Anzac Day 2015: The end of the RSL 'century'?

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What is the future of the RSL? Half the current members are WWII veterans and the great majority of these will be gone in five years. So while the RSL still looks robust, Steve Irons questions whether its future is so rosy.

In the middle of the First World War in 1916, a large demonstration in London including a march of 2,000 ANZAC soldiers expressed a genuine outpouring of grief, marking the first anniversary of the disaster in Gallipoli in Turkey. The date was 25 April,1916 and this was the first “Anzac Day”. The march by Australian and New Zealand troops was the centrepiece of a wide variety of ceremonies.

The attempt by the Anzacs to invade the Ottoman Empire was a strategic mistake by the British military and was the biggest disaster in Australian military history.

This march in London gave rise to similar regular annual “Anzac Day” events in Australia for the next 100 years.

Australian 4th Battalion troops landing in Anzac Cove, 25 April 1915.

These annual events became the focus of the most powerful organisation in Australia’s history, the Returned Servicemen’s League, or just simply “the RSL”. 

As people prepare for a “special Anzac Day celebration” this week, marking 100 years since that initial disaster, few realise that in 2015 we have reached a breaching point, a point of no return, for Anzac Day celebrations. The sun is setting. The RSL is about to enter a new era in which there will soon be no member of the RSL who has had any experience of any “world war”, and this will have a dramatic impact on Australian social life.

The toll

The attempt by the Anzacs to invade the Ottoman Empire at Suvla Bay on the Gallipoli Peninsula on 25 April 1915, was a diversionary tactic to shift focus away from the real invasion by the British forces, which also failed, and is well understood to be a strategic mistake by the British military.

Twenty thousand Anzacs were involved in the initial invasion and it was an immediate failure. The Anzacs were told to "hang in there" which they did for eight months but were no match for the Turks. Of the Australian casualties at Gallipoli, 8,709 “diggers” lost their lives, including 664 Australian officers, 17,260 men were wounded and 70 captured.

Dispositions of the Ottoman Fifth Army

This was the biggest disaster in Australian military history.

While the Gallipoli disaster was huge for Australia, it hardly registered a blip with the British, who were occupied with the larger overall operation in the Dardanelles. The Australian military establishment in London, humiliated by this defeat, had little option but to show support for the demonstration in London. Anzacs were from the colony and were considered expendable.

It was said that Prime Minister “Billy” Hughes attended the demonstration in London but he might not have. Accounts of his visit don't mention it. Hughes was there to argue for introduction of conscription because he was afraid of the Japanese entering WWI on the wrong side and the "Yellow Peril" that would be for Australia.

Initial responses

There are many different accounts of the beginnings of ANZAC Day “celebrations” in Australia. It seems most likely that first Anzac Day celebrations occurred unofficially in 1916 at churches around the nation, before being officially recognised as a national public holiday in 1923.   

There are also accounts of spontaneous "marches" from 1916 onwards, like returned wounded diggers marching from the Domain to Macquarie Street to be saluted by the Governor or being wheeled in their wheelchairs from the Sydney hospital in Macquarie Street with nurses in tow.  

The first "services" were religious services by the Church of England, who had a real need to back up their British imperial interests and claim that “God knows what is right”.

Later a separate "service" was introduced removing any particular faith, as it became a place for all returned "diggers" and the families of the fallen (becoming the “Dawn Service” of later years) and “remembering our sons and our brothers”.

The linking of these two formats, the "service" and the "march" became the norm that dominated the Australian political scene for the next 90 or so years.

Anzac Day Dawn Service at the Australian War Memorial in Canberra.

The Gallipoli "legend"

Anyone who is anyone will tell you that Australia “came of age” as an independent and proud nation at Gallipoli, but they won’t tell you why — why a complete failure makes us proud to be Australian. It usually goes something like this, according to the chapter, 'Our History' on the Army's website:  

‘Gallipoli became the common tie forged in adversity that bound the colonies and people of Australia into a nation.’

