What we forget on Anzac Day

Apr 25, 2019

On the first Anzac Day, 25 April 1915, the Australian Imperial and New Zealand Expeditionary Forces landed at Gallipoli. On Anzac Day 2019, Anzac forces are again in the Middle East – and Afghanistan – this time 16 years after their initial deployments at the beginning of the Iraq War. 

Obviously, support for powerful British and, since 1941, American powers in the hope of future protection from them in the Pacific has been the questionable reason for the repeated and, today, lingering Australian and New Zealand campaigns somewhere in ‘the East’. What we forget about that invasive strategic reflex, however, goes back well before the Gallipoli landing.

The fact of the matter is that our military cultures were formed in the frontier wars of British imperial expansion in the nineteenth century. Because those wars were fought to take the land of Aboriginal and Maori peoples, they were always going to produce serious historical amnesia. Even more, because they had to be justified in the illusions of British moral and racial superiority, they inflected the identities of Australasian settler societies with a doubtful sense of self-importance.

 Something that both facilitated the original British imperial conquest and embedded a conservative imperial bias in those emerging cultures was, moreover, the revival of an ancient institution: the use of war veterans to police and establish military-agricultural colonies in remote borderlands.

This method of military colonisation advanced the frontiers of the Roman Empire. It features in the histories of imperial Portugal, Russia and China to Vietnam. As Jeff Hopkins-Weise, Blood Brothers: Anzac Genesis (2009) well informs us on these matters the British Empire also sent military ‘pensioners’ to Canada, Africa and Australasia, where they participated in the ‘Black Wars’ in Tasmania, New South Wales, Western Australia and New Zealand.

 For Glory and a Farm was definitely the deal, as the title of Frank Glen’s 1985 book declared, in the extensive Australian involvement in the New Zealand Wars of the 1840s and 1860s – when, at one point in Sydney, Governor Gipps had to stamp out the cross-Tasman trade in pickled Maori heads. Until 1861, New Zealand came under New South Wales administration and military command. In 1863, the Sydney Morning Herald called for the raising ‘in the Australias [of] a corps to assist’ the New Zealand government in the renewed conflict with the Maoris in the 1860s. Hopkins-Weise thus stresses that the Herald had probably articulated for the first time the notion of an ‘Australian corps.’

Conversely, Australian farms were prized in the planetary program of soldier-settler land grants. Therein, British soldiers might first fight in Europe, Crimea, India or China as well as New Zealand before further policing and settling the Australian frontiers. So, it also was that, throughout the nineteenth century, thousands of veterans settled in Australia, with the glint of their medals stiffening empire pride on community occasions.

On a personal note, I grew up in 1950s farmland around Lake Illawarra on the South Coast of New South Wales. There, in 1818-21, Governor Macquarie gave land grants to veterans of the Napoleonic Wars, grants I heard called ‘Waterloo Land Grants’, after the 1815 battle of the same near Brussels. And a nearby farm was still run by the Chie family, descendants of the Chinese servant of the British officer who originally established the farm after retiring from some imperial campaigning in China in the 1800s.

British battles in India also suggested the Anzac tradition. Indian writer Ipsita Sengupta has explained how, in relation to the 1857 Indian ‘Mutiny’ – known today as the ‘Indian Rebellion’ – Alfred Deakin had already anticipated Anzac mythology in his 1893 book Temple and Tomb in India. Sengupta’s important point is that, excited both by British heroics in the face of Hindu ‘treachery’ and by the singular Australian participation of Sir Henry Norman, the Governor of Queensland in many of the Mutiny’s ‘most striking events’, Deakin had first made India ‘the surrogate site for the Australian secular sacred based on Anglo-Saxon military prowess’. He had foreseen the moral and racial justification for Anzac campaigns: ‘white Australia’s own creation myth and a repeated motif of invasive valour in someone else’s homeland in the east’ – beginning at Gallipoli.

