A little while ago I sat down to write
a reply to an ask I got about the Anzac legend. It turned out to be a bit of a
rant about some of the things I think are wrong with it. I stand by everything
I said there. But it was a bit negative.
The Anzac mythology upholds a very particular character as representative of
the AIF, and true or not, that character has a very strong grip on the popular
imagination. Little about this legend is uniquely Australian. The language
to express the values, that of the larrikin and above all else mateship, may be
particularly Australian but the values are not. Irreverence and camaraderie are
close to universal.
These aren’t values to be denigrated
in any way. But they’re representative of most militaries in the war. But the
AIF did have a character unique to the Australian experience. Much is made of
the fact that the AIF was an entirely volunteer organisation. From a population
of fewer than five million more than 330,000 men and women served in its ranks
between 1914 and 1918. Conscription was put to the people in referenda twice
and twice it was defeated. People joined the AIF for the duration of the war.
Few pursued careers in the military and although many had prior service it was
in the militia, the part time army.
The ranks were filled from the cities, the suburbs and the bush by civilians.
Even the officer corps was fleshed out by the professional and middle classes
of lawyers, bankers, teachers and the like. These men saw themselves not as
regular soldier, but as civilians in uniform.
They saw their role as merely a job, not a calling. They were there to
fight the war, to defeat Germany, or the Ottomans, and to go home and back to
the farm or the factory.
Australia had one of the strongest
trade union and labour movement in the world in the early 20th
century. It was the first country to vote a labour government into office and
ideas of unionism, collective bargaining and fair work practices were strong in
the minds of many working Australians. The language they used and the tactics
they employed to deal with the discipline and hierarchy of the military demonstrates
just how powerful these beliefs were. Soldiers routinely referred to their
officers as their boss, refused orders they thought were unfair and protested
their ill treatment by military authorities. They released soldiers imprisoned
under field punishment, refused to salute officers and rejected the distinction
between officers and other ranks imposed by the British army. They went into
clubs, restaurants and hotels set aside of officers, believing strongly that
they had the right to drink or eat where they chose.
They took strike action when they felt too much was asked of them, when they
were refused rest or when they felt hard done by. When battalions were to be
broken up due to lack of replacements in 1918 they mutinied. Refusing orders to
disband, they ‘counted out’ senior officers sent to negotiate with them.
In autumn 1918, after months of near constant use, Australian battalions took
to strike action when they were ordered back into battle after weeks with no
respite. After being promised a fortnight’s rest they were ordered back to the
front for an offensive after just a few days. Unhappy troops, veterans mostly,
refused to move. The battalions were well understrength after months of
fighting and the men felt they had been lied to, that they had sacrificed
enough and that they were being overused. The soldiers took action in the way
they knew how. They shot no officers and destroyed no property. For men used to
fighting for their rights in the workplace it was natural that they would turn
to collective action in trade union style.
And their rights as men and respect
made them difficult soldiers to discipline. The standard punishment of the
army, called ‘field punishment’ was particularly odious to Australians. Field
punishment consisted of being bound to an object, a post or a wagon or gun
carriage in the open for a number of hours. Due to the danger of artillery this
punishment was not just humiliating but also potentially fatal. Diaries and
letters from soldiers are full of stories about field punishment. They usually
tell of Australian troops coming across British soldiers undergoing field
punishment and freeing them, fighting with guards and military police.
This may seem a bit long winded and I
don’t blame you if you can’t see the relevance of much of this. What I’m trying
to get at here is that there’s this powerful resistance to the dehumanising and
anti-individualising aspect of military discipline and authority. The AIF by
and large saw themselves as civilians first and soldiers second. They
understood the need for discipline and obedience and as more than one
Australian noted “we have discipline where it matters”, on the battlefield. But
the trappings of military culture and authority were repellent to the
Australian working man. Strict obedience to hierarchy and the seemingly
pointless requirements of military discipline were not only alien to
Australians but went against their own values. Mutual respect was the key to
the AIF as most of its officers discovered.
This side of the AIF, the strength of
its civilian values is one that ought be remembered and celebrated in Anzac.
The ideas from the labour and union movements, the fair go and mutual respect
deserve a place alongside mateship and the larrikin as part of Anzac. The men
who fought for the eight hour work day and living wages were the same men who
filled the ranks of the AIF and who fill Australian cemeteries in Europe and
Turkey. This is a part of the Anzac story that deserves a better place in our
telling of it.
Counting out consisted of soldiers on parade counting down from ten to one,
before shouting a final obscenity at the officer concerned. This was a
particularly powerful form of insubordination that humiliated officers when it