Armenian Genocide”.
James Robins is an award-winning journalist and historian. His work has appeared in the Guardian, Times Literary Supplement, the Spectator, Current Affairs, and the New Statesman. He is the former managing editor of TheBigQ.org, and the creator of “The Great Crime: A Podcast History of the Armenian Genocide”. He lives in London.
Disclaimer: The views expressed in this article reflect the opinions of the author and not necessarily the views of The Big Q.