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Cultural Studies, Digital Scholarship, Historical Studies

Gallipoli Online

07.12.10 | Comment?

At the heart of the national narrative in Australia is the potent and enduring story of the Australian and New Zealand soldiers—the ANZACs—who fought at Gallipoli, in Turkey, in the First World War, against impossible odds. It is a story that has taken on legendary significance. Each year, on the anniversary of the catastrophic Gallipoli conflict of 25 April 1915, there is a national holiday and Australians in ever-increasing numbers attend Anzac dawn services—conducted at memorials across the nation—to honour the dead of this and later wars.

An Ottoman captain observes the silhouettes of ships against the horizon and places all shore platoons on alert. Aboard the ships, the first wave of ANZAC troops readies for their attack. Due to unforeseen events, the Covering Force lands in disorder and under fire from Ottoman positions on higher ground.

So begins the introductory text of the online project Gallipoli: The First Day, which invites the user to explore this historic event via any one of five entry points: ‘Quick Overview’, ‘ANZAC Landing in 3D’, ‘Campaign Overview’, ‘Profiles’ and ‘Video & Audio’. The whole project is downloadable as a very large 1.3GB file, for offline access, and a light version is also available for viewing via a Google Earth interface. Here I focus on the full online version which was widely publicised in advance of its launch, for Anzac Day, 25 April 2009, as an innovative project that would bring ‘a completely new perspective and understanding to the extraordinary events of the first hours of the campaign’ (website publicity at www.abc.net.au/innovation/Gallipoli on 25 April 2009). The project lives up to this promise in that it offers the first interactive website to be devoted to the details of a military exercise whose historical particulars have been all but blotted out by the powerful mythology of the Anzac story.

Explaining the various website navigation options is the ‘Quick Tour’, in the form of a short video. Helpful and simple to access via a single screen, the ‘Campaign Overview’ sets the events of 25 April 1915 in the context of the broader Gallipoli campaign. The ‘Profiles’ section provides information about the lives of 70 people who feature in this version of the Anzac story. ‘Video and Audio’ leads to extracts from interviews as well as a series of eight 3D animated dioramas, accompanied by voice narration, that form the main story. The ‘ANZAC Landing in 3D’ is the main point of entry to four chapters that describe the events of 25 April in a series of concise, carefully presented, voice-narrated summary episodes. Much more rewarding, however, is the process of navigating through embedded links to a fascinating mix of diary entries, first-hand accounts and video interviews, piecing together the information by clicking on interactive map icons and using the sliding timeline.

In contrast to the physical surety of war memorials and the ritualised patterns of remembrance they inspire, online commemoration happens in a distributed virtual space where nothing is fixed, stable or permanent. When I started this review I felt the odds were stacked against this website because I do not believe that any digital project can replace a physical war memorial. But luckily this site does not try to. Rather, this visually impressive Flash documentary project represents an entirely different genre: of digital re-enactment. The role of the website is not only to repeat and reinforce the Anzac message and make it more accessible, but also to offer a new assemblage of information utilising the 3D visual power of the digital environment. A section entitled ‘Historical Analysis’ investigates the day in depth, pondering the major issues from various points of view, including ‘whether or not the campaign had any chance of success especially on the first day’; ‘whether the ANZACs landed on the wrong beach, which led to their failure to reach their objectives’; and ‘how far the failure at Gallipoli was due to poor Allied leadership and organisation and how far due to superior Ottoman tactics and organisation’.

When I discussed this project during a presentation at George Mason University’s Center for History and New Media, at the conference ‘Frontiers in Digital History’, the audience reception was overwhelmingly positive. Indeed, it is easy to point to the positives. Pitched as a 3D interactive tour, the site is certainly no disappointment on the visual level. Most importantly, the project very successfully exploits and demonstrates the online environment’s most obvious asset—the capacity to present various and often conflicting stories in the same space, at the same time, using multiple genres and media and in a format which the user can navigate in privacy and in their own time. And it is this ability to easily accommodate varied and discordant voices and positions and to be open to addition and revision that makes online commemoration potentially a very powerful form for encouraging, collecting and preserving testimony and retaining its uniqueness. However, the greatest strength of this project is its carefully planned use of 3D visualisations, interactive maps and timelines, linked to diary entries and other media. The effects are stunning and the sense of immersive participation and identification sets new standards.

Missing full stops and other punctuation and grammatical errors stood out for this reviewer. Does it matter? The answer is, surprisingly, no, not really. The overall sleek presentation of the site (described well as an ‘experience’ for the computer user) suggests a level of production that transcends such small inaccuracies. No doubt they will be edited out in time—and that, of course, is one of the great advantages of the online environment.

Understood as a form of re-enactment, this is theatre at its best—a full cast of characters, competing perspectives, dramatic introductions and conclusions and a colourful program with lively, informative program notes. The venue for this performance is the online space, where the audience rarely wishes to sit through a whole scene, let alone a full act or more. Taking all this into account, the format chosen is appropriate to the diverse worldwide audience it reaches.

One of the criticisms of many digital history projects—indeed of digital projects more generally—is that they can end up trying to do everything, but ultimately do nothing very well. That is not the case here. While it is successful as a stand-alone project, I see Gallipoli: The First Day as only the beginning of something that, if financially supported, could become a remarkable, expanding archive. With more voices, more images, more video and more documents, it could, in time, become a major historical record, even, perhaps, a long-term memorial to war. For now, it is an extremely engaging project that is attracting (and deserves) international interest and recognition for its technical approach as much as for its content.

Arthur, Paul Longley. Review of Gallipoli: The First Day, Australian Broadcasting Corporation documentary website, Creative Director/ Executive Producer Sam Doust, http://www.abc.net.au/innovation/gallipoli. History Australia 7, no. 1 (2010): 14.1–14.2.

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