On 25 April 1915 Australian and New Zealand troops landed on Gallipoli at dawn. It was one of two main assaults on the Gallipoli peninsula. The Anzacs were to land near the promontory of Gaba Tepe, about halfway up the peninsula, while British forces landed at Cape Helles, at its southern tip. The two forces were to converge on the central mass of the Kilid Bahr Plateau, which dominated the Dardanelles Strait. The Anzac troops had expected open country, but instead were confronted with steep, scrub-covered heights, and climbed the precipitous cliffs under Turkish gunfire.
Lambert depicted the landing at the moment when the Australian troops were climbing the steep, rocky hillside. He showed the hugeness of the landscape and the smallness of the men. He portrayed many of the soldiers as dead, or falling, with puffs of smoke in the sky. He wrote:
visitors to the Museum ... complain there is a lack of fire, a lack of action and of the terror of war, but on the facts ... we must accept that men equipped as these men were, moving upwards on this particular place, without any idea of where the enemy was, what they had to do, would look just like this small swarm of ants climbing, no matter how rapidly, climbing painfully and laboriously upward through the uneven ground and spiky uncomfortable shrubs (ML MSS A1811, p.75).
Lambert portrayed the scene looking up at the cliffs and the mass of soldiers clambering up them, a different perspective from the majority of interpretations of this event, such as Charles Dixon’s The landing at Anzac, 25 April 1915 (Archives, New Zealand) which showed the scene from above with the men climbing out of boats and wading ashore. By adopting this viewpoint Lambert made the seemingly inaccessible heights seem as much the enemy as the Turkish forces. Through his massive canvas, the harsh jagged outline of the cliff and the dark brown mass of the terrain silhouetted against a strident yellowed sky, Lambert conveyed the psychological impact of climbing these slopes. He helped viewers realise the endurance of the soldiers clambering upwards. Through his use of colour and abstract forms, he evoked the emotion of the occasion. And he showed the soldiers as small, faceless figures to create a visual metaphor for the scant regard in which these Australians’ lives were held by those in charge of the campaign.
Lambert obtained facts about the landing from the Australian official historian C.E.W. Bean and other members of the Australian Historical Mission during his visit to Gallipoli in February–March 1919. At that time he painted oil sketches of the terrain at Gallipoli. Back in his London studio he made pencil studies of his models, dressed in uniform, as if climbing a steep cliff. From these, and from his oil sketches made on site, Lambert prepared a pencil design of the composition and a rough oil sketch. His son Maurice, an aspiring sculpture student, assisted his father by preparing the canvas and transferring the design onto it from Lambert’s composition drawing. The canvas, advanced this far, was rolled up and shipped out to Australia in February 1921. In Australia, Lambert was assisted by Louis McCubbin, who helped by under-painting the sky, which Lambert worked over afterwards. McCubbin’s assistance was of a mechanical kind, and not visible on the surface of the painting.
Alexander Colquhoun reviewed the painting in the Melbourne Herald on 4 May 1922.
This is not a pretty picture, nor a cheerful one, and there is an uncanny lack of anything individual or personal in the scrambling, crawling, khaki figures scarcely discernible against the rocky precipitous ground. It speaks, however,
as a declaration of sacrifice and achievement in a way that no other
war picture has done.
Colquhoun understood that by representing these Australians climbing this specific cliff, Lambert conveyed the universal experience of people overcoming obstacles.
The painting was commissioned by the Australian government through the Australian High Commission in London in 1919, for £500, as part of the official war art scheme. Lambert began the painting in London and completed it in Sydney for the opening exhibition of the Australian War Museum, Melbourne, on Anzac Day 25 April 1922.