Anzac Day dawns. We acknowledge the heavy costs endured – the loss of life, the broken bodies and broken minds. We reflect, remember, and respect. There will be no big public gatherings this year – mercifully perhaps. Because these sometimes include elements of naivety that make us cringe.
Anzac Day, of course, commemorates all our war dead. But this year perhaps we will reflect mainly upon the Great War. For the Covid-19 crisis reminds us that in 1918-1919, as the mechanised killing dwindled, the influenza pandemic kept killing. The tragedies were linked. The pandemic’s source is debated: the army camp at Étaples in France? US soldiers from Kansas? Virtually conscripted Chinese labourers from the captured German colony of Qingdao? In any case, war hugely inflated the disaster. The underfed everywhere, already victims of the war’s blockades, became victims of the pandemic. The global poor perished – in tens of millions.
All through the war, the apothecaries of Armageddon had insisted on one cure-all: victory. It turned out to be powerless.
Thus, by 1919, the dash to war in 1914 was seen to have launched a truly protracted calamity. Looking back, the poet Philip Larkin imagined that the simple faiths that spurred on the Great War for four years had been exploded – forever. ‘Never such innocence again,’ he predicted.
Was he right? Sadly, over recent years, our Anzac Days have often seen naiveties from Australia’s Great War revived.
A taste of this must suffice. For example, on the second anniversary of the outbreak of war in August 1916, Dr Kelly, RC Archbishop of Sydney, offered High Mass. ‘Ours is a defensive war,’ he sermonized. Our dead ‘would have a special crown among the saints in heaven. There was no death more glorious than that of the one who laid down his life for his country and his God.’ ‘There is a blessing for the sword, the banner, and for the warrior,’ he told the faithful, some in uniform. ‘God will gird our soldiers with strength and give them sinewy arms, and our enemies will be brought under us.’ Catholic Anzacs should ‘imitate the Crusaders,’ and then ‘the blessings of God would be poured down upon them and upon their arms.’
This – as industrialised warfare pulverised Australian life around Pozières. This – just three months after the secret Sykes-Picot Agreement to divide up the bulk of the Ottoman Empire between Britain and France.
Do we rise above such murderous innocence today?
The crowd attending the ‘National Ceremony’ for Anzac Day at the Australian War Memorial in 2018 found on the program the century-old hymn ‘O Valiant Hearts’, which includes the stanza:
Proudly you gathered, rank on rank, to war
As who had heard God’s message from afar;
All you had hoped for, all you had, you gave,
To save mankind – yourselves your scorned to save.
Our soldiers heard ‘God’s message’ and fought simply ‘to save mankind’? It was gob-smacking.
It was not a momentary lapse. During the recent ‘Anzac Centenary’, simplicities often trumped complexities. The war was depicted as a great awakening, in which Australia was born again, through youthful blood sacrifice. All the difficult questions about purposes were evaded.
Parliamentary speeches shone with childlike innocence. Prime Minister Abbott proposed a motion marking the ‘Centenary of Anzac’ in parliament in May 2015. He shunned all talk of futility, ending his flag-waving speech with a pledge to remember ‘the just cause for which they fought.’ Hockey lamented that Australia ‘lost its sense of innocence’ in the carnage. Not judging from the naive speeches that followed. Most dwelt fixedly upon how Australians fought, before cataloguing the projects in their electorates that were soaking up the half-billion dollars allocated for the centenary – some sublime, some ridiculous. One MP assured the parliament that the ‘Lego display’, part of the ‘Anzac Centenary children’s tour launch’, was ‘actually really profound.’
War-is-hell narratives loomed large, but these only added to the lustre of military achievement. Hyperbole jostled with hyperbole. The Anzacs who charged as ordered and died by the hundreds at the Nek and Lone Pine were killed in a battle space ‘about the size of a football field’, or ‘about the size of three tennis courts’, or ‘roughly the size of two tennis courts’?
Why? What was the purpose, ‘the just cause’? No one came near the truth: that in 1915 thousands of Australians died in an under-resourced imperial campaign to take the Straits and Constantinople for Tsarist Russia (as promised by Britain under the secret Straits and Persia Agreement of March 1915); success would have seen the Russian Prince Gregory Trubetskoi installed as High Commissioner of Constantinople.
Turnbull eschewed jingoism, but kept up the blue-eyed innocence. He welcomed French President Macron to Sydney’s Anzac Memorial on 2 May 2018. What was the war about? In his speech, Turnbull quoted approvingly 2nd Lieutenant Frank Bethune, a clergyman, speaking at a troopship-deck service in March 1916: ‘We know what we have come for, and we know that is right.’ The war was raging because ‘the Germans invaded a peaceful country.’ Australians fought ‘to say that this thing shall not happen in the world so long as we are in it.’
So, in 2018 as in 1916, the outbreak and prolongation of the First World War supposedly had nothing to do with the carving up of the colonial world; nothing to do with the imperial protectionist schemes to crush German commerce; nothing to do with the gambler-politicians’ search for punitive indemnities; and nothing to do with the callous rebuffing of all chances to end the war by diplomatic negotiation. No, Australia was at war in a great act of international philanthropy. British, French, Russian, Italian, and Japanese imperialism fought alongside us to cleanse the world of the wickedness of German imperialism.
Here is the innocence of suckling babes, masquerading as red-poppy respect for the troops. We should ask: does it really honour the ever-youthful dead to repeat on Anzac Day the same wolf-upon-lamb naiveties about the Great War’s purposes that were peddled during the conflict?
During the centenary, conservatives frequently attempted to exploit Anzac politically. In October 2018, Dr Nelson, AWM Director, singled out News Limited for praise three times in a short interview on Sky TV to launch the ‘Anzac Spirit Coin Collection’. Right-wing media grandstanders, whose political lives are devoted to championing an acquisitive individualism, hailed the Anzacs for their collective and egalitarian spirit – without choking. War is the nectar of hypocrites.
The returning men of the AIF often said things best. For example, Sergeant Archie Barwick was loyal and proud, and expressed no regrets. But in his diary in late 1918, he confessed to insurgent thoughts: ‘never no more for me, the only time I would fight again is in defence of my own country, I would never go out of “Aussie” again seeking stoush, I have had my fill of it.’
Perhaps today, our private Anzac remembrances can be more in keeping with the spirit of the troops – those who urged after the Great War that, in future, any choice for war must be incontrovertibly a last resort, and incontrovertibly defensive. Giving the choice for war to parliament would be a good start.
Douglas Newton is a retired academic and historian. He has published on the history of Britain, Germany, and the First World War. His most recent book was Hell-bent: Australia’s Leap into the Great War (Melbourne: Scribe, 2014).