JOHN MENADUE Anzacs fought and died at Gallipoli for Britain, not Australia

Conservatives and militarists want us to cling to a disastrous imperial war.  Such a war could never be ‘nation building’ as the apologists for empire suggest. It was quite the reverse.The Anzac myth makers encourage us to focus on how our soldiers fought in order to avoid the central issue of why we fought. We do the same today, highlighting the valour of our military and avoiding the much more important question of why we were  in  Turkey and Vietnam and now in Iraq, Afghanistan and Syria.

The four-year and well-funded carnival celebrating Anzac and WWI is  rolling on. The carnival will depict WWI as the starting point of our nation, as our coming of age!

It was nothing of the sort. It was a sign of our international immaturity and dependence on others. What was glorious about involving ourselves in the hatreds and rivalry of European powers that had wrought such carnage in Europe over centuries? Many of our forebears came to Australia to get away from this. But conservatives, our war historians and colonel blimps chose deliberately to draw us back to the stupidities and hatreds of Europe. Conservatives and militarists want us to cling to a disastrous imperial war. They encourage us to focus on how our soldiers fought in order to avoid the central issue of why we fought.

It seems that the greater the political and military stupidity of wars that we have been involved in, the more we are encouraged to hide behind the valour of our service people at Gallipoli, the Western Front and elsewhere. The ‘leadership’ of Winston Churchill, General Haig and General Ian Hamilton were catastrophic both for the British and for us. Australian and New Zealand forces at Gallipoli were commanded by a British General. No hiding behind the sacrifice of troops can avoid the facts. We should not have been there and it was a disaster.It was the Australian IMPERIAL Force for many years.

The more we ignore the political and military mistakes of the past, the more likely we are to make similar mistakes in the future. And we keep doing it. If we had a sense of our calamitous involvement in wars in the past like WWI we would be less likely to make foolish decisions to involve ourselves in wars like Vietnam, Iraq, Afghanistan and now Syria. When will be an adult nation and stop being at the beck and call of imperial powers whether they be Britain or America?

Our history is littered with tragic military adventures, being led by the nose by either the UK or the US.  It goes on from the Boer War, the Sudan War and more recently, Vietnam, Iraq, Afghanistan and Syria. In all these cases, and just like WWI, we have desperately tried to hide behind the valour of our service people.

The most important and justified war in which we have fought as a nation was WWII, in defence of our own people and land. But WWII is rated by the Australian War Memorial and so many others as of much less significance.  WW1 Is the Holy Grail where we indulge our nostalgia and dependence.

On April 25 each year we are told unthinkingly that the great sacrifice of WWI was in defence of freedom and the right. But I don’t think that those who spout these empty woods even believe it themselves. It just does not ring true. Tony Abbott told us that WW1 was a ‘just war’. But what was ‘just’ about it? 

Australians  at Gallopli didn’t die for freedom,democracy or even their own country.They died for Britain. That’s a fact but we refuse to face it.We prefer to follow the myth makers.

It is claimed that it united this country, but it divided us in a way that we had never been divided before or since with Billy Hughes exploiting the anti-Irish and anti-Catholic sentiment in the country. Only 30% of eligible men chose to enlist. WWI was a great divider. It was not a unifier despite the platitudes of Anzac Day.

Some claim that WWI was to bring peace to Europe. But the war and its aftermath laid the ground for even greater death and destruction in WWII.

In relation to our population, our greatest loss of lives was in the Frontier Wars that lasted for 140 years and where in Queensland alone at least 50,000 indigenous people died in defence of their land. It was a war of very long duration and catastrophic in terms of loss of life. But we ignore it in favour of the myths of Anzac. Best we forget the Frontier Wars.

In memory of war we are so dreadfully  selective.

Yet it was the Frontier Wars -the forcible occupation of a vast continent- and not the wars of Gallipoli or the Somme that made Australia.

The first time Australians and New Zealanders fought together was against the Maoris in New Zealand in the 1850s and 1860s. The ANZAC connection was not forged at Gallipoli but half a century before in the Maori Wars.  It’s best that we forget that too. It doesn’t do our self-respect much good to recall that we first  fought together with New Zealanders in a race war to quell the Maori people.

