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Gallipoli Diggers and the 'forgotten' holocaust

  • 20 April 2009

Anzac Day is a day history has immortalised. We know 25 April 1915 was when the 'digger' — one of Australia's most identifiable and beloved icons — dug the first trench into the rocky canyon at Gallipoli that would soon be his grave. Albeit a military disaster, many recognise the battle as a defining moment, one that forged a nation.

That same day, the same place and the same battle also mark a nation's destruction. The battle at Gallipoli was the first stage in an effort to systematically exterminate the Armenian race. Denied by Turkey, and unrecognised by the United States, the Armenian Genocide — dubbed 'The Forgotten Holocaust' — has slipped from the memory of a world that has grown accustomed to atrocity.

But it happened. Everyone knows it did. It's the reason 1.5 million Armenians remain unaccounted for, and why their skulls and bones are still embedded in the clay of the north-Syrian river banks. It's the reason modern Armenia's borders lie far away from its historic home.

Just as two decades later Hitler deported Jews to concentration camps in Poland, the Pashas — the Ottoman rulers — expelled the Armenians from their homeland.

Due to nothing more than a fear of Armenians siding with the Russians, and a desire to create a uniformly ethnic pan-Turkic state from Anatolia to central Asia (hindered only by Armenia), the Turkish nationalists embarked on the most horrific crime against humanity the world had seen.

At the Gallipoli landing, the Turks conscripted hundreds of Armenians in the momentous battle for nothing more than cannon fodder. As they ran unarmed into our troops' firing line, it was mass-execution.

The Ottoman government executed 600 of the Armenian educated-elite in Istanbul on 24 April, the very day before the Gallipoli landing, and, immediately afterwards pursued the rest in the Anatolian highlands.

From 1915, tens of thousands of Armenian families crossed a desert the locals called Der-el-Zor, but which the survivors would later name the Desert of Death. They marched for weeks at a time, snaking across the desert, not daring to fall behind in the heat. They faced death by starvation or execution.

Survivors tell of seeing women taken from the rows of prisoners into the fields, hearing screeches, gunfire and, after a time, seeing the soldiers returning alone. Thousands were marched into underground caves in what were the world's first gas chambers.

Mamikon came from a village near the border of