Militarism and the myths of Anzac

As First World War centenary celebrations begin, David Glanz looks at the Anzac myth, and how it is used to promote nationalism and the glorification of war

More than 30,000 Australians have entered the ballot for 8000 tickets for next year’s Gallipoli centenary commemorations in Turkey. For those who miss out, options include joining a cruise ship in Anzac Cove as Bert Newton narrates the war.

The federal government is spending $325 million commemorating everything Anzac, including creating a line of merchandise. In the private sector, one company hopes to sell an Anzac ice cream, while another is planning to literally bottle and sell the Anzac spirit.

Over the next year, leading up to 25 April 2015, we will be fed an increasingly shrill set of messages. Gallipoli was the true birthplace of Australia. Australian soldiers were laconic heroes, whose irreverence and fighting spirit typified what made their country special. The Diggers paid the price of British incompetence in the planning of the Gallipoli campaign.

We will be told about the 8587 Australians who died at Gallipoli and the 19,367 wounded there. But the media is unlikely to remind us that the Anzac landing was just one of three on the Turkish peninsula that day.

We are likely to hear little if anything about the 24,945 dead or 59,151 wounded among the British, French, Indian, Nepalese (Gurkha), New Zealand or Zionist forces who, in the case of the first three nationalities, heavily outnumbered the Australian contingent.

There will be little pause for thought for the estimated 56,000-68,000 Turkish dead or for the fact that overall some half a million men died, many of sickness, during a campaign that lasted less than eight months.

We will hear about the Anzac spirit, of freedom and defiance. But it’s unlikely we’ll read about the Diggers’ victory over the “wogs” and “Gyppos” in the “battle of the Wadir”, when thousands of drunken, racist Australian troops en route to Gallipoli via Egypt rioted in Cairo and burned down a brothel.

The story of Simpson and his donkey will be re-told, but not that Simpson was a radical socialist who wrote home to his family in Britain: “I often wonder when the working men of England will wake up and see things as other people see them. What they want in England is a good revolution.”

The bestial realities of trench warfare, the cowardice, self-woundings and the killing of prisoners-of-war will also be edited out of the story, as they were first time around in the seminal account of Gallipoli by the Australian official war correspondent, C.E.W. Bean.

Gallipoli landings

The Gallipoli landings were part of an attempt by Britain and its allies to seize the Dardanelles, the narrow passage through which ships could pass from the Mediterranean to the biggest Turkish city, Constantinople (now Istanbul), and on to the Black Sea.

The hope was to knock Turkey, which was allied with Germany, out of the war, freeing the way for Russia, a British ally, to export grain from its Black Sea ports—some of the same ports that Putin has seized today, for similar strategic reasons.

An element of the national myth is that the campaign itself was a mistake by the British and doomed from the start, a situation compounded by the Anzac troops landing more than a kilometre from their intended position.

But the fundamental military problem was that an attempt by the British and French navies to force a way through the Dardanelles in March had failed badly. By the time the landings took place a month later, the Turks had strengthen their fortifications and all the invaders were trapped close to the shore.

The Gallipoli campaign made an impact back in Australia almost immediately.

Australian deaths on the Western Front in 1916-18 were to be much higher, the horror much greater. But the war in Turkey was the first time Australia had suffered casualties on a scale that touched many in a population of less than five million.

In the short term, enlistment surged. Accounts of the landing at Anzac Cove by Bean and his British counterpart were widely distributed amid what historian Joan Beaumont describes as “an extraordinary chain reaction of public euphoria”.

Labor Prime Minister Billy Hughes, who came to office in October 1915 during the Gallipoli campaign, promised Britain 50,000 troops on top of the 9500 a month needed to replace the dead, wounded and sick.

Promotion of the Gallipoli sacrifice was an important weapon in mobilising potential soldiers, directly or by encouraging pressure from their families.

Bean’s account was printed for use by NSW school students within four days of its arrival in Australia. In Victoria, the government reproduced a report on a tribute to the soldiers in Hamilton for framing and as an insert in the monthly paper read by all state school students.

Politicians, church leaders (primarily Protestant ones—many in the Irish-Australian Catholic community opposed the war) and newspapers banged the Anzac drum again on Empire Day, May 24.

