Anzac Legend

Myths on the Anzac legend #

Historians and serving soldiers question the tendentious, sententious purposes of Anzac Day celebrations. Not everybody accepts the dominant narrative of Anzac Day as the defining Australian experience of nationhood.

The first Anzac Day was first commemorated on April 25th 1916, the anniversary of our first landing at Gallipoli.

The word ANZAC, created in 1915 is an acronym from Australian and New Zealand Army Corps. Emblematically it reflects the traditional view of the virtues displayed by those in the Gallipoli campaign’s cluster of national characteristics including mateship, larrikin daredevilry, anti-authoritarianism, and egalitarianism.

James Brown, a former army officer, argues it’s “entirely fitting and proper” to commemorate the war, but he’s repulsed by the way “Anzac is being bottled, stamped and sold”.

Brown, a veteran of Iraq and Afghanistan, argues the Anzac obsession, combined with public ignorance of what soldiers do when sent to war, has damaging implications. It dumps an unsettling burden on contemporary veterans who feel forced to live up to an ideal that doesn’t match their experience.

Beyond that, the myth inhibits the army from learning from experience. Instead, the study of its past is “obscured by the military exceptionalism that the digger myth engenders”.

A former chief of the army, Lieutenant General David Morrison, maintains the myth has become a double-edged sword, where the idealised image of the Australian soldier – “a rough hewn country lad – invariably white – a larrikin who fights best with a hangover and who never salutes officers, especially the Poms”, is “a pantomime caricature”.

It undermines recruitment and “breeds a dangerous complacency about how professional and sophisticated soldiering really is”.

“The myth of the gifted amateur is the most dangerous which the romantics propagate,’’. The first Anzacs were woefully unprepared and paid the price for national neglect of defence. The Gallipoli landing, he said, “was not our finest hour”.

Paul Daley objects to its ecclesiastical language (the “spirit” and the “fallen”, “loss” and “sacrifice”) that euphemises battlefield carnage, pervades. Those who challenge or question it are too often dismissed as vaguely seditious fringe dwellers, disrespectful of the dead.

When you walk the Gallipoli peninsula or the Somme, with their rows upon rows of neat bleached headstones and evocative epithets, it’s easy to forget war’s other victims – those who supported or just endured the generation of broken men who returned. Daley

The myth began when censored war correspondent Charles Bean reported the failed invasion as a triumph, led by heroic bronzed sportsmen bravely scaling steep cliffs at great speed and driving the defending Turks inland.

They were brave, but they still lost, unlike the Western Front where Australians won battles from 1916 that helped end the war.

The truth was not revealed until prime minister Andrew Fisher sent journalist Keith Murdoch in September 1915.

When Murdoch told him the landing failed miserably, thousands were killed for little gain, an advance was impossible, hundreds were dying of disease and British leaders were incompetent, Fisher recommended retreat. ‘‘Gallipoli is undoubtedly one of the most terrible chapters in our history,’’ Murdoch said.

Nevertheless Bean’s propaganda took hold. Winning the 1983 America’s Cup, entrepreneur Alan Bond proclaimed: ‘‘This is Australia’s greatest victory since Gallipoli!’’

Bean, claimed the source of the democratic Anzac spirit was born in the bush and carried into battle. It came from the experience of pioneering the country and above all from the resilience and toughness needed to settle the outback.

Bean believed that Australian democracy, universal education and an open, meritocratic society shaped the specific qualities of the diggers. The source of the Anzac spirit, was not to be found in military battle, but in the distinctive character of outback life in the colonies. The diggers were citizen soldiers.

Keith Murdoch placed the Australians on the highest of pedestals. Historian Charles Bean would later observe that during the war: “Murdoch’s admiration of the Australian soldiery rose almost to worship.” Compared to the lowly Tommies: “toy soldiers” showing “an atrophy of mind and body that is appalling … childlike youths without strength to endure or brains to improve their conditions”. Their cowardice, anathema to the Australian troops it would seem, had led to an order “to shoot without mercy any soldiers who lagged behind or loitered in advance”.

