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Beyond Gallipoli: New Perspectives on Anzac

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Chapter 9

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‘FILLING THE VOID’

Artistic Interpretations of the Empty Battlefield

Paul Gough

This chapter has three parts: the first offers a critique of the idea of ‘emptiness’ and its application to the apparently deserted battlescapes of the First World War. The second part explores how this concept of emptiness was understood and applied by artists who witnessed the action, or the aftermath, of campaigns in Gallipoli, France and Belgium. To do so it focuses on the war diaries, sketches and post-battle paintings by Australian artist and Australian Imperial Force (AIF) signaller Ellis Silas, and also recounts the challenges faced by official war photographer Frank Hurley during the Third Battle of Ypres in 1917. Part Three reflects on more recent work by the Australian painter Sidney Nolan who for two decades later in the twentieth century was deeply engaged with the powerful memoryscapes of Turkey.

Part one: Filling the void

None but those who have endeavoured can realise the insurmountable difficulties of portraying a modern battle by camera. To include the event on a single negative, I have tried and tried, but the results are hopeless. Everything is on such a vast scale. Figures are scattered — the atmosphere is dense with haze and smoke — shells will not burst where required — yet the whole elements are there could they but be brought together and condensed. The battle is in full swing, the men are just going over the top — and I snap! A fleet of bombing planes is flying low, and a barrage burst all around. On developing my plate there is disappointment! All I find is a record of a few figures advancing from the trenches — and a background of haze.1

These are the words of the incorrigible Australian photographer Frank Hurley describing the challenges of both equipment and opportunity as one of two official war photographers with the Australian Imperial Force’s Australian War Records Section, established in June 1917. Hurley became deeply frustrated by the practical difficulties of taking meaningful photographs on the battlefield and by the diffuse character of the war on the Western Front. The massive scale of the fighting around the trench lines, the noise, dust, cacophony of action, and the barren emptiness of so much of the battlefield did not lend themselves to the busy, action-filled iconography that he felt befitted the incredible efforts and heroism of his countrymen.2

Later we explore some of the creative ploys he used to meet his vision of this war. First, however, we examine the spatial, aural and sensorial nature of the conditions faced by many front-line combatants in Turkey, France and Belgium at that time in an attempt to understand the many challenges facing the artists and photographers whose objective was to record, and interpret, the face of total modern warfare.

Hurley, like many who tried to make a record of the First World War battlefield, realised his photographs fell short of capturing the immense emptiness of the modern battlescape. Even when risking the dangerous vantage of a trench parapet, photographs could not visualise emptiness; they could only allude to absences. Words also failed to convey the null and void, the intensity of emptiness:

It seemed quite unthinkable that there was another trench over there a few yards away just like our own … Not even the shells made that brooding watchfulness more easy to grasp; they only made it more grotesque. For everything was so paralysed in calm, so unnaturally innocent and bland and balmy. You simply could not take it in.3

In Europe the Great War (the First World War) continued a process of emptying the battlefield that had begun with the introduction of smokeless powder and the invention of the machine rifle which allowed infantry to fire from well-concealed and distant positions.4 Improved detection and registration devices, refinements in the use of camouflage, and the weight of firepower that could be bought to bear on a fixed front, meant that for long stretches of time the battlefield of the First World War was deserted during daylight hours. Nonetheless, however empty, it was always being scrutinised. A complete photographic record of the entire Western Front was shot twice each day by the Royal Air Force (RAF) as a mechanical eye systematically gridded once, and then re-gridded, what many considered to be unmappable spaces. Becca Weir has called this ‘the paradox of measurable nothingness’5 in which the blasted topography had to be located, fixed, calibrated and then named:

I learnt the names of every wood and all the villages (wrote one soldier) I knew the contour of the hills and the shapes of the lakes in the valley. To see so much and to see nothing. We might have been the only men alive, my two signallers and I. And yet I knew there were thousands of hidden men in front of me … but no one moved, everyone was waiting for the safety of darkness.6

In Turkey, the compressed scale of the Gallipoli battlefield meant that even the most insignificant topographical feature would be named, recorded and scrutinised incessantly. On the inhospitable slopes above the beaches of the Dardanelles, small gullies, mounds, and isolated trees were soon given appellations that were widely adopted; places associated with particular individuals were named and promptly became part of the localised cartography. Naming, gridding, and cartographic logic tried to get a fix on the seemingly empty spaces that characterised the battleground.

