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Beyond Gallipoli: New Perspectives on Anzac

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Chapter 8

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‘A FINE IDEAL AND AN IMPERISHABLE MEMORY’

George Lambert’s Painting ANZAC, the Landing 1915

Janda Gooding

In the years immediately after the First World War, Australian families cherished in private ways ‘memory objects’ that reminded them of relatives that died in the war. Photographs, diaries, letters and keepsakes sent from the front lines, commemorative scrapbooks and personal possessions packaged up and sent to the next of kin after a death, became physical reminders of loss.1 Objects and images provided real and tangible connections that helped people commemorate a loved one and potentially situate the personal cost of war within the broader context of national endeavour. In the public sphere, memorials, commemorative boards and cemeteries brought together symbolic meaning with the powerful and simplified messages of nationhood and sacrifice. These public forms of expression served to honour the individual dead, as well as justify the war and the nation’s loss.

Many scholars have written of the First World War and the memorialisation of people, places and events in public monuments, battlefield sites and cemeteries.2 Jay Winter, in describing community memorials, has noted that ‘communal commemorative art provided, first and foremost a framework for and legitimation of individual and family grief’.3 But while stone and concrete memorials served a specific purpose of reconciling an individual death in the greater context, the capacity of most memorials to deliver visual information was limited.

Mourners in Australia sought out photographs of battle sites and grave markers as a way to locate their personal loss within a specific landscape. However, photography at the time of the First World War was primarily documentary and most people still expected a photograph to be a reliable and trustworthy image of a particular place at a particular time. Photographs gave many viewers an insight into the grim reality of war, but for some this was just too overwhelming – there was nothing left to the imagination. Attempts by Frank Hurley and other photographers to combine multiple negatives to construct a more representative image were considered artistic interpretations and criticised by some as ‘faked’ or ‘misleading’ depictions of war.4

On the other hand, early twentieth century audiences were very familiar with traditional narrative paintings that were both emotive and instructional representations of an event. Painters combined a unique set of storytelling and technical skills. When representing historical events, artists could select and then blend individual elements from the remembered past into single and coherent narratives. And, they could draw together multiple memories and overlapping events from the real world to represent drama, action and emotion in a convenient two-dimensional format.

By situating war stories in a specific setting, artists helped viewers to visualise and imagine the actual physical landscape in which an event or a death may have occurred. People who were grieving could see a context for their loss while returning veterans found that paintings were sometimes a less-confronting vehicle to stimulate memories or a starting point from which to retell their testimony to others. As Australian service men and women who died overseas were buried in cemeteries mostly across the northern hemisphere, few Australians were capable of making the costly pilgrimage to the cemeteries and battlefield sites.5 An artistic interpretation could therefore provide an imaginative and emotional substitute for many Australians.

Some commemorative paintings so ably captured the essential core of a story that they moved beyond just representing a specific battle scene. They became a repository of a community’s shared memory. The subject of this chapter is one such painting that came to exemplify the national narratives round Anzac that strengthened in the post war years in Australia.

This painting, Anzac, the Landing 1915, by George Lambert, has remained fixed in people’s minds across successive generations as an iconic representation of the Australian landing at Gallipoli. It was a central feature in the first galleries created by the fledgling Australian war museum in 1922 and is still a fixture in the newest displays opened by its successor, the Australian War Memorial in late 2014 to mark the centenary of Anzac. My interest is in how a painting’s meaning and relevance might transfer through multiple generations of visitors. And, potentially remain relevant despite the fluctuations of public and political interest in the Gallipoli story, a story that has been constantly challenged and reshaped by politicians, historians, media and the public over the last one hundred years.

I have written elsewhere of the detailed circumstances around the creation of this painting and the context of the Australian Historical Mission to Gallipoli in 1919.6 As stated by Charles Bean, the main aim of the party was to solve the many riddles of Anzac including the exact details of the Australian landing, how far Australian troops had reached that first day, and what the Turks could see from their positions.7 To do this, the party would walk the ground, make detailed inspections of positions and collect battlefield objects that would reveal where Australians had fought as well as help future museum visitors understand the personal cost of war.

