David Stephens. Why is Australia spending so much more on the Great War centenary than any other country?

Jun 20, 2015

Current Affairs

The question at the head of this article has intrigued Honest History since we began our coalition and our website. This was in the floundering days of the Labor Government. When Abbott replaced Rudd II, the federal commitment to the Anzac centenary already stood at $140 million, it has been going up ever since and it is way ahead of any other country in the world and, possibly, of every other country combined. (More of that shortly.)

Finding the evidence

We had plans to obtain information for all countries involved in World War I, their expenditure on the centenary, and their death toll, military and civilian, during the war. Death figures are easily found in Wikipedia, which in turn uses a mass of official and other authoritative data. Other sources offer marginally different numbers.

More than 30 countries and colonies took part in World War I as combatants. To date, working off media reports and some information from embassies in Canberra, we have found useful information on commemorative spending by just nine of them. Some embassies we spoke to were clearly puzzled by our question, as if Great War commemoration expenditure was not a high priority issue for them. We will follow up with some of them. While we hoped to put some flesh on some earlier estimates that Australia is spending more – perhaps two times more – than all other countries combined, the more we probed the more difficult it became to find firm evidence.

Here is a summary of what we have so far, with a focus on total military and civilian deaths, commemoration expenditure and commemoration expenditure per death. All figures are converted to Australian dollars as at early June 2015. The three countries where information is still incomplete are listed first in alphabetical order, followed by six other countries in ascending order of commemoration expenditure per death. (A version of this article including references will be posted on the Honest History website. An explanatory note is at the foot of this article.)

Belgium. Total military and civilian deaths: 144,300. A 2014 media report claimed the province of Flanders was spending 55 million euro and other provinces even more.

Portugal. Total military and civilian deaths: 89,200. A 2014 media report noted there is a centenary commission which is organising cultural and research events, although the centenary has not aroused great public interest.

United States. Total military and civilian deaths: 117,500. There is a centennial commission and a plan for a World War I memorial. The legislation for the centennial commission prohibits federal funding, so commemoration efforts will rely heavily on private donations. There is limited evidence of donations to date, indicating that they may not start to flow until 2016-17.

Germany (German Empire). Total military and civilian deaths: 2,800,720. A 2014 media report estimated German expenditure at around $A6 million although the German Embassy was unable to provide figures. While there were numerous commemorative projects under way at federal, state and local level, we were told, governments mostly choose to support such activities indirectly by funding various non-government groups. An overall figure was thus difficult to obtain. We have settled on the $A6 million figure for comparative purposes. Commemoration expenditure per death: $A2.

France. Total military and civilian deaths: 1,737,800. A media report in 2014 puts French spending at 60 million euro which is $A90 million today. Commemoration expenditure per death: $A52.

United Kingdom and colonies. Total military and civilian deaths: 1,012,100. The UK government in 2013 proposed to spend 55 million pounds and the High Commission cannot identify any additional funding since then. That amount is $A110 million today. Commemoration expenditure per death: $A109.

Canada (including Newfoundland). Total military and civilian deaths: 66,600. Canada is very reticent about details of commemoration expenditure, following political fallout from its spending $C30 million on commemoration of the bicentenary of the War of 1812. The formula of ‘no new money’ has been used. Yet the commemorations of the 1917 battles at Vimy Ridge and Passchendaele will not be cheap. Given that we are counting the $A100 million being spent on the Australian Monash interpretive centre and that most of that is not ‘new money’ we have not let the Canadian form of words thwart us. For the sake of comparison we are assuming that Canadian commemoration of World War I will not cost less than commemoration of the War of 1812, even if the evidence is more difficult to find this time around. So, $C30 million it is, which is $A31 million. Commemoration expenditure per death: $A465.

New Zealand. Total military and civilian deaths: 18,100 (including no civilians). There is a complication in the New Zealand case. Total commemoration expenditure of around $A140 million can be identified, with more to come (including a government contribution to an exhibition being created by Sir Peter ‘Lord of the Rings’ Jackson) but $A109 million of this (according to the New Zealand Government) is for the Pukeahu National War Memorial Park in Wellington. This project is described as ‘legacy’ (the first work on the Park was just after World War I) and much of the cost is for construction of the Arras Tunnel under the Park. (We have not been able to obtain separate costs for the tunnel and park elements of the project.) This tunnel is named after a New Zealand tunnel project on the Western Front and its walls are decorated with Flanders poppies artwork. For those reasons the tunnel could be classified as a commemorative project, although it also has major traffic benefits. We have done the figures two ways, nevertheless. Commemoration expenditure (including Pukeahu Park and Arras Tunnel) per death: $A7735; commemoration expenditure (excluding Pukeahu Park and Arras Tunnel) per death: $1713.

Australia. Total military and civilian deaths: 62,100 (including no civilians). At the time of writing, Australian expenditure, spent and proposed, stands at $A551.8 million, by Honest History’s reckoning, comprising $331.3 million Commonwealth, $140.5 million State and Territory and $80 million corporate. The Commonwealth figure may be a little low – a Senate Estimates Committee was told recently that the spend for the current year was $88 million and four years at that rate would amount to $352 million – and more corporate money is expected. A final figure of $A650-700 million is not implausible. Let’s settle for $A552 million for now. Commemoration expenditure per death: $A8889.

There are many caveats necessary in comparative work like this, particularly to do with different budgetary conventions between countries. Countries identify commemorative spending in different ways, for example, ‘commemoration’, ‘defence’ or ‘heritage’. Some will try, for political reasons, to hide expenditure (Canada is an example). Others, for political reasons also, will try to inflate their expenditure, perhaps by rebadging as ‘commemoration’ spending which could have been called something else (there have been hints of this in relation to Australian spending).

