According to the oldest surviving veteran of The Great War, Sgt Ted Smout, dead at 106, our war dead died in vain. In his words, ‘they died for nothing’. He must have known something most of us don’t know for him to make such a terrible claim. What could he possibly have known?
That’s the first question I ask and respond to here. The second is: How many Australians believe that our war dead and survivors would want the perfunctory “memorial” ritual we trot out every year? They’d rather see Anzac Day as a Day-To-Remember what they died for, instead of the vacuous ritual we repeat so slavishly, apparently indifferent to whether their sacrifice was in vain or not. Was it in vain? A memorial service relies on us being sure of what we’re doing and why.
Those sacrificed were seen as British cannon fodder employed in the least-winnable battles. Hence our army suffered more deaths, and more hospitalization for wounds, illness and injury than any of the armies of Britain, Germany, France, Canada or the United States. More than half of the Australian soldiers who returned were discharged medically unfit. Of those not discharged that way, sixty percent applied for pension help. Four out of five returned men were disabled in some way. Despite that, Britain didn’t want us at the table during the Versailles Peace Conference. In their eyes, we’d served our purpose. We were only a colony, not a nation in our own right. Most Australians don’t know that today.
The onus is on every true Australian who cares about the Anzacs to know the truth. When their government sends off such a massive contingent of its finest sons like Ted Smout to a bloodbath in which they’ll find they died for nothing, they have grounds for a revolt at home; a revolution no less violent and bloody than the war these men were ordered to engage in without knowing how and why it happened. Are we to believe the soldier who bore the dreadful cost of the butchery, or the heartless and mindless idiots who directed it; those who watched from a safe distance at home and finally denied them the independence and national sovereignty they’d won for themselves and all Australians?
Field Marshal Viscount Montgomery called the Australian John Monash the ablest general of the Great War. Monash respected his men, saying of them that they had the greatest spirit of all; a spirt that’s part of our Australian nature. It flowered at Tobruk, Kokoda, Long Tan and elsewhere where small Anzac forces defeated large out of sheer guts and resolve. Monash urged us not to stow that spirit away only to be used in foreign wars. We need it every day of our lives, fighting our own battles here at home—socio-political battles the public generally loses. Gallant men like Ted Smout gave birth to what we thanklessly and wrongly call a nation. The part they played is on the public record; the nation they fought for still isn’t. Their government—the men who sent them to their deaths—made secret their decision to reduce their sacrifice to nothing. Where our troops showed physical and moral courage, their government and Crown Ministers and parliamentarians at home showed nothing but moral cowardice.
At that infamous Versailles Peace Conference that spawned Nazism, Prime Minister Billy Hughes fought the British king and prime minister for, and won—on the behalf of our war dead, on 28 June 1919—independence and sovereignty as a nation. He won an end to the Constitution of Australia (1900) as a colony of Great Britain—the one we still use today! That, Ted Smout and your brave comrades, is fighting and dying for something! On his return to Australia, Hughes’ efforts to make the necessary new Constitution for a free Australia were blocked in the Parliament by the arch Anglophile and Australian-born Viscount Stanley Bruce. He replaced the brave Hughes as Prime Minister to lead the most treasonous federal government in our shameful history—a fact supported by war historian Charles Bean.
Hughes was forced to withdraw the Independence Bill from Parliament to let sleeping dogs lie. Legal status as a British colony remained in place. Hughes insisted: ‘our soldiers earned that national status for us,’ and had to watch Parliament throw away what other countries historically have to wage war to acquire. On Anzac Day, we can either continue celebrating that failure as a nation, or we can match the valour our war dead showed on the field of battle by reclaiming what they’d won for us. Looking down on us today, their hearts would be filled with disgust for us all. They’d want to know why we abandoned the egalitarian Australian values they lived and died to preserve.
Our shame is that we maintain the tradition set by those who betrayed this nation in the post-Great War decades; people who revered masters who saw our soldiers as social inferiors and wartime cannon fodder. Their counterparts in charge today in Canberra are no less committed to colonial servitude than they were. We’re still not a legal or independent nation. We can go on in that shameful way, or we can choose to show moral courage to match the physical courage of the sacrificed Anzacs. Our leaders have repeatedly shown they’re not up to it. Are we, the people who are really in charge, up to it? That question, and our answer to it, is all this sacred day was ever about—all it can ever be about. The concept of cowards celebrating courage in others adds one more layer of shame to Australia and Australians.
Greg Hamilton is a former architect and academic, now a novelist, social critic and advocate for a new Australian Constitution.