My generation is the first in my family to not have a member serve in the armed forces (yet – who knows?). And ANZAC Day has a special resonance for me – my great uncle, who was also a poet, was the man blamed for the disaster that epitomizes the ANZAC legend: Gallipoli.
General Sir Ian Standish Monteith Hamilton (1853-1947) was known as “the soldier-poet”, and published a number of volumes during his life. (My grandmother had an autographed copy of “Listening to the Drums”, but it was … borrowed by someone unknown and never returned.) He was a career soldier, and was held in such high regard that he was the only person that both the Japanese and Russian sides were willing to see appointed as “observer” during the Russo-Japanese war (1904-1905). He had essentially retired from military duties by the beginning of the First World War, but was called back by Lord Kitchener to oversee operations in the Dardanelles.
It was a catastrophe of incredible proportions, even to the frankly cynical eyes of modern times. It was a slaughter, and Hamilton was recalled to London (effectively sacked). He later faced a court-martial over the debacle, and is generally written up in the history books as being the man responsible for the whole affair. As it happens, the court-martial clear him of all culpability – his advice against the proposed landings to the higher command had been routinely ignored. The true culprits were established, and should have been publicly named. Except the principal culprit died just before the findings were released, and the secondary culprit went on to become a hero war-leader. (You can do your own historical research for the names. I admit my family bias towards exonerating him.) So he has passed into history as the man responsible.
I’ve read some of the letters he sent to my great grandmother (they were cousins), as well as many of his poems and journals. Many of his attitudes I can’t agree with – he was a hawk, pro-war and (mildly) pro-Nazi (the dictatorship part, not the anti-Semetic). But he was also a poet, and as such, I’ve always felt as though he was standing somewhere behind my left shoulder, nodding approvingly. One of the first poems I wrote with any serious intent was for ANZAC Day. My teacher at the time (final year of primary school) thought it was so good that he has annually inflicted it upon his subsequent classes. (I’m sorry!) As a gesture towards this day and an offering of my awareness of how rubbish some of my work is and has been, I append it to the bottom of this post.
During my last visit to London, we went to St Paul’s Cathedral. Down in the catacombs of St Paul’s, there is a memorial plaque to him. Technically you’re not allowed to take any photos there, but I was able to get special permission to take photos to send back to my grandmother. His memorial is in a side chamber, just off to the right of the tomb of Horatio Nelson:
The poem below is full of errors, both factual and poetic. Let me repeat this point: I was only eleven years old. So. To the memory of General Sir Ian Hamilton, in defiance of pride and any pretensions to literary greatness, and in gratitude to all the fallen. We must not forget.
My back is scarred with trenches,
my green is turning black
the air filled with the stench
of men who rot upon my back.
The trenches stretch from tree to tree –
I am, of course, Gallipoli.