How and why have Australians commemorated the ANZAC experience?
At the heart of Australian commemoration of the Anzac Experience, there exists a foundational martial myth, a myth that began on the cliffs of Gallipoli, continuing through to Monash’s triumphant victory at Hamel in1918, and to some extent, survives today. Yet of this myth there stands an enduring dichotomy of the experiences of Anzac soldiers and the many and often radically different interpretations of them and their feats by the Australian people. For 87 years, Australians have reflected on the triumphant accounts of their victories in the First World War and of the men who achieved this victory. Yet for all of these years, in our interpretations of the Anzac Experience, ironically, we have neglected the true experiences of our original Anzacs and those who followed.
The image and interpretations of the Anzacs as brilliant martial ‘victors’ has featured predominantly, but not solely for much of the last 87 years Australian commemoration – driven by selectively presented by news reporters, government propagandists and government-employed war correspondents and historians, who publicised each military campaign for its triumph, importance and success.
Contrary to the hardships experienced by troops, those at home were influenced by the first floods of gushing Gallipoli reportage, with the Sydney Morning Herald boldly stating, "[the first stage of the Gallipoli campaign had] been carried out with a degree of rapidity and success hardly hoped for’. The professed success of Gallipoli was heralded with escalating superlatives, ‘it was an operation without parallel’, a tenuous description of a campaign in which heavy prices were paid for slow and insignificant gains of ground. With time, descriptions of the campaign became increasingly romanticised and mythologised, with Sir Ian Hamilton recounting many years later, ‘like lightning they leapt ashore … so vigorous was the onslaught that the Turks made no attempt to withstand it and fled from ridge to ridge pursued by Australian infantry.
The 1918 battle of Hamel, was reported by the Age in glowing terms, ‘There was never a finer fight in the history of our army than fought by the Australians today’. Yet historian John Williams speculates that, ‘there is little to suggest in this dispatch that Hamel, fought on a relatively tiny scale, was a turning point in the war’. This assessment is supported by the primary evaluation of Gen. Blamey (Monash’s chief of corps staff) that it is an isolated instance of tanks doing well with our infantry. This certainly seems a reliable estimation considering his first-hand experience and earlier drastic failures of tanks as occurred at Bullecourt, where British tanks actually began firing upon the A.I.F.
It is likely that the media’s homogenised ‘victor’ interpretation was pressed on the Australian public to justify the 59 000 losses that deeply affected nearly every person in Australia. However, in exploring why, the political climate must be taken into account – the government’s desire to draw public attention away from the losses and military failures for protection of the integrity and loyalty to the British and to command support for recruitment campaigns and the war effort. The government’s sphere of influence extended to war reportage and government-employed war correspondents, such as C.E.W. Bean, who was ‘obliged to keep his reservations … to himself, while describing (for public consumption) the assembled ANZAC force in glowing terms. Australian interpretation and commemoration of the Anzac Experience has been driven by the media, which has maintained a stubborn disregard for the real experiences of soldiers in favour of projecting a positive nationalistic image.
For the Australian soldiers however, the so-called definitive and successful battles and campaigns of the war promised only horrific experiences and heavy losses. Statistically and realistically, Australia’s national debut at Gallipoli was a military disaster. Australian Forces sustained excruciating losses, with the tally for one battle reaching 1000 causalities in a single hour, and for all the years of the war, Australians incurred the largest number of casualties in proportion to enlistment numbers of all the countries of the British Empire. These statistics are not surprising considering soldiers’ accounts: ‘It rained men in this gully; all around could be seen the sparks where the bullets were striking…’ ‘Bullets were thumping into us in the rowing boat … there were many dead already when we got there … and wounded men were screaming for help’. Andrews described the inexperienced Australians undergoing the ‘awful terrain, the flies, the hand-to-hand trench-fighting, dysentery and British command bungling … trench lines of barbed wire backed by machine-guns’. Eight months later the troops evacuated, their sacrifices having gained no political or strategic advantage whatsoever.
The conditions on the Western Front were as bad. A hundred men a day were pointlessly lost to disease, due to poor diet and sanitation, lack of drinkable water not to mention the swarms of flies that plagued the battlefields. An Australian officer described the condition of his men as ‘thin, haggard and weak as kittens, and covered with suppurating sores’. The horror and memory remained for those who returned, as one daughter described of her father’s expression on a visit to the Australian War Memorial, ‘the look of total horror on his face was something I have never seen before and is a memory I will always keep’. In 1919, the Department of Veterans Affairs reported the deep psychological distress experienced both during and after the war: ‘no man entering the battle zone returned to the Commonwealth in a normal condition’.
For the first Anzacs, glory or triumph was not to be found on either on the cliffs of Gallipoli or in the foul trenches of the Western Front. For much of last century, little weight has been given to the truth of the tragedy and horror experienced by the Anzac soldiers, in Anzac commemoration.
Over time, and particularly in the last decade, an emphasis on the victories of 1918 has spawned a whole new ‘cheerleader’ interpretation of the Anzac Experience.