These caveats accepted, Australia’s expenditure appears much greater compared with any other country, both in absolute terms and per death. Depending on how we count the New Zealand spend, the Australian spend per death is between five and 19 times the average spend per death of the next five countries (New Zealand, Canada, United Kingdom, France, Germany).

Explaining why

Why are the Australian figures so high? Seven possible reasons can be advanced. First, commemoration in Australia, officially, is not only for the centenary of Anzac, but also for ‘a century of service’ by Australian defence forces. So, there will be commemorations of the Vietnam War in 2016 (50 years since the Battle of Long Tan), of the 75th anniversary of the Fall of Singapore in 2017 and of a number of other events that occurred during the last 100 years. We have not attempted to cost the non-Great War commemorative events but our impression is that they will be much less expensive than the Great War-related projects which include, for example, major refurbishments of the World War I galleries at the Australian War Memorial and of monuments in the state capitals. Still, the non-Great War spending drives the total figure up.

Secondly, Australian commemoration expenditure is being pushed along by a dedicated (in both senses of the term) federal Anzac centenary minister, by a master publicist in Director Nelson of the Australian War Memorial, by state officials and ministers, by corporate boards responding to lobbying from fellow business people (and presumably hoping for some return on their investment in terms of access to government and other benefits) and by military ‘brass’ expecting morale and recruitment returns from high profile commemoration.

There may also be a feeling among senior military officers that conspicuous commemoration has psychological value for retired and current service people. (This view has certainly been put to Honest History although one retired mid-level officer, James Brown, has been trenchantly critical of the emphasis on Anzac at the expense of attention to today’s defence force and often to the embarrassment of today’s service people who dislike being compared with Anzac super-heroes.) The efforts of the RSL, other ex-service groups, commercial firms selling merchandise, and non-profits promoting commemorative events, further boost the pressure for commemorative expenditure.

None of this is to deny the sincerity of many of the people involved. Lest Honest History be accused, however, of fostering theories about top-down militarisation, we should note that official and corporate ‘urgers’ are to a large extent responding to community demand. This is a third driver pushing expenditure upwards. In 2013, when we asked a senior commemoration official what was driving the impending commemorative splurge, the answer was, ‘It’s what the bogans want’. There is certainly mutual reinforcement between officials and others wanting to score goals (and build reputations) and a public that seems to have developed a deep-seated need for sentimental commemoration.

We say seems here with a glance at the remarks of, for example, the American musician and commentator, Michael Stipe (‘More and more, what we “feel” about collective history seems like something manufactured, and kind of pumped into us, rather than a real emotion’), and the ABC presenter, James Valentine (‘I’m being told repeatedly what I should feel. Exactly how solemn I should be, which parts of the story I should mark and what lesson I should draw from them, how our nation was forged on these distant sands, what it meant for us all back home and on and again and over and again.’) Useful work could be done – and may have been done already and Honest History would love to hear of it – on contagion effects and fashion as drivers of commemoration fever. There are fashions in mass emotion, as there are in anything else.

Fear of being accused of disloyalty may reinforce these drivers. Frank Bongiorno has written of this in Griffith Review:

To question, to criticise – to doubt – can become un-Australian … Anzac’s inclusiveness [trying to include everyone within the Anzac tradition] has been achieved at the price of a dangerous chauvinism that increasingly equates national history with military history, and national belonging with a willingness to accept the Anzac legend as Australian patriotism’s very essence.

Australia’s federal system provides a fourth possible reason for Australia’s high expenditure. Let no state government dare think that the existence of, say, Australian government school essay competitions with Gallipoli travel prizes should preclude the state offering similar goodies. State administrations, like federal, have their supplicants and they respond to pressure in the same way. Interest groups are adept at playing federal and state governments off against each other to receive more benefits in areas, like commemoration, where there is overlapping responsibility.

Then, there is the effect of the distance between Australia and most of its war cemeteries and battlefields (except those of the Frontier Wars), which encouraged our ancestors a century ago to compensate by building thousands of local memorials at home. (Ken Inglis and Bart Ziino have chronicled aspects of this.) The inability, even today, of many relatives to view the graves of family members – no matter how long these relatives have been dead – may fuel a desire for more intense, compensatory commemoration at home. The desire for ‘closure’ is open-ended.

The sixth reason is related to the previous one. Our having no civilian deaths in the Great War (and hardly any in our overseas wars as a whole) simplifies the commemoration project, making it easier to go all out in sentimental remembrance of heroic combat deaths without having to negotiate the delicacies of deaths by atrocity or bombardment or disease or starvation. ‘Collateral damage’ is always a fraught concept; it may be one reason why European countries commemorate less than we do. They saw war up close and have a more realistic appreciation of its effects.

Finally, unlike the citizens of any other country (except Turkey but not New Zealand, at least not to the same extent) Australians, or some of us, reckon we were ‘born as a nation’ at Gallipoli. Birthdays have long been an excuse for spending splurges. National birthing stories carry their own momentum, which is expressed today in expenditure from allegedly distressed Budgets and carefully-measured donations from corporate coffers.

(Note regarding the figures in this article. The Wikipedia figures are by 1914 borders, so Canada includes Newfoundland, which was a separate dominion until 1948, and the German Empire includes parts of what is now Poland. ‘Military’ includes all causes, including combat and missing in action. ‘Civilian’ includes civilian deaths from military action, crimes against humanity, malnutrition and disease, excluding the influenza pandemic 1919-20. Where Wikipedia gives a range, we have used the higher number. We have rounded to the nearest hundred.)


David Stephens is secretary 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. There is more on these subjects at honesthistory.net.au; use the Search function.

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