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The graves of others: ANZAC and the Armenian Genocide

James Robins ,
Publish Date
Friday, 17 April 2015, 2:11p.m.
New Zealand Prime Minister John Key joins in a service of remembrance at the Cenotaph on Whitehall on April 25, 2011 in London (Getty Images)
New Zealand Prime Minister John Key joins in a service of remembrance at the Cenotaph on Whitehall on April 25, 2011 in London (Getty Images)

On April 25, blood-red poppies will be pinned to lapels. The bugle call will ring out. Children will wipe the sleep from their eyes as the veterans march. The nation will stop, just as it has done for the last century, to remember the service of ANZAC soldiers at Gallipoli.

The Allied campaign during War World One to open a ‘back door into Russia’ at the Dardanelles (then part of the Ottoman Empire, now modern-day Turkey) is widely considered one of the worst Allied defeats. Over 100,000 men were lost by both forces before a retreat was sounded. A fifth of all New Zealand troops who landed on the beaches were killed.

Strange names like Chunuk Bair, Krithia, and Hill 60 have become part of the collective memory of those hellish eight months. Thousands of lives thrown away on rocky outcrops, yet that defeat survives. According to the New Zealand government’s official account, Gallipoli “was the first time that New Zealand stepped on to the world stage, and the New Zealanders made a name for themselves fighting hard, against the odds, in an inhospitable environment.”

It is the occasion which outshines all others: the fire in which the nation was born.  

The day before ANZAC Day, an entirely different campaign will be remembered. On April 24 1915, the warning shots of an impending massacre were heard. Around 250 Armenian intellectuals, politicians, and clergyman were collected by the Ottoman government and sent to their deaths. This was the prefiguring of the Armenian Genocide: the near-annihilation of Ottoman Turkey’s ancient Christian population, later expanding to the indigenous Assyrian and Hellenic peoples.

One month later the warrant for the ensuing crimes was passed by Ottoman rulers. Slaughter became law. Men were quickly dispatched by Turkish and Kurdish irregulars drafted into roaming killing squads. Evictions were organised for the women, elderly, infirm, and the children. The deportations became death marches stretching across the expanse of modern-day Syria and Iraq.

Raphael Lemkin was so moved by the 1.25 million dead that he invented the word ‘genocide’. The first modern “crimes against humanity” trials were held by the Turkish state after the Armistice. Most modern humanitarian relief funds are modelled on those set up to help the refugees (“£10 will feed and educate a child for a year” say the donation receipts).

These two events – the Gallipoli campaign and the Genocides of the Armenians, Assyrians, and Hellenes - are inexorably tied, bound together in history. Yet the latter simply does not exist in New Zealand’s narrative of World War One. The evidence is rarely aired, and this country still has not formally recognised that what took place was, in fact, a genocide.

On this dual centenary, perhaps it is time some questions were asked about why one lives on without interference, while the other is forgotten. What happened to the responsibility to remember tragedies of this scale? And how has Turkey used ANZAC commemorations to buy the silence of this country?


That the Gallipoli landings and the Armenian Genocide began within a day of each other is no fluke. The decapitation of the cultural and academic heads of Armenian society on April 24was a deliberate and calculated ploy. The invasion of the combined British, French, and ANZAC forces loomed, and under the cover of the brutal battles that took place along the Dardanelles, the Turks could carry out their plan to extinguish restive minorities.

The Turkish historian Taner Akçam has detailed the long history of animosity between the Ottomans and their Christian charges and the slow process which led to the near-extinction of the latter. Yet Akçam also notes that the decision to get rid of the Armenians, Assyrians, and Hellenes was a direct result of the attacks on Gallipoli.

“It seems to me no coincidence,” he wrote in Empire to Republic, “that the decision behind the Armenian Genocide was made during the fierce battles of the Gallipoli campaign, when the Ottoman Empire's very existence seemed to balance between life and death. The hopeless situation into which Ottomans had fallen produced a willingness to rely on extraordinary acts of cruelty.”

That cruelty was widely documented at the time by diplomats, relief workers, and the international media. In New Zealand, The Press in Christchurch carried a report from its London correspondent dated 13 November 1915 which reads like a charge sheet for a war crimes trial:

“It is accepted beyond doubt that crimes recently committed were engineered from [Istanbul]…Unlike previous historic massacres, the present atrocities are not confined to a definite area…men shot down in cold blood, crucified, mutilated, or dragged off for labour battalions, of children carried off and forcibly converted to Islam, of women violated and enslaved in the interior, shot down, or sent off with their children to the desert…Many of these unfortunates did not reach their destination, because the escort so overdrove the victims that many fell out, and, as flogging and kicking were unavailing, they were left to perish by the roadside, their corpses distinctly defining the route followed.”

