can swim now, and when I come
home will teach you too. The water is so
buoyant – we couldn’t
sink if we tried.”
WW1, Ismailia, Egypt, Australian nurse’s letter to her niece, talking about swimming in Lake Timsah. Also known as “Crocodile Lake”, this “buoyant” water provided relief from the intense
summer heat for nurses and soldiers.
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
Do you have a favorite aspect of the Anzac legend? That may or may not be true?
I’m been sitting on this ask for a couple of days now, trying to figure out how to answer it and I’m still not sure. So this is probably going to end up as a big stream of consciousness/wall of text thing, so please forgive me.
I don’t have a favourite aspect of the Anzac legend. I don’t think I even can. The very concept of the Anzac Legend bothers me. This is our recent history. Its members, who have all died, are still within living memory of many millions of people. The events are so well documented that we can follow some of them minute by minute in the diaries, letters and reports created by the participants. I understand the desire to turn these stories into legend and myth, especially in a like Australia after the war and certainly in the last decades of the 20th century. I understand how the virtues and values of the AIF made for such fertile imaginative ground in an inter-war world, and more so since. The romance of war, lost on the battlefields of Europe and the Middle East, was much harder to destroy out in the colonies, where people experienced little hardship compared to those on the continent. I understand how and why the AIF became a legend. But I don’t think I believe in it.
But what does it matter if I believe in it or not? It’s important to tens of millions of Australians, the government tightly controls its commemoration and the Anzac brand, and the military indoctrinates its members with to strive for an unattainable Anzac perfection. A newly minted army officer once told me that during his training his instructors had screamed about how unworthy these recruits were, how they could never live up to the Anzac reputation and how they could never lead an Anzac. It draws hundreds of thousands every 25 April to dawn memorial services across the world, in events whose gravitas and sombre communion even I can’t deny. It’s this secular religion that makes the legend a reality, that we have to contend with. The history may vary widely from the myth, but the myth is potent enough and popular enough to be able to divorce itself from the past. “The AIF”, historian Peter Stanley points out, “has become revered as romantic nationalist mystique”.
The last two or three decades has seen a steady dismantling of the Anzac legend, at least in academic circles. All its basic tenets of natural fighting prowess, mate-ship, equality and the rest have been questioned, criticised and reassessed. But this new understanding hasn’t moved far beyond academia. The short spike in Anzac tv series during the centenary showed the same romantic tragedy and nationalist triumphalism. Popular histories from the 50s and 60s were reprinted and a new slew of books turn up on shelves, from children’s books to all kinds of histories and so many romance novels. But the legend remains deeply entrenched in the Australian imagination. Little in the popular realm even attempts to challenge it in light of new understanding. Even for those in academia the revision of that history has produced harsh reactionfromthe right, I’m exactly one of those “cadre of academics” associated with those elite, Canberra institutions, that noted crackpot Bendle talks about there. But that’s the strength of this legend. Its followers take any attempt to examine it and broaden it as denigration. To imagine that the Anzacs were perfect, individually and as a whole, is wilful delusion. They were men and as such fallible. It is no dishonour or disrespect to recognise their humanity in all its complexities. We must know and understand their failures, their embarrassments and their crimes (for they are many and varied) to better place their successes, victories and virtues. To deify them and to force them to represent only what was best, without recognising the fullness of their character, good and bad, robs them of the complexity of their own stories. It robs them of their humanity and us of our history.
Troops of the 1st Australian Division landing in Anzac Cove on 25 April 1915. The horse boats (with the ramps down) had landed mules of the 26th Indian Mountain Battery. In the background is the light cruiser HMS Bacchante.
Australians landing at Anzac Cove at 8am, 25 April 1915.
This photo shows
part of the 4th Battalion and the mules for the 26th (Jacob’s) Indian Mountain Battery. In the foreground is the staff of Colonel H N MacLaurin of the 1st Infantry Brigade. The officer with the rolled greatcoat over his shoulder is Major F D Irvine (killed on 27 April). Nearer the water’s edge (centre) is Captain D M King, Orderly Officer. The officer on the left, with his chinstrap down, is Lieutenant R G Hamilton, the Brigade Signal Officer. At the water’s edge lies an Australian engineer (Sapper R Reynolds), the first to fall during the war.
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.
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.