The Covid-19 pandemic has been compared with the Spanish Flu pandemic of 1918-19. That many of us knew nothing about that disaster of a century ago shows that history is what we choose to remember.
We have emphasised the stories of the Great War of 1914-19, to the extent that the facts and the impacts of that earlier pandemic have largely been lost. That is not the only instance of history as what we choose to remember.
The Spanish flu pandemic killed more than 50 million people world-wide and between ten and fifteen thousand in Australia, out of perhaps two million here (from a population of five million) who contracted the virus. The pandemic was widely reported in the Australian press at the time: the National Library’s Trove service throws up more than 146 000 references to ‘influenza’ in Australian newspapers in the 15 months from 1 October 1918 to 31 December 1919. The virus continued through and beyond the time that Australian service people returned home from the war – indeed, the returning men helped spread it.
The war overshadowed the pandemic, even, it seems, in the years immediately after both. Patrick Hodgson wondered in 2017 about the absence (in Queensland) of commemoration of the pandemic, compared with the prevalence of war memorials, and concluded that ‘while there may have been heroes during the epidemic, the epidemic itself was not seen as a heroic event’. The stories of soldiers’ deaths in war were more easily turned into simple, sentimental themes (‘He died for Freedom and Honour’, ‘service and sacrifice’), compared with civilian deaths due to an unseen enemy. As Mark Honigsbaum wrote in 2018, ‘the flu dead did not readily lend themselves to narratives of nationalism and sacrifice’.
There are other tropes from the Great War that have been privileged, compared with parts of our early history that have been forgotten or misremembered. The New Zealanders who came ‘from the uttermost ends of the Earth’ to fight alongside Australians at Gallipoli in 1915 were the descendants of pakeha Kiwis who welcomed Australians in the years 1845 to 1864 to suppress Maori insurgents. Yet how often is that pioneering Trans-Tasman venture in arms remembered, compared with the attention given to the 1915 Anzac (and others) invasion of the Ottoman Empire?
Apart from those Australian colonials who fought the Maori, there were the New South Welshmen who went to the Sudan in 1885, the Australians who fought the Boers in South Africa in 1899-1902, even the small contingent that went against the Boxers in China in 1900. Prime Minister Tony Abbott once referred to the Boer War as ‘our first war’, which was well off the mark even for our overseas wars, let alone the Frontier Wars fought on our own soil.
We have been selective in what we remember of those overseas wars. Some of us have made heroes of the Boer prisoner-killing ‘Breaker’ Morant and Peter Handcock, while we have let slide the story of the concentration camps in which perhaps 28 000 Boer women and children and an unknown number of black Africans died. We have perpetuated the myth of Great War Australians as ‘natural soldiers’, while forgetting the pre-war ‘boy conscription’ scheme that turned out thousands of reasonably well-trained junior officers and NCOs, ready for the front line when war came.
Still more puzzling is the way we have let the khaki thread of World War I stories overshadow the many hues of our pre-war history as a social laboratory. Modern historians like Clare Wright and Marilyn Lake have had to rediscover how good we were at labour relations, social policy and suffrage for women, yet the Australians of 1913 and 1914 had a good appreciation of this history of which they were a part. Then the war descended and after it, in Joan Beaumont’s memorable phrase, we took on the look of a ‘broken nation’. And one that was, despite the boasting about ‘birth’ or ‘coming of age’ under fire, ‘more British than the British’, in Billy Hughes’s words in 1926.
Most of all, though, we have let the endless repetition of stories about how well we fought and how we ‘punched above our weight’ overshadow the more important consideration of why we were fighting. That is partly because we today have picked up the theme of the time – that ‘Australia will be there’ automatically, to help King and Empire (and today Uncle Sam) – and not gone deeper to find the currents that influenced at least the political decision-makers of 1914-19. There are honourable exceptions among historians – such as Peter Cochrane on the Japanese threat and John Moses on German plans for the Pacific – but the dominant theme of ‘service and sacrifice’ in worthy causes has prevailed over the quest for reasons.
Australian prime ministers have been great spruikers of service and sacrifice, but their pitch has been above politics, above historical circumstances. For example, Prime Minister Abbott could seriously say at Lone Pine in 2015 that ‘duty, loyalty, honour and mates’ were ‘the virtues that outshine any cause’. He had just listed ‘country, empire, king, and the ideal that people and countries should be free’ as components of a cause, but it is those virtues – duty, loyalty, honour and mates – that take pride of place each Anzac Day. Don’t worry too much about complicated reasons why, folks; it’s all for mates.
Why do we do this? Questioning the worthiness of a cause might be seen as devaluing the ‘sacrifice’ of those who died, so many of us steer clear of the ‘why?’ and ‘was it worth it?’ questions. Reiteration of themes about past sacrifice, on the other hand, might make us more ready to make sacrifices in future, and that is a handy sentiment for governments to cultivate. Choosing our history – and spinning it in a particular direction – is rarely without contemporary consequences.
David Stephens is editor of the Honest History website and co-editor of The Honest History Book (2017). He has contributed many articles to Honest History and Pearls and Irritations. He was previously an Australian public servant and a government relations consultant.