The symbolism of Anzac Day is anchored to particular myths about Australian identity and warfare stemming as it does from the disastrous campaign at Gallipoli peninsula.
The myth is, in fact, key to an identity that regards more about Britishness and former imperial ties than it says about Australianness. This is why Anzac Day is so misunderstood.
As Gallipoli and the First World War to which that campaign belonged is now firmly in history’s sunset we turn to other ‘wars’ to affirm the myth which is set on the 25th of April for that was the day in 1915 we landed on those shores.
Australia’s overseas engagements have, with the exception of Papua New Guinea, never involved the defence of Australia. We have traditionally fought on the side of the British and its allies from the time of the Sudan campaign, the Boer War, the Boxer Rebellion through to what’s known as ‘the Indonesian confrontation’.
Thereafter, the relationship of a satellite middle-power to a powerful partner saw us take the side of the United States in Vietnam, Afghanistan, and both incursions into Iraq.
In all that time, and we repeat, the only conflict which mattered in terms of our national defence was against our only true enemy of the time, the Japanese. Australia’s involvement in Gallipoli came at a time of national awakening when it was believed by some that we had a duty to fight with England, but by and large, it was for most who enlisted an adventure. It was thought it would be a shoo-in and all over by Christmas.
Australia had the spirit at the time that we could show mother England just how much we had grown up — that by joining the war we were affirming our own chivalrous mettle and standing independently. In short, we had come of age as our own nation and we were prepared to prove it by fighting alongside the British Tommy.
Sadly, the High Command brass viewed us as mere cannon fodder and upon those landings, our boys were set upon such well-defended Turkish nests that a massacre followed. Churchill, the architect of the campaign, would never live down the disaster. It must’ve been fresh in the mind of our Prime Minister John Curtin in 1942 when Churchill attempted to have Australia’s Seventh Division diverted to Burma drawing them away from defending our country against the imminent Japanese invasion.
Curtin was a man with little time for British imperialism and during World War 1 he campaigned hard against the war. It was a war for empire, believed he and all nationalist-mind folk, and it had nothing to do with us.
Contrarily, Australia’s bravado was fuelled by propaganda shouting out from billposters with messages like “It’s nice in the surf, but what about the men in the trenches?” and “Follow me, your country needs you!” There was an entire gallery of propaganda posters designed to inspire, shame and cajole Australian men into joining up and going into battle. But the lustre of that fighting spirit soon gave way. The war was being fought badly by blockhead brass who didn’t know their Sam Browne from their parade cap. As such, the dreaded whistle that sounded for men to go over to the top in the trenches inevitably resulted in entire companies of men being wiped out for ne’er an inch of ground gained.
The mood soon soured and Australians became reluctant about joining up having seen just how this war was being fought and the devastation it was creating. As such, Prime Minister Billy Hughes failed in his attempts to have a conscription bill passed. At the time, the nationalist Australian Labor Party dominated in both houses, which might’ve been good for the PM had he not been advocating against the very sensibilities of the industrial labour movement which abhorred the war. The anti-conscription campaign was coordinated and powerful and it employed presses, protests, and very loud voices. Likewise, events in Dublin with the Easter Uprising had radicalised some Irish-Catholic Australians while driving a divide with others of Irish descent who were pro-monarchy and therefore conscription.
Hughes’ conscription bill failed to pass and by the end of the war, out of a population of fewer than five million, 62,000 Australians were killed, 156,000 wounded or taken prisoner. The trauma became inter-generational with those returned often shellshocked, suffering breakdowns, and turning to alcohol to self-medicate. Families broke up, a generation of children grew up fatherless, and the divisions between the nationalists and reactionaries became pronounced as groups like the New Guard sprung up.
Nothing benefited Australia coming out of that war and it’s far from only the servicemen who should be remembered because everybody was affected.
Australian nationalism bespeaks all of this without animosity towards the myth of Anzac Day but with a hope that this national day is a marker waiting for a more appropriate way to express the core tenets of Australianness.
It is important to bear in mind that the conflicts which come under the unique Anzac umbrella are understood in context to Australian national identity. Thus far, no war other than that fought against the Japanese expresses any independence of Australia’s warrior spirit since our fighting has been tied to the interests of others. This is not to suggest ignoring those fallen servicemen and women but to build on this concept until it is realised that by contextualising Anzac Day in its proper historical order can only lead to a better understanding of our nation and emancipation of its people from the yoke of globalism.
On this Australia Day with a full realization of what this day means to us, we give regard to the meaning of nationhood. Our men have shown the stuff of which we are made on may a death-charged battlefield; in many a spine-chilling battle: on the storm-tossed seven seas. These deeds are our salute to our nationhood… The flame of freedom lit this land by our first settlers, and kept aglow by the generations which followed, is not extinguishable by the enemy… that is the call I sound to you tonight. We carry on the purpose of Captain James Cook; we maintain the tradition of Captain Arthur Philip. This Australia is for Australians; it’s a white Australia, with God’s blessing we shall keep it so.
John Curtin, 24 January 1942