When George Lambert travelled to the battlefields of Gallipoli in February 1919 he found a landscape transformed into “a perfect rabbit warren’, riven with trenches and littered with bones.
“The jackals, damn them were chorusing their hate, the bones showed up white even in the faint dawn, and I felt rotten,” he wrote. “The worst feature of this after-battle work is that the silent hills and valleys sit stern and unmoved, callous of the human, and busy only in growing bush and sliding earth to hide the scars left by the war-disease. Perhaps it is as well that we are pulling out tomorrow; this place gives me the blues, though it is very beautiful.” 
In April last year I travelled to Gallipoli with a group of artists from Australia and New Zealand, following in Lambert’s footsteps. The landscape was still strikingly beautiful, even though its most severe features had mellowed over time. The Sphinx, for instance, which appears as a rocky outcrop in early paintings and photographs, was badly eroded but instantly recognisable.
The bones of the fallen that lay scattered across the peninsular are now concealed by layers of earth, yet the sheer scale of the slaughter means that even today one may uncover fragments of skeletons and other pitiful remnants of the soldiers who lost their lives – and their identities – in the confrontation. A comprehensive archaeological dig would unearth tonnes of material, but who would propose such a project? The memories are still too raw. The peninsular is a vast graveyard and it would be considered obscene and sacrilegious to treat the dead as museum specimens rather than war heroes.
Gallipoli is not the site of a vanished civilisation, as with the nearby ruins of Troy. Almost everyone on the trip had a family connection with a soldier who had fought – and usually perished – during the Anzac campaign.
My great uncle was private James W. Booley of the 14th Australian Infantry Battalion. He enlisted at Warracknabeal in the Mallee, on November 3, 1914. On 12 April 1915 he arrived at the Dardenelles, and would die less than four months later, on 8 August, at the age of 27. The action recorded on that day was a disorderly assault on Chunuk Bair – a high, fortified position the Allies saw as an important strategic objective. It turned out to be the only success they would enjoy during the campaign, but proved a hollow victory as the Turks would recapture the peak a few days later.
Another soldier claimed to have seen my great-uncle fall after being shot in the neck during a charge. At this point he vanishes into the mists of history. His body was never identified, and today his name may be found on a memorial at Lone Pine, among those soldiers with no known resting place.
Unlike Idris Murphy’s grandfather, Idris Pike, whose letters from the battlefield inspired this Gallipoli expedition, James Booley doesn’t seem to have been a good correspondent, sending no letters from the battlefield. There is a family story that he got into trouble with the police for stealing a postal note when he worked at the post office in Warracknabeal. His mistake was to use the note to pay for a tailor-made suit, which made him easy to trace. Did he join the army as a way of making amends for his offence? Or did he simply get swept up in the patriotic tide that swept through the Bush, as young men hastened to battle, as if to a great adventure?
Throughout this expedition we were intensely conscious that every soldier who took part in the campaign had a story. They may have been heroes or rascals, eager for combat or desperate to get away. Reading about the doomed assault on the Nek on 7 August, it’s clear that only the most incurable optimist would have felt they had any chance of surviving that day. Having watched the first wave of their comrades mown down as soon as they left the trenches, the second wave of soldiers knew they stood no chance, but still got up and charged to their deaths. The third wave should never have happened, but someone believed a signal had been given and a final group launched themselves directly into the enemy’s line of fire.
We crossed these battlefields trying to imagine what it must have been like, 98 years ago, as soldiers struggled to traverse a narrow strip of land, bayonets poised, without a bullet in their rifles. Most were killed by machine gun fire from a distant hill that struck them from the side while they faced a line of Turkish defenders. Although the grass has grown back over the muddy earth, the landscape bears scars that will remain for many hundreds of years. Even in the midday sunshine it is impregnated with death. The new vegetation seems like a cheerful mask intended to disguise the funereal nature of these hills and slopes.
At times one feels close to the Anzacs, but the world of 1915 can also seem as distant as the age of Achilles and Hector. Despite the rifles, machine guns and hand grenades, much of the First World War was conducted by fierce hand-to-hand combat, albeit with bayonets instead of swords.