While the battlescape may have appeared deserted, the dead lay just beneath its ruptured surface and the living led an ordered and disciplined (although often very perilous) existence in underground shelters and deep chambers.7 It was one of the greatest contradictions of modern warfare, a landscape that gave the appearance by daylight of being empty but was emphatically not: it teemed with invisible life. Few paintings or photographs have captured the immensity of that void; even the most inventive narrative fails to convey the intensity of its emptiness. Faced with the phantasmagoric lunar face of No Man’s Land, the imagination froze. Writer and painter Wyndham Lewis recalls the dreadful panorama of nothingness:

I turned to look back at this obnoxious death-trap, as one turns to look back at a mountain whose top one had just visited, once one is down below. The sunset had turned on its romantic dream-light and what had been romantic enough before was now absolutely operatic. A darkening ridge, above a drift of Saharan steppe, gouged and tossed into a monotonous disorder, in a word the war-wilderness; not a flicker of life, not even a ration-party – not even a skeleton; and upon the ridge the congeries of ‘bursts’, to mark the spot where we had been. It was like the twitching of chicken after its head had been chopped off. We turned away from this brainless bustle, going on all by itself, about an empty concrete Easter-egg. In a stupid desert.8

Reflecting on his uncanny sight of a deserted but deeply dangerous battlefield, the writer Reginald Farrer insightfully notes that it was actually misleading to regard the ‘huge, haunted solitude’ of the modern battlefield as empty. ‘It is more’, he argues, ‘full of emptiness … an emptiness that is not really empty at all’.9 The young English artist (and front-line officer) Paul Nash visualises this idea – borrowing Farrer’s phrase the ‘Void of War’ – populating its emptinesses with latent violence.10 Artists from Australia, Canada, and New Zealand (as well as Britain) faced similar challenges in trying to pictorialise the vacuum of the deserted battlefield.

The phenomenon of ‘emptiness’ was accentuated by factors peculiar to the charged spatiality of the Dardanelles battlescape. Factors included the comprehensive inversion of night and day – the night was inevitably busy and industrious; daylight hours were outwardly calm, with opposing soldiers remaining out of sight of each other, hearing became more important than sight. Scrutiny of the ‘other’ had to be gleaned using proxy measures such as trench periscopes or primitive listening devices. During the Gallipoli campaign every human sense was attuned to the tract of land that lay between the front-lines. In places No Man’s Land was little more than a few metres wide and became a ‘debatable’, fluid, and near-mythical zone that soldiers learned to fear, but it also exercised a dread fascination for many. Although the soldier-poet David Jones may not have been typical of many in the Anzac force, some may have shared his poetic understanding of the liminal qualities of No Man’s Land, the threshold between two different existential spaces:

The day by day in the wasteland, the sudden violences and long stillnesses, the sharp contours and unformed voids of that mysterious existence profoundly affected the imaginations of those who suffered it. It was a place of enchantment.11

At the intersection of these two worlds – the hazardous emptiness of the daylight battlescape and the crowded busy-ness of the benighted No Man’s Land – came one of the critical moments of any soldier’s experience of war: the moment he left the relative safety of the front-line and stepped up into the danger zone:

The scene that followed was the most remarkable that I have ever witnessed. At one moment there was an intense and nerve shattering struggle with death screaming through the air. Then, as if with the wave of a magic wand, all was changed; all over ‘No Man’s Land’ troops came out of the trenches, or rose from the ground where they had been lying.12

Moving from the horizontal to the vertical, from subterranean security to maximal vulnerability, was an ultimate transformation for every combatant. It compounded the central tenet of militarised service; the transformation from civilian to soldier, from innocence to experience, and, in many cases, from youth to adult. The peculiarly strict proximity of the Allied and Turkish trenches on the Dardanelles battlefield, and the imperative for the Allies to maintain the offensive or be pushed back into the sea, has made the sight of Anzac soldiers charging over the tense tract of No Man’s Land the leitmotif of this particular conflict. This recurrent theme informs many of the most memorable post-war canvases in the major collections of Australian and New Zealand war art, and has entered the ‘high diction’ of battle iconography, also recounted in movies, documentaries and still photography.13

Significantly the landscape of the Dardanelles peninsula plays a very different pictorial role to that of the flat [and further flattened] terrain of much of northern France and Belgium where the Anzac forces would fight later in the war. In glaring contrast to the grim and deadly terrain immediately around the trenches and dug-outs, the picturesque hills, the vast Aegean sea, and the distinctive features of the headland were a striking backdrop to war: a beautiful place with ‘cliffs carpeted with flowers’. The headland around the small town of Krithia was described by the British official historian as looking onto ‘a smiling valley studded with cypress and patches of young corn’.14 This rich visual topography became a powerful visual context for painters when they came to compose vivid re-enactments of momentous skirmishes and infamous attacks on the Turkish lines.

From a military point of view, what the battlescapes of Flanders and the Dardanelles had in common was the urgent need by the opposing armies to dominate the physical terrain and control scopic space. As the fixed trench warfare became more drawn out and intractable, there grew an urgent need to control the enemy line and the hazardous zone beyond. However, the enemy space could not always be seen: it might be heard, or smelt, or experienced in some other non-visual way. In describing their term ‘smooth space’ Deleuze and Guattari say ‘It is a space of affects more than one of properties. It is haptic rather than optical perception’.15 In the ‘smooth space’ of No Man’s Land things are felt, intuited, located by sound and smell, or grasped in the dark while crawling across the tortured ground during night patrol. In stark contrast, exacting observation by trained soldiers sees the enemy lines ceaselessly scrutinised, recorded, registered and calibrated whenever possible.

