AUSTRALIAN HISTORY - ANZAC DAYS
Anzac Day has
never been what it used to be. For the first anniversary in 1916,
clergymen fashioned ceremonies to deal with the grief of their
parishioners. A decade later, the desire to be non-denominational had
turned commemorations secular, almost pagan some bishops feared. Those
rituals have largely stuck. What continue to change are the cultural and
political responses to more than the Gallipoli campaign.
of those shifts is the distance between the chauvinism of the 1940
feature film, Forty Thousand Horsemen, and the somber bravery of The
Lighthorseman from 1987. The former established Chips Raffety as the
typical Aussie, laconic, lean and ready for a brawl. The latter made a
hero out of a protagonist who refuses to kill.
In such ways,
the Anzac mythos remains a contest - what is it to be “Australian”?
In 1932, the founder of the right-wing paramilitary New Guard, Colonel
Eric Campbell, declined to “brag about the spirit of Anzac”, which,
he alleged, had “No more relation to the spirit of Australia” than
classical Greece had to “the poor-class modern Athenian”.
Notwithstanding this ultra-right detachment from the AIF, the keepers of
the flame at the RSL clung to White Australia, attacked the Red Menace
and favoured conscription to “turn boys into men”.
In 1960, the
RSL possessed more than enough clout for the Governors of the inaugural
Adelaide Festival of the Arts to reject Alan Seymour’s play, The
One Day of the Year. The script offended because its student
characters, Hughie and Jan, used their undergraduate newspaper to expose
Anzac Day as “one long grog-up”.
most appealing character remains Wacka, the original Anzac, who can sink
a bottle of cheap Muscat without turning jingoistic. When he finally
talks about the dawn landing, he laments, “Y’couldn’t stop ‘n’
help yr mates, that was the worst’. Wacka puts the case for
remembering and, by implication, for getting drunk in order to cope with
was only the catalyst for Seymour’s reassessing what it meant to be
Australian. The curtain rises on Alf Cook’s declamation: “I’m a
bloody Australian and I’ll always stand up for bloody Australia”.
Just before the final curtain, his son, Hughie realizes that the
phrase he has spent three acts looking for in order to sum up his
impatience with his parents is that they are “so Australian”. His
North Shore girlfriend, Jan, springs back: “Are they? They’re what
it was. We’re what it’s going to be”. Hughie accepts that
“They’re the past”.
Jan’s vision of the coming Australia sounds as much part of “the
past” as nostalgia for the 1950s. More promiscuous than liberated, she
had none of the feminism that allowed Marilyn Lake in Creating
a Nation (1994) to accuse men of womb envy in their claiming to have
given birth to Australia at Gallipoli.
critique of Alf’s version of what it was to be Australian presaged
reappraisals from several shades of opinion. The Sixties saw the
middle-aged revolt against the elderly before the youth could “Make
Love Not War”. Editing Australian
Civilisation (1962), Peter Coleman hoped that the tone of pessimism
prevalent among his mostly conservative contributors would prove the
firmest ground for optimism. In 1964, the then very rightwing Donald
Horne in The Lucky Country
disparaged Prime Minister R. G. Menzies as an Edwardian relic. In 1963,
the left-wing ex-serviceman, Allan Ashbolt, directed an ABC-TV “Four
Corners” item on the political influence and beer culture of the RSL.
From 1964, commercial television’s “Mavis Bramston Show” satirized
initial audiences were more often in tune than today’s theatre-goers
with his stress on class as a component of what it meant to be
Australian. Jan dismisses the
idea that Australia as a classless society as “one of our myths”. In the Coleman symposium, the moral philosopher Douglas McCallum
rejoiced that “the annual Anzac Day of terror” was moderating.
A class bias underlay this attack because the “hellraisers” on
pub-crawls were workers – like Alf Cook - whose only club was the RSL.
war-wounded lift-driver, Alf feels patronized by “bloody Poms”, by
which he means the officer-boss class, irrespective of their place of
birth. His low self-esteem is at the heart of his attachment to Anzac
Day when, as he puts it, “They make a fuss of y’ for once”.
Warfare was the only work in which Alf could take pride, a commentary on
life under capitalism worthy of the young Marx. Alf’s closing speech
vents a rage more radical than anything his son Hughie can envisage:
“It’s the little man, he’s the one goes out and gets slaughtered,
we’re the ones they get when the time comes, we’re the ones, mugs,
the lot of us, mugs”.
Australian Left endorsed such sentiments as evidence that conservatives
were Imperial-minded or cultural cringers while its radicalism embodied
what it meant to be Australian. In The Australian Legend in 1958, Russel Ward constructed an arch of
radical-nationalism from the convicts and bushrangers, through the
gold-diggers and free selectors, to the trade unions and Labor party.
