The Gallipoli Campaign and the Birth of the Australian Identity

During the First World War, the Australians joined forces enthusiastically with the British army. Australia was still a young nation; indeed, it had only been thirteen years since the Federation of its states into a nation. Australians believed that the conflict would quickly be resolved and that they’d be able to show they’re worthy of their “mother country”. The Library also states that official recruitment started in August 1914 and by the end of the year, over 50,000 had enlisted. However, after the high casualties of the Gallipoli campaign, the Great War was no longer perceived as a great adventure.

The Gallipoli campaign

poster recruitment
Poster – ‘Boys Come Over Here / You’re Wanted’, Australian, World War I, 1915
Credit: South Australian Government, South Australia, Australia, 1915

The Gallipoli Campaign represents an important part of Australian history. According to The Australian Army, in order to defeat Germany, the British suggested attacking her allies. This led on the 25th of April 1915 to the landings of the Australian and New Zealand Army Corps (ANZAC) in the north of Anzac cove and the British forces at Cape Helles on the Gallipoli Peninsula. The Australian film “Gallipoli” directed by Peter Weir in 1981, gives us an overview of two battles that took place during the Gallipoli campaign: the battle of Lone Pine (6 August 1915) and the battle of the Nek (7 August 1915). More importantly, it tells the journey of two young Australians, Archy Hamilton and Frank Dunne, whom joined the Gallipoli campaign in the Peninsula of Gallipoli in the Ottoman Empire. The movie also explores the terrible conditions they endured in the battlefields. In the article entitled “Landscape, Memory and the Australian War Experience, 1915-18”, Peter Hoffenberg gives a picture of the climate during the Gallipoli campaign. According to him, Masefield, a war correspondent, wrote that “soldiers battled armies of flies and lice, as well as climatic swings between sweltering and freezing” (2001, p.116). He also adds that one veteran had written that the air was filled with bullets and the sound was very loud but no Turks were to be seen. Hoffenberg describes the environment the following way: “Here was the tension of the Australian frontier, the anxiety of isolated bodies of men, struggling against the environment and a seemingly invisible human enemy”. According to The Australian Army, the Australian casualties for the Gallipoli campaign amounted to 26 111. Of these, 362 officers and 7 779 men were killed in action. In “The Anzacs: Military influences on Australian identity”, Donoghue and Tranter claim that Gallipoli “holds a special place in Australian culture, to a far greater extent than […] any other well-known military campaigns that involved significant engagement by Australian troops” (2013, p.3).

“Baptism by fire”

Troops of an Australian Battalion on the deck of battleship. The ship was part of the fleet which transported Australian troops to the Gallipoli landing at Anzac Cove. 24 April 1915.
Credit: The Australian Army

In “Responses to War”, David Hart holds that in the movie “Gallipoli”, Weir gives an interesting contrast between the ideals of young Australian men, eager to join the army with the harsh reality of the battlefield and trench warfare, leading to a fatal ending for the vast majority. Indeed, both Archy and Frank defend the principles of friendship, camaraderie, loyalty and courage. Numerous reasons to why both characters join the army are given in the movie. The uniform is one example as at one point in the movie, a young woman says she likes a man in a uniform. It gives a sense of superiority and shows courage. There is also the feeling of patriotism and the sense of adventure that pushed many Australians to enlist.

In one scene, Archy’s uncle reads a passage from Kipling’s The Jungle Book. It tells the story of a young man Mowgli, who has reached manhood and must leave the family of wolves that raised him in the jungle in order to go to the man’s world. Joining the Australian forces can be seen as Archy’s loss of innocence as he is also coming to an age where he is being forced into the world of grown up problems and maturity. Hart describes Gallipoli as a “baptism of fire” for the Australian nation and also for young men such as Archy and Frank. If we look deeper into the film, one might say it is not truly a war movie but the story of two individuals, and many others that dreamt about the war but slowly lost their innocence about the purpose of it. It is important to note that according to Clare Rhoden in her article entitled “Another Perspective on Australian Discipline in the Great War”, the Australian army had the challenge to deal with entirely Australian volunteers that did not consider that they had signed over total control of their lives to the regular army. They had volunteered for a cause or simply for adventure. In other words, “they were an army composed of citizens, not regular soldiers”. They had no experience, barely trained and they saw the war as a “job” and also as a “game”. However, films like “Gallipoli” have helped the ANZACS to continue to be portrayed in the mass media as Donoghue and Tranter believe “national heroes imbued with superhuman bravery and stoicism in the face of formidable enemies and atrocious conditions” (p.4).