Military sketching for reconnaissance purposes (or to aid artillery fire through target indication carried out by Forward Observation Officers) played an important part in how a significant number of artist-combatants turned their skills to military purposes.16 In the Gallipoli campaign a number of drawings and watercolours – made on land but also significantly from the decks of naval vessels offshore –aimed to schematise the act of looking, using basic and well-tested methods of measuring and calibration by eye and hand. In the hands of a trained observer, even the most complicated terrain could be simplified, its salient features clarified through a process of careful analysis, and rendered as a drawn panorama which could inform and augment other surveillance work. Through this approach, graphic information often proved to be superior to coastal or land-based photography because it eliminated unnecessary or distracting detail, using a pictorial language to identify essential elements, relying on shared graphic codes to inform tactical actions.

Finally, there is a further understanding of the battlescape to note, one as true of Gallipoli as it was of Flanders or Salonika. Combatants came to be wary of being attracted to, or gathering around, distinctive landscape features. In France the well-known cartoonist Bruce Bairnsfather recalls, ‘A farm was a place where you expected a shell through the wall any minute; a tree was the sort of thing the gunners took range on; a sunset indicated a quality of light in which it was not safe to walk abroad’.17

Battle immediately brings about a new order in any landscape. The nondescript, the contingent, the marginal, and the apparently featureless space quickly became prioritised and valued. Danger spots soon became well known, widely shared and greatly feared. In the Anzac trenches at Gallipoli there were many notorious points which were open to enemy sniping, where little could be done to screen soldiers as they undertook the potentially deadly act of passing them.

As a consequence, terrain was rarely neutral; it was divided unequally between the safe and the unsafe; between refuge and prospect. An officer recalls one terrifying foray into No Man’s Land where everything seemed suddenly (and almost irreversibly) inverted:

Straight lines did not exist. If one went forward patrolling, it was almost inevitable that one would soon creep around some hole or suspect heap or stretch of wired stumps, and then, suddenly one no longer knew which was the [enemy] line, which our own … Willow-trees seemed [like] moving men. Compasses responded to old iron and failed us.

At last by luck or stroke of recognition one found oneself.18

Although straight lines rarely existed on any battlefield, there was a strong awareness of a spatial ‘other’, especially the tract of unknown land that existed only in the future tense: this has many spatial manifestations:

This side of the wire everything is familiar and very man a friend; over there beyond their wire, is the unknown, the uncanny, there are the people about whom you accumulate scraps of irrelevant information but whose real life you can never penetrate …19

If in front lay the unknowable, beyond that lay the unreachable. Soldiers in the few privileged elevated positions on the Western Front could glimpse a green, distant strip of land – always out of reach, forever locked in an unattainable future:

I could … see unspoiled land beyond the Hindenburg Line, undulating hills … woods, villages fit to live in, trees that had leaves, a hillside without shell-holes. It was a Promised Land.20

This idea of a ‘promised land’ that could only be mentioned in the future tense became a standard trope amongst many memoir-writers; a recognition that they were somehow irreversibly situated in an irreversible ‘here and now’. On the Dardanelles Peninsula the distant hills of the Sari Bair Range played the same role, tantalisingly offering the ultimate prize and prospect, but cruelly denied.

Part two: Artistic interpretations

Here we look at these spatial, aural and haptic phenomena through the eyes of two artist-practitioners, Frank Hurley in Belgium in late 1917 and Ellis Silas on the slopes above Anzac Beach in May 1915.

Photographer and cinematographer Frank Hurley had arrived in London in early 1917 as a national Australian hero, having sensationally survived the catastrophe that beset Shackleton’s Imperial Trans-Antarctic Expedition of 1914-16. Commissioned by the Australian War Records Section when it was formed in mid-1917 and attached to the AIF as an honorary Captain, he was quite overwhelmed by the horrors of the Western Front, stunned by its scale, complexity and omnipresent dangers. Although his imagination was ignited by the spectacle of war he struggled with its speed and intensity. Hurley and his assistant Hubert Wilkins did what they could scenographically to embrace the battlescape’s visual sweep, on one occasion they hazarded out of their fragile shelter to capture the random instantaneity of an aerial bombardment, but it was a futile business, ‘In spite of heavy shelling by the Boche, we made an endeavour to secure a number of shell burst pictures. … I took two pictures by hiding in a dugout and then rushing out and snapping’.21

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Fig. 9.1 Frank Hurley, A composite photograph, originally known as “a hop over”, constructed by official war photographer, Australian War Memorial E05988B

Despite his determined pursuit of a good image, for Hurley the results were disappointing. He realised that the face of modern war was too elusive for a single snapshot, ‘Everything is on such a vast scale. Figures are scattered — the atmosphere is dense with haze and smoke — shells will not burst where required — yet the whole elements are there could they but be brought together and condensed’.22

