Douglas Newton. The hard questions we should face on Anzac Day 2016.

Apr 20, 2016

On Anzac Day 2016, the centenaries of 1916 should loom large. In April 1916, the Australian divisions that had been mauled at Gallipoli were being despatched to the Western Front. The industrialised kill-chain at the Somme awaited them. Other centenary moments from 1916 are coming: of diplomatic deals that escalated the war, and of lost opportunities to end the war.

The cataclysm of that war for Australians ought to prompt hard questions – beyond the nationalist obsession over whether ‘the mettle of the men’ shone bright on the battlefield.

Why were Australians so exposed in this protracted catastrophe?

Because we plunged in, so recklessly.

From the outset, Australian politicians boasted of their absolute loyalty to the Empire. They offered men without qualification – anywhere, for any objective, under British command. George Reid, Australia’s High Commissioner in London, gushed that Britain and Australia were united, like ‘enraptured lovers’ – ‘Two hearts that beat as one.’[1]

Prime Minister Fisher told the British Colonial Secretary, in February 1915, that ‘when the King’s business will not fit in with our ideas, we do not press them.’[2] In October 1915, Prime Minister Hughes told parliament: ‘I do not pretend to understand the situation in the Dardanelles, but I know what the duty of this government is; and that is – to mind its own business, to provide that quota of men which the Imperial Government think necessary.’[3] In this spirit of imperial subservience were the men despatched to unimaginable horrors.

For what purposes were Australian lives committed?

For noble – and for dubious purposes. The noble were largely window-dressing.

War aims escalated on every side during 1916. The imperial leaders compiled shopping lists of annexations. In May 1916, Britain and France struck the Sykes-Picot Agreement, planning a carve-up of the entire Middle East. In June 1916, the Inter-allied Economic Conference in Paris confirmed plans to crush Germany, with a post-war economic boycott. In August 1916, Rumania was bribed into entering the war, with the promise of a great slice of Transylvania. These added to the fatal territorial deals struck in 1915, the Straits Agreement with Russia and the Treaty of London with Italy. All such bargains prolonged the war.[4]

One shell-shocked Anzac from the ‘Abattoirs’ at the Somme, Private E. J. Ryan, captured the soldiers’ disillusionment. In October 1916, he wrote to British Labour leader Ramsay MacDonald, urging him to resist the wide-mouthed ‘bitter enders’ and press for negotiations. ‘Has England still got her old ideal, that of Conquer & not the supposed new ideal, one of Peace? … Every man I have spoken to is absolutely sick of the whole business,’ he wrote.[5]

Why was peace not achieved in 1916?

Because promising opportunities to end the war by negotiation were stifled.

In February 1916, Colonel House, US President Wilson’s special emissary, concluded the ‘House-Grey Memorandum’. Sir Edward Grey, British Foreign Secretary, agreed to invite American mediation at a moment of Britain’s choosing. But Britain never jumped. The ‘bitter enders’ preferred to speculate on more war. Armed with emergency powers, governments everywhere spooked and coerced their populations. Victory, they argued, was indispensable. In truth, reactionaries demanded it, to save as much of the old order as possible.

But there were always alternatives. Internationalists, radical Liberals, and socialists in every belligerent nation, pressed for negotiations and a new rules-based order. Even Tories tried. In November 1916 Lord Lansdowne challenged British Prime Minister Henry Asquith’s Cabinet: ‘Can we afford to go on paying the same sort of price for the same sort of gain?’ He argued that ‘the responsibility of those who needlessly prolong such a war is not less than that of those who needlessly provoke it.’[6]

Then, in late 1916 came a chink of light. On 12 December, the Germans offered round-table negotiations; a week later President Wilson issued a ‘Peace Note’, urging all sides to specify war aims, as a prelude to American mediation. The Entente Powers stamped upon the opportunity.

This year, we should remember all these telling centenaries – not just the bloodbaths at Pozières and Fromelles.

But what was ‘the Anzac spirit’? 

The posters proclaim ‘Their Spirit – Our History’. Countless sources testify that the original Anzacs were fiercely democratic and ferociously egalitarian. They hated privilege, defied hierarchy, and mocked inherited advantage. They believed in pooling resources against common dangers. Their spirit was collective – for above all else, they supported each other.

Do we have a right to invoke ‘the Anzac Spirit’ in contemporary Australia? If we tolerate widening inequality, monstrous private wealth amid public squalor, intensifying social stratification, and weakening social mobility, dare we speak of ‘Their Spirit’? If we pursue a neo-liberal agenda, that preaches an acquisitive individualism, hollows out the public sector, privileges the private provider, relentlessly privatises our pooled resources, and lauds lower taxes as the one true household god – is ‘the Anzac spirit’ alive?

And the hardest question: if egalitarianism is lost in Australia, what is the point of Anzac?

Assoc. Prof. Douglas Newton is a retired academic. He has taught history at Macquarie University, Victoria University of Wellington, NZ, and the University of Western Sydney. 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).

[1] George Reid, ‘Empire Trade’, The Times, 7 Oct. 1914. Reproduced in George Reid, ‘Fifth Annual Report of the High Commissioner of the Commonwealth in the United Kingdom (printed 21 July 1915)’, dated 5 April 1915, in Papers Presented to Parliament, Vol. V, Session 1914-17, p. 247.

[2] Harcourt cited the letter from Fisher, dated 15 Feb. 1915, in Parliamentary Debates, Commons, 5th series, vol. 71, 16 (14 Apr. 1915).

[3] Commonwealth Parliamentary Debates, House of Representatives, 29 Oct. 1915, p. 7022.

[4] Of course, Germany also planned annexations. As Fritz Fischer wrote, ‘all great powers had “annexationist” policies in the age of imperialism.’ Fritz Fischer, ‘Foreword’ to his Germany’s Aims in the First World War (London, 1967), p. x.

[5] Private E. J. Ryan (Service Number 4635) to Ramsay MacDonald, 16 Oct. 1916, Ramsay MacDonald Papers, PRO/30/69/1160 f. 108 (The National Archives, London). I am very grateful to Duncan Marlor for generously providing a copy.

[6] Memorandum from Lord Lansdowne, 13 November 1916, Lansdowne Papers, LANS (5) 85/9 (The National Archives, London).

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