New Zealand newspapers published dozens of other stories like this between 1915 and 1918. There are other sources which can be turned to. Personal accounts of Australian and New Zealand soldiers detail the massacres in real time. ANZAC troops witnessed it firsthand.


Take the case of Captain Thomas Walter White, an Australian pilot held prisoner by the Turks in the town of Afyonkarahisar (Afyon for short). The Armenian church in the town, vacated of its congregants, became a prisoner of war camp for soldiers captured at Gallipoli (400 kilometres away). The Armenians had been “turned into the street from their last possible sanctuary” to make room.

There, White noted meeting a number of New Zealanders in the lengthy diary he kept. According to available records, at least 16 members of the New Zealand Expeditionary Force were held in Afyon between mid-1915 and late-1918.

White’s diary mostly details everyday life: cricket games (“married & engaged vs. single”), small-time theatre productions (“A Greek play this evening, which was rather a change from previous proceedings”), and a debate on whether to allow Indians into “White Australia”.

Alongside these quotidian anecdotes, there are glimpses of a larger war still raging.

White meets a  British officer who recounts what was already becoming a regular scene: “During the month of April the massacres began, the order for which were evidently given by their government…Cartloads of dead done to death in a variety of cruel fashions were daily brought past the hotel where the [prisoners] were quartered on their way to the burial ground, while many that died or were deposited on the road outside till the air became so pestilential they were forced to write to the Governor of the town who professed ignorance…”

There are also individual acts of cruelty: “An Armenian tailor seated on his doorstep with his back broken having had his head forced down till his spine was broke.”

The British officer also relays the horror of the death marches: “Numbers of women and children who had been driven in from far distant towns. They were brutally kicked and treated by their…Some of the women through walking great distances with out boots had to crawl along on hands and knees owing to having such badly lacerated feet.”

Later, Captain White tells his own story. A fire breaks out late one night. Under the cover of flame “some more Armenians were being despatched”. White says they “must amount to some hundreds of thousands, for in almost every town in their empire have they been massacred…Their massacre outshone any horrors elsewhere.”

This is but a sample of what those prisoners of war witnessed. There can be little doubt that Kiwis would have heard the same stories as White, would have heard the same shots ring out. They too would have seen the genocide in progress.


In 1918, when the first Gallipoli memorial services were taking place, General Dunsterville and his Imperial force was dispatched to seize the oilfields of Baku (now the capital of Azerbaijan). They failed miserably in their mission. As a section of the Dunsterforce (as it was known) withdrew towards British-held Mesopotamia (modern-day Iraq), they encountered tens of thousands of Armenian and Assyrian refugees – some of them evacuated from the warzone, others forced out by the Turks. One historical account claims the caravan of stragglers stretched 24 kilometres through the mountains of north-west Iran.

Having nothing left to fight for, the Dunsterforce troops decided to protect them.

The most exacting account of this impromptu mission is from the Australian Captain Stanley George Savige (later awarded the Distinguished Service Order for his efforts) in the unpublished book Stalky’s Forlorn Hope.

Savige details how the retreating Dunsterforce encountered the Assyrian and Armenian refugees: “thousands in the valley, and along the road they were still streaming in thousands more…Terror and despair was deeply written on their faces.”

“The unfortunate women folk,” he continues, “were so overcome at the sight of the first party of British that they wept aloud. Striking their breasts they would call down upon us the blessings of God and rush across and kiss our hands and boots in very joy at the sight of their first deliverance from the cruel raids of the Turks.”

“We could not save them all...with lumps in our throats we ignored the cries of the helpless in our endeavour to save as many as we could.”

With the Turks at their back, aided by Kurdish irregulars recruited into the bloodbath, Savige deployed a minute number of troops to the rear of the refugee column as they trekked through hostile country.

Among them were two New Zealanders: Captain Robert Kenneth Nicol of Wellington and Sergeant Alexander Nimmo from the Otago Battalion.

According to Nicol’s nephew they were attacked from the rear and sides. "[Nicol] sent Nimmo forward to collect the ammo, said, ‘Give me your rifle’ and gave covering fire. He stood up and was immediately killed. Two sergeants tried to get him. Both had their mounts shot out from under them, but crawled to safety.”

"It's poignant the last person he spoke with was Nimmo, his fellow New Zealander.”

His body was never recovered.

