Anzac and the Great Deception in Australasian History

Apr 25, 2020

This year, Anzac Day marches have been suspended for the first time in almost a century. Because of the coronavirus the Australian War Memorial (AWM) will broadcast a socially distanced Dawn ‘Service’. The New Zealand National Memorials will represent their Dawn and Citizens’ ‘Services’ on media and on-line. At State Memorials in Australia, Governors will privately lay wreaths around the national myth. In both nations, the streets will be eerily emptied; the borders closed.

Altogether, we might note that the Australian Prime Minister has recently explained the lockdown in warlike terms. On 16 April, Mr Morrison said in parliament that ‘today is about defending and protecting Australia’s national wide sovereignty.’ Sovereignty in that context is the supreme power and independent status that confers authority and identity on the nation. Given the kind of nation and strategic outlook that Anzac Day ceremonial has supported for a century, however, Mr Morrison does not seem to realise he is making either a highly radical or tendentious call. Either way, he misses the dependent and still colonial nature of the Anzac nations.

Lest we forget this point today. In 1901, the nation had already taken that shape at federation, which New Zealand declined to join. The Dominion status soon conferred on both nations then had no implication of sovereign independence. As a sop to their colonial vanities, the status merely bestowed honorific value. Both nations remained dependent colonies within the British empire.

On 25 March 1901, the Australian Commonwealth’s first Attorney General Alfred Deakin asserted: ‘The Empire as a sovereign, independent state possesses full contracting powers which are exercised by the Imperial Government alone.’ Those powers included declaring peace and war. The Anzac tradition, which the Australian Imperial Force (AIF) and New Zealand Expeditionary Force (NZEF) embodied in 1914-1918, could not have been a sovereign national one.

That tradition also had a deep past, which both Mr Morrison and Anzac Day oratory seems to forget. Long before Gallipoli, the Anzac genesis was the British colonisation of Australasia. The origins of the tradition lay, as Jeff Hopkin-Weise’s 2009 Blood Brothers well informs us, in the assistance, which the Australian colonies gave Britishers to expand British colonisation in New Zealand during the Maori Wars (1840s and 1860s).

Lest we forget that the oldest war memorial in Australia, which is likely to be doubly deserted this Anzac Day, dates from those New Zealand Wars. In 1845, the 99th Wiltshire Regiment of Foot had sent two companies from Tasmania to New Zealand, where they took part in the Hutt Valley Campaign and saw action at the Battle of Battle Hill. They returned to Australia in 1846. Erected in 1850 at Anglesea Barracks in Hobart, the monument is inscribed with 21 names. That act of remembrance anticipated by some 70 years the post-First World War practice, which is said to be emblematic of Anzac history: building at home in Australia and New Zealand memorials as surrogate tombs and sites of community grieving for the fallen in far-flung campaigns.

After returning to Britain in 1856, the 99th Regiment returned to imperial campaigning. It was rotated to India and on in 1860 to the Second Opium War in China, taking part in the sack of Peking. I mention this, because it illustrates the great cycle of imperial expeditions, which I indicated in my Anzac Day blog last year. This was the cycle that went out from Britain to support the rapaciousness, partial genocide, compulsive land grabbing and barbarism as well as good works it took to establish British colonies, across a fifth of the globe. Those colonies included the white settler ones in Australia and New Zealand, from where the expeditionary cycle was manned from around 1900 by local expeditioners returning ‘home’.

Over half a million white Australians and New Zealanders were, in Douglas Newton’s memorable phrase, ‘hell-bent’ to sail away with the AIF and NZEF to the First World War. We hear every Anzac Day of the killed and wounded in the Middle East and France: roughly 50 percent of the 417,000 Australians who enlisted; and 58 per cent of the 100,000 New Zealanders. Lest we forget, also, the less familiar but no less horrendous casualties that were as remotely inflicted during the Second World War. So far from home, Bomber Command’s air operations over Europe constituted the deadliest Anzac battle in that war, as some 4,050 Australian airmen were killed out of some 13,000 who flew in it, and some 1850 New Zealanders out of some 6,000.

Why, then, with few exceptions, most notably Hopkins-Weisse, Blood Brothers, does writing on Anzac crack the full imperial-cum-Anzac-expeditionary cycle in the middle and throw away the nineteenth century? Why for instance does John Laffin’s 1965 book Anzacs at War sum up the general understanding of the Anzac tradition to this day when he insists that ‘Australian and New Zealand military heritage has existed only since the Boer War’ in 1899-1902?

The answer must revolve around some tendency of the Anzac tradition to deny its own imperial origins and nature. This would have been especially so in 1965, when the Anzac expeditions left for Vietnam.

