Lest we forget what was really known

25 April 2015

With Australia reported to be spending more than $300 million to mark the centenary of Anzac, some 200 per cent more than the UK, some are asking whether the whole thing runs the risk of becoming crass.

Mourning, myth and memory clash in centenary of Anzac, writes James Giggacher. 

One hundred years ago Australian soldiers, part of an allied army, made a botched dawn landing on the shores of the Gallipoli peninsula.

That fateful dash across sand and desperate climb up hills, as well as the eventually failed World War I campaign against the fading might of the Ottoman Empire, with all its loss of life and naïve innocence, has come to mean so much for the nation and its identity. 

But, as Australians stop to reflect on the Anzac legacy and the centenary of the Gallipoli campaign it is more than mourning; the myths, memory and meaning of this significant chapter in our history are in sharp focus.

And like war, the history is complex. As Australian National University historian Professor Joan Beaumont points out in her multiple award-winning study, Broken Nation, campaigns like Gallipoli and the next three years of fighting on Europe's Western Front not only had profound impact on those men who answered their King and country's call; it fundamentally changed people at home. Her book, which jointly won the Prime Minister's prize for history in 2014, looks at the whole of Australia's First World War experience.

Beaumont says it is essential to not only look at the famous battles and tragic losses that defined the war, but how it impacted on the nation.

"There's much more to Australia's history of the war than the battles, which of course are the focus of much of the centenary," Beaumont says.

"But the Great War was also a war fought by the families at home; their resilience in the face of hardship, their stoic acceptance of enormous casualty lists and their belief that their cause was just, made the war effort possible.

"The wider Australian experience of war also included ferocious debates over conscription, the disillusioning Paris peace conference and the devastating 'Spanish' flu the soldiers brought home.

"In those years, we witness the fear and courage of tens of thousands of soldiers, grapple with the strategic nightmares confronting the commanders, and come to understand the impact on Australians at home and at the front of death on an unprecedented scale."

With Australia reported to be spending more than $300 million to mark the centenary of Anzac, some 200 per cent more than the UK, experts like historian James Brown are asking whether the whole thing runs the risk of becoming crass. After all, having subsisted on hard biscuits and fly-strewn jam, what would our diggers make of Anzac ice-cream? 

Beyond the dollar figure though, there is the question of whether Anzac as a national legend even still applies to a modern Australian nation. Beaumont suspects in many ways that it doesn't. 

She thinks we need a more nuanced and culturally applied celebration, and calls for a change in the way the Anzac legend is commemorated."There is some evidence that certain immigrant groups, particularly those that come from countries which are war zones, have difficulty engaging with the Anzac legend," Beaumont says.

"The Anzac legend has sometimes been seen as the last hurrah of the white Australian male. If you have a foundational national narrative that is essentially centred on white men, how then does the rest of the population relate to it?

"In all the nation's heartache and hype, there's also the chance that Gallipoli has become synonymous with only those Australian males. 

Too often we forget thousands more British and French soldiers died (think the hardly-visited Suvla, the peninsula's shrine of quiet neglect); not to mention those Ottoman men from many a far-flung corner of one of the world's largest land empires who now lay forever buried in a small pocket of daunting, unforgiving, unfamiliar terrain.

And then there are the New Zealanders, our other half of heroism and those other nearly men.

But as Beaumont's colleague in the ANU Strategic and Defence Studies Centre, Dr Rhys Crawley, argues in his book Climax at Gallipoli, the campaign of 1915 was flawed from the start, destined for failure and should not be a story solely about the Anzacs.

Crawley says that Gallipoli was never going to be the decisive military operation that Australian national identity and history have made it out to be. And nor was it solely an Anzac sacrifice.

"Gallipoli has gone down in history as something that was on the brink of succeeding," he says.

"Victory was assured, the story goes, 'if only' the Allies had pushed a little harder, or had been the recipients of some simple good luck.

"But when we take a step back, and view it as a case study in the how and why of 1915 warfare, we see a very different picture. It was not unlike what happened on the Western Front.

"This was a new kind of war, and all armies were struggling to figure out how to adapt and defeat their enemy. It was years before the technology and tactics advanced to a stage where victory was possible."

In putting the legend to rest, Crawley also takes to task one of the iconic images of Anzac; that it was foolish British officers and their foolhardy commands that sent thousands of brave, unquestioning Australians to their deaths.

Eight thousand seven hundred Australians and some 2,700 New Zealanders lost their lives in the campaign. On the British ledger of life one finds 34,000.But it's unsurprising that these discrepancies are often overlooked when we choose to turn our back on history and embrace myth; particularly when the myth gave ink to the first pages in the bildungsroman of a newly-minted nation. 

Think the closing scenes from Peter Weir's seminal Gallipoli film, which portrays the bloodshed of the Nek (battle is too dignified a term to describe an offensive where men were cut down by enemy machine guns in a frontal charge having hardly climbing out of their trenches). 

As Mark Lee's character, Archy, sprints towards the enemy trenches, Mel Gibson's Frank desperately scampers up and down hill, back and forward between the frontline and British command in a desperate bid to have the order to attack rescinded. Too late, out of breath he arrives to witness his mate take his last.

But as Les Carlyon notes in Gallipoli, it was Australian commanders who gave the orders and who refused to back down in the face of such pointless slaughter after two failed charges.

"Contrary to what many believe to be the case, the British officers in charge of the campaign were not bumbling fools who joyfully sent men to their death in ill-conceived plans," Crawley says.

"Rather, they were experienced men who had an intimate knowledge of their profession.

"The popular narrative forgets that the British lost many more troops at Gallipoli with around 34,000 killed throughout the campaign."

Of course none of this is to say that we shouldn't remember. The sacrifice, no matter how long ago or far away, is still too great to be discarded. Here were young men, boys even, whose small lives were caught up in the great game of empires and nations; forever changed, forever gone.

But in remembering, it is equally important to understand how we remember. 

Professor Joan Beaumont and Dr Rhys Crawley are historians based at the Strategic and Defence Studies Centre at the Coral Bell School of Asia Pacific Affairs. 'Broken nation' is available from Allen & Unwin and 'Climax at Gallipoli' is available from University of Oklahama Press

James Giggacher is editor at The Australian National University's College of Asia and the Pacific.