To mark the 100th anniversary of the Gallipoli landings

To mark the 100th anniversary of the Gallipoli landings win a ticket to the ABC’s commemorative WASO concert, go to a footy match, buy stuff, carry on endlessly in all media about the importance to this country of sending young Australians to kill people in other countries to advance the commercial interests of the British Empire.

Well, I could hardly write under the heading “The Australian Legend” and not write about the confluence of the Noble Bushman and Anzac myths. I had thought this was the work of CEW Bean, who wrote The Official History of Australia in the War of 1914-1918, but Ward says that it was down to war correspondents generally, both in Australia and in England (p. 229 onwards of my paperback edition). “ … even the English at home insisted on seeing [the soldiers of the 1st AIF] as noble, if regrettably undisciplined, bushmen, every one slouching six feet or more tall in his socks.” “The newspapers stated that by April 1915 there had been enrolled 12,000 shearers and station hands … and 1,000 bank clerks.” In fact, diggers came from the city and the country in about equal proportions. So it came about, in the words of Banjo Paterson, “By the end of the war, we ourselves had a tradition.”

Over the last twenty years the most trenchant critic of this tradition has been Marilyn Lake:

“The point is that in Australia, Anzac serves as our creation story. In proving their manhood, Australian men proved our nationhood; a nation was born on that day of death. So the legend ran. And it ran like wildfire amongst anxious colonials seeking British approval. As the laureate of Anzac, CEW Bean pronounced: ‘The achievement of the men lay not in the Allies’ military prowess, rather it lay in the mettle of the men themselves.’ That great phrase, ‘It lay in the mettle of the men themselves.’ The Australians had proved their mettle. Or as the official British war correspondent Ellis Ashmead-Bartlett reported before Bean wrote, Bartlett said, ‘These raw colonial troops proved worthy to fight side by side with the heroes of Mons, the Aisne, Ypres and Neuve Chapelle.’ Colonial anxieties had to be assuaged. They might have sighed in relief; they had proven themselves worthy.

“The myth of Anzac with all its imperial, masculinist and militarist baggage has yet become our creation story. And it will remain so until the nation is reborn, until we have the audacity, boldness and courage to detach ourselves from the Mother Country, declare our independence, inaugurate a republic, draw up a new constitution expunged of is race traces and that recognises the first wars of dispossession fought against Indigenous peoples, their heroic patriotism here in this country, and their never-ceded sovereign status. In that way we can truly make history here in Australia.

It is clear that John Howard, needing to see off the threat from his right of Pauline Hanson’s One Nation, wrapped himself figuratively in the Australian flag as Hanson had literally.

“The myth of Anzac has become more significant in recent years, ubiquitous even, with what I have called the militarisation of Australian history, mightily subsidised by the Howard government in the 1990s and early years of this century. War stories have figured ever more prominently in our culture, in our school rooms, on our TV screens and in our bookshops, but they do not usually tell of the perpetual state of warfare, as once colonist described it, entailed in the colonisation of Australia. To represent this phase of warfare in the Australian War Memorial would challenge the legitimacy of the nation-building project at the heart of Anzac and the Australian War Memorial. Lake, Beyond the Legend of Anzac, RN Hindsight, Sunday 26 April 2009

In Crikey on Thursday (16 April 2015) the issue was tackled, with different emphases, by my two favourite correspondents, Guy Rundle and Helen Razer. Rundle believes that WW1, which for a long time has been popularly regarded as a meaningless slaughter, is being reinterpreted (or re-presented): “As Anzac Day approaches, the World War I wars have started up again! About 15 years ago, WWI ceased to be a futile struggle and became a struggle against German militarism. The reason was obvious: as the Iraq War bogged down, the usual historical argument for war — the failure of “appeasing” Hitler — stopped working. We needed the example of a meaningful quagmire, and so WWI was it. Razer, who always comes up with an odd angle, claims that for Anzac Day to remain relevant we must allow it to be constantly reinterpreted (and commercialised!):“The reality of Gallipoli is secondary to its function as a powerful but empty signifier… “We believe that we can see in a clear line to the sacrifice and slaughter a century ago, but what we see instead is an idealised and ideological version perfectly, if crassly, expressed by Woolworths [“Fresh in our Memories”].

After all that, if you ask me, to mark the 100th anniversary of the Gallipoli landings, pause a minute, remember the dead, walk on.

For more on Marilyn Lake and the Anzac debate see also The Resident Judge this time last year

Also this excellent article by Jane Rawson

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2 thoughts on “To mark the 100th anniversary of the Gallipoli landings

  1. Thoughtful post Bill. I think that notion, “The reality of Gallipoli is secondary to its function as a powerful but empty signifier”, is interesting. It’s true of all myths, isn’t it, that the reality and the meaning drawn from it can be, and often is, hugely divergent. I’m not sure that this is automatically a bad thing but in this case – with the uncomfortable myths being portrayed (nationalistic, patriotic, white-centric, etc) it’s worrying.

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