The first Anzac day, in April 1916, coincided with Easter—linking memorial ceremonies with the Christian narrative of death and resurrection. Recruiting agents held nine rallies in Sydney alone that day.

In Victoria, the Education Department created a special medallion for students to buy. Students were recruited to form the word Anzac on the pitch at the MCG.

In London, the King and Queen marked the anniversary by attending a memorial service in Westminster Abbey, along with Hughes. Two thousand Anzacs marched to the ceremony, and Hughes later addressed the 1300 Australian soldiers among them.

The immediate impact was a surge in recruitment. Some 10,600 men signed up in May 1916. But as news of the bloodbath on the Western Front sank in, there was a sharp fall in enlistment. By June the figure was down to about 6000 and it stayed there throughout the Australian winter.

Hughes argued for conscription, against a majority in the ALP. Labor expelled him in September 1916 for calling a referendum that October. He went on to call another in December 1917. Both were defeated.

The push to popularise Gallipoli did not end there, however. Bean compiled poems, anecdotes and writings by soldiers who served there in The Anzac Book, which proved massively popular.

Another front in this “culture war” was opened by C.J. Dennis, who wrote Songs of a Sentimental Bloke (1915) and The Tales of Ginger Mick (1916), portraying the average Digger as a larrikin. Both books sold 40,000 copies in their first months and were reproduced in pocket editions for the trenches.

The myth-making was not just about boosting recruitment figures. It also offered consolation to those families who lost sons, brothers or fathers, or who saw loved ones return from the trenches without limbs or suffering from shell shock (today known as post traumatic stress syndrome).

And it helped consolidate a pro-monarchy, pro-Empire loyalist bloc within the population at a time of rising radicalism and worker militancy. Hughes famously argued that “Australia was born on the shores of Gallipoli”, thereby linking nationalism to blood sacrifice and aiming to smear the anti-war left and most Catholics as traitors.

The government did not have things all its own way. Many soldiers who returned from Gallipoli found as early as July 1915 that they could not fit neatly back into Australian society and often could not find work.

Beaumont writes: “Within months ex-servicemen were involved in riots, drunkenness and violence in the streets so regularly that their behaviour had become a cause for press alarm …

“To conservatives, this larrikinism and lack of discipline, which might be tolerated in the battle zone if it were translated into initiative in combat, was deeply threatening at home. Even mateship was considered to have the potential to be ‘the spring-board for a new socialist movement’.”

Some of the organisations that emerged to represent ex-servicemen were of the Left. The Hughes government in response threw its weight behind the “non-political” Returned Sailors and Soldiers Imperial League of Australia (RSSILA)—now the RSL.

Its representatives were given the right to recruit ex-servicemen on their sea journeys home. RSSILA was also given the unique right to lobby the Cabinet directly over pensions and access to land settlement schemes.

In return, RSSILA reinforced a conservative and nationalist view of the Anzac legend, organising memorials and parades that celebrated the soldiers as national heroes.

It helped defeat a campaign by unemployed ex-servicemen against the building of the Melbourne Shrine of Remembrance (they wanted a hospital instead).

Reviving the myth

The promotion of the Gallipoli legend continued after the war. Anzac Day became a public holiday in all states between 1921 and 1927. School books told of the Diggers’ heroism—heroism that placed them “among the very best of the Empire’s soldiers”. Everywhere, Anzac Day was marked with two minutes’ silence and the reciting of “They shall grow not old …”.

The Parliamentary Library writes: “In the 1930s, there was rhetoric about the need to pass the ‘Anzac spirit’ down to the next generation. This was partly politically motivated, as there was a feeling that people needed steeling for another war.”

Despite the best efforts of the state, the Gallipoli myth waned—initially because of competition from new myths from the Second World War (such as Kokoda or the bombing of Darwin), and later, because of the impact of the movement against the Vietnam War.

The Parliamentary Library again: “In the Second World War, the ‘sons of the Anzacs’ were welcomed, and the day now honoured veterans of all wars. But despite greater numbers of veterans, by the 1960s its popularity had waned, and many wondered if Anzac Day would survive.”

In 1976, Peter Weir visited Anzac Cove. “The area is still a military zone, and apart from the War Graves Commission and the odd tourist, no one goes there,” he wrote after directing the film Gallipoli in 1981.