Our last surviving Anzac hero, Alec Campbell, pleaded on his death bed: ‘‘For god’s sake, don’t glorify Gallipoli - it was a terrible fiasco, a total failure and best forgotten’’.

Alan Tudge, our notional, (but absent with official leave) Education Minister perpetuated the History Wars with, in the words of the historian Peter Cochrane, “drape ‘Anzac’ over an argument and, like a magic cloak, the argument is sacrosanct”.

Paul Daley cites Douglas Newton’s book about the soldier and objector Private Edward James Ryan’s misgivings in 1916 about the western front slaughter which “glowed with the white heat of passion” claiming to speak for other Australian soldiers who, he insisted, “hated the war”, calling for an end to the war.

“They called the battlefield ‘the Abattoirs’ … He seized his chance to put down on paper the real opinions of those Australian troops, because the British press [mirrored by the mostly jingoistic Australian!] was hyperventilating about how much the brave Australians ‘relish the glories of war’ …

“Ryan wrote [of how] two men fresh from the battlefield had just told him that they ‘would rather be shot than face another bombardment like we received at Pozieres’. So, Ryan complained, the blood-and-thunder newspapers were lying about the Australians. Ryan railed at one newspaper in particular for depicting the Anzacs as ‘bright & cheering’, hooraying’ as they came away from the Somme battlefield.

The truth was, wrote Ryan, that the ‘frightfulness’ of the bombardments at the front was ‘beyond their imagination’ …

“Every soldier was ‘absolutely sick of the whole business’.”

An awareness of the unpalatable truths about war – the crimes committed by Australian soldiers, for example, in the name of their country, the legacies of addiction and domestic violence among veterans – might well instil in the thoughtful young an unwillingness to blithely fight in the conflicts politicians might wish to commit them to.

Alan Seymour’s Play, The One Day of the Year, raised the issue of whether Anzac Day had simply degenerated a nostalgic booze-up and gambling.

Bruce Moore writes Two-up is one of the core activities of Anzac Day celebrations - and a beloved tradition. Though illegal, a Nelsonian eye was turned to it until it was legalised in the 1980’s, on Anzac Day alone.

JO HAWKINS, Historian at the University of Western Australia writes:

From the 1990s, newspapers began to offer glossy historical lift-outs, commemorative coins and even free Anzac biscuits in an effort to increase circulation figures on Anzac Day. In the digital world, where content is king, attention is the only currency that matters. Anzac Day has been commodified, with letters, diaries and photographs transformed into online “content”, the commercial appeal of which will be measured by web analytics and assessed by digital-marketing teams.

Do these projects enrich our understanding of the Great War or do they trivialise and sanitise war memory for a popular audience?

Chris Graham implies Anzac Business: Lest We Forget How To Exploit An Atrocity For All It Is Worth

Niall Clugson (Crikey.com) comments:

Anzac Day commemorates a failed stab at the Ottoman Empire, which is not significant even as a failure – as the second stab, through Arabia, was successful. The Western Front was a far greater catastrophe in human life. Contrary to mythology promulgated here, Gallipoli was not a predominantly Australian battlefield, nor was it even the first battlefield of Australian troops, as New Guinea preceded it. To describe this as a “real event of real importance” is hard to understand.

The impact of Gallipoli on national consciousness was due to the shock of the death toll and to misleading reporting. Subsequently, Anzac Day became a fixture on the national calendar, fiercely guarded by the stalwarts of the RSL. But whatever the emotional freight of the different holidays, to suggest that the Gallipoli landing is more historically significant than the First Fleet landing is monumentally ludicrous.

But official commemorations are really a case of false memory syndrome, yet we spend more on commemoration than on caring for the health and welfare of our returned soldiers. No one survives a war; especially not the returned soldiers.

Militarisation of History #

Marilyn Lake and Henry Reynolds claim Anzac legend has become the vehicle by which the ideas of the Edwardian militarists are preserved and passed on to a new generation. Lake wonders whether anxious colonials were desperately seeking British approval.