Hurley acknowledged that the difficulties were ‘insurmountable’ and proposed that he create composite photographs. He later told an audience ‘Now if negatives are taken of all the separate incidents in the action and combined, some idea may be gained of what a modern battle looks like’.23 Composite printing was a well-established, indeed staple, technique of photographers at the time, used extensively for mural-sized exhibition prints for display. Hurley was aware that the Canadian Expeditionary Force (CEF) had recruited photographers who willingly embraced the technique and he was determined, in his words, to ‘beat them’. However, as is now widely known, the official war historian for Australia Charles Bean firmly prohibited the practice. Officially responsible for an eyewitness record of the Australian effort, Bean wanted nothing to do with ‘scoops, competitions, magnification and exaggeration’ which he regarded as falsifying the authentic evidence of war and out of harmony with ‘what is best for the country’. Photographs were regarded as sacred records – standing for future generations to see forever the simple plain truth’.24

Hurley refused to regard his photographs as either a sacred relic or an indexical account of the front, nor did he think Bean’s reductive ruling could reflect the extraordinary bravery of the Anzac soldiers he witnessed in action on the front-line. Their row was a bitter one:

Had a great argument with Bean about combination pictures. Am thoroughly convinced that it is impossible to secure effects, without resorting to combination pictures … Had a lengthy discussion with Bean re pictures for exhibition and publicity purposes. Our authorities here will not permit me to pose any pictures or indulge in any original means to secure them … As this absolutely takes all possibilities of producing pictures from me, I have decided to tender my resignation at once. I conscientiously consider it but right to illustrate to the public the things our fellows do and how the war is conducted. They can only be got by printing a result from a number of negatives or re-enactment. This is out of reason and they prefer to let all these interesting episodes pass. This is unfair to our boys and I conscientiously could not undertake to continue to work.25

Hurley eventually reached a compromise with Bean and AIF Headquarters and retracted his resignation. Hurley was allowed to make six composites for a London exhibition devoted to Australia’s fighting in France, provided they were captioned as composites. In later exhibitions and publications these captions somehow disappeared and the public began to assume that all of Hurley’s pictures were real. For his London show in May 1918 he showed these composites enlarged to mural size, and a further 130 further images describing military activity and actions on the Western Front and Palestine where the AIF was stationed and where Hurley was posted in November 1917.

Hurley revelled in the public and press attention, delighted by the success of his ‘action pictures’. He regarded them as truly authentic visions of a war that had proved absurdly elusive:

The exhibition was well patronised today. The colour lantern is working excellently. The colour slides depict scenes on the Western Front, Flanders and also Palestine. They are gems and elicit applause at every showing. A military band plays throughout the day. …

… Another sensational picture is ‘DEATH THE REAPER’. This remarkable effect is made up of two negatives. One, the foreground, shows the mud splashed corpse of a Boche floating in a shell crater. The second is an extraordinary shell burst: the form of which resembles death. The Palestine series are magnificent …. It is some recompense to see one’s work shown to the masses and to receive favourable criticism after the risks and hardships I have taken and endured to secure the negatives.26

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Fig. 9.2 Frank Hurley, An advanced aid post, Australian War Memorial 1917E01202A

Hurley would always assure his audiences that the elements of each composite picture were taken at great risk during battles, and were not ‘fancy pictures faked from a safe position behind the lines’. No one questioned his front-line credentials. Even Bean recognised that Hurley had ‘been nearly killed a dozen times’.27

But do these vast collages actually capture the face of total war? Do they compete with the works of front-line painters who set out to interpret what they had seen as Official War Artists? Do they, in fact, tell us much about the unique conditions of the front-line? The answer to each of these questions is probably no, not as much as Hurley believed as they add little to the iconography of modern warfare. Hurley’s composite works are, to echo one historian’s critique, little more than ‘quaint historical footnotes’.28

Hurley’s large composite works fell into the same trap as the epic cavalry-laden tableau of the high Victorian and Edwardian battle art they mimicked, being over-anxious to promote heroic gesture and martial zeal. In wishing to be counted as equal to the vast canvases that lined the walls of the Royal Academies, Hurley’s mural size prints may seem little more than overblown compendiums in absurdly ornate frames. In retrospect none of the effort seems necessary. Hurley was an impressive documentary photographer – deeply committed, fearless and authentic. His technical innovations, particularly in flash photography, establish him as a pioneer. His single-shot photographs of the battle front help visualise some of the intangible, virtually indescribable, aspects of modern war. When seen alongside his powerful war diary Hurley’s documentary photographs recount an extraordinary tale of commitment, zeal and pictorial innovation.

Born in 1885, the same year as Hurley, painter Ellis Silas sailed to Australia from England in 1907. He painted in Sydney, Melbourne, and Adelaide before settling in Perth. In 1914 he joined the AIF as a signaller, was trained in Egypt and landed in Gallipoli with the 16th Battalion in the early evening of 25th April 1915. His unit went straight into action at Pope’s Hill at the head of Monash Valley where they spent the night hurriedly digging in while under intense enemy rifle-fire. Ellis later recorded these first traumatic hours in his memorable painting The End of the Great Day.29 His unit held its precarious position, without relief, for the next five days and nights. Later, Ellis found time to record his reactions in a diary and to make drawn records of the events enveloping him ‘The repetition of shrapnel in each sketch is not a fad of mine, but just the natural order of things’.30

