Australia's Gallipoli learnings go deeper than platitudes

Australia's World Cup squad and support staff at the Anzac Cove War memorial in Gallipoli Cricket Australia

More than 40 years have passed since the Australian film director Peter Weir chose to visit Gallipoli on his way to London to promote Picnic At Hanging Rock.

"I'd thought of doing a story on Australians in the first war for some time," he said in 1981. "Gallipoli seemed a bit obvious but I thought it was logical to drop in and have a look at the battlefield, because staggeringly it is as it was after the evacuation. It's a military zone still, you can walk through the trenches and easily bring to mind just what it must have been like. A very remote spot, a very beautiful spot, and I think a very powerful atmosphere clings about that peninsular still."

Duly inspired, Weir's film account Gallipoli heralded a renewal of interest in the campaign and a desire among many to visit. Last week, Australia's 2019 World Cup squad was added to their number, the second group of cricketers to make the journey after Steve Waugh's team ventured there in 2001. Waugh had devised the idea in talks with Australia's former army chief Peter Cosgrove (now the Governor-General).

Somewhat jarringly, Waugh has written about how "we were comparing cricket and the army, especially things that are important in both endeavours - such as camaraderie, discipline, commitment and the importance of following a plan". Certainly, there are far too many occasions when it is the decision of the writer, administrator, coach or player to parallel sport and war. In Australia, where so much of the nation's cultural heritage is bound up in both, the combination is no less onerous for its frequency.

Anzac Day, April 25, is the biggest day of the AFL's regular season, having since 1995 featured an annual match between Collingwood and Essendon watched by near enough to 100,000 spectators at the MCG and many more on television.

Seldom, either, does a match report, advertising pitch, or motivational speech go by without some sort of unfortunate metaphor - something Justin Langer, the coach of Australia's cricket team, is far from exempt from. As reliably reported by Jane Cadzow in the Good Weekend magazine in January, "Langer is said to have told team members at one post-match meeting that he would not want to be in the trenches with them".

But there is something laudable about making the journey and learning more deeply about the campaign. Weir, by his own experience, was drawn to telling the story in a way that was to have such an impact on so many. For the Australian touring party, there was an opportunity to find the sobering reality at the heart of annual Anzac Day services and all those careless crossovers with sport.

Pat Cummins, one of the more articulate members of the team, summed up the experience as follows: "Just spending time together in a place like this, you can't help but learn something about yourself, about your teammates. Just learning about the Anzac spirit - the fight, the mateship, just the incredible values they held here in 1915."

Langer offered similarly respectful generalities: "An incredibly humbling experience. Since we were little kids, we hear all the stories about the Anzacs and about Gallipoli, so to actually be there was a very humbling experience and also a great opportunity for the boys to be together. I think we'll all gain some pretty good perspective from the trip. Anzac Day will never be the same for any of us again."

The story that stays most vividly in the minds of most visitors surrounds the events at the Nek on the morning of August 7, 1915. In the mind of the Allied commanding general Sir Ian Hamilton, a frontal assault by the dismounted 3rd Light Horse Brigade was to be one part of a vast and complex, interlocking offensive. Other attacks, including that on the high ground of Chunuk Bair behind and beyond the Nek, were to have already succeeded, thus making the task less difficult for the Light Horse.

However, at the appointed moment, neither Chunuk Bair nor flanking positions had been taken, leaving the troops - unknown to them - charging a vast network of Turkish defensive positions, with machine gunners and riflemen emplaced on several tiers to the front and the flanks, covering the narrow stretch of flat land over which four successive waves of 150 men would advance. Unlike an earlier and more carefully devised attack, at Lone Pine, plans called simply for a bombardment and then a bayonet charge with unloaded rifles.

The preliminary bombardment, itself concentrated not so much on the position directly facing the Light Horsemen but the maze of trenches and emplacements behind, concluded some seven minutes before the watches of the officers at the front showed 4.30am, the time chosen for the attack. In those precious minutes the Turkish soldiers flooded back into their trenches and made ready to repel a foe that they now knew had to be coming.

With their advance well and truly heralded, and the promised supporting actions not having taken place, the men of the eighth Light Horse Regiment, largely from Victoria, charged in the first two lines. Faced by an intensity of fire what the official War Correspondent Charles Bean deduced to be matched "on no other occasion during the war", few of these troops advanced more than a few metres before being shot to pieces.

