Red poppies and bare ground: Why do we discriminate among our war dead?

Apr 25, 2024
Red poppies Canberra's Australian War Memorial.

The 100 000 or so dead men and women in Australia’s overseas wars are symbolised by red poppies, on the Roll of Honour at the Australian War Memorial in Canberra, in shrines around the nation, on the more than 5000 war memorials in our towns and suburbs, in war cemeteries overseas, and worn on Anzac and Remembrance Days.

Lest We Forget, the poppies remind us.

Actually, the official death figure for our overseas wars, from New Zealand in the 1850s to Afghanistan in the 21st century is currently 103,021, that exact number derived from the detailed work that the War Memorial puts into determining whether an individual name can be included on the Roll of Honour. (The Roll is updated every Remembrance Day.)

These masses of dead women and men fell ‘in the King’s/Queen’s service’, ‘for Australia’, ‘in our name’, ‘to protect our national values’, ‘to keep Australia safe’. Or that’s how the stories go. There is less effort put into drawing a link between those grand goals and individual deaths. Really, it makes more sense to say someone died because of something – being hit by a bullet or blown to bits by a shell, being struck down by disease, being in a plane crash or a torpedoed ship– than for a large cause. The term ‘service and sacrifice’ is often used to gloss over these awkward endings.

If we stretch a point with some of our early expeditionary forces – the one to the Sudan in 1885 (nine Australian deaths) perhaps, or the one to the Boxer Rebellion in China in 1900-01 (six deaths), and recent peace-keeping efforts in Rwanda, Somalia, and Timor Leste – we could say these overseas ventures were to do with the defence of Australia. Even if some of them were more about paying a premium on the American Alliance insurance policy, we can still find a connection, often tenuous, to our national defence.

Recent high-level discussion about our Defence options suggests we have more clarity on where the kit is coming from – the US defence industry – than on what we need it for – to protect our shipping lanes and undersea cables, to help blow the tripes out of Chinese invading Taiwan, or just to retain ‘interoperability’ with Uncle Sam. Let’s leave all that aside for now; some of the high-level discussants don’t have much of a clue either.

Let’s look instead at the Australian Frontier Wars, which killed a couple of thousand settlers, military, and police but between 20 000 and 100 000 Indigenous Australians, men, women, and children. (No-one knows exactly how many died; bodies were buried or burned, records were lost or destroyed. Death estimates for Queensland alone range from 40 000 to 72 000.) ‘Australia was fought for in an endless war of little, cruel battles’, as David Marr wrote in Killing for Country (2023).

If that upper figure of 100 000 is correct, it pretty much matches the number killed in all our overseas wars. And these men, women and children also died in the defence of Australia, the defence of their Country, just as much as did the people whose names are recorded on Canberra’s Roll of Honour.

Australia’s premier historian of the Frontier Wars, Professor Henry Reynolds, said this on the TV documentary, The Australian Wars: ‘It was war because of what it was about, not the way it was fought [Marr’s “little, cruel battles”]. And my view is, not only was it war but it was our most important war. One, it was fought in Australia, two, it was fought about Australia and, three, it determined the ownership and the control, the sovereignty of a whole continent.’

The Frontier Wars are truly ‘the Australian Wars’; they were fought on Country and for Country. To emphasise the contrast, we should call the expeditionary force wars – from the Sudan to Afghanistan and including two World Wars, Korea, and Vietnam – ‘Australia’s Overseas Wars’. Yet, it is the latter wars that get the full remembrance treatment; we turn away from the Australian Wars and try to shove them down the memory hole.

There is a stark contrast between that row of red poppies at the Australian War Memorial, the poppies in all those other places, and, on the other hand, the typical bare, unmarked pieces of earth that saw the massacres of First Nations warriors and their families or the fierce resistance of those warriors against the Native Police and their white officers in Queensland, and against bands of settlers across the country.

There are countless such places around Australia. There are some memorials, like those for the Coniston massacre in the Northern Territory and the Myall Creek massacre in New South Wales, and there are plenty of place names (Massacre Bay, Murdering Creek, Skull Creek) but the relative lack of evidence helps the deniers (‘Frontier Wars never happened!’) and the dismissers (‘get over it!’) to continue to deny and dismiss.

One could travel Australia and remain completely ignorant of the Frontier Wars, the Australian Wars. That should not be. Official recognition at our major memorials and shrines would go some way towards a remedy.

Lest We Forget indeed.


Republished from DEFENDING COUNTRY, April 19, 2024

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