Uniting both images and interpretations has been a stereotype soldier drawn from a series of firmly entrenched qualities of the acclaimed Aussie ‘digger’. Resolute and heroic in both disaster and victory. The official war historian C.E.W. Bean did much to establish the romantic ‘digger’ image by identifying the ‘mettle of the men themselves’ and being ‘true to their idea of Australian manhood. This presumptuous stereotype has clearly re-emerged in the last decade, alongside interpretations of Anzac for nationalism and unity. These qualities have been rehashed continually through the words of the nation’s leaders, such as Paul Keating’s commemoration and indeed glorification of the Anzacs and of their ‘courage and ingenuity in adversity. He spoke also of the Anzacs’ discipline which derived ‘from the bonds of mateship and the demands of necessity.’ Clear parallels can be drawn and coined phrases recognised when comparing his sentiments to those of other contemporary commentators:
Yet revisionist historian Dale Blair asks, ‘Do we really expect that Australian soldiers drawn from different age-groups, from different work-places and social environments, religious denominations and national backgrounds would respond to their collective experience in exactly the same manner? Yet this is exactly what the ANZAC legend asks of us. By chronically defining these men to ten or so recurring words, we limit our understanding of them and their individual backgrounds and experiences, and of the significance of their fats. By professing their mateship and loyalty is to deny the conflicts that occurred between themselves and British command, and even with each other, which remain relevant today. By immortalising them for their bravery, manliness and fearless self-sacrifice, without acknowledgement of their own personal fears is to surrender to the stereotype their humanity, in essence their true ‘Australian-ness’ and the many different experiences that they faced.
I need look no further than my grandfathers, my own two ‘diggers’ for further verification of the shallowness of the Anzac stereotype, whose experiences reflect and yet are but two of the diverse and deep experiences of real Anzacs of World Wars 1, 2 and beyond.
The first came down with rheumatic fever soon after he began naval service, spending 6 months in hospital in a critical condition before being discharged and returning home without ever coming near a battle. The friend and comrade of his died earlier of the same disease. My grandfather never had the opportunity to participate in a battle, naval or otherwise.
The second was an intelligence officer who was forbidden to be within 150 miles of any known enemy.
‘He tried to volunteer for the coast watchers but, as a well-known mathematically gifted concert cellist, was put into naval intelligence and then seconded for the war to General Macarthur where he led a group of clever young men sifting the immense range of material to summarise for the chief what was going on. With every secret of the war in his head, he had to keep at least 150 miles from any known enemy activity – with the planes he traveled in having orders to change course or return to base if necessary. The only time that the enemy came closer was when a surprise aerial counter attack came within ten miles of headquarters. The way he told it, the boffins were issued small arms and ammunition – some with guns and some with ammunition, few with both and none with any expectation of doing any harm to the enemy! He was decorated by the Americans, receiving a Bronze Star – not for bravery but for totally dedicated, disembodied brain power.
Neither conformed to the stereotype of the courageous fighting figure, yet their contributions to the Second World War effort displayed the same importance, dedication and at times heroism as the heroic Anzac ‘digger’ ingrained permanently in Australians’ remembrance and commemoration.
As Australians, we are fortunate to have a large group of individuals who have played so important a role in shaping our history and indeed, our present and future. However, the nature of Australian commemoration has urged a very martial interpretation pushing the triumphs and successes of the war, and a popularised stereotype of the ‘digger’, with often a blatant disregard for historical accuracy and the wide range of contrary experiences. In a liberal democracy, we should be wary of political manipulation of the Anzac Legend – over-emphasising either the victims of imperial incompetence or the national victors of glorious wars. We should look beyond the widely accepted myth of the Anzacs. But most importantly we must rejoice in the variety of experiences and multiple interpretations of the Anzac Experience, for without this recognition, we will have lost touch with the depth and significance of our history.
The following materials were read and assisted in the development processes of the essay, though not all were referenced or directly used as quotes or sources.
Cochrane, P (20010 Australians at War, Sydney: ABC Books
Williams, J. (1999) Anzacs, the Media and the Great War. Sydney: University of New South Wales Press
Cochrane, P (1992) Simpson and the Donkey, Carlton: Melbourne University Press
Andrews, E.M. (1993) The Anzac Illusion. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press
Blair, D (2001) Dinkum Diggers: an Australian Battalion at War. Carlton: Melbourne University Press
Bean, C.E.W. (1946) Anzac to Amiens. Canberra: The Australian War Memorial
Welborn, S (1982) Bush Heroes. Fremantle: Fremantle Arts Centre Press
Moses, J and Pugsley, C. (2000) The German Empire and Britain’s Pacific Dominions 1871–1919. Claremont: Regina Books
Darlington, R and Hospodaryk, J. (1999) A History of Australia since 1901. Port Melbourne: Reed International Books
Burke, D (editor) 2002 Anzac Day Commemoration Booklet (Queensland). Aspley: Anzac Day Commemoration Committee (Queensland) Inc.
Clark, CMH (1987) A History of Australia. Vol 6 ‘The Old Dead Tree and the Young Tree Green.’ 1916-1935. Carlton: Melbourne University Press.
McKernan, M (1980) The Australian People and the Great War, West Melbourne: Nelson
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