Douglas Newton. The Centenary of the Great War – and Anzac

The Great War. What we fought for and why were peace initiatives resisted for so long.

Many of those promoting the Anzac Centenary appear to believe that there are certain essentials the Australian people must learn about the Great War: that Australians fought exceedingly well; that they fought even better when led by Australians; that in fighting so well they gave birth to our national consciousness; that we owe them so much because they fought for our freedom; that in serving our country they displayed the values of the Anzac Spirit that define the Australian character – a fierce egalitarianism, contempt for privilege, democratic instincts, and mateship, that is, a generous solidarity inspiring a collective spirit, never shrinking from support for each other through thick and thin. Sadly, it must be said, many of those rhapsodising upon this Anzac Spirit show not the remotest faith in this kind of egalitarianism or solidarity in their public policy.

Much of this may serve to distract the Australian people from deeply significant questions arising from our plunge into the Great War. How did Australia get into this catastrophe? For what objectives, precisely, did the Australian government commit our forces to the fighting? And why were they still fighting there in 1918?

Some see the Anzac Centenary as a stand-tall moment. It is milked as an opportunity to tell see-how-great-we-are stories, and to raise our national self-esteem. Surely the centenary of a cataclysm such as the Great War, that took tens of millions of lives across the world, by acts of state policy, is not a moment to blow our own small trumpet. This is unworthy and provincial. It is the acts of state policy that led to and prolonged the disaster of war that should focus our attention, not just the courageous acts of one small fragment of the men caught up in the quagmire.

What are the real lessons of the Great War, for Australians, and for all? That war is a blunt instrument, unleashing all manner of evil. That unqualified loyalty to big and powerful friends means being trapped in their misjudgements. That the war aims declared to the people, and the war aims for which wars are prolonged, are seldom the same thing. That war is never a simple choice between victory and defeat. That peace by negotiation is the live, innovative and often the most courageous alternative to gambling again and again with the blood of the young. That wars are so destructive that victory itself can be impotent, providing no lasting peace and no vindication for the mechanised killing.

The articles linked below are an attempt to sketch out these neglected aspects of Anzac. What did we fight for? What opportunities for a negotiated peace were lost along the way? They are an attempt to interleave two real stories of Australia’s Great War that took place largely behind the scenes – the escalation of war aims by those to whom the lives of Australia’s men were entrusted, and the choices that were made to shun peace by negotiation and keep Australia’s men in the firing line. Those who perished there demand respect. True respect demands a deep inquiry into why they died.

Douglas Newton. What we fought for from Gallipoli to Fromelles, 1914-1916.

Douglas Newton. What we fought for from Bullecourt to the Armistice 1917-1918.

Douglas Newton.Lost opportunities for a negotiated peace during the Great War from 1914-1916, Part 1.

Douglas Newton. Lost opportunities for a negotiated peace during the Great War from 1917-1918, Part 2.

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