The early and remarkable achievements of this young country at the turn of the century and early in the 19th Century are blotted out by the blood and blather of WWI, ANZAC and Gallipoli. We talk endlessly about the Gallipoli landings. A more honest description would be the invasion of the Ottoman Empire/Turkey.

Federation in 1900 was a remarkable achievement, pulling together our six colonies into a nation. We led the world in universal suffrage, the rights of women, industrial democracy and the minimum wage. The ‘Australian ballot’ or secret ballot was progressively adopted in the Australian states in the latter half of the nineteenth century. We were a world leader. Our ballot was adopted in New Zealand, Canada, UK and US

In 1904 we had not only Australia’s first Labor Government. It was the first in the world. The rights of working people as expressed in the Harvester Judgement of 1907 put Australia as a leader on the world stage. We were an advanced social laboratory. Before WWI there were two decades of remarkable nationhood and advancement for ordinary people.

But conservatives didn’t like any of that. They had to change the subject. With the help of pliant war historians, they set about to drag us back to the heartbreak of the past and the nostalgia of empire. And they succeeded with the help of Billy Hughes and other Labor renegades

In the process, we broke our own heart – or as Marilyn Lake has expressed in Pearls and Irritations ‘WWI fractured the nation’s soul’.

It is time we were honest with ourselves and discounted the myths of WWI, ANZAC and Gallipoli.

Instead, we should celebrate the two remarkable decades of progress before the catastrophe of WWI. And never forget the Frontier Wars.

See also ‘The Wars we would rather forget.’


John Laurence Menadue is the publisher of Pearls & Irritations. He has had a distinguished career both in the private sector and in the Public Service.

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8 Responses to JOHN MENADUE Anzacs fought and died at Gallipoli for Britain, not Australia

  1. tasi timor says:

    It’s all here –

    School Anzac Services at Mullewa 1925

    ‘In accordance with the circular letter which appeared in our columns last week, the school Anzac Service was held in theTown Hall on Friday afternoon…
    …how on that day in April 19I5 the men of Australia and New Zealand by their deed of bravery and sacrifice made the name of Australia famous and engraved for ever in the history of the British Empire. He urged his hearers also uphold the high ideals of our

    …He called the children’s attention to the brave deeds our soldiers performed, all the sacrifices they made that Britain should stand at the head of the nations.’

    Daily Telegraph and North Murchison and Pilbara Gazette May 1925

  2. Dr John CARMODY says:

    I think that it is correct to say that, at the time of World War I, we were legally part of the Empire and the doctrine was that the Crown was “indivisible”. Protestant Australians endorsed that emotionally (as well as legally); Catholics (who were mostly of Irish background and had often suffered at British hands) tended to consider themselves as “Australians”.

    Nor should we forget Andrew Fisher’s famous (and notorious) election speech in 1914: “Australians will stand beside our own to help and defend her [i.e. Britain, the “Mother Country”] to our last man and our last shilling.” So like the Tories, he was in no doubt about whom we were defending. In fact, I think that it is also correct that, when the Australian troops embarked from Western Australia, they believed that they were going to England and were disconcerted when they were re-routed to Egypt and eventually to Gallipoli as Churchill (and, thereby Britain) sought to support the tyrannical, Tsarist Russian ally. World War I was, indeed, a sordid war, the result of diplomatic failures and neglect — it was certainly not fought for freedom or principle.
    It is also a truly curious thing that Gallipoli has been glorified to such a degree -in Australia — Charles Bean has much to answer for.

    And John Menadue is perfectly correct to lament that shameful (and ideologically driven, in a country which has, from the beginning, had racism at its heart) neglect of the ruthless, cruel and protracted war which the white settlers waged against the indigenous Australian. Anyone with doubts about that shameful truth would do well to read the early chapters of Dr Ray Evans’s history of Queensland (Cambridge University Press) and Professor Mark McKenna’s recent “Quarterly Essay”. The enduring blind-spot and intransigence of the Australian War Memorial in this matter is as shaming as it is deplorable.

