Next Thursday in Seoul, Julia Gillard will take part in a commemoration of the 60th anniversary of the start of the Korean War. This represents a continuation of the trend for Australian leaders to acknowledge the importance of Armistice Day as an occasion separate from Anzac Day.
For decades, Australians almost forgot Remembrance Day. The 11th hour of the 11th day of the 11th month of 1918 was not a focus for much attention in Australia concerning World War I or any other conflict. Instead, Anzac Day was the time for remembrance.
Australians focused on April 25 – the start of the unsuccessful Dardanelles campaign – rather than on November 11, the successful end of hostilities on the Western Front in which the German army was defeated in the field.
Initially this reflected the enormous impact of the Australian deaths and casualties at Anzac Cove during the Australian Imperial Force’s inaugural military action. But over time, the focus on April 25 accommodated the unwillingness of many opinion leaders to acknowledge that the Allies really won the First World War and that the AIF played a key role in the military victories of 1918.
In the 1960s, 1970s and 1980s, the ridicule that was at the core of Joan Littlewood’s play Oh, What a Lovely War! affected public perception of World War I in Britain, Australia and elsewhere. This tradition was continued in the 1980s with the television series Blackadder Goes Forth, written by Richard Curtis and Ben Elton.
There were also the histories of such authors as Alan Clark and John Laffin, which inspired the fiction. The thesis of all of the above was that the Allied military leadership in 1914-18 was disastrous, the cause of resisting Germany was not worth fighting, and that those who fell during the Great War died in vain.
The Clark/Littlewood thesis has been under attack for about a quarter of a century due to the work of historians and the growing interest of the young in learning about their ancestors and who are not prepared to accept that they died or suffered in vain.
Ashley Ekins’s edited collection 1918: A Year of Victory provides an example of recent scholarship of World War I. The Adelaide historian Robin Prior writes that, contrary to mythology, the German army was decisively defeated in 1918. Yet he reflects that “the greatest victory ever won by the British army, at Amiens [in August 1918] – which happened to be the only occasion when the Australian Corps engaged a major section of the main army of the main enemy – is now largely forgotten”.
Gradually, the Prior thesis is becoming better known. But to accept it, you have to junk the fashionable view that the Allied soldiers in 1914-18 were led by donkeys.
In the same volume the British historian Stephen Badsey writes that “there is nothing to suggest that in 1914-18 Germany would have settled for any peace other than the complete defeat of its major enemies”, which included Australia. He also refers to the presently emerging historical consensus as “one of considerable continuity in institutionalised German military brutality from the Franco-Russian War to the Third Reich”. To accept this view, you have to recognise that 1914-18 was a just war.
Certainly, attitudes to the Great War are changing but few Australians have heard of the Battle of Amiens.
It is much the same with the Korean War. In April 1951 Australian and Canadian battalions took part in fierce fighting, which halted a big communist offensive by Chinese troops who were supporting North Korea. British forces took part in a similar military action nearby.
Once again, the Battle of Kapyong was an occasion when the Australian army took part in a key battle that helped determine the outcome of a conflict of key interest to Australia. But like the Battle of Amiens, Kapyong is all but forgotten outside the Australian Defence Force.
What is needed in the study of Australian history is empiricism.
Australia’s two most influential general historians – the late Manning Clark and Stuart Macintyre – have essentially presented a left-wing interpretation of Australian military involvements. This is the mindset of many older academics and teachers. Australians deserve the opportunity to form their conclusions from the facts. That’s why Ekins’s collection is welcome.
The same can be said of Wain Fimeri’s film Charles Bean’s Great War, which airs on the History Channel on Thursday. Fimeri presents his interpretation of the man who wrote Australia’s official history of World War I. Then such well qualified commentators as Anne-Marie Conde, Jeffrey Grey, Michael McKernan and Peter Stanley present their considered, and diverse, opinions.
From this, viewers can reach their conclusions. It’s time for empirical documentaries on the battles of Amiens and Kapyong.