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Fig. 9.3 Frank HURLEY No title (Supporting troops of the 1st Australian Division walking on a duckboard track) (1917) (recto) gelatin silver photograph 14.0 x 19.0 cm (image and sheet) National Gallery of Victoria, Melbourne 2003.371

He recalls that, only hours after coming ashore, there was a curious phenomenon in the midst of ‘this frightful hell of screaming shrapnel and heavy ordinance’, birds were chirping and buzzing from leaf to leaf’.31 Such bucolic dissonance was a common feature of the Great War battlefields, characterised as ‘ridiculous mad incongruity!’ by Nash, another painter on a very different battleground some two years later.32 As a signaller Ellis had constantly to expose himself in full view so as to relay his messages to others on distant parts of the battlefield. It is a highly fraught occupation. In contrast to his fellow combatant, a signaller’s reading of space and distance has to be finely and uniquely attuned.

As Ellis took in his surroundings, his artist’s eye was drawn to the few distinctive motifs of the sandy landscape – the single fir tree, for example, on the ridge opposite where a New Zealand unit was advancing. But he became quickly aware that danger lurks most in those places identified by enemy snipers as patently empty, most obviously the gaps in the breastworks and temporary defensive lines. And he later made a drawing of one such danger spot known as ‘Dead Man’s Patch’, a notorious open space so well covered by Turkish sharpshooters that ‘few men have been able to get across it – a stream of dead marks its length’.33

All along the route, scrambling along the side of the exposed incline, my comrades offered me a dug-out for me to take cover as the snipers are getting our chaps every minute, but as the messages are important I must take my chance. All along the route I keep coming across bodies of the poor chaps who have been less fortunate than I.34

To Ellis and his fellow combatants the Gallipolean landscape is a truly malign place, offering little succour or respite, where every element seems to conspire against them. On one occasion Ellis was about to make a dash from the cover of bushes to cross a bare patch when he found himself momentarily ensnared by a sharp branch ‘The seat of my pants caught in the bushes, and I hung by them! I was in a terrible funk, for then the snipers got busy’. Illustrated in his book Crusading at Anzac Ellis’s drawing creates an extremely dissonant impression, for sprawled among the picturesque scene of flowering foliage and billowing clouds are the prone bodies of his comrades, impaled and forlorn in grotesque Goyaesque postures.35

Despite the intense dangers and the deliriums that befell him after a week of non-stop sniper fire Ellis managed to maintain a record of what was happening around him, though he apologises to himself that he was keeping little but notes and ‘making no effort to keep a concise diary.’ He did however find time to sketch, amusing himself one evening in Rest Camp36 by designing stained glass windows, and on another making a reconnaissance sketch of a position for his superior officers possibly, he thinks, for General Birdwood. He complains frequently in his diary that as day light recedes ‘his sight is going’, a terrible dilemma for Ellis the signaller, let alone Ellis the fine artist.

He describes an occasion when he mistakes the shifting spatiality of the narrow battlefield when returning from delivering a message and takes the ‘wrong side’ of a road, one that is open to enemy observation. ‘Keep to the right!’, his Captain shouts out, ‘Don’t you know which is the right side? Run for it…’37 As battle continues Ellis observes one of the characteristic fusions of the new order of things: ‘The shrapnel is now ever in the sky, it is as much a part of the landscape as the clouds.’ and in less than a fortnight, on 7th May, he records that the distinction between day and night is becoming blurred, ‘All last night the Turks have been bombarding heavily with shrapnel; a quite unusual occurrence, as they never used to commence before dawn’.38

Ellis lasted at the front little more than three weeks. His nerves were shredded and he was evacuated. By his own reckoning he felt he had played a part, had done ‘his bit’ with his fellows and shown ‘a sneering world that artists are not quite failures on the battlefield’, though he freely admitted that ‘we are not quite cut out for this sort of work’.39 Ellis saw out the war first in Egypt, as a medical orderly with those evacuated from the Dardanelles, and then as a convalescent himself in England. In 1916 he gathered together his battlefield notes and sketches which were published as Crusading at Anzac AD 1915, a searing but also compassionate account of the landing, its aftermath and his recovery. The ink drawings trace a traumatic account of his brief time on the headland and conclude with an image of a wounded soldier comforted by a nurse at Palace Hospital, Heliopolis entitled ‘Heaven!’40

Ellis Silas holds the distinction of being the only participant in the Battle of the Landing to produce paintings from his personal experiences. The Australian War Museum purchased three of his large paintings, where Silas focuses on the combatants and their heroic plight. By focusing almost entirely on the figures the emptied battlescapes offer little more than background colour and context.41

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Fig. 9.4 Silas Ellis Dawn, 3 May 1915 28 x 15 cm (irreg.) Australian War MemorialART90803

Part three: Memoryscapes as an exploration of the void

Today few painters can approach the topic of Gallipoli without reference to the extraordinary suite of images created by the Australian artist Sidney Nolan during a period between the mid-1950s and the late 1970s. These images are very different from anything thus far considered and offer a wholly new perspective, unlike the eye-witness accounts by Ellis Silas, the post-war topographical views by Horace Moore-Jones, or indeed the epic canvases depicting infamous battle charges recreated by George Lambert after the war. ‘The power and the energy of Nolan’s Gallipoli works’, claims Lola Wilkins ‘are palpable. It is as if Nolan found a way to breathe life into what had become a long-repeated story, giving a uniquely personal perspective on a subject that has been largely treated as history’.42

In 1978 Nolan donated 252 pieces from his Gallipoli series to the Australian War Memorial in Canberra. Much has been written about Nolan’s mythical treatment of the campaign, how he had long wanted to explore heroic themes, had delved into Homer’s Iliad, and visited the archaeological museum in Athens where he became fascinated by classical Greek black vases exquisitely painted with representations of warriors in combat.

