The commemoration of the centenary of the battle for Beersheba illustrates many features of the progressive militarization of Australian history. No other aspect of our past attracts the lavish funding provided by the federal government. The cost of the commemoration must be considerable given the abundant travel grants and the funding of the new Light Horse Museum. The attendance of the Prime Minister, the Leader of the Opposition, and other prominent Australians, including the Ambassador to the USA Joe Hockey, further enhances the asserted national importance of the event. The uncritical reporting of the accompanying Australian media contingent provided little scope for sceptical assessment of the battle itself and its long term significance.
Large questions go begging. They relate to the battle itself, to Australia’s part in it and to the wider political and strategic significance of the whole Palestine campaign. The way Australia celebrates the spectacular charge of the Light Horse totally distorts the complicated story of the actual battle. It would not be unreasonable for an observer of recent speeches and reporting to believe that the Australians won the battle on their own. In reality the heaviest and most decisive fighting was carried out by British infantry regiments and above all by British artillery. The town would have fallen sooner or later anyway with or without the Light Horse. And then there is the rarely mentioned successful New Zealand capture, after heavy fighting, of Turkish positions on hills overlooking the plain thereby making the cavalry charge possible. To claim Beersheba as an Australian led victory is to seriously distort the historical record.
And then there are the wider considerations already discussed by Douglas Newton in Pearls and Irritations a few days ago. By 1917 the long term strategic plans of the British and French were well established. They intended to take control of the whole Middle East and its increasingly important oil wells. The intervention of President Wilson meant their ambitions had to be disguised by means of League of Nations’ Mandates. And clearly that late efflorescence of European imperialism was in many ways disastrous for the people of the region and we still live with the consequences.
Australia’s single minded focus on how the ANZACS fought allows the nation to avoid the burden of accepting any responsibility for the consequences of battles we fought. It leaves unanswered the large question of moral culpability. What after all can justify the ever repeated habit of Australians to participate in attacks on countries that are far away and could not present any threat to the homeland? Since the Boer War we have acted as what might fairly be termed adjunct imperialists. Our great and powerful friends have chosen who we would fight, where we would fight and when we would fight. And as was the case in the Palestine Campaign we have often not been consulted about the grand strategic designs in play.
Amidst all the commemoration there is much talk of courage and sacrifice but little is said about killing. We meticulously record every one of our ’fallen.’ We rarely mention the victims. Did anyone mention in all the recent fine speeches refer the fact that after the victory over 500 Turkish corpses were buried on the battlefield—young men who were defending their homelands and who left behind grieving parents,wives, siblings and children. It is obviously considered indecent to observe that the celebration of the prowess of our warriors arises from the fact they have been good at what they do. In other words they are efficient killers.
The cavalcade of commemoration we have seen passing by since 2014 is about much more than the minutia of military history. The rhetoric accompanying the official events at Beersheba and here in Australia as well has returned to well- worn themes. Two in particular have been featured. The first is that the Anzacs were fighting for our freedom. How this could possibly be the case is never explained. The second one is more substantial. War, it is argued, has been the defining national experience. Australian identity was forged on the battlefields of the First World War. These views are central to the militarization of our history. Their vigorous promotion in heavily funded government campaigns has inevitably led to a serious distortion of national history. With the elevation of military history interpretations which emphasise political and social factors have been eclipsed.
This is nowhere more apparent than in the contrast between the history of the battles of 1916/17 and the domestic political conflict over the question of conscription which convulsed the nation. While the Light Horse was fighting in the Middle-East Australians were fiercely debating conscription, culminating in the defeat of the second of two referenda in December 1917. Both at the time and in retrospect these events were profoundly more important than battles on the other side of the world. But an even more striking comparison is inescapable. The referenda were manifestations of the strength and maturity of Australian democracy. Where else had the question of military recruitment been put to a popular vote and one based on universal suffrage? This was surely how Australia was distinctive. It was arguably the most democratic society in the world. Our freedom and our national character were forged here in Australia and not overseas. They were the product of men and women in civil society not the warriors fighting in an Imperial war as part of an army which was by definition a profoundly un- democratic institution.
Henry Reynolds is an eminent Australian historian who has focused on frontier conflict between indigenous people and European settlers, and has written many books on that subject. His latest book is Unnecessary Wars.