Anzac Day: From respectful remembrance to festival of forgetting

Apr 25, 2018

Are our war memorials becoming sites for mere flag-waving? Should they feature exhibition halls boosting national pride in our military prowess? If so, Anzac Day itself risks descending into a Festival of Forgetting.

The memorials to ‘the missing’ on the Western Front are sombre monuments. The Australian National Memorial at Villers-Bretonneux is one of the most moving. Engraved on its panels are the names of missing Australians who fought near there. There are 10,730 names. There are another 6,191 Australian names on the memorial to ‘the missing’ at the Menin Gate, and another 791 unidentified Australians at Tyne Cot.

Thus, over 17,000 Australian names are among ‘the missing’ – from a total of about 46,000 Australians killed in France and Belgium. What does ‘the missing’ mean? The great bulk of these men were simply blown to pieces, or buried alive in upheavals of earth. Reduced to abattoir refuse, thousands were unidentifiable. This was industrialized killing. The enormity of this should oppress us. It is a scar on our civilisation. Here, in Christian Europe, a war of unparalleled destruction was waged – for 51 months.

How should a mature people commemorate such a cataclysm?

An estimated $500 million has been spent on the ‘Centenary of Anzac’. Close to $100 million of this has gone toward transforming the Australian National Memorial at Villers-Bretonneux into the Sir John Monash Centre. It will open on Anzac Day, the centenary of Australian troops retaking the town. The Centre’s website promises a ‘cutting-edge multimedia centre’ which ‘reveals the Australian Western Front experience through a series of interactive media installations and immersive experiences’.

A creeping danger lurks in our manner of memorialisation. We seem to focus ever more narrowly upon one aspect of the First World War story – Australian military achievement. But as we are immersed deeper in the soldiers’ experience, we risk promoting our schizoid attitude to war: war is a very bad thing, but our being wonderful at it is so good! The suffering of the troops was awful, but that adds lustre to victory! War is hell – but we are proud as hell of how we wage war!

The exchange between grandchild and grandfather in Robert Southey’s poem ‘The Battle of Blenheim’ leaps to mind:

“Now tell us all about the war

“And what they killed each other for.”…

“Why that I cannot tell,” said he,

“But ’twas a famous victory.”

If we simply fill our lungs with victory on Anzac Day 2018, we may forget the fundamental questions.

First, for what war aims were Australians still dying in 1918?  On this issue, the political leadership in Britain, to whom Australia habitually deferred, was scarcely honest. In a famous speech at the Caxton Hall in London on 5 January 1918, Prime Minister Lloyd George claimed the war was fought for ‘the sanctity of treaties’, for ‘the right of self-determination’ and for ‘some international organization’ to prevent war. Britain fought not for imperial goals, he insisted. Rather, she fought for the liberation of France and Belgium, and for some ‘reparation’ for devastated Belgium. This last was ‘no demand for war indemnity’, he promised, definitely ‘not an attempt to shift the cost of warlike operations’. The captured German colonies were not seized, but rather held in trust, ‘at the disposal of a conference’. Was this credible? No. Just a month later Lloyd George told the Supreme War Council that ‘no body was bound by a speech’. (CAB 25/120, 306)

A widely promoted official pamphlet, The War Aims of the British People (1918), boosted the new moderation: Britain sought ‘no selfish or predatory aims of any kind, pursuing, with one mind, one unchanging purpose: to obtain justice for others, that we may thereby secure for ourselves a lasting peace. We desire neither to destroy Germany nor to diminish her boundaries; we seek neither to exalt ourselves nor to enlarge our empire.’ All political junk food.

