As seminal moments in Australian history go, the World War I battle at Gallipoli is up there.
Over 8,000 "ANZACs" (members of the Australia New Zealand Army Corps) lost their lives fighting under the British in their 1915 push to capture Constantinople (Istanbul) from the Ottomans.
(There was quite a decent little film made about it, starring Mel Gibbs back in the days when Australians didn't mind admitting him as one of their own.)
To compare Gallipoli to anything short of a nation-defining event would take cajones, yet compare one man has.
According to Antarctic historian Tom Griffiths, the landing of Sir Douglas Mawson and his scientific team at Commonwealth Bay, Antarctica in 1912, was as significant an act for a young nation as the landing at Gallipoli, Australia's ABC News reports.
Griffiths, Professor of History in the Research School of Social Sciences at the Australian National University, Canberra, is taking part in a commemoration of Mawson's endeavors on the world's driest, coldest, windiest and highest continent way back in 1912.
The Adelaide-based geologist, who was knighted in 1914 for his Antarctic feats, was a key figure in placing science at the center of Antarctica's future and Australia was now at the forefront of that science.
"An entire continent devoted to peace and science — what a wonderful legacy the Australasian Antarctic Expedition has left us," Australian Antarctic Division Director Tony Fleming said at the ceremony held Monday at the huts Mawson and his fellow expeditioners built on the icy continent 100 years ago. "We must be ever vigilant to ensure that we can hand this legacy on to our grandchildren."
Mawson, a British-born Adelaide-based geologist, was on Ernest Shackleton’s 1907–1909 expedition to reach the South Geographic Pole. It was as part of this British Antarctic Nimrod expedition that Mawson completed the longest Antarctic man-hauling sledge journey, of 122 days.
However, he graduated from mere uncommon bravery in an era dubbed the "heroic age of Antarctic exploration" to complete an exploratory feat of his own, leading the 1911–1914 Australasian Antarctic Expedition of scientists from primarily Australian and New Zealand universities.
The aim of the group, which arrived on the continent in a ship called the Aurora, was to explore to previously unvisited regions of the Antarctic continent. The expedition included a dramatic sledge journey that Mawson undertook with two companions, in which he was to be the only survivor.
According to an Australian Government's Australian Antarctic Division:
While [Robert Falcon] Scott and Shackleton were focused on reaching the South Geographic Pole, Mawson was passionate about advancing science.
Mawson, the SMH wrote, "was a key figure in placing science at the center of Antarctica's future." Further:
Mawson was a giant figure in the heroic era of Antarctic exploration and his expedition was a defining moment for the newly born Australian federation.
The group commemorating 100 years since the Mawson expedition arrived on the icebreaker Aurora Australis. They were delayed by several days because of bad weather, and ultimately had to cover the final 12 miles to Mawson's huts by helicopter.
A statement from Prime Minister Julia Gillard, reportedly read out at the ceremony, described Mawson, knighted in 1914, as "a man of generous and intrepid spirit drawn by what he called the passion of a great adventure."
"Mawson and his colleagues undertook their epic journey not for profit or fame but to extend the boundaries of human knowledge and to advance the cause of science," Gillard said. "Australia owed Mawson and his expeditioners an immense and lasting gratitude."