Around federation in 1901 and for some years after there was some show of an independent Australian national spirit. This appeared in many areas; the achievements of universal suffrage, secret ballot, the setting of a basic wage. Moreover, many did not want to repeat such far-flung imperial military ventures as the Boer War (1899-1902). The Defence Act (1903) actually denied the government authority send conscripts (but not volunteers) outside the country. With Japan’s victory over Russia in 1905, the defence of Australia was to be based on universal conscription to defend the continent. We would have a ‘garrison state’, a ‘nation at arms.’

Then, between 1911 and 1914, imperial interests and manipulations put out that potential to have a sovereign nation. At London War Office talks in 1911, which included the Australian Defence Minister George Foster Pearce, the secret decision was taken to prepare expeditionary forces for service anywhere in the world in support of the British empire; secret because the decision was highly sensitive politically. For Australians, it contradicted the spirit of the Defence Act and the sovereign concept of a ‘nation at arms’.

The horrors of the First World War were not apprehended then. But Charles Bean’s very influential twelve volume work The Official History of Australian Involvement of the War of 1914-1918,(1921-42) was written in the previously unimagined shock of them. On page 910 of the second, 1924 volume he effaces federation, where he somewhat arrhythmically says: ‘In no unreal sense it was on the 25th of April, 1915, that the consciousness of Australian nationhood was born.’

This is central to the Anzac denial. He seemed to assume that the undying spirits of the fallen infused the new ‘consciousness’ of nation. He did not then say if the Anzac nation was an independent sovereign one. Neither did he say if it was a dependent colonial one. In his own grief and attempt to give meaning to the thousands of bodies he personally saw pile up in the war, I think he wanted to do something impossible: resurrect the bodies in a risen nation, over the one that raised the imperial forces. Notably, his narrative made no mention of the political deception that got the AIF and NZEF to Gallipoli in the first place.

There is a dark side to this. Bean knew Pearce well and almost certainly knew about the secret decision. Either way, knowingly or not, the first 1921 volume of his History, bedded the secret down as a silence in the great post-war suffering. The terrible war casualties gave him a rapt readership, as it confirmed the imperial ascendency in Australian politics and culture. Most, including those reading his work, could not bear to imagine the suffering had been for nothing.

Given the widely perceived importance of Bean’s history as a ‘foundation narrative of the nation’, it inevitably transposed the now secret silence from politics more broadly into literature and culture. Lest we forget, then, the transposition that surely fulfilled what we are saying was the great deception in Australian, if not exactly New Zealand history. It was not, indeed, until 1992 that John Mordike’s path-finding book Army for a Nation firstshowed how the 1911 talks determined the nature of Australia’s entry into the war. So deep was the political-cultural cover-up, in which Bean and his history were pivotal participants, it took 81 years before we knew those talks had even taken place.

Of course, It took more than weak politicians, military morons and compliant historians to account for that cultural as well as political catastrophe; it took a historical and geo-political context. Hovering over the great deception is, in fact, something vague we have difficulty grasping, especially when Anzacs histories beginning with Bean’s deny the nightmares of nineteenth century. This is something I’ve been calling the ‘Aboriginal-Asian’ link, the unresolved race-based colonial anxiety of white settlers that Asians will do to them what they did to the Aborigines.

In Austral-Asia, it seems that the settlers can’t settle down. That anxiety, which Chinese immigration first generated from the 1850s, produced the wrong-headed approach to the world and foundation for the defence of the federation, which was enshrined in the White Australia Policy. To get an AIF, which British officials wanted to support the empire against Germany, it can be readily shown that they picked up in 1911 on the fearful irrationality of Australian racism. By pressing on it to scare Pearce (and Prime Minister Andrew Fisher) – when they were not duchessing them – those officials inflated ruthlessly, beyond reason, the threat of Japan to Australia.

The desperation driving that reflex then was not very different from what it is now. Then, the threat from Japan was seen to be so overwhelming that Australian and New Zealand expeditions to support the empire were thought to be essential to guarantee the only possible defence of Australasia: reciprocal Royal Navy protection.

Now, since Anzac imperial allegiance shifted from Britain to the US post-1945, the strategic reflex has been similar. Unwarranted fear that the threat of China was so great it could only be met by US power, not only led to Anzac involvements in Korea and Vietnam, but again most recently in Afghanistan, Iraq and Syria. We could argue that only the Pacific War (1941-45) and East Timor (1999-2000) campaigns had sovereign national derivation.

With the streets empty and the ceremonial cut back this Anzac Day, let us re-imagine the foundations for our strategic space: Australia and New Zealand. No one wants to forget the Anzacs or the values of mateship, loyalty and perseverance that fortified them in the dangers of their far-flung expeditions. The dependent colonial nation their tradition ambiguously denies is another matter. To take Mr Morrison’s recent words at face value and follow them, we would indeed be defending our national interest. Best we remember that, as Anzac commemoration stands, it continues to support military missions that have no serious explanation – other than the one that they march straight out of our forgotten imperial past.

Greg Lockhart is an historian. He is author of ‘Gallipoli Reckoning’, Sydney Review of Books, April 22, 2016, on-line.

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