There will be blood from the sword up to the belly of a horse, and the thigh of a human, and the hock of a camel. And there will be great fear and trembling upon the earth. And those who see that wrath will be terrified, and trembling will seize them. (6 Ezra, Old Testament Pseudoepigraphica)
Blood has always fascinated authority figures and their acolytes, from high priests then to ministers now. In ancient Israel, the old men who ran things got so hung up on blood and blood-letting that they invented the cult of Moloch and similar ritualistic practices. Moloch followers supported the passing of children through fire or sacrificing them to idols.
Since these early days, war and the idea of blood sacrifice have become intricately entwined. One leading study ‘argues that violent blood sacrifice makes enduring groups cohere, even though such a claim challenges our most deeply held notions of civilized behavior’.
Historian Carolyn Holbrook, in her book, Anzac: the Unauthorised Biography, traced the connections between the growth of the Anzac legend and yearnings about the spilling of blood. Before the Great War, even a ‘radical’ poet like Henry Lawson noted the disappointing lack of blood in Federation.
A nation’s born where the shell falls fast [Lawson wrote in The Star of Australasia in 1895], or its lease of life renewed.
We in part atone for the ghoulish strife, and the crimes of peace we boast,
And the better part of a people’s life in the storm comes uppermost.
The 1981 film Gallipoli famously riffed on blood sacrifice with its final scene of a ‘crucified’ Archie, brought down at The Nek.
Another historian, Frank Bongiorno went further, asking an important question.
The defence of Anzac Day commemoration – as common in the 1920s as today – turns on some fairly familiar arguments. It does not glorify war; it does not cultivate hatred; it is about honouring and remembering, not celebrating. Yet a sense of sacred nationhood created through the blood sacrifice of young men remains at its core today, as in 1916. Is this not to glorify war?
When Fromelles, 19 July 1916, was ‘rediscovered’ as an Australian battle of the Great War, the blood shed there was the main point of significance, even becoming the sub-title of a book for young people, Carole Wilkinson’s Fromelles: Australia’s Bloodiest Day at War. The book was shortlisted for a Children’s Book Council Award in 2012 and promoted by Junior Bookseller and Publisher as ‘exactly the kind of book that will inspire a love of history for years to come’. It has a suitably ruddy cover with blood-red Flanders poppies.
When Defence Minister Andrews spoke on Anzac Day this year at Villers-Bretonneux he quoted the Bishop of Amiens in 1920 about how Australians had restored the Bishop’s diocese by the spilling of blood. The Minister added:
The sacrifice that the bishop speaks of – sacrifice made in blood by those brave Anzacs – must be understood and carried on in the hearts and minds of our young people. It must never be forgotten.
But it is Minister Andrews’ colleague, Senator Michael Ronaldson, Minister for the Centenary of Anzac, who has been most vocal on the twin themes of blood sacrifice and the responsibility of children.
Last year the Minister talked about how children ‘must understand that’ in many cases their ‘freedom has been paid for in blood’. This year he has warmed to the theme.
We [he told the Queensland RSL on 20 June] must also do whatever we can to ensure that the future generations of young Australians understand as well what that service and sacrifice is for them in a personal sense.
The freedoms that we enjoy today have come at a huge price. It is incumbent on you and I to ensure that our kids understand, the next generation of young Australians understand, what their responsibilities are as well as what their rights are …
[The next four years] is an opportunity that you and I, quite frankly, must ensure that we maximise with another generation of young Australians who understand. I think we can be rest assured that they will reward us accordingly.
Ten days later, the Minister opened a memorial park in Cheltenham in Victoria:
[W]e’ve got to make sure that our children understand that the 102,700 names in the cloisters of the Australian War Memorial had given their own blood to enable us to live our lives in relative freedom today …
[T]his has come at an enormous price and they will be carrying the torch of remembrance well after many of us who are here today are gone … It’s a community obligation to ensure that our children understand …
[W]e must teach our kids that these freedoms are incredibly important and they must stand and defend them as well as others have before us.
The Minister’s speeches as recorded are a touch incoherent but we can trace his argument well enough:
Children must understand the concept of blood sacrifice.
They must carry the torch of remembrance of this sacrifice.
They must be prepared to defend our freedoms, as was done by those who are being remembered.
Thus will be ensured the necessary blood sacrifice by future generations.
This will be an appropriate reward for the current generation’s advocacy of blood sacrifice.
It is notable though that this generation – the Minister’s generation – has mostly not had to make such a sacrifice itself. And blood in these remarks is always in the abstract; nothing about the details – evisceration, decapitation, or slowly bleeding to death, screaming, alone, trying to hold your intestines in.
This rhetoric effectively conditions the next generation for military endeavours involving blood sacrifice. That’s our legacy to our children and grandchildren: the expectation that honouring the war dead of the past – carrying the torch – requires the preparedness to become the war dead of the future. There will be blood.
David Stephens is secretary and editor of Honest History (honesthistory.net.au), a coalition of historians and others supporting the balanced and honest presentation and use of Australian history during the centenary of World War I. The views in this article are not necessarily those of all supporters of Honest History.