Anzac got a passing mention.
complacency got a serve from one of its own at the History Section of
the 1964 Congress of the Australian and New Zealand Association for the
Advancement of Science. K. S. Inglis’s paper proposed that “The
Anzac Tradition” was much a part of the Australian nationalism as
trade unionism. More disturbing still, he associated “mateship” with
the military, not just with the militants. Illustrating his argument,
Inglis took the versifying of C. J. Dennis to show how the “Pride of
Class” in the larrikin Ginger Mick’s had become “Pride of Race”
before he was killed in the trenches. Inglis was launched on his
life’s work which culminated with his 1998 survey of war memorials, Sacred
The old Left
in academia gave ground but did not abandon the field. Ward accepted
that there were two kinds of Australian nationalism, the radical and the
conservative. This adjustment was knocked sideways when Hughie’s and
Jan’s generation of scholars could find little to distinguish class
from race in Australian nationalism.
The Left had
also had trouble integrating its opposition to wars with empathy for
their frontline victims. Peace activists still suspect that “Lest We
Forget” is a call to arms. From the 1920s, pacifist schoolteachers
adopted Simpson (Kirkpatrick) and his donkey to turn Anzac Day
commemorations away from militarism and towards a celebration of the
mateship that passed for socialism in the bush. Those pedagogues could
not know how potent a weapon was within their grasp. In The
Man with the Donkey (1965), the Reverend Sir Irving Benson,
Superintendent of Melbourne’s Wesley Mission, had to lie about
Simpson’s politics in order to enlist his shade for the anti-Communist
crusade in Vietnam. The whole truth came out in Peter Cochrane’s 1992 Simpson
and his donkey which revealed “the Good Samaritan” as a red-hot
unionist who wrote to his family “at Home” that “What they want in
England is a good revolution”. Simpson had enlisted to get a free
1980s, anti-capitalist Anzacs seemed as rare as Captain Hugo Throssell,
VC, who told the Peace Day gathering at Northam (WA) in July 1919 that
the war had made him a socialist. Sixty-two years later, another West
Australian, Albert Facey, drew attention in A
Fortunate Life (1981) to the diggers whom warfare had turned into
pacifists. Facey lamented his son’s enlisting even in “the good
war” against fascism.
Gallipoli veteran, Alec Campbell, who died last May, had been far from
the RSL archetype, although Jonathan King’s recent Gallipoli,
Our Last Man Standing
smoothes over the non-conformity. Campbell’s family, however,
insisted that the state funeral be as non-traditional as the man. Five
women descendants accompanied the gun-carriage bearing this republican,
peace activist and fellow-traveling trade unionist. More political than
Facey, Campbell had talked of volunteering to fight the fascists in
Spain. Also in the late 1930s, the pugilistic Alec had appointed himself
bodyguard to the railway union militant, Bill Morrow, according to
Audrey Johnson’s 1986 biography,
Fly a Rebel Flag. The
showcasing of Morrow’s 1961 Lenin Peace Prize medal in Canberra’s
National Museum supplied one more complaint about bias at that
Australian Left never articulated a tradition of radical Anzacs for
Campbell to represent. Political comprehension lagged partly because of
a scant local literary heritage on which to draw. The English soldier
poets, who conscientiously objected in verse, if not in deed, had some
equivalents here, but their writings rarely etched hand-to-hand combat.
The neglected Clarence Webster penned a poem remarkable for its
sympathetic treatment of a German Socialist - “a hater of
militarism” - who is ordered to shoot a Belgian. Most of our anti-war
poets were non-combatants, and their creativity has been marginalised by
academic enthusiasm for the pallid Modernism of Kenneth Slessor.
novels and memoirs from British and European soldiers had no Australian
parallel, despite their popularity here. Although both Leonard Mann,
author of Flesh in Armour(1932),
and Frank Dalby Davison, who wrote The
Wells of Beersheba (1933), moved far to the left by the end of the
1930s, no trace of that commitment had appeared in their earlier war
fictions. Not until 1939 would Davison create a character who declared
that it had not been a German but “our own people, back in
Australia...who really menaced us”.
breakthrough in the Left’s conception of the Anzacs came with Bill
Gammage’s The Broken Years
(1971). His selections from soldiers’ letters and diaries left his
readers weeping for our boys while never letting us forget that they
should never have been there. Similar sentiments inspired a Scots
immigrant, Eric Bogle, to pen an alternative national song, “And the
band played Waltzing Matilda” in 1972. The band “Red Gum” turned
their anger at US Imperialism’s atrocities against the Indo-Chinese
into empathy for its Australian victims with a ballad “I was only
19”, which topped the hit parade for six weeks in 1984.
War had deepened self-doubts within the Left. Labor leader Arthur
Calwell campaigned for the 1966 election convinced that being Australian
meant being anti-Imperialist and anti-war, as had been revealed in the
defeat of the 1916-17 plebiscites over conscription for overseas
service. Debacle at the polls put paid to that delusion.