Today the first wave of killing is performed by drones controlled by distant operators. Western governments view casualties as a public relations debacle, knowing that no electorate would countenance the idea of 140,000 soldiers being sacrificed in one campaign at the whims of their commanders. This figure included 11,410 Anzacs, and more than 86,000 Turks. It is the best feature of Russell Crowe’s melodrama, The Water Diviner, that due recognition is paid to the scale of the catastrophe on the Turkish side.
The Anzac memorials at Gallipoli are comprised of long lists of Anglo-Celtic surnames. These soldiers would have been amazed to be told that within a hundred years of the campaign, a third of the Australian population would hail from a non-English-speaking background.
To be visiting Gallipoli one hundred years after battles that are virtually inconceivable today is a melancholy experience. The sites may not be littered with skeletons any more but the sadness will never disappear. For the visitor it requires a leap of the imagination to transport oneself back in time, to the days when men crouched in muddy trenches for months on end, suffering from dysentery, waiting a call to arms that might end their lives within seconds. There would have been moments when they looked up from these diggings to marvel at blue skies identical to the ones we experienced. In the midst of their misery they must have paused and been moved by the rugged beauty of the landscape, even in its torn and brutalised state.
Impressions come flooding in from all sides, but it is no small feat to re-conceive Gallipoli 99 years after the Anzac landing. Depending on their perspective and temperament, the artists had to conjure up a battlefield from a landscape that now resembles a national park, or overcome an oppressive sense of history to see the scene afresh. They also had to disentangle their sense of place from the memorials, the signage, the temporary grandstands erected to hold the crowds that arrive for the annual commemoration ceremonies of 25 April.
The Gallipoli peninsular is a place that does not allow one to appreciate the scenery without giving a thought to the horrors perpetrated on these shores by two raw armies fighting at the behest of competing superpowers. It is a true landscape of memory. The famous “baptism of blood” has been a source of national pride and recrimination, but there is no denying that it is the seminal event in Australian and New Zealand history – the moment that changed forever the self-perceptions of two emerging societies.
How does an artist capture this revelation on paper or canvas? How does one respond to an environment so loaded with implications, so crowded with ghosts? These were the dilemmas that confronted every participant in the Gallipoli excursion. The artists were obliged to think long and hard about their work, and their responses to this haunted terrain. They were not simply concerned with producing pictures; they felt a responsibility to do justice to the dead and to the legacy of a campaign that was at once so heroic and so futile.
In his two great paintings for the Australian War Memorial, Lambert tried to capture the idea of a battle being fought in bright daylight, in the most rugged terrain. Anzac, the landing 1915 (1920-22) shows a mass of tiny soldiers clambering up the steep slope above Anzac Cove, pinned down by heavy gunfire. It is hard at first to distinguish the living from the dead in this patchwork of brown and khaki, under a pale, yellowish sky. The picture takes on an existential meaning: a symbol of life as a constant striving, pushing up a cliff-face until death puts an end to one’s progress.
The charge of the 3rd Light Horse Brigade at the Nek, 7 August 1915 (1924) depicts a massacre in a daylight that is clearer and brighter than the previous painting. This time the skies are pale blue, the surrounding hills tinged purple. The soldiers are like marionettes with stiff arms and legs. They are tossed into the air, frozen in the moment of death in a manner that prefigures Robert Capa’s famous Spanish Civil war photograph of a soldier being struck by a bullet. One soldier kneels, as if in a trance, blood trickling from his palms like a renaissance saint displaying the stigmata.
The figures are as rigid as the characters in a painting by Piero della Francesca, held in poses that might have been drawn from photos by Eadweard Muybridge. It is a virtuoso painting that reveals Lambert’s debt to both art history and modernism, and the exacting research that has allowed him to understand how bodies react under intensive gunfire.