But he added: “I felt like an archaeologist wandering through the ruins of some earlier Australian civilisation … overwhelmed by an emotion I could only partly understand. It wasn’t only pity at the waste of it, but also a sense of discovery—it did happen, they did die, we do have a past.”

Weir’s film played a significant role in putting Gallipoli back into the national consciousness—and on to the backpacker trail. In 1975, fewer than 300 people had attended the Anzac Day ceremony there. In 1990, the Australian government spent more than $2 million, to send 58 veterans, six doctors, 26 nurses, hundreds of defence and service personnel and a range of politicians including Prime Minister Hawke.

Hawke reinforced Hughes’ narrative of a nation born in blood, telling the dawn service: “Because these hills rang with their [Diggers’] voices and ran with their blood, this place Gallipoli is, in one sense, a part of Australia…We have not come in order to dedicate this place—it is already sacred because of the bravery and the bloodshed of the Anzacs.”

Researcher Richard Nile wrote: “Two weeks after the event, the Australian Parliament unanimously endorsed a resolution: ‘The people of Australia are the inheritors and custodians of the Anzac Tradition’ … [the event] expressed the ‘spirit of national commitment to the continuing relevance of Anzac’.”

1990 was the 75th anniversary of the original landings. But it was also the year that the US ally Iraq, under Saddam Hussein, offended its masters by invading Kuwait. Despite a significant nationwide anti-war movement, Australia joined the US-led Operation Desert Storm the next year.

The “spirit of Anzac” helped legitimise Australia’s involvement in what became a “turkey shoot”, in which retreating Iraqi soldiers were killed in massive numbers.

Since then, Australian troops have been deployed again and again—in Cambodia (1991–93); in the Balkans, the former Yugoslavia (1992–97); Somalia (1992–94); Rwanda (1994–95); East Timor (1999–2003); in the war in Afghanistan, (2001–2014); and in Iraq (2003–2009).

Politicians have once again found it useful to focus on the Gallipoli myths, to rally support for Australian nationalism and militarism, to console the families of the dead and to win new generations of young men and women into uniform.

But the myths do not go uncontested. Peter Stanley, president of a group of historians called Honest History and a former historian at the Australian War Memorial, told the ABC: “Anzac Day has gone through a cycle of boom and bust. In the ’60s and ’70s it declined. Then from about 1980, coinciding with the Peter Weir film, attendances at Anzac Day marches began to increase.

“What we don’t see is the people who don’t come to Anzac Day. It is a fraction of the population [who attend], but we impose upon that fraction assumptions about the way Anzac Day is overwhelmingly popular.”

Some progressives try to claim elements of the Anzac story for the Left. Greens Senator Penny Wright told Parliament in November: “It was from this socially advanced democracy that young Australians set out to fight … [and] demonstrated the remarkable resilience and other qualities that have come to be known as the Anzac spirit …

“Our Anzacs showed our nation that we could act on the world stage. They showed us how they were capable of rising to unthinkable challenges. They demonstrated values of leadership, passion and audacity. In the lead-up to the 100-year commemoration, let us bring the Anzac spirit home.”

This is fundamentally misconceived. As historian Joan Beaumont said last year: “The emphasis on Gallipoli and the Anzac legend has really been part of our political culture. It is not part of history.

“The Anzac legend today serves particular purposes. One is to reinforce those values which court the Anzac legend such as endurance, sacrifice, mateship.

“Those values continue to be very important to Australian governments who are trying in a very materialistic and secular and individualistic society to still persuade Australians to be willing to volunteer for war …”

Just as importantly, it reinforces the myth of national unity, obscuring class divisions between the majority of ordinary working class people and the wealthy elite who run up enormous profits at our expense.

Gallipoli was not a moment of national awakening, let alone an opportunity for national pride. It was a small part of a war that was fought between the most powerful European states for control over colonial empires. It was, for Australian troops, a prelude to the industrial slaughter of the Western Front.

Rather than remember Gallipoli, we should pay our respects to those Australian soldiers who mutinied in France in 1915 and again, multiple times in 1917-1918.

On September 21, 1918, the 1st Battalion was ordered back to the front halfway through a relief by another battalion. “One company refused to comply. The mutiny quickly spread throughout the battalion and when it went forward again it did so with 10 officers and 84 men; 119 had gone missing.”

Now that is a tradition worth honouring.


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