Johnnies and Mehmets: a personal view from Burcu Çevik-Compiegne

Burcu Çevik-Compiegne is a PhD student at University of Technology, Sydney, School of Communication. She is currently preparing to submit her thesis regarding Indian and Turkish responses to the First World War.

First World War marked the beginning of a new era in terms of commemoration of the war dead in Europe and Australia. Individual soldiers had never been remembered so systematically by their names before. In Australia, local communities invested in their own memorials and honour rolls from the beginning of the war. Honour rolls were erected mainly in churches, schools, sports clubs and other public places, to remember those who served and those who died in the war. These honour rolls reflected the mourning of the community as well its pride in those young men, all volunteers. In fact, quite explicit in some inauguration speeches was the intention to encourage more young men to enlist by showing how much the community appreciated their service. After the war the Imperial War Graves Commission took charge of building memorials in the battlefields as well and the registered individual graves were rearranged into perennial cemeteries.

In Turkey by contrast, very few simple soldiers have been remembered by name and no effort was made until recently to consolidate their graves. Dying in battle and lying in unknown graves was not only the condition of martyrdom but also the very reason why the soil of the homeland was considered to be sacred. This was expressed so eloquently in the Turkish national anthem: ‘Do not consider the ground you tread on as mere soil, acknowledge! And think about the shroudless thousands that are lying beneath’. Despite this concept of martyrdom, many Turkish people have been saddened by the abandonment of the graves and oblivion of their forefathers, compared to the dedication that the Allied countries demonstrated over the years in maintaining their war graves. Although in the last decades Turkish authorities have built memorials and cemeteries at Gallipoli, family connections to individual soldiers are mostly forgotten by a population, which is only just starting to be interested in their family histories.

The Johnnies and Mehmets digital memorial project extends the Australian tradition of remembering the soldiers by their individual names to Turkish soldiers who fought at Gallipoli, and whose descendants are now living in Sydney. By including their history into the history of the local community, the project builds new bridges between Turks and Australians and makes a meaningful contribution to Turkish-Australian friendship.

Burcu Çevik-Compiegne