Among those killed in the first wave was the 8th Light Horse's commander, Lieutenant Colonel Alexander Henry White, who had insisted on leading his regiment. Looking on was the commander of the 10th Light Horse, primarily composed of West Australians, Lieutenant Colonel Noel Brazier. Summing up the hopelessness of his unit's situation, Brazier went to protest against continuing the action, but was to be twice rebuffed by the Brigade Major, John Antill.

Of Antill, the noted Australian historian Ross McMullin has written: "Antill was abrasive, aggressive and authoritarian. Empathy and perceptiveness were not prominent. Exuding self-confidence, but not as good as he thought he was, Antill was widely disliked and known as "Bull" or "the Bullant". After the Gallipoli evacuation he made a claim of cringeworthy crassness: he observed that 90 officers in his brigade had served at Gallipoli, and he was the only one who had gone right through the campaign. It evidently escaped him that he had wiped out a lot of them himself."

So the third wave went ahead, to suffer the same fate as the first and the second. Part of the fourth wave also charged following a further miscommunication, after Brazier had gone over Antill's head to the Brigade commander, Colonel Frederic Hughes, to call a definitive halt to the slaughter. Hughes, according to some accounts, had previously left Antill in charge in a trip to the front to observe events for himself. The contrast between bickering commanders and their disciplined troops, who continued to attack without question despite the fearful tumult of machine gun fire and near certainty of death that awaited them, is difficult to dislodge from the mind.

As McMullin wrote: "These were the moments -- movingly depicted in Peter Weir's film -- that would make the charge at the Nek renowned. The Western Australians expected to die, and accepted their fate. Those in the third line, when called on, ascended together. They did so because they believed that their sacrificial contribution would enable other Anzacs in other attack to triumph in the sweeping August offensive."

In seeking the best way to depict Gallipoli on film, Weir was drawn to Bean's account of two brothers in the third wave, Gresley and Wilfred Harper, "the latter of whom was last seen running forward like a schoolboy in a foot-race, with all the speed he could compass." This image, of so much wilful endeavour so crudely sacrificed, would give Weir's film its shattering conclusion.

Waugh's reflections on being at the Nek while hearing the aforementioned story are worth recounting. "Standing in the trenches at the Nek with all the lads while our tour guide described what actually happened in the moments leading up to the soldiers' deaths," he wrote, "it was a humbling time and also a proud moment to think that these Australians stayed as one as they went over the top, despite knowing they weren't coming back. They believed they were helping the Allies by sacrificing themselves in order for a bigger plan to work."

Langer was unable to make the trip in 2001 as he was not a part of the limited overs team that played a triangular series prior to that year's Ashes Tests, and so experienced Gallipoli for the first time last week. One teammate who was there, Adam Gilchrist, saw the images and words of the current squad with something like empathy for those somber moments in the Dardanelles. "It's been really interesting watching these guys in Gallipoli and being able to rekindle the really fond memories of the trip that we were able to make in 2001," he said.

"You can almost see in the pictures, the photos and the vision of them, almost know exactly what's going through their minds of the learnings about the attitudes of young soldiers in those situations. It's the same for any nationality in the extremes of war I think, they're there possibly making the ultimate sacrifice for others and from that it then makes cricket and sport seem quite insignificant, but on the flip side of that there's a lot that can be taken from the bond of mateship, friendship and trust and that galvanising effect that can have on a group.

"I remember walking away from Gallipoli to England in 2001 feeling completely and totally in a team that really trusted each other and felt really close to each other. It all had a pretty strong impact on me, to the point where I was trying to say thanks to Steve Waugh and John Buchanan on behalf of the team and I was a blubbering mess."

In his summing up of the senseless loss of life at the Nek, Bean contended that while Antill was at fault because "he did not make himself aware of the true position", some pause must be given to the decision of White to lead his men personally, knowing at the time that death was likely and so depriving Brazier of a supporting voice with which to take his protest to headquarters.

By doing so, Bean provided a telling and gut-wrenching twist on the use of war as a metaphor for sport: "It may also be argued that the gallant White, acting as a sportsman rather than a soldier, by leading forward the first line deprived his regiment of the control which should have been exercised over its operations. Its morale did not require the stimulus of personal leadership; and had his protest been added to Brazier's, Antill might have discontinued the attack."

If there is one thing the 2019 Australians will take from their Gallipoli visit, it will be to use those war and sport parallels carefully, as Bean once did.