GREG LOCKHART. What were we fighting for at Gallipoli, in Palestine and on the Western Front? (Part 3 of 5)

Jul 26, 2017

Part 3. Empire over nation. 

In 1914-18, the fight for Empire against Asia minimised independent Australian national interests. Ambiguous, interchangeable use of the terms ‘empire’ and ‘nation’ also protected that ‘imperial’ bias in our political culture. 

If we were fighting for the British Empire against Asia in 1914-18, what happened to our idea of the ‘nation’? The question is important because it connects with the disposition of Australian ANZAC culture, which Bean established in his Official History, to obsess in various ways over how our soldiers fought, while failing to face up to the issue of what we were fighting for.

While promoting our imperial war in swathes of prose that glitter with historical genius, Bean also established a myth. Setting stern empiricism in an imperial fable, he wrote a hybrid work, which many take to be the foundation narrative of the nation. Therein, with the exploits of the ‘Imperial’ Force at the Gallipoli landing on 25 April 1915, we find that ‘the Australian consciousness of nation was born’.

How can that be? How can an ‘Imperial’ force have represented the ‘nation’? It can’t have. Bean’s claim was a contradiction in terms – as international law scholar Greg Pemberton first made me aware.

The consciousness of ‘nation’ emerging as a sovereign alternative to ‘empire’ is clear in political history. Often expressed as ‘separation’ from Britain, that consciousness had also existed in our culture long before the Gallipoli landing. Dr Lang’s 1850 lectures on ‘Australian National Independence’ (mentioned in Part 2) make Bean’s claim about the landing anachronistic as well as contradictory.

Edmund Barton’s declaration in the Sydney suburb of Ashfield (some accounts say Glebe) during the Federation Convention in 1897 had also rung loud and clear: ‘for the first time in history we have a nation for a continent and a continent for a nation’.

Of course, none of this Australian geography as well as history troubles mainstream ANZAC remembrance. And, among the many reasons for this, we may note one. That aside from the passing Japanese attacks on northern Australia in early 1942 and Pacific war with Japan, the Australian nation has never been forced to define itself, or to free itself from something worse than political obfuscation: the empire’s great semantic muddle.

The expansion of British imperial power across the globe created a concept of ‘Greater Britain’, in which the terms ‘empire’ and ‘nation’ were often used interchangeably. By the 1880s, many saw British imperialism as a form of nationalism. Writing of that period in 1949, British historian Alfred Cobban depicted a ‘kind of bastard imperialism, which is merely nationalism writ large’.

Equally, that ‘kind of bastard’ qualification must apply to the ‘nationalism writ large’ – which hardly legitimised non-white nations or, even, the local geo-political interests of white settler colonies across the globe. Sydney University historian Neville Meaney nailed the point when he remarked that, in 1914-18 and beyond, ‘what passed for Australian nationalism … tended to be pride by a section of the empire in its contribution to the empire.’

Despite the existence of independent national and republican thought in our culture since Lang, we can’t necessarily take Australian use of the term ‘nation’ at face value. Often, we can’t know what Australians of the Great War generation meant when they referred to ‘nation’ – Australia, the British Empire or ambiguously to both. Even today, we can’t always be sure that the term isn’t being used to cover ‘a kind of bastard imperialism’ with ‘a kind of bastard nationalism’.

Yet we can say what Bean meant in his influential History.

He believed fervently that Australian conditions, particularly the bush, had created the special ‘character’ of Australian soldiers; what he called ‘the mettle of the men’. This was the preoccupation that both drove his great history and produced the admirable aspects of the ANZAC myth, mate-ship, loyalty, perseverance and resilience in the face of adversity.

Yet that was also the preoccupation that set up ANZAC culture’s chronic bias for self-fulfilling discussion of how the soldiers fought – even when it diverges from his vision, as it can do today – and deflects attention from what we were fighting for.

Bean’s prodigious prose captured the epic performance of the ‘Imperial’ force in a way no other author has. No serious student of Australia’s Great War can ignore Bean’s work, and none can doubt it was bound by a shining vision of the communal legacy of ‘the mettle of the men’. Yet his astonishing story had no Australian national strategic context.

By submerging his anxiety about Asia, particularly Japan, in his dark re-declaration of war on the German ‘barbarians’, the context for Bean’s influential ANZAC history and myth was his free-floating romance of the British Empire. And, on that score, nothing much has changed.

Beside recent re-cycling of the ‘Prussian menace’, it has become fashionable to say that our Great War produced a ‘broken nation’. But that estimation also overlooks our clotted history as a British outpost in Austral-Asia. That view misses the way our political culture masked its barren fear of a non-existent Asian invader on the eve of the Great War to pre-empt national criticisms of its dependence on imperial protection – a major political-cultural implication being that we have long deceived ourselves about the extent to which the empire overrode the nation in 1914-18 and beyond.

It remains to be seen how what we were fighting for was institutionalised in the Commonwealth’s race strategy to, as Bean put it, keep the country ‘a white man’s land’.

(Part 4 ‘A Race Strategy to save “White Australia” tomorrow)

Greg Lockhart had military and academic careers. He is a Vietnam Veteran, has written on the Vietnam War and has, since childhood, had an interest in the Great War.

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