In selecting men for the Historical Mission, Bean chose those who had served at Gallipoli and could explain events that he had not witnessed or others he had worked with during the war. The official photographer for the group was Hubert Wilkins, who had worked alongside Bean on the Western Front and the official Australian artist, George Lambert, had previously fulfilled a commission for Bean when he travelled in early 1918 to Palestine to record activities of the Australian Light Horse units.

Wilkins’s and Lambert’s roles as visual artists were pivotal in Bean’s conception of the future historical displays of the war museum.8 Art and photography were integral components of a much larger collection that would reveal Australian service men and women ‘each with his or her own character, feelings, problems and interests’.9 As Bean stated, it was important to represent Australians who served in the war as individuals, not just ‘ciphers in the huge total’.10 This was one of the reasons that he advocated combining personal testimony with art, photography, documents, and objects to make an emotional and unique experience for visitors to the Australian War Memorial.

Lambert was well known before the war, for his portrait paintings of society men and women but he considered that his best contribution to the war was to record the efforts and achievements of the Australian soldiers. His eagerness was not completely altruistic as he haggled relentlessly for a larger commission fee. However, there is enough evidence to indicate that he genuinely admired the Australian fighting men and wished to contribute his skills and time. In late 1918, Charles Bean on behalf of the Australian government offered George Lambert a commission to visit Gallipoli to prepare for two large paintings – one on the 3rd Light Horse Brigade charge at the Nek on 7 August 1915 and the other painting to show the Australian landing of 25 April.

Lambert knew that the Gallipoli paintings were destined to be centrepieces of the national war museum and it appealed to his vanity as well as his pocket that he was asked to paint them. The subject of the Australians landing at Gallipoli presented him with a great personal opportunity to expand his interest in nationhood and narrative. It was also what many people at the time would agree was the most important commission for the future war museum.

The experience of walking the ground with Charles Bean and Gallipoli veterans gave Lambert insights into individual experiences and the emotional drama of the event that would eventually be incorporated into his painting. For the main narrative framework of the painting though, he was reliant on the account of his companion, Hedley Howe of the 11th Battalion (3rd Brigade).

On the Historical Mission’s first day of fieldwork, Howe led them over the course that he had taken nearly 4 years before when he had been in one of the first Australian boats to reach the shore. He talked to the group about his anxiety as they were towed and then how the shingle grated as they pulled into the shore. His platoon ran across the beach, threw off their packs at a bank where vegetation started just as the sky was growing light. Howe could see Ari Burnu leading up to a bigger and steeper hill: ‘Obviously the active enemy in this sector was on top of the higher plateau, though no Turk could be seen; and the men from the boat therefore began immediately to climb one of the scrubby ridges or ribs which led steeply, like a buttress, direct to the higher summit’.11 Significantly Howe described the moment when they had come across two Turkish soldiers, ‘one dead, the other with his brain exposed, but apparently conscious, reaching for his water-bottle. An Australian put it in his hand’.12 Pausing for a moment in Rest Gully his group noticed ‘the first enemy shell most of them had seen burst in a fleecy white puff and scatter its shrapnel upon the gravel of the Razor Edge’.13

Lambert utilised much of Howe’s personal account but also added other elements that gave poignancy and potency to the image. For example, the young lad in the centre – beautiful but dead – is suggestive of John Masefield’s description of ANZAC troops as the ‘finest body of young men brought together in modern times’; marked by their ‘physical beauty and nobility of bearing’.14

George Lambert’s painting of the landing was first revealed to the public on ANZAC Day 1922, when the new displays of the Australian War Museum in Melbourne opened to the public. If you had known a man or woman in the war, or had yourself served, this was the first chance to see the items collected from the battlefield, read the letters and messages from the frontline, and see in photographs and artworks, the events of the war. In fact, for many it would be the opportunity to see all constituent elements brought together to represent in its totality, Australia’s part in the war.