In 1956 he took an opportunity to visit the preserved site of Troy and spent a single memorable day on the peninsula of Gallipoli, a visit that left its indelible mark on his keyed-up imagination:

I stood on the place where the first ANZACs had stood, looked across the straits to the site of ancient Troy, and felt that here history had stood still … Here and there I picked up a soldier’s water bottle or some other piece of discarded equipment … I found the place on top of the hill where the ANZAC and Turkish trenches had been only yards apart and the whole expedition balanced between success or failure.

I visualised the young, fresh faces of the boys from the bush, knowing nothing or war of faraway places, all individuals, and suddenly all the same – united and uniform in the dignity of the common destiny. And that is how I came to paint the series.43

A substantial number of the Series are empty. Charles Green describes them as ‘fields of colour from which soldiers are almost wholly absent’.44 Sombre and tonal they depict the barren topography of the headland, its impenetrable scrub, remnants of trenches, sharply-cut gullies, and low distant hills, and the ocean that engirdled the peninsula.

Through his sustained preoccupation with the Gallipoli campaign Nolan took his fascination with the landscape myths of his homeland and merged them with the idea that Australia’s national identity was born with the Anzac legend of Gallipoli. This became a potent combination.

Nolan fused the bare hills of Asia Minor with the harsh landscape of the Australian bush, blurring ‘one iconic landscape with another’.45 He recognised in the ancient Turkish landscape similar qualities to the Australian outback; he was familiar with its colours, tone and texture, and recognised it as innately inhospitable as had contemporary commentators such as British journalist and war correspondent Ellis Ashmead-Bartlett in his written dispatches, at first full of life and colour:

It is indeed a formidable and forbidding land. To the sea it presents a steep front, broken into innumerable ridges, bluffs, valleys, and sand spits, which rise to a height of several hundred feet. The surface is either a kind of bare yellow sandstone which crumbles when you tread on it, or else is covered with very thick shrubbery about six feet in height.46

Nolan absorbed these narratives and other eye-witness accounts, he talked lengthily to eminent historians, and spent time in London at the Imperial War Museum viewing contemporary photographs of the campaign. Embedding, indeed saturating, himself in the milieu of a theme was a standard approach for the artist before embarking on any series. ‘Experience, knowledge, and imagination’, writes Laura Webster, ‘would interact in his mind before he got down to the business of creating the work. In this way the works became ruminations, but produced with great rapidity and arising out of an almost unconscious, emotional response’.47 Having steeped himself in the geographical and mythological history of Gallipoli, Nolan painted a succession of memoryscapes that exude the core ideas of a crowded emptiness.

He was both in awe of the place and assured in his creative process. Using his trademark materials – textile dye, polymer medium, coloured crayon, coated paper – he created bare, almost minimal, images suffused with colour, executed hastily, without any wasted effort. They eschew perspective or depth, they have no detail or anecdotal touch points, the planes are distorted and bent. As with so many of his landscapes they are ‘geographically tentative and uncertain’.48

What is it that makes this Series so convincing? Is it because they are so elusive and stripped down, little more than a wash of saturated red and pink on striated cliffs, or because they seemed to have been achieved so effortlessly, with their pleats of colour folded over and over to miraculously recreate the friable geology of the beachhead and the burrow-holed ravines and gullies where the soldiers endured a fragile troglodyte existence? Or is it that Nolan recognised that every landscape – the bush, outback, or beachhead – had its own story to tell, each with its own innate power of embedded, multiple, narratives?

Absorbed by the mythological intensity of Gallipoli, Nolan knew that less was more in presenting the emptiness of the battle and the landscape that still remained on his visit decades later. Interviewed at the Australian War Memorial in 1982 he voices a sense that threat, menace, unease lay close to the surface, just as the personal detritus of the retreating armies had once littered it. ‘The landscape’, he reflects of that distant boneyard, ‘becomes darker and more fissured’.49 Nolan’s bleak minimal vistas impart to the viewer a knowledge that something awful had happened on this fractured ground. They evoke rich layers of memory and emotion that render the landscape silent witness to both historic and contemporary events.

In the past two decades as the mystique surrounding the Gallipoli Campaign broadens, deepens, intensifies, other Australian and New Zealand artists have been stimulated to create equally pared down representations of the scarred cliffs and once-fatal ridges of the peninsula. Idris Murphy’s representation of a Gallipoli Evening (2013), for example, borrows much of its stripped back and simplified design from Nolan’s example.50 However his is a hard act to follow, and most comparable painting pales through poor imitation.

