Category: great 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.

Lifting an Oil Tank into a Train Ferry – Muirh…

Lifting an Oil Tank into a Train Ferry – Muirhead Bone, 1917.

Scottish pipe band playing amongst ruins in …

Scottish pipe band playing amongst ruins in the Petite Place near the Belfry in Arras, 30 August 1918.

British troops and their horses outside dugo…

British troops and their horses outside dugouts on a reverse slope at Beaumont Hamel, 25 August 1918.

British cyclists resting on the road from Bo…

British cyclists resting on the road from Bouzincourt to Albert, 23 August 1918.

Faster than infantry, slower and more road bound than cavalry, but at least they don’t need to be fed and watered. 
Cyclist companies were formed at the divisional level, usually to act as messengers, but in times of crisis they could be used as a fast response reserve. Later in the war they were amalgamated into battalions at corps level where they did stellar work during the German Spring Offensives.

The 28th Division leaving Salonika for Galli…

The 28th Division leaving Salonika for Gallipoli with an escorting French ship, November 1918.

A cunning plan for the aerial defence of Londo…

A cunning plan for the aerial defence of London from the Wipers Times No.1 Vol.1, February 1916.

A British limber collecting wood and other t…

A British limber collecting wood and other traffic on the road passing through the ruins of Guillemont, 12 October 1916.

I expected riotous excitement, but the reactio…

I expected riotous excitement, but the reaction of everyone, officers and men, seemed the same – flat depression. By the afternoon we were already bored… We had lost our profession, in which we had been immersed for five years… we had already begun to wonder what awaited us in peace time.

A French ‘Chasseur’ plane brough…

A French ‘Chasseur’ plane brought down by four German fighter planes near St. Maurice, 3 May 1918.