Not surprisingly, Anzac, the Landing 1915 dominated the Gallipoli Court. From a distance, viewers would have registered how big it is and the strong diagonal composition that rises out of the left corner to the upper right. Overall, the lower half of the painting seems to be an undifferentiated mass of muddy reds, browns and sagey greens while the upper portion appears to be a washed out dawn sky with a couple of small dirty cloud puffs. As visitors come closer, the confused foreground starts to resolve into men and earth, bushes and rocks. Stand in front of it and the individual details emerge, each conveying part of a larger narrative that was undoubtedly already familiar from press reports and personal accounts: the boats on the beach; a man scrambling up the steep slope trying to get a handhold and using his rifle butt for more purchase; the young lad lying dead as others rush past him; here a Turkish soldier grasping his water bottle while two Australians glance back before going on.

Onwards and upwards you scan the picture as you follow the path of the men: on the skyline there is a scurry of small figures running across open ground. Your eye follows the jagged outline of the cliff face across to the other side of the gorge and that small cloud now appears likely to be an artillery explosion. The upper half of the painting is almost devoid of human figures, dominated only by the ragged and precipitous edges of cliffs. As you follow the line of these downwards, you are taken back to the beach where men are landing on the narrow shore. Clearly much of this painting’s narrative is based on Hedley Howe’s personal account. But the artist has also managed to create the impression of an endlessly repeating film loop, as more men land, climb the slopes and run into the distance at the top right.

The 1922 guidebook to the Museum displays highlighted that the painting was surrounded in the Gallipoli Court by ‘some of the sacred mementoes of this first, most tragic, and in some ways, most glorious, of the Australian campaigns’.15 A brief statement – probably written by Charles Bean – gave further context:

The picture of the Landing, which dominates the court, was painted by G.W. Lambert, the noted Australian artist, who went minutely over the ground four years later with some of those who were present when the heights were stormed. It shows the 3rd Brigade making the first rush up the steep slope to Plugge’s Plateau in the dim light of dawn, in the teeth of heavy fire from an almost invisible enemy. Unlike many traditional battle pictures, this painting is an almost exact representation of the actual scene on that fateful April morning, when the Glory of Anzac was revealed.16

The guidebook refers to Anzac, the Landing 1915 as a traditional battle painting, or a history painting as it might be termed. Before we move on, I want to outline some of the essential characteristics of history paintings. Importantly, in this category – size does matter. Most are very large – this one is nearly four metres wide. After all, a painting of this monumental size proclaims itself as an ‘important’ picture and therefore the event it depicts must be important.

History paintings are determined by their subject matter, not the style of painting. They are didactic in nature and usually show heroic events from the past, weaving ‘together the heroism of individuals with universal moral messages embodied by those individuals at particular moments’.17 Ultimately, they demonstrate the value and continuity of traditions that connect the past to the present.

When Lambert was developing the painting from 1920 to 1922, he portrayed the morning’s events but imbued the scene with the heroic themes that had become embedded in the Anzac legend from the first reports of the landing published in Australia by the war correspondents in May 1915. Ashmead Bartlett had described the landing as ‘There has been no finer feat in this war than this sudden landing in the dark and the storming of the heights’.18 Bean placed a similar emphasis on the Australian achievement in landing in such a place: ‘the feat which will go down in history is that Sunday’s fighting when three Australian Brigades stormed, in face of a heavy fire, tier after tier of cliffs and mountains …’.19

Lambert made this a focus in his painting; in particular, the struggle of the Australian men as they battle through the landscape towards their objective. The enemy are virtually invisible – the wounded Turkish soldier with the water bottle in the lower right corner is the only representation of the Turkish troops. Otherwise, the picture reinforces the already established theme of the Australian soldier battling against the steep and inhospitable terrain, a theme that conveniently linked the recent narrative of Anzac to the past Australian bushman and pioneer narratives. As Robin Prior has pointed out, however, it is not just the difficulties presented by the landscape but the fact that ‘the setting allows the warrior-like qualities of the soldier to be exhibited. Hence we can have the resourceful soldier making sense of a landing that went awry, the fit, bronzed soldier scaling cliffs with ease and beating back the enemy’.20 Indeed, as the British commander, General Sir Ian Hamilton later described the events at Gallipoli; it is the conquest ‘by our soldiers and sailors over every man’s enemy – “The Impossible!”’21

Apart from highlighting heroic effort, the central story of Lambert’s history painting had to be well known and easily recognised by viewers. Lambert’s job was to convert a tale understood mainly through written accounts into something that could be seen and experienced. He used the full array of artists’ skills to make it the most affective image he could.