Lake further contends that when participation in foreign wars becomes the basis of national identity, it requires the forgetting or marginalising of other narratives, experiences and values. The Anzac myth requires us to forget gender and racial exclusions, the long history of pacifism and anti-war movements, the democratic social experiments and visions of social justice that once defined Australia; to forget that at Gallipoli we fought for “empire” not the nation, symbolising our continuing colonial condition.

Marilyn Lake feels too many Australians who are concerned with the homage paid to the Anzac spirit and associated militarisation of our history, we are concerned about the ways in which history is used to define our national heritage and national values. We suggest that Australians might look to alternative national traditions that give pride of place to equality of opportunity and the pursuit of social justice: the idea of a living wage and sexual and racial equality. In the myth of Anzac, military achievements are exalted above civilian ones; events overseas are given priority over Australian developments; slow and patient nation-building is eclipsed by the bloody drama of battle; action is exalted above contemplation. The key premise of the Anzac legend is that nations and men are made in war. It is an idea that had currency a hundred years ago. Is it not now time for Australia to cast it aside?

Turkish perpspective #

Turkish lyrics for Canakkale, translated in part here by Melbourne musician Ozmel Ilgin:

The war came down on us like a fire,
The whole country shed tears.
At the Aynali Carsi – the marketplace –
I’m leaving for the enemy, mother,
And there goes my boyhood.

Unlike Australia’s most popular fictional character of Gallipoli, C. J. Dennis’s “Ginger Mick”, who revelled in gaining his manhood on the battlefield, the anonymous Turk in the Canakkale song is mourning the loss of his youth.

And unlike Australians in 1915, the Ottomans, the Turks, had been fighting wars for centuries. They are hardened to this brutal rite of passage; war is not romanticised in Canakkale.

Anzac was a celebration of race and manhood. The Australians, proclaimed the Argus newspaper, “have in one moment stepped into the world-wide arena in the full stature of great manhood”. Aboriginal men were legally barred from enlistment — many enlisted anyway and were denied repatriation benefits. Later attempts to include women in the Anzac legend — as nurses, servicewomen, Land Army girls, as grieving mothers and widows — should not prevent recognition that the myth seeks to locate our national identity in the masculine domain of military warfare.

Alan Tudge agrues that Anzac Day is so sacred, it should not be contested for fear of young people not signing up for military service:

“We should expect our young people leaving school to have an understanding of our liberal democracy and how it is that we are one of the wealthiest, most free, most tolerant and most egalitarian countries in all of human history, which millions have immigrated to. If they don’t learn this, they won’t defend it as previous generations did.”

Guy Rundle maintains – “what Anzac Day is for — not to commemorate our ancestors in past death, but to enrol our children in the death to come."

No wonder Wilfred Owen felt compelled to write:

My friend, you would not tell with such high zest
To children ardent for some desperate glory,
The old Lie: Dulce et decorum est
Pro patria mori.

At the centre of militant’s creed was the conviction that war was the ultimate test for nations and men. It was the beckoning threshold to individual heroism and national maturity. The central claim that Australia became a nation at Anzac Cove is the product of these ideas. The Anzac legend perpetuates an attitude to war in general and to World War I in particular.

Many Australians are deeply disturbed by and recoil from the relentless militarisation of our history. And they feel that their concerns are overwhelmed by well-funded, much-publicised, official rhetoric. They are disturbed that criticism of the myth of Anzac is often seen as tantamount to disloyalty.

Helen Razer contends:

Gallipoli was a farce. It was a needless, poorly strategised surrender of young life. Vietnam was a conscripted embarrassment to which 60,000 Australian bodies were offered for no reason nobler than “we don’t like communism”. Iraq remains, even to the best minds in foreign policy, a riddle wrapped in an enigma swathed in the flag of nationalism and hunger for trade with the US. If We Will Remember Them, let us remember them. Let us remember why their lives were taken, transformed or cruelly pressed into the service of domestic politicians seeking re-election.

Statues #

Australia Australia has no equivalents of the American monuments to political liberty: the Statue of Liberty, the Washington Monument, the Jefferson Memorial, the Lincoln Memorial. What this nation does have is war memorials. Our landscape has been transformed by war memorials, small and large, local and national, statues of diggers in the hundreds, obelisks, cairns and cenotaphs. The cult of Anzac has been naturalised in Australia, but, to a newcomer, the monumental honouring of war dead might look excessive.

