Last wednesday, I attended a forum Anzac Day: Past, Present and Future held at the Camberwell Civic Centre where Professors Joe Camilleri and Marilyn Lake were joined by Ted Baillieu, Serdar Baycan, Neil Smith and Claire Chisholm in an ABC-style Q&A discussion on the history and future of Anzac Day.
Just what is fuelling this increased interest in World War 1 was one of the questions asked of the panel and well answered by Joe Camilleri who spoke about the ‘nationalistic spin’ that has been put on the tragic events of that time and that while it’s important to remember those who died we must also reflect on the many who were working for peace. ‘We must not be selective about these events’, he said. Historian Marilyn Lake stressed the need for truth in education particularly concerning the reason Australians went to Gallipoli which had little to do with freedom but was at the behest of Britain and Russia. Lake dismissed the myth that Australia became a nation at war.
Another member of the panel was Claire Chisholm who was representing the younger members of the community. When asked why young people are interested in WW1, Claire pointed to the increase in school education programs which were begun in 1996 by the federal government. She also added that young people had a ‘need for identity’ and ‘belonging’ and told us how moved she was by the Dawn service at the Shrine of Remembrance.
Susan Allan, writing for the World Socialist Web has written a paper entitled ‘Teaching War: Australian government targets primary school students’. In this she claims that the current WW1 centenary commemorations have little to do with honouring the memory of those who died in the imperialist slaughter but are all about encouraging national patriotism and preparation for new wars. Allen claims that the the education campaigns are focussed on the younger members of society. In 2014 the federal government and its War Memorial Educational Services began circulating a glossy 60 page publication called Audacity – Stories of heroic Australians in wartime and other so-called educational resources which present an idealised and sanitised impression of war featuring those who received medals glorified as heroes who sacrificed for their country.
‘Gallipoli’, to quote Professor Camilleri, ‘ was a disaster’ ‘yet the spin is most successful’. According to Melbourne writer Christopher Bantick ‘much of what we commemorate on Anzac Day is a journalist’s construct’. He admits that there were some astounding feats of bravery at the Gallipoli landing in 1915, but the legend that arose from them is indeed mythical. Australia needed its own myth, he says, because we lacked a battle for independence, a civil war or a revolution. We were a penal colony.
Among the many responsible for the Anzac legend was British journalist Ellis Ashmead-Bartlett. While Ashmead-Bartlett attributed to the Australians, herculean feats and a self-consciousness that they were forging a legend, the reality is that this was not the case. Indeed some Australians ran away from battle. According to Canberra-based historian Peter Williams many in the 3rd Brigade, one of the first brigades to land at Anzac Cove, ran from fire and that somewhere in the region of 1000 men deserted temporarily and were hiding in the gullies.
The idea of desertion does not marry well with that of an honourable legend so the deserters became known as the”stragglers”. The legend was edited and sanitised and the stories written by Ashmead-Bartlett carried weight. The legend as created by Ashmead-Bartlett, and still adhered to today, also avoided portraying any Australian soldier as ruthless and even cruel. In Bill Gammage’s book The Broken Years; Australian Soldiers in the Great War, there is substantial evidence in the soldiers’ own words as to how much some delighted in killing. Gammage notes: One Australian, an ambulanceman, specifically linked the fighting effectiveness and the murderous inclinations of some of his countrymen: `There are a lot of bush-whackers, copper-gougers, etc. from the Cloncurry district in the 14th Battalion and I believe they are the finest of all soldiers, fearing nothing and as full of dash and endurance as any man was. I am inclined to think they make it too willing, bayoneting and killing, when mercy should be shown and prisoners taken. There is no doubt that our men are hard and even cruel.’
The Anzac legend was carefully managed in 1915 and continues to be so today. Between 2014 and 2018 Australia is commemorating the Anzac Centenary, marking 100 years since our nation’s involvement in the First World War. The Anzac Centenary is said to be a milestone of special significance to all Australians in that the First World War helped define us as people and as a nation. Which brings me back to the idea of an Australian legend.
The Anzac myth and the propaganda that Australia was a nation formed through war, needs challenging. In April 2014, the Australian Pax Christi held a public forum entitled “Who is Australia? Who might we become?” I was fortunate to attend and listen to Professor Marilyn Lake speak of the many achievements between Federation (when Australia became The Commonwealth of Australia) in 1901 and the beginning of WWI in 1914. One of these was the implementation of the world’s first legal minimum wage, an Australian invention passed in 1896. The first decade of the Commonwealth of Australia also witnessed the election of the first labor government in the world, which among other reforms was responsible for the implementation of the maternity allowance. In 1902 Australia was the most democratic country in the world with the extension of full political rights for women. We were also in the forefront of world history in the area of working conditions and decent wages. The state of Victoria was at the vanguard of social reform and women’s rights. ‘This new nation had come to being in peace time, not in wartime’, Lake proudly asserted. Why aren’t these achievements celebrated? Why aren’t these democratic changes seen as the way to define Australia?
In an article entitled : Anzac Day, the glorification of militarism and the drive to World War 111, the author writes that the Anzac Day ‘celebrations’ are about the present, not the past. They are part of the conscious efforts of the media, and the corporate and political establishment to indoctrinate youth into patriotism, drown out ant-war and ideologically condition the population for new military confrontations. This may well be the awful reality for on Radio National’s program Future Tense last week they examined the growing trend toward armed outsourcing and discussed whether a reliance on commercial military services actually works to prolong, rather than shorten conflict. The mercenary business is a multi billion dollar industry and for that reason wars will last longer. In the 2001 invasion of Afghanistan 70 % of the troops were mercenaries ( soldiers of fortune). Such companies provide benefits for the harbingers of war for in a particularly risky conflict armed contractors are used rather than risk having the war -weary public see too many young conscripts return in body bags.
With increasing fervour over the last twenty years, federal politicians and interest groups have built the Anzac myth that Australia became of age in World War 1 and especially in the killings fields of Gallipoli. This is both false and dangerous. The centenary commemorations have become a costly obsession. Instead there must be more emphasis about the place of peace in the world and how Australia can play a role in advancing harmony in the world, said Professor Joe Camilleri, ending last week’s forum Anzac Day: Past, Present and Future