Category: anzac


So it’s Anzac Day again. In fact it’s the 103rd Anzac day. 

Usually I’d just reblog this post and be done with it. And I stand by that post. I stand by the sentiment I tried to convey in it. But I think I’m getting old. I only realised that it even was Anzac Day when a student emailed me to ask if classes were still running. I went into the lecture and asked the professor, an ex-cavalry officer, if they were running. He too had forgotten about Anzac Day.
For the record, classes didn’t run.

We’re military historians. I study at a university which is also a military academy. All the students I teach there are serving members of the military. Everyone in the history department is a military historian and all the humanities staff study war and its effects in one way or another. 
And yet for most of the people I’m around, Anzac Day is a merely a day off. If they engage with publicly with Anzac, and the ones who do are rare, it’s to decry what the day has become and to bring attention to those who deserve a place in Anzac Day, but who are overlooked by the bombast.

And I know I’m sounding like a grump or that I’m being contrary because Anzac is an important day to so many Australians. BUT…

There’s something going on here and I’m really not sure it’s about commemorating service or remembering sacrifice. 

But I understand this. This is basic capitalism. Anzac is a brand, and a really popular one and you can make a lot of money from it. While I’m disgusted by the money grubbing, it’s a vague sort of background disdain that permeates most of modern life. I can deal with that.

What saps my will to live and makes me now hide away from anything remotely Anzac related is the rhetoric that completely envelops the day. And I’m not even exaggerating here. On Anzac day in 2013 prime minister Julia Gillard gave a speech at Anzac Cove on Gallipoli. The words she used were two and a half thousand years old. She reached back into antiquity and quoted Pericles funeral oration. “They gave their lives. For that public gift they received a praise which never ages and a tomb most glorious – not so much the tomb in which they lie; but that in which their fame survives, to be remembered for ever when occasion comes for word and deed…“

Politicians can nearly get away with that. You expect that from politics. But if you keep hammering this narrative long enough it’s going to stick. And it has taken root. Anzac is our secular religion. To question the myth is blasphemy and to fail to take part in the public adulation marks you as suspicious. Again, I’m not exaggerating.

Front page in the Murdoch (whose daddy was a famously dickish war correspondent) press for a tweet saying to remember refugees on Anzac Day.  Nothing demeaning, no insults, but public castigation, excoriation and humiliation. The furore on talk-back radio was especially sickening given its target was both a woman and Muslim.

There’s a self-congratulatory element to Australian Anzac Day, a sense of big-noting, that raises the Australian contribution to the war out of all proportion. That Australians contributed more (false), sacrificed more (false) and fought more (false) than anyone else. If you don’t hold to the Australian soldier as the pinnacle of military, or maybe human, achievement then you’re disrespecting the Anzacs, belittling their accomplishments and insulting their legacy. 

They strip the humanity of the soldier and turn him into a one dimensional symbol. He’s what Peter Stanley has called an ‘Avatar of the Great War’. He’s not a person who made choices and mistakes and was scared and troubled and there to do a job. He’s a statue onto which you can paint your politics. In the words of a much better writer than I. “What arrogance! What an insult to the rich and chaotic variety of the human experience!”

Maybe we should be a little bit more like New Zealand on Anzac Day. That it should be a day for remembrance and commemoration. For gratitude and recognition, not just for the white men who make up our image of the AIF, but for the actual people and the wonderful diversity of Australia then and now. Maybe we should have a little more introspection about Anzac and the Great War and our place in it rather than another excuse for chest thumping and flag waving. The National Library of Australia has over 4,000 book entries on Anzac. There is space aplenty for new stories that haven’t been told about those we’ve forgotten.

Lest we forget the Aboriginal, Maori, Chinese, Jewish and Russian Anzacs. Lest we forget all those written out of the story and who deserve to be remembered.

Battle of the St Quentin Canal

Men of the 46th Division pictured on the banks of the St Quentin Canal after their victory.

September 29 1918, Bellenglise–The fourth and final hammer blow of the Allied offensives in late September fell on the Hindenburg Line behind the St Quentin Canal.  The main attack was to be undertake by the Australians, but after months of hard fighting they were exhausted, and they were reinforced by an American corps.  During the rapid advance on August 8, plans for the sector were captured by a tank officer.  While somewhat out of date, they were still extraordinarily detailed and allowed the Allied bombardment to hit its targets with pinpoint accuracy.  Despite this, and extensive tank support, the Australians and Americans were quickly bogged down.  The rolling barrage started too far away and advanced too quickly (in an effort not to hit survivors of a failed trench raid who may still have been in no-man’s-land).

However, further to the south, the 46th Division had a stunning success.  In what they thought would be a purely diversionary attack, they crossed the canal using equipment salvaged from cross-Channel passenger ferries an hour after the Americans attacked, and took the Germans completely by surprise.  Private George Waters recalled:

The men were on top of the Germans before they knew what was happening.  A corporal, Crutchley, suddenly came to a German machine gun post protecting the bridge and he shot the German crew down before they could get their guns into action.

