ANZAC: Ode to Old Australia?

As the centenary of the Gallipoli landing looms and with the conclusion of the first short year of the First World War centenary commemorations, it is worth pausing to reflect upon what might be in store for us. If the first three months of the centenary are indicative of what is to come then strap your selves in folks. It seems we will be remembering every Anzac step along the way.

With the anniversaries of Britain’s declaration of war, the Rabaul expedition, the great armada’s departure from Albany and the HMAS Sydney’s destruction of the SMS Emden behind us we will, like Australians one hundred years ago, be allowed to fitfully slumber and drink in the sounds and scents of summer until reawakened by the hullabaloo surrounding the Gallipoli landing.

As a First World War historian I am not opposed to remembering these events. The centenary is a fecund time for my ilk. What bother me are the distortions that accompany the retelling.

The preferred national narrative of Anzac or at least the one promoted by the government and armed forces is one of heroism and homogeneity of purpose and intent. All Anzacs are hewn from the same tree. It’s a Tory construction, sadly one seemingly imbibed by the Labor Party these days, one that dismisses inconvenient realities that impede the positive message. It’s a foundation myth that from the very outset was an exercise in historical reductionism, one that forgets all the achievements of Australian men and women who ushered in federation and shaped the country into one of the world’s most vibrant democracies prior to the Great War.

Come April our powers of discernment will be sorely tested. The upcoming national sleepover under the guise of Camp Gallipoli, which sounds like a boot camp for Tony Abbott’s Team Australia, has already been described as an exercise in Anzackery and one guilty of Disneyfying the diggers. It is a corporate endeavour to give Australians who can’t get to Gallipoli for the centenary a chance to experience the Anzac Spirit here at home, to experience real mateship by sleeping out under the great tent of the southern sky on Anzac eve with complete strangers, just as the Anzacs did one hundred years ago! Entertainments are planned and undoubtedly the night will be abuzz with the strains of John Williamson’s True Blue strummed on a hundred guitars. I’m sure the mums and dads and kiddies will have a great time as they snuggle into their commemorative swags. I don’t begrudge families a good time but it is the story they are being fed that irks.

Anzac Spirit is being pedalled as a cure all remedy for the nation. One of Camp Gallipoli’s organizers, Chris Fox, is reported as claiming that we have lost our national identity that issues of class and race and cultural prejudice are holding us back (he may be right) and that these things were flaws the men at Gallipoli would have abhorred. According to Fox Australian soldiers were drawn from many colours and creeds and that the twenty plus different nationalities who fought at Gallipoli were imbued by the Anzac Spirit, a heady draft that unified all and washed away injustice, intolerance and prejudice in the cultural melting pot of Anzac Cove.

Anyone who has read through many of the thousands of diaries and letters of Australian soldiers know this is simply poppy-cock; class and prejudice were constant companions of Australian soldiers.  Anyone who has studied the make up of the Australian Imperial Force knows it was predominantly Anglo-Celtic with only a smattering of other nationalities dotted throughout and only a few hundred indigenous soldiers. Anyone who studied the military actions at Gallipoli and France knows that soldiers were contained in largely segregated groups.

I won’t belittle any effort to arrest bigotry and prejudice and if Camp Gallipoli cures the nation of such ills, then well and good but don’t depict the original Anzacs as nascent multiculturalists. It simply wasn’t true.

The Australians who sailed to war in 1914-18 carried White Australia with them. Protection of White Australia was uppermost in their minds. Support Britain and ensure British support in holding back the Asiatic hordes should they strike south. Even those who opposed entering a European War argued that it would open Australia to invasion as well as seeing Australian workers undermined by the introduction of cheap coloured labour.

Australian soldiers who went ashore at Colombo a hundred years ago treated the native population with contempt. They called them niggers and cuffed them about and taking the lead from over zealous local police stuck the boot in too. Australians who landed in Egypt acted similarly and according to historian Suzanne Brugger descended on the local population like a ‘latter day plague’.

The signature of the Australians in Egypt was indelibly inscribed in the riots known as the battles of the Wazzir in 1915 and 1916 which saw acts of violence directed at the local traders and inhabitants. It wasn’t that long ago that the late Victorian leader of the RSL, Bruce Ruxton, in one of his last Anzac Day addresses gushed enthusiastically over the effervescence of these young men evidenced by the manner in which they chucked Cairo down the Nile.

Members of the Chinese labour corps in France were also subject to rough treatment. There was no tolerance exhibited by Australian light horsemen as they massacred Arab villagers at Surafend in 1919 and an Australian prime minister made clear his racial views as he stridently rejected a proposed racial equality clause being included in the League of Nation’s charter being drafted at Versailles.

