There is no need for Anzac Day mythology

Stone the crows! It’s not all quiet on the culture war front as Anzac Day approaches.

On the one hand, the old orthodoxies are still slugging it out.

On the academic flank, historians suggest the first AIF was racist, sexist and so forth and so on and that the great Australian invention of the welfare state is unjustly junked by the jingoes.

Thus Marilyn Lake argues:

It is important for a people to take pride in national achievement, to build collective commitment to shared national values. … But which narratives of past achievement should we run with? What about the astonishingly successful achievement of our multicultural civil society that rose from the foundations of White Australia and our vibrant political democracy born in convict chains? Or the early achievement of women’s rights won in the context of a masculinist culture. [i]

Even Peter Stanley, perhaps the most prolific of modern scholars of Australian military history who dislikes the way the state has sanctified an officially endorsed past. He upset true believers by making a convincing case that the ‘battle for Australia” saving us from Japanese invasion did not occur as presented in the propaganda.[ii]

And he is now suggesting that Anzac is promoted, even manipulated, in ways which exclude other aspects of the Australian story:

Anzac Day has become a commodity, able to be managed and indeed manipulated. Anzac Day brings an annual flood of emotion, some of it heartfelt and raw, some ersatz and some frankly manufactured. [iii]

But writers in the no-persons land between scholarship and story telling still present the digger as super-soldier school. While not taken seriously by academics, there are plenty of populists who will tell you that John Monash was a genius who channelled the natural combat competence of the digger and created the conditions that won WWI. What they avoid is the way ordinary British troops fighting alongside the Anzacs also did well in 1918 when supported by enough artillery. [iv]

You can make a case for the arguments of the flag wavers and naysayers, just not very good ones. And certainly not arguments that have much to do with Anzac Day, what we remember, why we remember and what we should.

As to what we remember, the answer is not much – at least by most of us. And why should we? It is the overall image of Gallipoli and the Western Front that matters most for the foundation myth rather than the facts of the fighting. You do not need to know the details of Ypres or Lone Pine, or to have walked the ground from Pozieres to Mouquet Farm, to understand the horror of men advancing over open ground towards unbroken wire protecting machine gunners.

As to why we remember, it has much less to do with militarism or the xenophobia sneering snobs insist on attributing to ordinary Australians than their determination to stand up for themselves in a world that either ignores us or assumes we are ersatz Brits or Yanks.

As expatriate Australian historian Ian Mylchreest puts it:

Critics who doubt the meanings of Anzac are fighting a losing battle trying to correct false Anzac memory syndrome. National identity is not about historical truth but about what we imagine ourselves to be. And, like it or not, Australians are still talking and thinking about proving themselves on the world stage and those who succeed are our heroes. Anzac was simply the original version of that story. [v]

But what we should remember is where the serious scholars struggle. Robin Gerster established that big-noting was a foundation of the Anzac story.[vi] However distaste for skiting is still the old-Australian way and historians are anxious to avoid exaggerations.

Thus, the fine scholar of frontier conflict John Connor makes the entirely reasonable point that the AIF was not, as many assume, the only all-volunteer force from the British Empire in WWI. There were tens of thousands of Africans and Irish, and hundreds of thousands of Indians, willingly under arms. Nor did being volunteers make the Australians superior soldiers – they did well, especially well, in 1918 because of quality commanders, superior staff work and above all ever-improving allied artillery. [vii]

Other serious historians get carried away in their efforts to stop Anzac being invoked to explain the national interest of our own age, a subject on which the combat record of the First and Second AIF offers no evidence.

Albert Palazzo rightly argues that we kid ourselves that Australia’s defense forces “punch above their weight”, demonstrating that it was US logistics and communications, plus the warning to Indonesia implicit in the presence of Marine Corp units stationed offshore that made the East Timor intervention possible. But he draws a longish bow in connecting an inflated sense of what the ADF can do now to legends about what the First AIF accomplished. [viii]

The problem is that this sort of down-playing is much the same as the big-noting, enlisting the past in the service of present politics. This is not unique to us; the Yanks have always explained why men fought in their civil war to suit the issues of the hour at time of writing. You can still get a states right argument in the South and it is an article of faith among the America loathing left that racism on both sides made the war that freed the slaves a sham.

But as Gary Gallagher points out, examining why Union solders fought, from their perspective, shows slavery did not matter much to them (the vast majority of Northern state soldiers had no contact with black Americans). Instead, they fought to preserve the Union. [ix]

We should do the same with the original Anzacs, examine what they accomplished and why, in their own context, not ours. In essence, we should stick to the history – which is why it’s worth reading Graham Wilson’s Bully beef and balderdash: Some myths of the AIF examined and debunked this Anzac Day.[x]

The Crows suspect Wilson’s book will not be a super seller this week. There is far too much caution in his claims to suit the mythmakers and he is too much the antiquarian to please the big picture scholars.

But Wilson knows his way around the archives and he is interested in what the First AIF was and what it did – not the subsequent stories. Thus, he shows that its members were not, could not have been, all crack shots from the bush. He explains why the Gallipoli campaign was not doomed by inept intelligence, and he makes it clear that the AIF was not all teeth and no tail, that not every Australian on the Western Front was an assault infantryman.

Wilson also knocks over many other legends of varying obscurity, presenting evidence that borders on the obsessive. Think the Light Horse delivered the world’s last cavalry charge at Beersheba in 1917? Think again, it was Italian cavalry fighting the Soviets in 1942 and Wilson includes their order of battle to prove it! [xi]

Not that he wants to diminish a record, in no need of embellishment with bullshit:

The AIF’s record is so superb in its own right that it does not need myth to bolster it. All that mythologists, those who create the myths and those who perpetuate them do, is to conceal under a layer of falsehood and misinformation the true story of a remarkable army. [xii]

Which is where we should be this week, getting into the detail of what actually occurred. The reason WWI and all the fights that followed are worth studying today is not because they can providence evidence for contemporary political arguments but because they are battles Australians fought.

People are always interested in family history – but we generally want to know the whole story – the bad bits and the good – so we can understand not judge.


[i] Marilyn Lake, “The story of Anzac: mythology, memory history ” (in) Kevin Foster (ed) The Information Battlefield: Representing Australians at War (2011) 60-73, 65

[ii] Peter Stanley, Invading Australia: Japan and the battle for Australia, 1942 (2008)

[iii] Peter Stanley, “Monumental mistake: Is war the most important thing in Australian history?” (in) Craig Stockings (ed) Anzac’s Dirty Dozen: 12 myths of Australian military history,” (2012) 260-286, 276

[iv] Elizabeth Greenhalgh, Australians broke the Hindenburgh Line,” (in) Craig Stockings (ed) Zombie myths of Australian Military History (2010) 70-92, 85-86

[v] Ian Mylchreest, “Anzac, the legend of a little country that could,” Sydney Morning Herald, National Times April 19 @ recovered on April 20

[vi] Robin Gerster, Big-Noting: The heroic theme in Australian war writing (1987)

[vii] John Connor, “The ‘superior’ all-volunteer AIF” (in) Stockings Anzac’s Dirty Dozen 35-50

[viii] Albert Palazzo, “The myth that Australia ‘punches above its weight’ “ (in Stockings, Anzac’s Dirty Dozen, 210-233

[ix] Gary W Gallagher, The Union War (2011)

[x] Graham Wilson, Bully beef and balderdash: Some myths of the AIF examined and debunked (2012)

[xi] Wilson, op cit, 528

[xii] Wilson, op cit, 15