I’ll go to the Armistice Day service at the Balmain war memorial this November 11 because it will mark the centenary of the end of the Great War and because it will be the end of nearly five years of almost continuous remembrance. While the youthful nation of only 18 years rejoiced with good reason 100 years ago, the end of all the remembrance will be a great relief to many Australians today.
I will go because my father was killed in World War II, which was fought because the Great War, described as “the war to end all wars” did nothing of the sort but was simply World War I. I’ll go to honour my mother as much as my father, because she was left to raise three little children and, like hundreds of thousands of Australian women of the time, kept alive the homefires, the businesses, farms and communities.
I will go because the Balmain memorial was probably the first built in Australia to honour the nation’s war dead. The contrast between then and now is remarkable. A month after the Gallipoli invasion in 1915, Balmain council voted 200 pounds for a memorial water fountain to be erected in what is now Loyalty Square. Four local businessmen offered to pay for four marble tablets naming the dead local soldiers. The memorial was opened on Easter Day 2016, two days before the first anniversary of the invasion. Below four bowls of the since abandoned drinking fountain are the words PEACE, HONOUR, EMPIRE and LIBERTY.
Now empires have come and gone, including the British for whom Australians were fighting a century ago, the Ottoman, who were our enemy, and the Austro-Hungarian, who had dominated much of Europe. There is no world war, although too much of the world is at war; the extent of honour and liberty is debated everywhere. And the Australian War Memorial is working on plans to spend $500 million on extending its already grand presence in Canberra.
Taxpayers will get some help from arms manufacturers such as Lockheed Martin, who also helped with the Invictus Games for those disabled by war. It’s not clear whether they have helped any of those war veterans suffering mental illness or those families whose soldiers have committed suicide. If Christopher Pyne has his way and Australia joins the world’s top 10 arms manufacturers – we already sell “defence” equipment to countries such as Saudi Arabia, fighing a proxy war against rebels in Yemen – there will be more opportunities for the philanthropic manufacturers.
War has been such an enduring cultural pursuit that it challenges the myth of Australians as peace-loving people. Yet the AWM shows no sign of accepting the first conflict involving Australians, what historian Henry Reynolds calls the “frontier wars” between the first Australians and the white colonisers. Tens of thousands of indigenous Australians died while truly fighting for this country.
The Maori Wars in New Zealand attracted 1,475 volunteers from NSW in 1863. The NSW Government sent 750 men to the Sudan in 1885, “to maintain the integrity of the nation and the ascendancy of Christianity”. The Sydney Morning Herald noted: “Talk as we may of the blessings of peace, there is nothing that half the world like better than a fight of one sort or another.”
In the Boxer Rebellion of 1900, the 55-day siege of Beijing ended before the colonial contingent arrived. But 589 men from Australian units died in the Boer War (1899-1902), fighting to help the British control the freedom-seeking Boers. World War I started 12 years after the Boer War and ended 21 years before World War II began.
The two world wars claimed about 102,000 Australian lives, after which the nation paused for breath before the Korean War, Malayan “emergency”, Indonesian “confrontation” and Vietnam. Peace-keeping in East Timor and wars in Afghanistan, Iraq and Syria kept Australia’s fighting men and women busy.
There were arguments for Australian involvement in these conflicts at the time; much less so now. Most of those early wars were in the name of the British Empire. Since World War II, our chief ally has been the United States and the main motivation strategic. Australia had to fight World War II, particularly as self-defence against the Japanese attack; it’s much harder to justify repeated Australian engagement in the Middle East.
The Great War changed Australia forever. The late historian Ken Inglis said the fascination with Anzac had become a civil religion. Before 1915, the Australian colonies had progressed in about 25 years to become perhaps the brightest and best of countries. They had defied one of the two or three worst droughts in history and the second biggest depression, after that of the 1930s, to join together in federation.
Australians think of themselves as a young country but their system of democratic government is old by international standards. By the time of the Great War, and well before most other peoples, they had secret ballots, votes for all men and women, other than the first Australians, and a fair wages system endorsed by the High Court. Melbourne and Sydney were among the world’s wealthiest and most egalitarian cities.
Since then, war itself, the prospect of it and the recovery from it, has become almost as significant a part of the Australian narrative as the economy. Anzac, with all its heroism, gallantry, folly and depth of meaning, has played a central role in constructing the national identity. It has also clouded the youthful optimism of just over a century ago and the repeated remembrance has overshadowed the lustre of those early brilliant democratic reforms.
When Brendan Nelson was federal education minister in 2005 he urged schoolchildren to embrace the values of Private Simpson, who, with his donkey, rescued fallen comrades at Gallipoli. Nelson said that Simpson represented “everything at the heart of what it means to be Australian”. In fact Simpson was an English merchant seaman who jumped ship in Australia. Now director of the AWM, Nelson has welcomed on board the arms manufacturers, who will have naming rights to some of the new work.
No companies are named on the old Balmain memorial, where children from the local high school will be among the witnesses to Sunday’s service. Some will know well that Anzac is, in the words of former governor-general Sir William Deane, “about sadness and grief for young lives cut short and dreams left unfulfilled”.
At the school’s Anzac Day ceremony this year, the boys and girls, many of 16 years, heard the story of Alec Campbell, who went to Gallipoli at 16, half expecting to die, but lived to fulfil his dreams. He was the last Gallipoli veteran to die, in 2002. His was a rich life in which Gallipoli played only a bit part. He had worked to build Canberra in the 1920s, graduated in economics after he turned 50 and fathered the last of his nine children at 69, insisting that the girls enjoyed education opportunities equal to those for the boys; two children earned PhDs. He sailed in six Sydney-Hobart races, was president of the Launceston Trades Hall Council, campaigned with Jessie Street for peace and contributed to the Australian Dictionary of Biography. His contribution to his country was outstanding. Yet everyone wanted to talk with him about Gallipoli.
Journalist Tony Stephens won two Walkley Awards with the Sydney Morning Herald. His books include The Last Anzacs.