They were able to secure the bridge before the Germans had a chance to set off the demolition charges, and more troops streamed over (while still others swam across with the help of life belts). 

By the end of the day, the 46th Division had advanced three miles, taking the bulk of the Hindenburg Line in their sector.  A single regiment took over 4200 PoWs themselves.  Following up on this success, by the end of the next day over 30 miles of the Hindenburg Line were in Allied hands, with only one German reserve line in between them and open country beyond.

Today in 1917: British Victory at Ramadi

Today in 1916: Romania Launches Last Attack into Transylvania
Today in 1915: Haig Blames Sir John French for Failures at Loos
Today in 1914: Belgian Cyclist Saboteurs Return to Antwerp; There, German Artillery Destroys Forts’ Magazines

Sources include: David Stevenson, With Our Backs to the Wall; Nick Lloyd, Hundred Days.

                     ‘The spire of the cathedr…

spire of the cathedral, a wonderful thing of delicate lines and love’

we would cross the river and look back at the cathedral, high and beautiful
above the huddle of old, old houses on the quayside, with a faint light on its
pinnacle and buttresses and immense blackness beyond them.

builders of France loved their work,” said Palmer. “There was always war about
the walls of this cathedral, but they went on with it, stone by stone, without

stood there in a long silence, many times, and out of those little streets
below the cathedral of Amiens came the spirit of history to teach us the
nobility and the brutality of men, and their incurable folly, and their
patience with tyranny.

“When is it all going to end, Palmer, old man?”

“The war, or the folly of men?”

“The war. This cursed war. This bloody war.”

“Something will
break one day, on our side or the other. Those who hold out longest and have
the best reserves of man-power.”’

That day came
indeed on August 8 1918, a
black day of the German Army’, when for the first time, the coalition of
Allied nations fought under one strategic command, using tanks and air power to
push forward.

Text: 1918, British
reporter Philip Gibbs in Amiens – Now It Can Be Told – Photo: Amiens, a view of the
Cathedral from the river.

See all the international commemoration events in France @The United States WW1
Centennial Commission,
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Australian Ship Sunk Off New Zealand by German…

The SS Wimmera.

June 26 1918, Cape Maria van Diemen–The Pacific had largely been safe for Allied shipping since the SMS Dresden was scuttled in March 1915.  With the Pacific safe, the Allies were able to divert resources elsewhere; even the Japanese had sent a squadron to the Mediterranean.  The sole exception was the voyage of the commerce Raider Wolf, which on a fifteen-month cruise from late 1916 to early 1918 had attacked Allied shipping in the Atlantic, Indian, and Pacific Oceans.  By June 1918, she had been back in Europe for months, and it was hoped that most of the mines she laid had been swept up or destroyed; no ships had been lost to her since January 4th.  This hope proved unfounded at 5:15 AM on June 26, when the Australian passenger steamship Wimmera struck one of the Wolf’s mines just off the north coast of New Zealand.  

The ship’s electricity quickly went out, making the evacuation difficult.  When the ship sank half an hour later, 26 people were killed, including the captain and two other senior officers.  The ship was not able to send out a distress message, but the lifeboats were able to reach land through relatively calm waters.  They were aided upon landfall by local

Māori, who were able to help them get a message to send ships to pick up the survivors from the other boats.  According to one survivor, however, the survivors were initially mistaken for Germans, though the misunderstanding was soon sorted out.

Today in 1917: Head of the Black Hand is Executed

Today in 1916: Germans Threaten Swiss Coal Supplies
Today in 1915: Russian War Minister Sukhomlinov Sacked

Infantrymen and light-horsemen in a trench a…

Infantrymen and light-horsemen in a trench at Anzac, May 1915.

The 21st Battalion marching up Monash Gully af…

The 21st Battalion marching up Monash Gully after arriving at Gallipoli, 1915.

Trooper A M Maxwell (later Captain Maxwell),…

Trooper A M Maxwell (later Captain Maxwell), sniping up Dead Man’s Gully from Quinn’s Post, Gallipoli, August 1915.

The position at Steele’s Post at Anzac, …

The position at Steele’s Post at Anzac, showing dugouts on the seaward slopes held by a detachment of the 1st Australian Battalion, 3 May 1915.

Lord Horatio Kitchener, visiting ANZAC, retu…

Lord Horatio Kitchener, visiting ANZAC, returning through the trenches, to the beach from Russell’s Top and Bully Beef Sap. With him is Lieutenant General William Birdwood, GOC ANZAC. 13th November 1915.

This was the visit that convinced Kitchener that the Gallipoli campaign was a lost cause. The conditions were abominable, the health and morale of the men were both poor and he decided that the peninsula should be evacuated.

Two ANZAC soldiers in their trench on Anzac …

Two ANZAC soldiers in their trench on Anzac Beach, one sleeping (left), 1915.