Nolan’s dozens of landscapes speak eloquently of the crowded emptiness of fated ground, indeed they may represent the most distilled essence of a brutalised and blighted battlescape since Paul Nash told a ‘bitter truth’ without resorting to legions of soldiers and hackneyed narratives. Nolan would have known such paintings, and he would have been keenly aware of Australian precedents by First World War artists at Gallipoli, such as George Benson, Frank Crozier, and George Lambert, but at the end of the day they meant little to him:

I’m very interested, in fact, compelled and dedicated to transmitting emotions and I care for very little else. I care for that process so much that I’m prepared to belt the paint across the canvas much faster than it should be belted. I don’t care as long as I can get that emotional communication. I will sacrifice everything to it – and that I’ve done.51

In exploring the idea of emptiness and its application to the battlescapes of Turkey and Europe in the First World War, each of these three artists, Hurley, Ellis and Nolan respond to both the scenes before them and to the ‘smooth space’ of the sensorial landscape, where the senses – haptic, visual and aural – entwine in the complex layers of an horrific battleground. While Hurley and Nolan knew already the stark, empty and threatening landscapes of the Australian outback and polar wastelands, nothing prepared them for the wasted boneyards of Gallipoli, the Somme or Ypres. They responded imaginatively and with unique creative vision. After months in recuperation from the traumas of his service in the Dardanelles, artist and signaller Ellis Silas was finally able to use his unique experiences to ask the pertinent question of the ‘legacy of emptiness’, a dense legacy that would gradually suffuse the desolate landscape of that doomed peninsula:

Fighting still continuing with unabated vigour – will this frightful noise never cease? I wonder what this valley will be like when there is no longer noise of fighting, no longer the hurried tread of combating forces – when the raw earth of the trenches is o’erspread with verdant grass. Perhaps here and there equipment of War will be lying with fresh spring sprouts of grass threading through interstices – underneath the sad little mounds resting sons of a great nation – in the clear sky overhead, instead of the bursting shrapnel, little fleecy clouds – the scream of shrapnel, the Hell noise of the firing, giving place to an unbroken stillness save for the chirping of a bird or the soft buzzing of the bee! I wonder would it be thus!52

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1 See Robert Dixon, Photography, early cinema and colonial modernity: Frank Hurley’s synchronized lecture entertainments (London: Anthem Press, 2011).

2 Alasdair McGregor, Frank Hurley: a photographer’s life. (Camberwell, Victoria: Viking Books, 2004).

3 Reginald Farrer, The void of war: letters from three fronts. (London: Constable, 1918), 113.

4 James J Schneider, ‘The theory of the empty battlefield’. RUSI Journal, 132:3 (1987), 37-44.

5 Becca Weir, ‘‘Degrees in nothingness’: battlefield topography in the First World War’. Critical Quarterly, 49:4, (2007), 40-55.

6 Richard Talbot Kelly, A subaltern’s odyssey: a memoir of the Great War, 1915-1917 (London: William Kimber, 1980), 5.

7 William Redmond, Trench Pictures from France, 1917, 39, cited in Paul Gough, ‘The Empty Battlefield: Painters and the First World War’, Imperial War Museum Review, 8 (London: Imperial War Museum, and Leo Cooper, 1993), 38-47.

8 Percy Wyndham Lewis, Blasting and Bombardiering. ( Berkeley: University of California Press, 1967), 159.

9 Reginald Farrer, 25.

10 For an exploration of Paul Nash and the void see Paul Gough, ‘Brothers in arms’, John and Paul Nash, and the aftermath of the Great War (Bristol: Sansom and Company, 2014), 49-63.

11 David Jones, In Parenthesis (London: Faber, 1937), x.

12 A. Stuart Dolden, Cannon Fodder: an infantryman’s life on the Western Front, 1914-1918 (Blandford: Blandford Press, 1980), 39.

13 See for example Peter Weir’s seminal feature film, Gallipoli (1981).

14 Garrie Hutchinson, Pilgrimage: A traveller’s guide to Australia’s battlefields ( Melbourne: Black Inc., 2006), 29.

15 Gilles Deleuze and Felix Guattari, A thousand plateaus: capitalism and schizophrenia. Trans. Brian Massumi (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1987), 479.

16 Paul Gough, ‘Calculating the future – panoramic sketching, reconnaissance drawing and the material trace of war’, in Contested Objects: Material Memories of the Great War, eds Nicholas Saunders and Paul Cornish ( London: Routledge, 2009), 237-251.

17 Bruce Bairnsfather, Bullets and billets (Pen and Sword, London, 1916/1993).

18 Gough, ‘Calculating the Future’, 242.

19 Edmund Blunden, Undertones of war (London: Penguin, Penguin Classics 2000, 1928).

20 Charles Carrington, Soldier from the wars returning (London: Hutchinson, 1965), 87.

21 Frank Hurley, The diaries of Frank Hurley, 1912-1941. Robert Dixon and Christopher Lee (eds.), London: Anthem, 2011, (6 October 1917). The establishment of the Australian War Records Section is given in the Australian War Memorial record as May 1917. However, elsewhere (usually sources in the UK) give the date as June. See https://www.awm.gov.au/blog/2007/06/12/the-australian-war-records-section/

22 Martyn Jolly, ‘Composite propaganda photographs during the First World War’. History of Photography, 27:2, Summer, 2003, 154-165. Discusses Hurley, Press cuttings, Sydney Morning Herald (20 March 1919), n.p.

