The ANZACS: Ransacked by the Right

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ANZAC Day 2015 in Melbourne (image by Tourism Victoria via flickr).

The ANZAC myth has been constructed to serve conservative interests, writes Bruce Haigh.

AUSTRALIA's DEFAULT POSITION on the political spectrum is to the right of centre. It is naturally conservative. After all, the authoritarian structures of colonial rule were foisted on it. This was challenged from time to time, notably at Eureka and with the shearers strikes in the 1880s and 1890s, leading to the formation of the trade union movement.

But left to its own devices, Australia’s political pendulum swings to the right. Not confident in the common sense of their fellow Australians, the Right when in power have corralled the electorate through fear of communism, terrorism, recession and foreign settlers.

The Right of Australian politics is not noted for research or reflection. It fears for the future and fights change. It clings to an imaginary and idealised past. It is maudlin and saccharine in its emotional responses and angry when its defences of denial are challenged.

We are just emerging from a prolonged period of “remembrance” relating to the Australian involvement, deaths and casualties in World War One (WWI).

It was anything but remembrance. It was a glorification of war, in particular, WWI. But it is worse — the Right has put war front and centre in their narrative about the development of Australia as a nation. It is a white history. It ignores the Aboriginal narrative dating back 60,000 years and it ignores the history of labour, the trade union movement and the environment in shaping lives and endeavour.

It ignores the wars of suppression and oppression conducted against the Indigenous population from the time of white settlement. Massacres, murder, rape and slavery; the Australian War Memorial (AWM) has indicated it will have no part in recording and displaying what is termed the “Frontier Wars”. For the most part, they deny their very existence.

Young men jumped at the chance to join up in 1914. Caught in the trap of low or no wages, limited opportunity, restricted horizons and the dead hand of quasi-British authoritarian government, they grasped what they thought was a chance of escape and adventure under the acceptable guise of patriotism, Empire and Crown. The 20,000 youngsters of the First Division were a wild and independent lot, the Second Division a little more restrained but not by much. The Fourth and Fifth more so and the last division formed, the Third under Commander John Monash, was positively sober.

The landing at Gallipoli was messy. The troops were green and the leadership staid if not hidebound. There was much milling about on the beach but the youngbloods of all ranks took off and made for the heights. Just a few Turks were able to check them because they held the heights, which in military matters is rule number one. Turkish reinforcements arrived under Mustafa Kemal Atatürk and that was the end of that. It was a stalemate and many casualties followed. Maybe the Australian youngbloods were aware that they were invading Turkey, maybe they weren’t. But all of the Turkish soldiers facing them were.

Put yourself in their place at North Head.

The official Australian war correspondent, Charles Bean, who was a brave, observant and meticulous diarist, recorded what he saw and sent home despatches. Phillip Schuler of The Age, who was there independently under the auspices of his paper tended to see things differently.

The blood, flies, impossible tactical position, poor supply, food and medical provision for the Australian and New Zealand troops were apparent to both young Australian reporters. Schuler reported it as it was and the waste and stupidity that it represented, Bean chose to guild the Lilly. Out of the waste and anarchy of war, his response was to create a myth, to justify the needless and useless slaughter. By so doing became a recruiting propagandist for future wars.

Bean was a romantic, white supremacist, misogynist, racist and a mildly-authoritarian individual. In 1910, he took a trip through outback NSW and down the Darling, where his Anglo-Australian sensibilities were roused by laconic and self-sufficient stockmen. They positively interested him.

He didn’t mention Aboriginals or women in his account. It is hard to believe he didn’t encounter them, but they didn’t fit his narrative or predilections.

Bean took this to Gallipoli and later to France and wove his dispatches and his history around his ANZAC myth. Schuler couldn’t stand Bean’s nonsense and volunteered for service in France as a Private.

He was killed in 1917.

Bean was a conservative. His racism placed him there; he opposed the appointment of Monash to head the Australian Forces in France because he was Jewish and he tugged his forelock at Anglo-Australians such as Major General Cyril Brudenell White, a Melbourne Club habitué.

The hopeless, mindless, arrogant slaughter on the Western Front in France and Belgium, incomprehensible to Bean, but not to the Australian soldier Edgar Rule, or British soldiers Wilfred Owen and Robert Graves, saw him reinforce his ANZAC myth following the mindless slaughter of 23,000 Australian troops at Pozieres in mid 1916 for a gain of 3,000 metres. Bean tried to describe it, but he wasn’t emotionally or culturally equipped to do it.