  3. Eric Hodgens Eric Hodgens says:

    We first take sides, then justify our decision. Demonising the enemy boosts the righteousness of our side.

    Once WW I got going, the Germans were defending their homeland under attack from both sides. At Anzac the Turks were defending their homeland from invaders. The Turks prevailed at Anzac; the Germans were outdone in France.

    Both sides comforted themselves with legends of gallantry; both sides were depressed for years by hatred.

    We were British to the boot straps? Not all. In the main, our national leaders were But not all. Even then we were conflicted as the conscription referenda show.

    But there was nothing gallant about the cause. Villers Bretonneau was a battle victory; but, in one sense, we all lost the war. History’s aftermath has a long half-life.

  4. ANDREW FARRAN says:

    It is with some trepidation that I take issue in some respects with our blogger-in-chief over his post today: “Anzacs fought and died at Gallipoli for Britain, not Australia” (25/4).

    On recent blog in similar vein by Richard Flanagan headed: “Australians in WW1 didn’t die for Australia. They died for Britain” (24/4) I commented:

    “Australia was at the time formally and for the most part sentimentally an integral part (member) of the British Empire. We depended on the Royal Navy for our defence. Whatever one might think of our craven sense of dependency on another power today, we certainly were dependent then. The Germans themselves made no distinction between Britain and Australia in attacking our vessels and territories in 1914. We similarly attacked theirs when they appeared in these waters as is well known”.

    These were facts and at the time Australians responded as they did not because they believed in myths but because they lived in an existential reality. John Menadue states in his piece that “in memory of war we are so dreadfully selective”.

    Jurists argue about what is a “just war” and I would not quote Tony Abbott in that regard. Nor would I criticise the soldiers caught up in any of our wars. They did their duty and should be respected and commemorated. Whether such commemorations are building blocks to national identity I would doubt. As it is, too much is made of Gallipoli, under a British General, and not enough of the achievements on the Western Front under an Australian General.

    What makes a nation is more a matter of intangibles. But John, in highlighting “the early and remarkable achievements of this young country” believes they were “blotted out by the blood and blather of WW1, Anzac and Gallipoli” – achievements such as Federation, universal suffrage, the rights of women, industrial democracy, and the minimum wage. Conveniently or otherwise he omitted Australia’s fierce attachment at the time to a strict White Australia Policy.

    And the advent of a Labor Government in 1904 had less to do with any perfection of the then labour movement as to the inability of Protectionists and Free Traders to recognise where their best interests lay.

    But back to myths, the world lives by myths – the myths of religion, of democracy, of legal systems, etc.. When it comes to wars, there can be “just” wars – or put another way, “legitimate” wars. Here the quality of political leadership at the national level comes into it. Australia has not participated in a legitimate war since Korea. What does that say about the quality of recent leaderships? Apart from detaching ourselves from misleading alliances, perhaps it is time to leave critical decisions about war to our Parliaments in future.

  5. Colin Cook says:

    Wonderfully outspoken – thank you John for your clarity and forthright summary.

  6. Robert Fox says:

    Our fight in WW2 was so obviously necessary that it requires no special celebration.
    But such a useless loss of life as happened in WW1 is barely tolerable–better to invent a pompous fiction of national glory rather than enter into the pain of the utter futility of the senseless slaughter.

  7. Graham English says:

    YES! YES! YES!

  8. Mec Goudron says:

    While I agree with a lot of what Menadue has to say I think it is a trifle disingenuous to say that Australians “died for Britain, not Australia” as the title states.

    The truth is that Australians died for both as Australia considered itself British to the bootstraps and joined in the blood-lust of WWI with relish. As the records of the Somme show, Australian commanders tried to outdo their allied counterparts by committing thousands of ANZACs to their deaths through pointless frontal assaults, boasting that they could do as well as their allies. We are not immune or exceptional to such insanity.

    Please let’s decry all forms of military adventurism with endorsed by the Australian government or based on eagerness to fawn to allies.

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