The Australian default position on the political spectrum is to the right of centre. It is naturally conservative and more. It had foisted on it the authoritarian structures of colonial rule. This was challenged from time to time, notably at Eureka and with the shearers strike(s) in the 1880/90’s leading to the formation of the Trade Union Movement. But left to its own devices the political pendulum swings to the right. Not confident in the commonsense of their fellow Australians the Right when in power have corralled the electorate through fear of communism, terrorism, recession and foreign settlers.
The Right of Australian politics is not noted for research or reflection. It fears for the future and fights change. It clings to an imaginary and idealised past. It is maudlin and saccharine in its emotional responses and angry when its defences of denial are challenged.
We are just emerging from a prolonged period of ‘remembrance’ relating to the Australian involvement, deaths and casualties, in WW1, which ended on 11 November 1918 and concluded for us, a weary and leery nation, on the same day in 2018, at a total cost, over 4 years, of $600m.
It was anything but remembrance. It was glorification of a false understanding of war, in particular WW1. But it is worse; the Right has put war front and central in their narrative about the development of Australia as a nation. It is a white history. It ignores the Aboriginal narrative dating back 60,000 years and it ignores the history of labour, the Trade Union Movement and the environment in shaping lives and endeavour.
It ignores the wars of suppression and oppression conducted against the indigenous population from the time of white settlement. Massacres, murder, rape and slavery; the Australian War Memorial (AWM) has indicated it will have no part in recording and displaying what are termed the Border Wars, for the most part they deny their existence.
Young men jumped at the chance to join up in 1914. Caught in the trap of low or no wages, limited opportunity, restricted horizons and the dead hand of quasi British authoritarian governance, they grasped what they thought was a chance of escape and adventure under the acceptable guise of Patriotism, Empire and Crown. The 20,000 younsters of the First Division were a wild and independent lot, the Second Division a little more restrained but not by much. The Fourth and Fifth more so and the last division formed, the Third under Monash, positively sober.
The landing at Gallipoli was messy; the troops were green and the leadership staid if not hidebound. There was much milling about on the beach but the young bloods of all ranks took off and made for the heights. Just a few Turks were able to check them because they held the heights, which in military matters is rule number one. Turkish reinforcements arrived under Mustafa Kemal and that was the end of that. Stalemate and many casualties followed. Maybe the Australian young bloods were aware that they were invading Turkey, maybe they were not, but all of the Turkish soldiers facing them were. Put yourself in their place at North Head.
The official Australian war correspondent, Charles Bean, who was a brave, observant and meticulous diarist, recorded what he saw and sent home despatches. Phillip Schuler of The Age, who was there indepently under the auspices of his paper chose to see things differently.
The blood, flies, impossible tactical position, poor supply, food and medical provision for the Australian and New Zealand troops were apparent to both young Australian reporters. Schuler reported it as it was and the waste and stupidity that it represented, Bean chose to guild the Lilly. Out of the waste and anarchy of war his response was to create a myth, to justify the needless and useless slaughter and by so doing became a recruiting propagandist for future wars. Bean was a romantic, white supremacist, misogynist, racist and mildly authoritarian individual. In 1910 he did a trip through outback NSW and down the Darling, where his Anglo-Australian sensibilities were roused by laconic and self sufficient stock men. They positively turned him on and from then on he was smitten. He didn’t mention Aboriginals or women in his account. It is hard to believe he didn’t encounter them, but they didn’t fit his narrative or predilections.
Bean took this to Gallipoli and later to France and wove his dispatches and his history around his ANZAC myth. Schuler couldn’t stand Bean’s non-sense and volunteered for service in France as a Private. He was killed in 1917.
Bean was a conservative of the Right. His racism placed him there; he opposed the appointment of Monash to head the Australian forces in France because he was a Jew, and he tugged his forelock at Anglo-Australians such as Major General Brudenell-White, a Melbourne Club habitué.
The hopeless, mindless, arrogant slaughter of the Western Front in France and Belgium, incomprehensible to Bean, but not to the Australian soldier Edgar Rule, or British soldiers Wilfred Owen and Robert Graves, saw him reinforce his ANZAC myth following the mindless slaughter of 23,000 Australian troops at Pozieres in mid 1916 for a gain of 3000 metres. Bean tried to describe it, but he wasn’t emotionally or culturally equipped to do it.