Development of an Australian identity

According to David Hart, a book entitled The Story of Gallipoli explains how the director came up with the movie Gallipoli. Peter Weir claims in the preface: “[While visiting Gallipoli], I was overwhelmed by an emotion I could only partly understand. It wasn’t only pity at the waste of it all but also a sense of discovery – it did happen, they did die, we do have a past” (Bill Gammage, David Williamson, Peter Weir, The Story of Gallipoli (Penguin, 1987), pp. 5-6). This quotation illustrates how Australians perceived the Gallipoli campaign as the birth of a nation. War correspondent Charles Bean was the first to claim that the Australian nation was “born” at Gallipoli (Donoghue, Tranter, p.9). Furthermore, the authors say that “the incompetence of British military commanders was exposed as another element reinforcing popular claims for greater independence because the slaughter at Gallipoli was so sudden and unexpected” which rapidly caused a change in the nation’s sense of identity.

Weir focuses on the people who fought in Gallipoli rather than trying to offer a historically accurate account of events. Indeed, at the beginning of the movie, the question whether Australians should fight the war or not was central. Frank, whose father is an Irish immigrant, wasn’t as convinced as Archy as he claims that it is England’s war, not Australia’s. According to Jeff Kildea in “Irish Anzacs: the contribution of the Australian Irish to the Anzac tradition”, approximately 6,600 Irish-born men and women served in the Australian Imperial Force during the First World War. Most of them already called Australia “home”, having immigrated to the new land of opportunity. Just before the war, Irish-born Australians represented 3.13% of the general population. Therefore, they did not “support the war in proportion to their numbers in the general population” (Kildea, 2013, p.2).

Anzac Day

WWI Roll of Honour Wall at the Australian War Memorial, Canberra.
Credit: Kate Edwards

Although the campaign is considered a military failure, Gallipoli became a “household name in Australia” according to the Australian Army and with it the ANZAC tradition was created. Donoghue and Tranter (2013) suggest that the Anzacs have come to symbolize an idealized heroic aspect of national identity for a majority of Australians. Hoffenberg  (2001) affirms that the Great War memorials built in Sydney, Melbourne and Canberra, but also the Anzac statue in practically every public park of Australia, were the first truly national monuments on Australian grounds. Moreover, the war gave the Australian continent its history. In a form of public recognition, the anniversary of the Gallipoli landing is officially celebrated on 25 April as “Anzac Day”, a national holiday. According to the AuSSa data, Anzacs are associated with national identity by 90% of Australians (Donoghue, Tranter, 2013). Indeed Brad West argues that the Anzac soldiers were comforted with the belief that “if they died, national pilgrims in the future would come to pay homage”. In this short scene from the movie, we can indeed see soldiers leaving memories behind in the trenches.

Since then, the celebration of Anzac Day not only allows Australians to remember the sacrifice of those who served and embodied an emerging nation, but to affirm “Australian” values (Donoghue, Tranter, 2013).

Works cited

Scientific articles

Donoghue, J., Tranter, B., “The Anzacs: Military influences on Australian Identity”, Journal of Sociology, 2013.

Hoffenberg, P., “Landscape, Memory and the Australian War Experience, 1915-18”, Journal of Contemporary History, 2001.

Kildea, J., “Irish Anzacs: the contribution of the Australian Irish to the Anzac tradition”. Retrieved from, May 2013.

Rhoden, C., “Another Perspective on Australian Discipline in the Great War: The Egalitarian Bargain”, War in History, 2012.

Stephens, J., “Memory, Commemoration and the Meaning of a Suburban War Memorial”, Journal of Material Culture, 2007.

West, B., “Dialogical Memorialization, International Travel and the Public Cultural Sociology of Commemoration and Tourism at the First World War Gallipoli Battlefields”, Tourist Studies, 2010.

Internet sources

“WWI Gallipoli”, The Australian Army, (accessed 12/12/13).

David M. Hart, “Peter Weir, Gallipoli (1981)”, Responses to War, 1997. (accessed 11/12/13).

“Early reactions to war”, State Library of Victoria, (accessed 10/11/13).

Movie clips (Poster). Gallipoli (8/8) Movie CLIP – The Final Wave (1981)

(2012, March 2). Retrieved from

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