Elsewhere, Savige points out the bravery of his New Zealand comrades, including one Major Starnes who “stood about 5ft. 7in. and though thin, he was all sinew and muscle, and the square jaw set off a lean but determined face…As he himself always said, ‘I'm not much to look at, but I'm always there when the whips crack’.”

If any more evidence was needed of the Dunsterforce’s bravery, a Royal Army Film Unit accompanied them. Incredibly, their reels captured the streams of the destitute and dispossessed, British and ANZAC soldiers alongside providing what safety they could.  


These explicit and powerful links between ANZAC troops and the Genocides of the Armenians, Assyrians, and Hellenes simply do not exist within this country’s official history of the conflict. The sons sent off to die for the British Empire are lionised and canonised while the families destroyed by the Ottoman Empire are forgotten.

How can this be? How can such a large part of history, intimately tied to the battles which gave birth to this nation, be missing altogether?

There is a very clear reason for this. Modern Turkey refuses to accept the witness testimony, the evidence given in trials, and the policy during the war. Every newspaper article, every scholarly work, and each archival document which supports the case for the use of the word ‘genocide’ is disputed. They deny it ever took place.

The debate (if it can be called that) still revolves around the use of that word. Turkey’s current President Recep Tayyip Erdogan has only admitted there “might have been tragedies in the time of war”, largely aligning with the official Turkish view that the deaths of the Armenian, Assyrian, and Hellenic populations were down to a deadly combo of “civil war” and rampant disease.

Yet so far over 20 countries have officially recognised the Genocide including Canada and Germany. Despite the legion of French dead at Gallipoli, the French President Francois Hollande will be in Armenia for commemorations there.

Any hint of reluctant regret on Erdogan’s part hardly looks sincere when each time the question of Genocide recognition is raised, the Turks move to shut it down. According to the Washington Post, “Erdogan has said he would ‘actively’ challenge a campaign to recognise the events as a genocide.”

In March this year, after the European Parliament called for recognition, the Turkish Foreign Ministry decried the move as “devoid of historical reality and legal basis” which made “demands that defy logic and law.”

Just this week Pope Francis I openly called the killings “genocide”. The Turks immediately hauled in the Vatican’s man in Ankara for a dousing before recalling their own ambassador from Rome.

This style hits much closer to home. When the Australian state parliament of New South Wales passed a unanimous resolution recognising the Genocide in 2013,Gulseren Celik, the Turkish Consul General in Sydney, issued a warning: "Those individuals who show no respect to our history will not be welcome in Turkey…We expect Australians to show the same kind of respect that we have shown to their history and their ancestry.” [Italics added]

The New Zealand government is on the record staying well clear of any controversy. According to Foreign Minister Murray McCully "New Zealand considers that the resolution of historic issues between Armenia and Turkey including appropriate terminology is best left to the parties directly concerned to work through."

In this language, and in this tone of voice, the silence of both the Australian and New Zealand governments is bought. The Genocide is taboo. No discussion. Don’t even mention it. If the topic is raised, the Turks threaten to bar pilgrimage of ANZAC families. What national leader wants to be responsible for that shame?

Even this year’s centenary commemorations are overshadowed by the politics of remembrance. According to the Guardian, “Turkey has infuriated Armenians by choosing to mark the centenary of the wartime Gallipoli landings on exactly the same date [April 24], a move deliberately designed to overshadow remembrance of the genocide.”

“Gallipoli has never before been commemorated on that day.”

Wedged between two conflicting moral narratives and veiled hostility from Turkey, one can understand why Wellington and Canberra choose to pirouette around the idea of recognition. They are pushed into a needless choice between honouring the dead of the Dardanelles and the dead of Diyarbakir.

As the Australian genocide scholar Panayiotis Diamadis notes, “Victims of genocide die twice: first in the killing fields and then in the texts of denialists who insist that ‘nothing happened’ or that what happened was something ‘different’.”

If this is the case, every year Australian and New Zealand leaders visit Gallipoli without recognising the Genocide deals the double-blow once more. It gives legitimacy to the Turks when they deny a genocide ever took place, and ignores the historical responsibility of all citizens to acknowledge the wrongs done.

Some answers must be given. Firstly, to New Zealand’s small but passionate Armenian community – the defining moment of their ancestry goes unacknowledged by their adopted leaders. Secondly, to the sons and daughters of ANZAC troops who either witnessed the Genocide or aided in the protection of its refugees. Where is the recognition of their struggle, their bravery?

There ought to be space enough in this world for both tragedies to be remembered in the same tone of voice, reverent and reverberating, if only in the hope that crimes of the past are never repeated.


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