Beans history of WW1 was impressively detailed, with thousands of personal accounts of bravery and little of suffering. It was an account to assist recruitment should another conflict occur, which happened even before the last volume of his history was published.
Devastated by WW1 and probably with PTSD, Bean moved on his return to get a memorial built to the dead. However from the outset there was nothing dignified or restrained about the design of the structure. What was proposed and what came to pass was a large crypto-fascist pile not at all pleasing to the eye. It is masculine and designed to dominate and impress.
Bean was more motivated with his memorial – a shrine to glorify imagery of his beloved boys, than practical help for the broken shell shocked shadow of men who returned. Faced with a five foot two, broken nosed, gap toothed, miner, Bean saw a six foot, blond, blue eyed Adonis. He was in love with his ideal Australian and remained that way until he died; the Catholic priest syndrome.
Bean had picked up with and become a party to the inferiority complex which drove the Australian narrative in WW1. In brief it ran that Australia was a new country, an off shoot of Britain, but it had a blood stock as good if not better than the mother country. The war was a chance to demonstrate that Australia was better and excelled in manliness, skill, grit and courage. Reading Bean’s history the impression is gained that Australia came out of WW1 with the prize for ‘Best on Battlefield’.
The ANZAC legend or myth as we have noted is a product of an inability to process disaster. It is also a salve to national pride. Bean found it impossible to admit to poor leadership at all levels from platoon leader to Division head and beyond. He could never bring himself to say that Haig was an unimaginative thick head or that the Australian General M’Cay should have been court marshalled and cashiered for refusing to allow the injured to be retrieved after the Battle of Fromelles.
ANZAC comes out of the British ruling class tradition of turning defeat or disaster into victory, thereby avoiding boards of inquiry. After the disastrous battle against the Zulu’s at Rorke’s Drift, the British Army threw VC’s around like confetti. The conservatives or as they have now become the Right Wing, do not have the capacity to call a spade a spade, that is left to the working class and they called WW1 for what it was – a bloody slaughter of men against machines.
Many returned soldiers would have nothing to do with the ANZAC tradition, legend or myth because it was just that – a myth. It has only been since the 1980’s that there has been a nationalistic and jingoistic ‘revival’ of the fireside reworking of Australia’s glorious war time contribution and feat of arms from Contalmaison, Kokoda and Tarin Kowt. War and the achievements of war in forming the character of the country were central to a resurgence of white Anglo-Australian pride and nationalism.
This year the director of the AWM, Brendan Nelson, a former Liberal politician, repeated the propaganda of past memorial parades at the 100th Anniversary celebration at the ending of WW1. He did so with all the pomp, circumstance and farce of a Gilbert and Sullivan opera. A popinjay, a martinet; absent from his address was any semblance of the dignity associated with remembrance. But this is what ANZAC has become a sound and light show, a vehicle to promote national pride in a big and bloody disaster.
Forgotten were the Veterans who struggle to have a voice and their pain and claims addressed. The $600m spent to provide political leverage for the LNP, plus a further $500m to extend and upgrade the AWM, would have gone a long way to assist and improve the lives of Veterans.
Now in case you think I am a snotty nosed, bleeding hart leftie who doesn’t know a bolt from a breech block let me give you some back ground. My grandfather was a professional soldier who fought in the Boer War, the North West Frontier Province of India and in Tibet. In 1912 he joined the Australian Instructional Corps and in 1916 became an instructor at Duntroon. In 1917 he went to WW1, returning to instruct again at Duntroon.
My great uncle was killed at Messines and has no known grave, his brother returned but in terrible shape.
My father joined the 6 Division of the AIF in 1939. He escaped from Crete in 1941 and was Mentioned in Dispatches. My uncle was in the RAAF in the Pacific; my cousin was killed in a bombing mission over Europe. My mother’s husband was killed at El Alamein and she drove an Ambulance. I was conscripted for National Service in 1966.
Since 1982, I have been to Gallipoli three times and to the battle fields of Belgium and France, ten. I have drawn maps and written a history yet to be published.
Bruce Haigh is a retired diplomat and political commentator.