So let us tell the truth of our past not obfuscate it with false eulogy. Let us be truthful in stating what those men were. The multi-cultural composition of Australia today would have been inconceivable to the men who fought at Gallipoli and most would have been appalled by the concept.

Let us not deceive ourselves about the mythical quality of mateship which is not uniquely Australian but merely a universal truth of trench life in the armies of all nations.

Another strand of the commemorations thus far is the repetition of the mantra that these men gave their lives so that we could enjoy the freedoms we enjoy today. Each year around Anzac totems throughout the country dignitaries trot out that phrase and others like it. Its purpose is to give continuity and present an unchallengeable absolutism to the question of Australian involvement in foreign wars. It is a view that flies in the face of historical truth though it must be acknowledged that those who fought did so with the best intentions.

The freedoms we enjoy today, presumably those of a relatively healthy if flawed democratic capitalist society, were secured in the civic and political arena of domestic politics. In no war, even under the threat of Japanese invasion, has Australia’s freedoms ever gone close to being oppressed – except through knee jerk responses by various Federal governments in enacting War Precaution and National Security legislation.

Wars against the Boers, the Germans, the North Koreans, the Vietnamese, Iraqis and Afghanis have not secured or protected our freedoms. In fact, it can be argued quite legitimately that our participation in the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan may well, through the rise of Al Qaeda and the Islamic State with the advent of borderless terrorism, contribute to the loss of civic freedoms.

The Australians who left the nation’s shores a hundred years ago were bound for a European land war. It was obvious, even before the Anzacs left Australia that neither the Allies nor Germans were likely to win a clear cut victory in France. The September 1914 battle of the Marne ensured that.

That understanding led to the Anzacs being diverted into a new theatre of war in the Dardanelles and a campaign that ultimately played out as a microcosm of the stalemate on the Western Front.

The naval battle of Jutland between the British and German fleets in May/June 1916 mirrored the stalemate on land and put paid to any decisive challenge to Britain’s dominance of the High Seas by a hostile northern hemisphere power. This was a great relief to Australians who saw the British Fleet as central to their own protection.

At the forefront of Australian considerations for participating in the First World War was a quid pro quo arrangement. Help Britain in its hour of need and so too would they assist Australia should it be threatened. The unthinkable consequence of British defeat was that it would see the loosening of Britain’s grip on the Far East and open Australia to the danger of invasion.

Britain though was never in danger of losing the First World War and, in the unlikely advent, at worst would have entered a negotiated peace that meant loss of territory for Belgium and France. In such an unlikely scenario Britain’s geographical detachment from Europe ensured its sovereign integrity and it would not have allowed the German Navy breath to carry on. Nor was Germany and Japan ever going to survive the combined efforts of the Soviet Union and America in the Second World War once those giants were galvanised into action.

A fact of life after all wars is that trade between nations resumes and national life is quickly re-established even if in somewhat diminished terms for a time. This fact renders as nonsense any claims to Australia’s freedoms prior to the First World War being affected by the affairs of Europe and the catastrophic war that erupted in 1914.

The greatest protector of Australia’s freedoms was not the British fleet and military engagements in far flung foreign fields but rather its own geographic isolation from the rest of the world. This has been an irrevocable fact through all wars in which Australia has participated.

Australia’s historic commitment to foreign wars has always been misguided and continues to be so when it is measured as a protection of our freedoms. History tells us our freedoms have developed quite nicely without the need of sabre rattling militarism to secure them.

A further problem of Anzac commemoration is its Anglo orientation, one might say whiteness. Study the footage of any of the centenary events and of Anzac days past and you will notice a marked absence of European, middle-eastern and Asian faces. Anzac actually has little relevance to millions of Australians who have no direct family link to Gallipoli or to Australia’s First World War experience. Nor is Anzac particularly attractive, with its military slew, to migrants and refugees who have fled war torn countries.

The images Anzac commemoration inevitably throws up are of Anglo-Australians as typical that suggest others are not. Advertising agencies twigged long ago to the need to depict multi-cultural images to give their products broader appeal. The face of Australia has changed; ten million post war immigrants have ensured that. One suspects that Anzac Day’s most ardent adherents are those uncomfortable with the changed face of Australia and are clinging fearfully to an Anglicized rose coloured past.

Once the First World War centenary is out of the way it can only be hoped that Australians will look to founding a truly national set of values, a statement that recalibrates the Nation as it moves deeper into the twenty first century, one that reconciles its indigenous people and acknowledges the true worth of non English speaking immigrants to this land as well as its founding forefathers.

Anzac does not provide an appropriate platform for such an undertaking and nor does a national day that marks the beginning of the dispossession of its indigenous people. Looking to the past and trying to stuff square pegs into round holes is ill conceived. The First World War commemorations, worthy as they are, bring into sharp relief our need for a fresh start. As a nation we need to look forwards not backwards, we need a Republic and we need it now.