We create monuments, statues and artistic memorials to commemorate the past. The problem is many become sites of unquestioning glorification rather than of profound reflection?

The none-too-subtle hawkishness of pollical rhetoric evoke the memory of war dead with allusions to the beating drums of another supposedly imminent conflict.

Percy Bysshe Shelley came across a ruined statue of an Egyptian ruler, creating an image of Ozymandian arrogance, together with its “sneer of cold command”, a hollow boastfulness:

“My name is Ozymandias, king of kings:
Look on my works, ye Mighty, and despair!”
Nothing beside remains. Round the decay
Of that colossal wreck, boundless and bare
The lone and level sands stretch far away.

Hilary Mantel: “This is something much stronger than repression. It is the deliberate construction of one reality out of the denial of another. “History’s what people are trying to hide from you, not what they’re trying to show you,” she writes in her memoir. “You search for it in the same way you sift through a landfill: for evidence of what people want to bury.”

While Kenneth Slessor laments the fact that Joe Lynch has no grave with a permanent “funeral-cakes of sweet and sculptured stone.” he has been immortalised in Five Bells. The fact that this poem lives on seventy years later illustrates what Auden said about Yeats; “the death of the poet was kept from his poems”.

Literature can have more staying power than the grandest monuments made of durable stone.

Donne claims " We’ll build in sonnets pretty rooms”.

Robert Browning in The Bishop Orders his Tomb.. illustrates the infinite vanity of clergymen rivaling each other in building grotesque mausoleums for egoism.

Nietzsche: One repays a teacher badly if one remains only a pupil. And why, then, should you not pluck at my laurels? You respect me; but how if one day your respect should tumble? Take care that a falling statue does not strike you dead! You had not yet sought yourselves when you found me. Thus do all believers — Now I bid you lose me and find yourselves; and only when you have all denied me will I return to you. (Quoted by Jung to Freud, 1912)

The Heritage Council said that at November 2017 there were some 30,626 monuments across all themes and periods in Australia – 520-plus in Melbourne, a city whose commemorative landscape mostly represents colonial “civic leadership and patriotic and heroic achievement”. (Paul Daley)

Busts and statues of Cook also abound – even the French, however recently, several statues in honor of Cook have been defaced in protest. “Take care that a falling statue does not strike you dead!” (Nietzsche) Original inhabitants are demanding a bit of truth in memorialising our foundations.

The war memorial already has form in refusing to address military traditions that don’t fit a celebratory account of Australian soldiering. Brendan Nelson for years refused to countenance the idea that white Australia’s originating war, the European invasion and occupation of the continent and the subsequent genocide of first peoples, should have any place at the AWM, suggesting instead it be consigned to museums. ………

Anzac Hall memorialised #

The $500m Australian War Memorial redevelopment will feature a display on the award-winning Anzac Hall, which will be demolished for the expansion.

Anzac Hall, built just 20 years ago and lauded for its architecture, will be knocked down to make way for the redevelopment ( SMH).

Staff were provided talking points to address visitor concerns, in which they say Anzac Hall was not extendable and no longer fit for purpose.

The project has been criticised for transforming the site from a place of commemoration to “a theme park” that glorifies war ( The Saturday Paper).

Weapons sponsor ‘degrades war dead’ #

The Australian War Memorial is pursuing a controversial new sponsorship deal from weapons manufacturer Lockheed Martin.

The move comes in defiance of more than 300 letters from veterans and historians saying such arrangements are “degrading to the memory of our war dead” ( The Guardian). The letters called on the memorial not to renew its deal with Lockheed Martin, which expired this month after funding a podcast on veterans’ experiences.

Those who have complained say companies that profit from conflict should have “no place” in what should be a solemn memorial, noting Lockheed Martin’s surging share price following Russia’s invasion of Ukraine.

Australian War Memorial director Matt Anderson said he was engaged in “ongoing discussions with Lockheed Martin Australia about future opportunities”.