It seemed to start out as a dumb (and quite offensive if you think about it) statement by the Australian command in the face of the huge losses that they (the Army) were

‘anyway proud that this was the first time they got to command their own forces on the ground.’

But for families trying to find something to hang their son’s helmet on, it received some positive public resonance — enough for the Army to seize the opportunity. And so a legend was born.  

Returned Servicemen's League

With these spontaneous demonstrations occurring, in 1916, the Returned Servicemen’s League (RSL) was formed to try to minimise the impact of this disaster on the recruitment drive. This involved organising care for the huge amount of wounded on their return and make sure their sickness, failure to heal, loss of limbs and general widespread depression, and often lunacy, didn’t obstruct future recruitment.

First World War - half a million recruits

Around 420,000 Australians enlisted for service in the First World War, representing 38.7 per cent of the male population aged between 18 and 44. For the newly formed RSL, this was an amazing recruitment ground.

After just four years of engagement, 270,000 servicemen (and women) were returning from a nasty war, in need of assistance, 155,000 of whom had been wounded, 3,600 of whom had been POWs. And another 87,000 volunteered but didn't get to serve overseas.

The Australian Bureau of Statistics (ABS) provides a useful overlay to Australia’s engagements.

On the basis of these numbers, the RSL was able to build the most powerful non-government organisation in Australia's history.

Second World War - a million recruits

It wasn't long before the RSL was again called on fulfil their special role. Another nasty war broke out in Europe with the Nazis looking to take over the world. Australia sent troops to Europe and later to play a special role in South East Asia fighting the Japanese. Prime Minister Billy Hughes was finally vindicated in his racist fears of the "Yellow Peril". His conscription plan was finally introduced to create a Citizen's Military Forces (CMF) who were treated as a bit of a joke by the volunteer Australian Infantry Forces (AIF) but who played a useful role in fighting back the Japanese on the Kakoda Track, suffering high casualties. The RSL's attitude to the conscripts seems to be born in this 'put down'.One million new diggers enlisted.

RAAF recruiting poster

After just six years of engagement, a million servicemen (and women) were now returning from war in need of assistance, 66,553 of whom had been wounded and 21,634 of whom had been POWs and suffered inhuman treatment by the Japanese. When you look at these numbers it's not hard to fathom why the RSL adopted the arrogant, misogynist, racist stances it became well known for.

It is also well known that, although Indigenous Australians weren't even recognised by the Constitution of Australia until the referendum in 1967, a huge number volunteered for service in both of these major conflicts. The "Aborigines" were generally treated like any other recruit in the forces. But upon their return from both conflicts, the RSL refused to recognise their existence.

When in need of help, they were told to return to their homelands and look after themselves. They were not allowed to take part in services or marches, or two-up, and they definitely were not welcome in the RSL clubs.

The racist outlook of the RSL was just another chapter in the Australian frontier wars to try to eradicate the "Aboriginals" once and for all. 

Compare this with how award-winning film maker, David Bradbury, tackles Anzac Day in his interview with Independent Australia on the release of his two films, The Crater and Waging Peace.


These two “world wars” had a significance that no other engagement of services before or since could dream of having. The ABS numbers are telling:

The Boer War veterans were treated as important by the RSL and attended services and marches. The last Boer War veteran, Gordon "Pop" Williams only died recently (i.e. in 1988  at 108 years old but still pretty recent in the light of the changes we talk about here).


The RSL wasn't interested in veterans from the Korean, Malayan and Indonesian conflicts. They were professionals and if they needed assistance they should get it from the services, why come to us?

But the Vietnam conflict was another matter. The government under the Liberal and Country Parties had finally seen the world through the Billy Hughes' “yellow” glasses. The "Domino Theory" of the U.S. saw the Asians adopting communism and sweeping down to take over our beloved democracy. This didn't include Korea or Japan because the Americans had brought them under control, but Vietnam needed to be hit hard, and conscription was the answer.