At first glance, the landscape background of this painting seems a familiar rendering of the Anzac Cove area. It is in fact a totally fabricated landscape. Lambert pushed and pulled the physical terrain to show both the beach and the upper heights together. The broad canvas covers an arc of about 240 degrees. This is much more than the human eye can see in one glance, but this distortion was necessary to convey the entire story as it unfolded over space and time. The apparent specificity of the landscape, the cycle of men landing, climbing and disappearing across the crest, collapse all this into one scene that gives the impression of representing only a moment. No camera on the day of the landing could ever have captured the entire sweep of the landscape and the sequence of events.

An often-underestimated contradiction in history paintings is the balance an artist needs to achieve between accuracy and interpretation. We have already seen that Lambert deliberately constructed a false landscape and brought together elements of an event stretched across a few hours. This license helped him create the imaginative field on which all the elements could be enacted. But, he was aware that errors of detail could undermine the viewers’ confidence and he needed to demonstrate that he was reliable and had done the necessary research. To help, Lambert made a few detailed ‘on the spot’ sketches of individual components of the landscape such as the arbutus shrub and the distinctive landscape feature of the Sphinx. Interestingly, he did not during his field trip to Gallipoli complete a comprehensive visual record of the ‘field of action’ that would later appear in the large painting.

On some things, he chose to discard strict accuracy. He was subsequently criticised for elements that viewers thought were incorrect, notably whether Australians in the first landing group wore caps or slouch hats. Lambert sought advice from Bean who said both caps and hats had been worn. Lambert then proceeded to paint nearly all the men with slouch hats as he said it gave the painting a uniquely ‘Australian’ character. But it is clear that desire for historical accuracy only went so far. More importantly, Lambert wanted to give viewers an ‘authentic’ and moving experience. To capture people’s imagination, all good stories must be told with drama and enthusiasm so the balance for Lambert was to make sure he got most of the details right but also conveyed atmosphere and excitement to his audience.

Most of Lambert’s artistic licence went unnoticed and it is clear that the painting hit the mark in 1922. It represented Australian men as many viewers wanted them to be remembered – determined, heroic and conquering apparently overwhelming odds. It was seen by over 14,000 visitors in Melbourne during the first week of the museum and 770,000 by the time the displays closed in early 1924. A report in May 1922 noted that the displays were mostly viewed by ‘returned soldiers accompanied by friends and relatives’.22 Attendants and staff of the Museum were also returned soldiers and undoubtedly took a further role in interpreting and embellishing museum displays for the visitors.

Lambert’s painting of the landing was described as instructive and illustrative – even an object lesson of a ‘fine ideal and an imperishable memory’ that would encourage young people to ‘maintain those same traditions in peace, and carry them on, if need be, in war’.23 People were also reminded in advertising that it was ‘a truthful portrayal of this brilliant achievement’24 while one art critic described it as a ‘declaration of sacrifice and achievement in a way that no other war picture has done.’25 Anzac, the Landing 1915, had helped some people make sense of their lives, to place their own experience in the much larger whole or as Samuel Hynes has described it, make ‘sense of the muddle of images that most men bring back from their wars.’26

As historians such as Joan Beaumont and many others have demonstrated, by the end of the war, the Gallipoli campaign – despite its failure – was well on its way to becoming ‘the signifier of national identity and discourse within which all later experiences of war would be positioned.’27 It was cemented into Australian history as a ‘passage of arms’.28 And, as Prime Minister Billy Hughes asserted in 1918 it was ‘the day the Australian nation was born. Before that we were New South Welshmen, Queenslanders, Victorians, – but on that day we became Australians’.29 In simplifying, dramatising and sanitising the events of the Australian landing in an uncritical way, Lambert’s painting represented the essential heroic and romantic story of Anzac that was firmly established in the immediate post war years.