The real war aims, most still secret, were all about grab. Australians were fighting on in France and the Middle East in 1918 to redeem a dozen diplomatic deals struck in London: promises to Serbia to double her territory; promises to Italy of a great swag of Austrian territory along the Adriatic; promises to France and Japan to divide up the captured German colonies in Africa, China and the Pacific; promises to France and Italy to carve up the Ottoman Empire; and plans to secure for Britain not only Mesopotamia but also all of Persia (Iran) – and its oil. As Hankey, the secretary of the War Cabinet, wrote: ‘control over these oil supplies becomes a first class British War Aim’ (Hankey to Balfour, 1 August 1918, CAB 21/119). In short, only victory in Europe could make safe the wider imperial spoils.

Second, did Australia’s political leaders look only to our national interest, and seek to safeguard Australian blood from being expended on such imperial dreams?  Not a bit. The government put London under no pressure at all about war aims. In September 1917, Prime Minister Billy Hughes told the federal parliament in Melbourne that his government had sent nothing whatsoever to London on war aims or peace terms (CPD, 13 Sept. 1917, 2034). Facing a no-confidence motion in January 1918, Hughes vowed total loyalty to the Empire. He claimed to support moderate war aims, ‘those great pronouncements’ in Lloyd George’s recent Caxton Hall speech and in President Woodrow Wilson’s ‘Fourteen Points’ (CPD, 11 Jan. 1918, 2937). He never did.

Third, was Australia’s government honest with our troops and people about what the war was for?  Not a bit. During the second conscription debate, Labor speakers who raised the issue of war aims were prosecuted, supposedly for imperilling relations with Britain’s allies. As controversy grew on the diplomatic deals underpinning the battles, the government redoubled the censorship. Lists of ‘Prohibited Publications’ lengthened. In February 1918, police raided the federal parliament itself, where they confiscated copies of a critical Labor MP’s speech, reprinted from Hansard.

Federal parliament debated war aims again in early April 1918. The government spoke only of one war aim: ‘to fight on to secure a victorious peace and the freedom of the world’ (CPD, 4 Apr. 1918, 3595).  There was no serious effort to outline Australia’s own aims. The censorship had stifled wider public debate. Bill Higgs, a Labor MP, complained that newspapers had been prevented from publishing full reports even of Wilson’s famous ‘Fourteen Points’. ‘I say that the people of Australia are being kept in the dark about what is happening in the world,’ he protested (CPD, 4 Apr. 1918, 3601).

A few days later it was announced that Hughes would soon go to London as Australia’s delegate at an Imperial Conference. What war aims would he pursue? There was no meaningful statement to parliament, just Hughes’s familiar bitter-end bluster: ‘When I make war, it is war to the death’ (CPD, 24 Apr. 1918, 4108).

The day after the Villers-Bretonneux battle, 26 April 1918, Hughes set off for London. He went via the USA. He bad-mouthed Wilson in private. When Hughes arrived in London in June, he teamed-up with reactionaries determined to sink Wilson’s internationalist program of free trade, arms limitation, impartial colonial adjustments and genuine self-determination. Instead, Hughes wanted an old-fashioned imperial peace. He pressed for keeping Germany’s colonies, and for imposing an indemnity and a post-war economic boycott. He urged Lloyd George not to honour the promises held out to Germany at the Caxton Hall and in the ‘Fourteen Points’. The disaster of the botched peace loomed, with Hughes stirring the brew. Just as Australia’s war-at-any-price leaders had misspent the soldiers’ blood, they now prepared to misspend the soldiers’ victory.

In this centenary year of victory, we may swell with pride at the numbers of prisoners captured, guns seized and miles taken by ‘our’ men in 1918. But we risk forgetting the big picture. And when our grandchildren ask ‘what they killed each other for?’ – we shall be left to reply that we know nothing about that: ‘But ’twas a famous victory.’

Assoc. Prof. Douglas Newton is a retired academic. He is the author of a number of studies of war and peace, including, most recently, The Darkest Days: The Truth Behind Britain’s Rush to War, 1914 (London, Verso: 2014) and Hell-bent: Australia’s Leap into the Great War (Melbourne: Scribe, 2014). He is currently writing a book on the history of diplomatic efforts to end the Great War.

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