Bean’s history of WWI was impressively detailed, with thousands of personal accounts of bravery and little of suffering. It was an account to assist recruitment should another conflict occur, which happened even before the last volume of his history was published.

Devastated by WWI, Bean moved on his return to get a memorial built for the dead. However, from the outset, there was nothing dignified or restrained about the design of the structure. What was proposed and what came to pass was a large crypto-fascist pile not at all pleasing to the eye. It is masculine and designed to dominate and impress.

Bean was more concerned with his memorial, building a shine that glorified his beloved soldiers, rather than practically helping the broken, shell-shocked shadow of the men who returned.

Faced with a five-foot-two, broken-nosed, gap-toothed miner, Bean saw a six-foot, blond, blue-eyed Adonis.

He was in love with his ideal Australian and remained that way until he died; the Catholic priest syndrome.  

Bean had picked up the inferiority complex which drove the Australian narrative in WWI. It ran that Australia was a new country, an offshoot of Britain, but it had a bloodstock as good if not better than the Mother Country. The war was a chance to demonstrate that Australia was better and excelled in manliness, skill, grit and courage. Reading Bean’s history, the impression he consolidates is that Australia came out of WWI with the prize for “Best on Battlefield”.

The ANZAC myth is a product of an inability to process disaster. It is also a salve to national pride. Bean found it impossible to admit to poor leadership at all levels from platoon leader to Division head and beyond. He could never bring himself to say that General Douglas Haig was an unimaginative thick head or that the Australian General James Whiteside M’Cay should have been court marshalled and cashiered for refusing to allow the injured to be retrieved after the Battle of Fromelles.

ANZAC comes out of the British ruling class tradition of turning defeat or disaster into victory, thereby avoiding boards of inquiry. After the disastrous battle against the Zulu’s at Rorke’s Drift, the British Army threw VC’s around like confetti. The conservatives do not have the capacity to call a spade a spade. That is left to the working class and they called WWI for what it was — a bloody slaughter of men against machines.

Many returned soldiers would have nothing to do with the ANZAC tradition because it was just that — a myth. It has only been since the 1980s that there has been a jingoistic revival of the fireside reworking of Australia’s glorious wartime contribution and feat of arms from Contalmaison, Kokoda and Tarin Kowt. War and the achievements of war in forming the character of the country have been central to a resurgence of white Anglo-Australian pride and nationalism.

This year the director of the AWM, Brendan Nelson, a former Liberal politician, repeated the propaganda of past memorial parades at the 100th Anniversary celebration at the ending of WWI. He did so with all the pomp, circumstance and farce of a Gilbert and Sullivan opera. A popinjay, a martinet; absent from his address was any semblance of the dignity associated with remembrance. But this is what ANZAC has become a sound and light show, a vehicle to promote national pride in a big and bloody disaster.

Forgotten were the veterans who struggle to have a voice and their pain and claims addressed. The $600 million spent to provide political leverage for the Coalition, plus a further $500 million to extend and upgrade the AWM, would have gone a long way to assist and improve the lives of veterans.

Now, in case you think I am a snotty nosed, bleeding-heart leftie who doesn’t know a bolt from a breech block let me give you some background. My grandfather was a professional soldier who fought in the Boer War, the North West Frontier Province of India and in Tibet. In 1912, he joined the Australian Instructional Corps and in 1916 became an instructor at Duntroon. In 1917, he went to WW1, returning to instruct again at Duntroon.

My great uncle was killed at Messines and has no known grave, his brother returned but in terrible shape.

My father joined the 6 Division of the AIF in 1939. He escaped from Crete in 1941 and was Mentioned in Dispatches. My uncle was in the RAAF in the Pacific; my cousin was killed in a bombing mission over Europe. My mother’s husband was killed at El Alamein and she drove an Ambulance. I was conscripted for National Service in 1966.

Since 1982, I have been to Gallipoli three times and to the battlefields of Belgium and France, ten. I have drawn maps and written a history yet to be published.

Bruce Haigh is a political commentator and retired Australian diplomat. You can follow Bruce on Twitter @bruce_haigh.

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