It would be natural to expect that this painting would reduce in prominence as Australian audiences became more absorbed in other world events and distanced from the details of 1915. However, this was not the case. As Caroline Winter has observed ‘once a memory has been selected and articulated it will be slowly forgotten unless the information is regularly rehearsed or recalled’.30 And Anzac, the Landing 1915, as a central object in the growing institution of the Australian War Memorial, was in the perfect place for continued renewal. Enshrined in Anzac day ceremonies, visited by hundreds of thousands of visitors each year and repeatedly published and cited as an ‘authentic’ visual record of the landing, the painting remained a central visual reference to the Gallipoli story as it morphed to suit changing times.

This brings me to my final point, the possible relationship between this painting and the formation of cultural memory, also variously termed collective or social memory. Cultural memory can be simply described as an iterative process by which a society selects what to remember based on its framework of values, beliefs and behaviours. It is important to note, that in the process of remembering, other things must either be forgotten or pushed into the background. This process of selection enables the chosen memory to become dominant while others, that perhaps provide counter narratives, gradually fade.31 Remembering is only one part of the formation of a cultural memory, it then has to be maintained and transferred through generations, and that process is dependent on the particular group’s attitudes to history, the past and remembering.32 Not surprisingly, each society will use slightly different vehicles to carry and transmit a dominant memory. In general though, cultural memory is often stored away in places and in things that are tangible reminders – monuments, museums, libraries and archives are prime examples. Symbolic forms like written texts or in this case, a painting, are relatively stable ‘carriers’ of memory and their messages are easily transmitted from one generation to the next.

By 1922 when George Lambert completed his massive painting of the Australians landing at Gallipoli, he was visualising the core elements of the Anzac story that Australians had already chosen to remember – the heroic and romantic story of Australians fighting an unseen enemy, overcoming the impossible to make an amphibious landing on hostile shores. Despite the failure of the campaign, the artist visualised a ‘victory’ over the impossible that served to blur the boundary between ‘myth and history’.33

By using the lenses of history painting and cultural memory, I have tried to demonstrate that an important cultural object such as George Lambert’s painting Anzac, the Landing 1915, is not necessarily passive. It may illustrate an historical event or reflect the artist’s individual interpretation of it, but it also is formed within a cultural context. It is shaped by the interaction of the artist with their immediate environment, by influential associates such as Charles Bean who we know had a strong hand in the creation of the Anzac myth, and the general themes being discussed in the society in which the artist works. Lambert’s strong admiration for the Australian soldier is also very evident in this picture.

But by synthesising multiple memories and events, and articulating the essential core of the Anzac story, this history painting has also become an active agent in promulgating one of Australia’s most dominant and enduring memories – that of the Gallipoli campaign. Its centrality to the Anzac story is demonstrated by its continued display in multiple iterations of the ‘Gallipoli Court’ of the Australian War Memorial stretching from the first in 1922 to the most recent in 2015. Through its longevity in the public arena George Lambert’s Anzac, the Landing 1915 also contributes to and reinforces a popularly held belief that the Australian nation and national identity were forged in a battle on the shores of a foreign sovereign country. This painting can tell us much about the formation of the Anzac myth and its perpetuation in cultural objects and in so doing, perhaps offer insights into the broader question about the centrality and longevity of that myth in Australia.

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1 See Bruce Scates, Return to Gallipoli: Walking the Battlefields of the Great War (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2004), 15-26.

2 See Jay Winter, Sites of Memory, Sites of Mourning: The Great War in European Cultural History (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1995); Ken Inglis, Sacred Places: War Memorials in the Australian Landscape (Melbourne: Melbourne University Press, 1998); Tanja Luckins, The Gates of Memory: Australian People’s Experience and Memories of Loss and the Great War (Fremantle: Curtin University Books, 2004).

3 Jay Winter, Sites of Memory, 93.

4 An account of the dispute between Frank Hurley and Charles Bean over composite photographs can be found in Shaune Lakin, Contact: Photographs from the Australian War Memorial Collection (Canberra: Australian War Memorial, 2006).