This left the RSL in a particular place. RSL members had in the past proven their value to society by volunteering to fight in the nastiest of conflicts of WWI & WWII. The RSL was against the anti-war movement of the 60s and 70s but when the Vietnam vets came home, they were shunned by society and by the RSL as well. 

You didn’t see it coming? Really?

But the RSL was, in all this arrogant power and prestige with a million and a half WWI & WWII veterans at their disposal, unable to focus on the big picture.

They somehow forgot that all their members were much the same age and were all going to die around the same time.

This they should have seen coming, at least from 1958 with Alan Seymour’s great play The One Day of the Year that received accolades and has been performed regularly in theatres ever since. 

Or they could have just listened to Eric Bogle’s great 1972 song The Band Played Waltzing Matilda which also received accolades and has been performed by big name artists across the world for forty years.


The RSL should have listened to these because the play is about the annual Anzac Day service, and the march, and two up, and getting blind, and its impact on the family, and everything the RSL holds dear. And the song is about the first few days in Gallipoli and young kids getting killed and maimed for no purpose and having to survive upon their return with no arms and no legs — everything the RSL holds dear. 

The song actually lays it out for all to see:

"year after year, more old men disappear, soon no-one will march there at all; but the band played Waltzing Matilda..."

Or they could have listened to some of the veterans like the last WW1 veteran farewelled 20 May 2011 in Fremantle. Claude ‘Chuckles’ Choules, 110 years old, did not speak highly of war and did not take part in Anzac Day celebrations.  

But in their arrogance and in their power and prestige, the RSL forgot to think about the future. 

What did the RSL leaders actually think  that they were invincible? That they were never going to die?

But by the time they had realised their mistake, it was too late.

Righting the wrong?

As far as I know, there has been no real attempt to deal with the racism. A few public acknowledgements but no real transformation to write Indigenous veterans into the picture. Nor, I believe, will Aboriginal & Torres Strait Islander vets and their families be welcome at the service or at the march or in the two up or in the clubs on Anzac Day 2015.

On the other hand, there has been a real attempt to right the wrong with Vietnam vets and many V-vets have become members. But the RSL is not good at dealing with special needs of Agent Orange victims and other Vietnam related problems which impacts on whole families. Their head is in the past. They just see the V-vets as members (almost as Affiliates). Their recruitment has made the decline in numbers from the aging and death of the returned diggers a little less dramatic, that is all.

Vietnam veterans

And they have made with a simple change of name of the association, an attempt to include current military personnel and professional retired personnel returned from conflict. But the impact has been minimal. In the last ten years, the number of members of the RSL has halved. Decline continues unabated.

The Future of the RSL?

So while the RSL still looks robust, is its future so rosy? I have taken the numbers in the ‘WWII returned military forces’ shown above and plotted them against the ABS Life expectancy, Selected ages, Australia-2003 to 2013. It seems to me that a little more than half of the current membership of the RSL are veterans from WWII and the great majority (almost all) of these members will be gone in 5 years. There will be a couple who will live for a few more years, after that, and then we will have “The last WWII veteran …” similar to the ones shown above.

The difference between the new RSL (if it survives at all) and the old one, is dictated by “proportionality”.

It could go in a number of directions.

For instance, it could adopt a commercial club association mentality with the objective of earning money from the pokies. Or it could become an active association for the benefit of active and retired military personnel, but then its role in the community would be minimalized.

One thing we do know for certain, the proud advertising of town events that we see in this week’s Daily Advertiser have a limited future. Some places like Holbrook may have a future with its Submarine Memorial (the final home of HMAS Otway), but the others listed in the paper are unlikely to survive. They might continue until the Last Post is sounded over the grave of the last WWII digger, in respect for him or her, but then …???

Lest we forget!

You can read more from Steve Irons at bloggerme.com.au or by following him on Twitter @SteveIrons.

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