As an antecedent of Anzac, my inclination would further be to recall a primary adjunct to the frontier wars: the imperial ‘expeditions’ to find farming and grazing land and to possess the continent – often with a military character, as they pushed on through light and, even, invisible screens of indigenous watchers.

Major Mitchell, Captain Sturt and Major, later Police Superintendent Burke of Burke and Wills fame were among the famous leaders. True to its imperial ethos, Burke’s mission recruited Indian ‘Sepoys’ and, in a vibration of earlier and later Anglo-Anzac-Afghan Wars, ‘Afghan’ cameleers. He also recruited John King, who had witnessed the 1857 ‘Mutiny’ with the British Army in India, could speak Indian languages and had expertise with the camels. Burke was successful in being the first to traverse the continent. Yet his fascination with a glorious death, which was not unique among those famous for deeds that won the empire, doubled the mismanagement that made him a dangerous leader: he perished with seven others on his expedition.

In an ironic twist of colonial history, Burke died in June 1861 (soon after Wills on their return from the Gulf to Cooper’s Creek) of exhaustion and Vitamin B deficiency. Such a fate might have been averted, if he had accepted food, which some Aboriginals proffered. Since their land was being invaded, the natives were not generally expected to be friendly. Burke therefore fulfilled his imperial hubris and somewhat reasonable colonial fear of the local people, when he died as ‘Victoria’s first hero’, starving with his pistol in his hand.

In due course, Victoria would, like the other States of the Commonwealth and New Zealand have many more dead heroes as Anzac involvement in the Great War fulfilled the empire’s global expeditionary cycle. After the ‘outward’ journey to establish their outpost settlements, the Anzacs made their ‘return’ journey to what Kenneth Slessor called ‘the ancestral darkness of home.’

Meanwhile, nothing had more clearly rehearsed Anzac Day remembrance than the funeral of Burke and Wills. After their bodies had been done over by dingos and buried in shallow graves, their bones were dug up in 1862 and returned to Melbourne. There, in the candle-lit Royal Society Hall decorated with black drapes and white ostrich feathers, mourners circled the glass-topped coffins, wherein the remains lay in state for fifteen days. Then, on 21 January 1863, the shops were closed, and three-quarters of Melbourne’s population turned out to mourn their heroes. Escorted by a Victorian Rifle Regiment and some Light Dragoons, their coffins were carried through the main streets for two hours in a £1,000 replica of the £11,000 funeral carriage of the Duke of Wellington, the victor at Waterloo.

The fit with Anzac Day is exact in two political respects. First, the grief and glorious remembrance of heroes helped to neutralise sharp criticism of the bungled official management and leadership of both Burke’s expedition and the Gallipoli landing. Second, such remembrance connects with imperial bragging rights in the insecure Australasian colonies: Victoria and, later in 1914-18, the dependent Commonwealth and, beside it, New Zealand needed heroes to consolidate their emerging sense of their worth in the wider empire.

Of course, the darkness that actually engulfed the first Anzacs was so terrible it shocked their culture into denying its imperial derivation. A narrative of ‘nation’ sought to glorify the disaster: Charles Bean’s 1921 claim that at Gallipoli ‘on 25 April 1915 the Australian consciousness of nationhood was born’. Floating in the new imperial silence, however, the illusions of British moral and racial superiority maintained an anachronistic world view.

Lamentably, in Australia at least, Anzac mythology still envisages no official place for the Aboriginals who fought for their country in the frontier wars. Incredibly, decades after the post-1945 period of decolonisation in Asia, Anzac culture remains wary of the independent status of neighbouring Asian nations, particularly China, as our protracted engagements in the Middle East and Afghanistan indicate.

Anxiously dependent themselves, Anzac strategic reflexes are as inherently responsive to US leadership of the white Anglosphere today, as they were when they came alive in the frontier wars of British imperial expansion.

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. Yet it would be in our national interests to remember that Anzac commemoration 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 graduated from Duntroon in 1968, went to the Vietnam War and later became an historian

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