5 Bruce Scates, Return to Gallipoli, 27.

6 Janda Gooding, Gallipoli Revisited: In the Footsteps of Charles Bean and the Australian Historical Mission (Melbourne and Canberra: Hardie Grant and the Australian War Memorial, 2009). Charles Bean also published in 1948 a very detailed and highly readable account of his return to Gallipoli in C.E.W. Bean, Gallipoli Mission (Canberra: Australian War Memorial, 1948).

7 C.E.W. Bean, Gallipoli Mission, 5-9.

8 The history of the Australian War Memorial and its collections can be found in Nola Anderson, Australian War Memorial: Treasures From a Century of Collecting (Sydney: Murdoch Books, 2012).

9 C.E.W. Bean, ‘The Beginnings of the Australian War Memorial’ [n.d. but later in his life], C.E.W. Bean Papers, AWM38: 3DRL 6673/619, 18, Australian War Memorial, Canberra.

10 C.E.W. Bean, ‘The Beginnings of the Australian War Memorial’, 18.

11 Hedley Howe’s account can be found in C.E.W. Bean, Gallipoli Mission, 75-80.

12 C.E.W. Bean, Gallipoli Mission, 78.

13 C.E.W. Bean, Gallipoli Mission, 79.

14 John Masefield, Gallipoli (Toronto: S.B. Gundy, 1916), 19.

15 Australian War Museum: The Relics and Records of Australia’s Effort in the Defence of the Empire, 1914-1918 (Melbourne: Australian War Museum, 1922), 11.

16 Australian War Museum: The Relics and Records, 14.

17 Steven Conn, ‘Narrative Trauma and Civil War History Painting, Or Why are these Pictures so Terrible?’ History and Theory Theme Issue 41, December 2002, 23.

18 Ellis Ashmead Bartlett, ‘Mr. Ashmead Bartlett’s Story’, Sydney Morning Herald 8 May 1915, 13.

19 Charles Bean, Commonwealth of Australia Gazette 39, 17 May 1915, 932.

20 Robin Prior, ‘The Heroic Image of the Warrior in the First World War’, War & Society 23, special number, September 2005, 49.

21 General Sir Ian Hamilton, ‘One More Drop of Blood!’, John Bull 30 Jan 1932 quoted in Jenny Macleod, Reconsidering Gallipoli (Manchester and New York: Manchester University Press, 2004), 13.

22 The Herald (Melbourne), 8 May 1922.

23 Sun News Pictorial (Melbourne), 25 April 1924, 1.

24 Advertisement for reproductions of the painting in Descriptive Catalogue: Official War Photographs (Melbourne: The Australian War Museum, c.1922), 30.

25 A. Colquhoun, ‘Battles in Oils. Artists Depict the Spirit of Anzac. Fine Show at War Museum’, Herald (Melbourne), 4 May 1922.

26 Samuel Hynes, ‘Personal Narratives and Commemoration’, in War and Remembrance in the Twentieth Century, eds. Jay Winter and Emmanuel Sivan (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1999), 207.

27 Joan Beaumont, Unbroken Nation: Australians in the Great War (New South Wales: Allen & Unwin, 2013), 52.

28 John Masefield, Gallipoli, 55.

29 Billy Hughes to troops in France, 2 July 1918, noted in Charles Bean diary no 116, C.E.W. Bean Papers, AWM 38/606/116/2, Australian War Memorial, Canberra.

30 Caroline Winter, ‘Tourism, Social Memory and the Great War’, Annals of Tourism Research, 36, no. 4, 2009, 615.

31 Jan Assmann, Religion and Cultural Memory, trans Rodney Livingstone (California: Stanford University Press, 2006, first published in German, 2000), 3.

32 Jan Assmann and John Czaplicka, ‘Collective Memory and Cultural Identity’, New German Critique, 65, Spring-Summer 1995, 133.

33 Jan Assmann, ‘Communicative and Cultural Memory’, in Cultural Memory Studies: An International and Interdisciplinary Handbook eds. Astrid Erll and Ansgar Nünning (Berlin and New York, 2008), 113.

Beyond Gallipoli: New Perspectives on Anzac

   by Raelene Frances and Bruce Scates