For the artists on last year’s Gallipoli trip, there was no brief to depict soldiers in the heat of battle. The plan was to work en plein air, looking for new ways to paint that blood-soaked landscape. It wasn’t an easy assignment, partly because it is very hard to improve on the work that Lambert did, but mainly because everyone knew the historical importance of this site. Was one permitted to make it look pristine and bucolic, even if that was the first impression one took from many parts of the peninsula?
The three New Zealand-based artists, Michael Shepherd, John Walsh and Stanley Palmer, showed a deep concern with history, in works populated with the ghostly figures of soldiers. Guy Maestri, who struggled to find his rhythm on the trip, has produced a striking series of symbolic still life paintings, incorporating skulls, dead birds and wattle branches.
Deirdre Bean, known as a botanical artist, was never expected to paint conventional landscapes. Instead, she concentrated on the minutiae of the battlefields, picking out flowers and insects, and eventually discarded bullets.
The other artists – Steve Lopes, Euan Macleod, Idris Murphy, Michael Nock, Amanda Penrose Hart, Luke Sciberras, and Jonathan Throsby – stuck gamely to the landscape, although their approaches were predictably diverse. Sciberras and Throsby embraced forms of abstraction, albeit with obvious roots in the physical world. Lopes, Nock and Penrose Hart took a more naturalistic course.
Macleod and Murphy, arguably the most experienced artist-travellers in the group, also created the most individualistic work. Murphy’s landscapes, whether of Gallipoli or the Australian bush, are never purely observational. He reduces the features of each scene to a series of crudely drawn signs; his colours are chosen for their emotional resonance. Murphy has produced a set of introverted pictures that make no concessions to the picture postcard views we encountered, and no overt references to the battles fought. Yet they skilfully capture the atmosphere and ambiguity of those sites.
Macleod’s imagination sent him in a different direction, in a surprising suite of paintings that use the Gallipoli landscape as an arena in which two faceless giants battle for supremacy. In another work a small figure lands on the beach at Anzac Cove, spade and bucket in hand, to be confronted by a giant skeleton. In Fire at night, we are asked to imagine ourselves as nocturnal passengers on a small boat approaching the beach on which a fire blazes.
These motifs will be familiar to those who have followed Macleod’s work over the years. They are highly personal symbols adapted to this unusual environment. It is a perfect instance of an artist looking inwards to find a way of responding to an experience that might at first seem overwhelming.
The message that came over so strongly is that it is hardly possible for artists to envisage the events of 1915 without first-hand experience of the peninsula. Although any artist can be opposed to war, and make a suitably strident statement, it is a different matter to be confronted with the physical evidence of so much carnage. These were the thoughts of Sydney gallerist, Robert Linnegar, who organised the trip, when he asked the artists to paint en plein air.
It is perhaps a romantic idea that one gains a better understanding of a place or an event by virtue of actual physical contact. Many artists of a conceptual persuasion might argue that one can deal with a subject such as the Anzac tradition as a series of discourses that have helped shape our national self-perceptions.
Perhaps it comes down to the fundamental question of how one views art itself, its role in society and human consciousness. If art is essentially a philosophical tool it may be practiced anywhere, any time. If it is an inner impulse, an itch that must to scratched, the artist is no longer a detached commentator but a seeker after the truth. Like all seekers, he or she is drawn to places that offer new insights.
As one of the foundation stories of our society, the Anzac landing is an event that has lodged itself in the psyches of Australians and New Zealanders. Its appeal to artists is the same as it is to all of us who have grown up experiencing that holiday on 25 April and pondering its meaning. The renewed interest in Anzac Day among schoolchildren and other young people bears testimony to the continuing hold this event exercises upon us. For artists, who interpret the world visually and creatively, it is a challenge to find adequate symbols for such a monumental theme. For so long as we continue to remember and celebrate that terrible “blood sacrifice”, there will be a need to keep making images that give form to the spirit of Anzac.
 Quoted in Andrew Motion, The Lamberts: George, Constant & Kit, Chatto & Windus, London, 1986, p.78.
This article is published in the Artist Profile Special Edition: Your Friend the Enemy. To purchase your copy visit here