23 Frank Hurley, Press cuttings, National Library of Australia, MS883, series 2, items 29-36, n.d.

24 Charles E.W. Bean Diary, Australian War Memorial, AWM38, cited in Michael McKernan, Here is Their Spirit (Brisbane: University of Queensland Press, 1991), 42.

25 Frank Hurley, 26 September 1917.

26 Frank Hurley, 4 June 1918.

27 Charles E.W. Bean, Wilkins and Hurley recommendations, Australian War Memorial, AWM38, DRL6673, item 57, 24 October 1917.

28 Martyn Jolly, ‘Australian First World War photography’. History of Photography, 23, number 2, Summer, 1999.

29 Ellis Silas, ‘The End of the Great Day: The 16th Battalion, AIF digging the original trenches on Pope’s Hill on the evening of the landing at Anzac, 25 April 1915’ – By an eyewitness (Signaller Ellis Silas, 16th Battalion AIF).

30 Ellis Silas, Crusading at Anzac AD 1915 (London, 1916).

31 Ellis Silas, Diary entry, 26 April 1915.

32 Paul Nash, Outline: an autobiography and other writings, with a preface by Herbert Read (London: Faber and Faber, 1948), 186.

33 Ellis Silas, Diary entry 26 April 1915.

34 Ellis Silas, Diary entry 26 April 1915.

35 Reproduced as Dead Man’s Patch’ in Ellis Silas, Crusading at Anzac AD 1915.

36 Ellis Silas, Diary entry, 11 May 1915.

37 Ellis Silas, Diary entry, 2 May 1915.

38 Ellis Silas, Diary entry, 7 May 1915.

39 Ellis Silas, Diary entry, 28 April 1915.

40 Ellis Silas, Crusading at Anzac AD 1915. With an introduction by General Sir William Birdwood, and foreword by General Sir Ian Hamilton. Hamilton wrote a rather back-handed compliment in the Foreword, that although Silas’ drawings might seem a little ‘slight, they seem solid and serious enough to such of us as were there’.

41 For a brief but thorough account see: http://www.anzacsite.gov.au/1landing/s_biography.html). ‘Roll Call’, Ellis Silas, 1920, oil on canvas, 101.8 x 153.1 cm [AWM ART02436]. Silas executed this painting in London in about 1920 on commission for the Australian War Records Section, and along with two other works, ‘The Attack of the 4th Brigade, AIF’ and ‘Digging in at Quinn’s Post or the End of a Great Day’, it went to the Australian War Memorial, where it currently hangs in the Gallipoli gallery. ‘Roll Call’ was based upon an earlier sketch of his that appeared in ‘Crusading at Anzac’, titled ‘The Roll Call – Quinn’s Post’. According to Silas, the roll call after a battle was ‘always a most heart-breaking incident. Name after name would be called; the reply a deep silence.’

42 Lola Wilkins, ‘Sidney Nolan: The Gallipoli Series’, essay in Sidney Nolan: The Gallipoli Series, exhibition catalogue (Australian War Memorial, Canberra, 2009), 1-14, 2-3.

43 Sidney Nolan, ‘The ANZAC Story’, The Australian Women’s Weekly, 17 March 1965, 3.

44 Charles Green, ‘The Gallipoli Series: An Artist’s Perspective’, essay in Sidney Nolan: The Gallipoli Series, exhibition catalogue (Australian War Memorial, Canberra, 2009), 24-29, 25.

45 Charles Green, ‘The Gallipoli Series: An Artist’s Perspective’, 25.

46 Ellis Ashmead-Bartlett, Despatches from the Dardanelles (George Newnes, London, 1916), 72.

47 Laura Webster, ‘Nolan’s Gallipoli Landscapes’, essay in Sidney Nolan: The Gallipoli Series, exhibition catalogue (Australian War Memorial, Canberra, 2009), 44-51, 49.

48 Daniel Thomas, Outlines of Australian art: the Joseph Brown Collection (New York: Harry N. Abrams, 1989), 37.

49 Interview with Gavin Fry, 26 February 1982, Australian War Memorial recording 359.

50 See http://www.smh.com.au/national/gallipoli-letters-add-poignancy-to-idrismurphys-20000-art-prize-win-20140423-374hc.html Accessed 1 February 2016.

51 John Buckley, Sidney Nolan: works on paper (Sydney: Australian Gallery Directors’ Council, 1980), 3.

52 Ellis Silas, ‘The Diary of an Anzac’, typescript, ML MSS.1840, Mitchell Library, State Library of New South Wales, 5.

Beyond Gallipoli: New Perspectives on Anzac

   by Raelene Frances and Bruce Scates