Australians have commemorated the Anzac experience in a very thorough, biased and predictable way. Indeed, the Australian myth of the Anzac is so effectively promulgated one could be forgiven for assuming that any randomly picked Australian would be able to instantly recite it, complete with the standard tales of heroic against-the-odds bravura, fraternal mateship, and a Britain with no military competence whatsoever. This is quite a contrived, manufactured myth, made for reasons that shall be examined here.
It is necessary at this point to provide a description of the concept of a myth. A myth is the result of both an event and a significance or meaning that has been added to that event. In this regard, the event itself is often of minor importance, for the myth says far more about what people think of that event than the event itself. The tendency for humans to impose their own preferred meaning on things, to create myths, is a perpetual inclination that has significant relevance to the Anzac story.
This is apparent in Australia’s Anzac myth, which is quite a selective and biased one. For example, Australians remember the story of Gallipoli to the exclusion of most of the other parts of the war, many of which were far more devastating (for example, Pozieres.) Furthermore, the parts that are remembered concentrate almost entirely on Australians. Everybody knows of the notorious suicidal Australian charge at the Nek, but what of, say, the New Zealander’s fight for Chunuk Bair? Indeed, the Australian/Gallipoli myth, embodied almost perfectly in Peter Weir’s film "Gallipoli", focuses so heavily on Australians it seems strange to consider that there were actually other countries there.
The reasons for this are obvious when the timing of World War I is considered. Before then, Australia had never fought as a single nation in a war; indeed, there was no "Australia", merely 7 separate colonies. After becoming a nation in the federation of 1901, the opportunity arose to fight as one country in The Great War. It was therefore taken up with great enthusiasm and toted as a "Baptism of Fire". This idea, of a nation’s ‘initiation ceremony’ being a battle or some sort of "Blood Sacrifice", was quite a popular one at the time. It is therefore obvious why Gallipoli is awarded so much attention.
Australians nationwide pay this attention mostly on the 25th April every year, through variety of commemorative services. A typical Anzac day service will feature a hymn, a prayer, an address, the laying of wreaths, a recitation, the "Last Pose", a period of silence, "The rouse" and the National anthem. These traditions are all carried out across the nation, especially in primary and high schools. One specific service, the Dawn Vigil, has recently gained immense popularity, and Australians turn up in droves to participate in what was once a veteran only affair. Although it is a solemn event, it’s nevertheless a very popular one.
This popularity has its roots in the very first Anzac days. Indeed, the types of services held then were influenced by the fact that that war was, at the time, still in progress. They included things like patriotic marches, rallies, and recruiting campaigns, which all conveniently served the same purpose: trying to embolden and persuade young men to join the army. It is perhaps questionable that as to whether Anzac Day would have the clout and momentum behind it now, if it was not so eagerly marketed in its youth.
The Anzac digger is generally understood to have been a zealous, battle-worthy character. This is due in part to the reports of Australian activity in the war that reached Australian newspapers, which described nothing but the victories and admirable qualities of the Anzacs. Nowhere is this more apparent than in Ashmead-Barlett’s account of the Anzac landing, published in the Hobart Mercury in the May after the Gallipoli landing. Bartlett’s account emphasises any and all victories and either excludes or briefly glorifies the deaths and casualties. C.E.W. Bean’s version, far more detailed and equable, did not reach the majority of the Australian population. Here can be seen a very prominent influence on the creation of the Anzac myth – right from the outset the "digger" was courageous and successful, a person who "wrought deeds of imperishable glory".
This is due mainly to the censorship during World War I, which was severely restrictive. Bartlett described the censorship as ‘beyond all reason…(My) articles resemble chicken out of which a thick nutritious broth has been extracted." This is expectable as there was not one, but rather four censors, each of which "(held) different views and (felt) it their duty to take out scraps." One of the censors, Captain William Maxwell, prohibited any mention of setbacks, delays, casualties, or criticism of the conduct of the operation. It is therefore perhaps forgivable that Barlett describes only the appealing side.
A vital component of the Anzac myth is a military incompetent Britain that turned Gallipoli into a failure. Along with almost any mention of the word Anzac there is usually a note made of at least one way the British organisers fouled up. They sent the Anzacs to the wrong beach, ordered them on futile and hopeless attacks, used them as decoys, the list goes on. Most of these are inaccurate; for example, the notorious attacks at the Nek were actually ordered by an Australian officer. Upon considering this it is probable that these prevalent concepts of British failure may exist to purport another admirable aspect of the Anzac diggers, that is, to contribute to the myth.
This is manifest in an overbearing element to the Anzac myth, that of the Australians, the amateurs, succeeding where the British, the professionals, fail. This corroborates the aforementioned emphasis on Anzac courage and success, and also the emphasis on British mistakes. Both of these contribute to the overall idea of the new, young and inexperienced fighting alongside the seasoned battle veteran, yet doing a better job. This also incorporates the need for a story of the baptism of fire: it was important to have a spectacular initiation into the world of nationhood, so convenient elements of history were exploited in order to produce one, that is, to create the myth.
I am myself an Australian and am witness to evidence of the myth. Before being asked to write this essay I was a firm believer of the widely accepted version of the Anzac story. After relatively small amounts of research, however, I found that my beliefs, influenced largely by brief encounters with film and media, had not delved very deeply into the facts of the matter, but rather were merely products of brief assumptions made from ambiguously presented information. This is analogous with the majority of the Australian population – the supporters of the myth.
Australians take Anzac day very seriously, although most of what they commemorate is merely a biased nationalistic account of only moderately important events. This is not necessarily something to be criticised; they have centred on an unprecedented event and sensationalised it in order to give psychological weight to important political events of the time, which is something every nation, if given the opportunity, would undoubtedly do.
Excerpt: Bruce Bennet, Myths, pgs 58-73.
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