Yet, by 1973,
mores had changed so much that, in preparing his account of Australia
between 1901 and 1921, Lion
and Kangaroo, Gavin Souter could take it for granted that
anti-Vietnam sentiment had been a major factor in sending Anzac Day into
a terminal decline. In truth, resistance to conscription for Vietnam and
the turning aside from Anzac Day expressed more profound
shifts in post-1945 Australia. In The
One Day, Wacka’s hiring of a television set to watch the march
disgusted Alf who had thought he would never live to see “people think
of their own comfort on Anzac Day”.
In his 1957
Anzac Day address, British-born Vice-Chancellor of the University of
Adelaide, A. P. Rowe, had already discerned that the Anzac spirit was
being displaced by “the standard of living”. Drawing themes from the
1947 abridgement of Arnold Toynbee’s A
Study of History, Rowe regretted that Australians faced “no
compelling challenge evoking its response”. Instead, they enjoyed a
“comfort and convenience unknown to kings and emperors of not long
ago. At the flick of a finger we have heat, light, cold, transportation,
conversation with friends, news and music: all this and crooners too”.
By contrast, “The men on Gallipoli knew that their lives ... were for
taught baby-boomer blokes to expect brand-label fashions, not body-bags.
Hughie Cook’s interest in his appearance was another source of
friction with his father: “What’d I know about clothes at his
age”. The roughness of an army camp was much further from Hughie’s
everyday life than it had been from the peacetime existence of Alf
during the depression.
The spread of
commercialized affluence was turning the RSL’s holy day into yet
another holiday. By 1964, all the States had relaxed laws that, since
the 1920s, had prohibited sporting events and the opening of hotels or
theatres. From the fiftieth anniversary, April 25 could become one more
feast in the land of the long weekend.
however, have never been allowed to forget that military moment to the
extent that Britishers, in the words of 1066
and all that, came to believe that the Americans’ victory in the
Great War had been “assisted by the Australians (AZTECS) … and 51
our memory of wars was revived by infotainments. Attendances at the
Melbourne Theatre Company’s 1986 restaging of The One Day of the Year were well below expectations. Subscribers
reported that “they were tired of Gallipoli and Anzac”. Was it the
actual event of which they had had their fill, or its representation on
screen? That output had begun in 1981 with the Williamson-Weir feature Gallipoli that blamed the disasters on Pommy commanders. ABC-TV
followed this boys’ own adventure by serializing Roger McDonald’s
novel 1915 in 1982; the
Commercial stations offered ANZACS
in 1985 and Facey’s A Fortunate
Life in 1986.
social anthropologist Bruce Kapferer, in Legends
of the People, Myths of the State (1988), drew comparisons with Sri
Lanka to ask whether Anzac Day had been conceived by the people or
contrived by the state. No clear answer is possible because the
commemorations have always been conducted by civic organisations backed
by the government. That alliance surged under the Hawke and Keating
administrations to preserve Anzac observances from their long predicted
demise. Those ALP globalisers had no doubt about the electoral
advantages of attaching themselves to the remnants of the Old Australia
that their other policies were demolishing.
RSL had organized the first return of veterans to Gallipoli in 1965, the
75th anniversary became an affair of state, attended by Prime
Minister Hawke. At the unveiling of the Vietnam Memorial in 1992 and the
interment of the Unknown Soldier in 1994, Paul Keating stumbled through
panegyrics penned by Don Watson, now his contra-hagiographer.
eighty-six years of political maneuverings, the civic-folk elements of
Anzac Day were transubstantiated into the eponymous biscuit that became
as typically Australian as Vegemite without a word of paid advertising.
From 1920, the Commonwealth had regulated the use of the word
“Anzac” to prevent its commercial exploitation. By 1994, the RSL had
so succumbed to the “comfort” that Alf Cook despised in The
One Day of the Year that Bruce Ruxton lobbied, successfully, for the
mass-marketing of biscuits. The best of what Alf had declared Australia
to be survives in the unbranded Anzac biscuits that can still be bought
at street stalls. The best of what his son hoped Australia was on its
way to becoming is that they can also be purchased from Vietnamese-run
Hot Bread outlets every day of the year.
Cochrane, Simpson and his donkey,
Melbourne University Press, 1992. Cochrane excites by showing how heroic
deeds are enriched in their transmission, and by demonstrating the
difficulty of unraveling fact from legend.
Basarin, Hatice Hurmuz Basarin and Kevin Fewster, A
Turkish View of Gallipoli, Cannakkale re-released by Allen &
Unwin, 2002. The trio reminds us that Gallipoli/Cannakkale was more
significant to the creation of Turkish national consciousness than ours,
partly because the Ottoman commander, Kemal Ataturk, became the first
President of the Turkish Republic,
The Broken Years, Penguin,
1971. Gammage follows in Bean’s democratic footsteps, this time to
recount the experiences of the First A.I.F. from their writings. The
cumulative effect of noting the youth of his informants killed in action
approaches the unbearable.
K. S. Inglis, Sacred Places, War Memorials in the Australian Landscape, Melbourne University Press, 1998. In describing over a century of commemoration, Inglis poses questions that challenge several shades of prejudice, including the absence of memorials to the battles that Aborigines waged to hold this country.