A half-century ago, among the Left intelligentsia it was fashionable to predict the end of Anzac Day. Perhaps most memorably in Eric Bogle’s song And the Band Played Waltzing Matilda.
Bogle’s lyrics, written in the voice of an alienated, wounded World War I veteran, has the Digger observing “the young people ask, what are they marching for?” and adding “and I ask myself the same question”. Towards the end, the returned serviceman reflects: “But as year follows year, more old men disappear / someday no one will march there at all.”
The song was written in 1971 and reflected what was termed the anti-war ethos of the time. Almost a half-century later, Anzac Day is perhaps as much supported as it ever was and those marching include veterans of the Vietnam war along with those of Australia’s involvements in Iraq and Afghanistan.
As with past prophecies about Anzac Day, this is likely to be proven false.
Aszkielowicz conceded that, for the moment, the “surge in Anzac Day nationalism” had made the occasion more popular than ever and added that “it is fuelled by the military” and “used unashamedly by politicians to further their own causes”.
This is a substantial misreading of Australian society. The evidence suggests that any “surge” in interest in Anzac Day reflects a growing fascination with genealogy, which has become more accessible because of the internet. In a sense the military, along with Coalition and Labor politicians, followed, rather than set, the national mood.
Schoolchildren today can learn on social media of their ancestors who served in the Australian Defence Force.
They do not readily embrace the left-wing interpretation of history that, over the decades, Australians fought “other nations’ wars” and died and suffered “in vain”. Nor should they.
The likes of Aszkielowicz are now restating a view that was heard during the early years of World War II and at the time of Australia’s Vietnam commitment. Namely, that members of the Australian military are killers — even murderers.
During the time of the Nazi Germany-Soviet Union pact, which prevailed between August 1939 and June 1941, members of the Communist Party described Australian military forces as murderers. The extreme Left ran a similar line during the Vietnam war because it wanted communist North Vietnam to prevail over anti-communist South Vietnam.
Now Aszkielowicz is running the same argument with respect to Australia’s involvement in the Dardanelles campaign of 1915. Asked by one of his students whether he thought the Anzacs should be viewed as murderers, the Australian history lecturer replied: “If you go and you kill people, whether it’s in a foreign campaign or not, then you’ve killed people and you’re a killer.”
Such a view would make sense to a full-on pacifist who believes that no war is just and all killing is unjust. However, if such a pacifist view had prevailed in 1914, the kaiser’s Imperial Germany would have been allowed to conquer Belgium, France and Russia. And had such a view dominated in 1939, Adolf Hitler’s Nazis would have won the war.
In 1914 and again in 1939, Australia — which was part of the British Empire — went to war to stop German aggression. Which explains Gallipoli, the Western Front and all that. After December 1941, Australia went to war to stop the aggression of imperial Japan.
It’s true that in April 1915 Australia played a role in the invasion of the Ottoman Empire — along with Britain, Canada, France, India and New Zealand. It is also true that this was a legitimate act of warfare since the Ottoman Empire was an ally of Germany and Germany was at war with Britain.
Britain declared war on Germany on August 4, 1914. Two days earlier, the Ottoman Empire had signed a secret treaty with Germany. On October 29, the Ottoman fleet attacked the Russian navy. Russia declared war on the Ottoman Empire on November 2. Britain and France, Russia’s allies, did the same on November 5.
By then the Ottoman Empire had joined the Central Powers of Germany and Austria-Hungary in conflict with the Allies (Britain, France and Russia).
In view of the status of forces in 1915, the Dardanelles campaign was a perfectly valid act of war — even though it proved to be a military failure.
The aim was to conquer Constantinople and put pressure on Germany’s southern flank. At the time, a prevalent view in Britain was that General Douglas Haig’s plan to defeat Germany on the main battle front of the Western Front could not succeed. By November 1918 it did, in the face of the doubters.
Winston Churchill, first lord of the Admiralty, is frequently blamed for the disaster that was the Gallipoli campaign. His position is best explained in Martin Gilbert’s In Search of Churchill (1994). Put simply, Churchill wanted a combined military and naval action. But when the latter failed, after Allied ships were sunk by mines, the military action went ahead by itself. It, too, failed.
Churchill’s action was planned with the best of intentions. As he wrote to prime minister HH Asquith in December 1914: “Are there not other alternatives than sending our armies to chew barbed wire in Flanders?” Fine intentions, to be sure. But, as it turned out, there were no such alternatives.
Australia’s failure in the Dardanelles is well remembered. But not so much Australia’s military successes in the part of the Ottoman Empire known as Sinai and Palestine, under the fine leadership of General Sir Henry Chauvel. These campaigns are well described in Jeffrey Grey’s The War with the Ottoman Empire (2015).
Australians have reason to look back with pride on the nation’s role in the defeat of Germany and its ally the Ottoman Empire in World War I. Sadly, so few academics these days are prepared to tell such unfashionable truths to their students. Nevertheless, defying Bogle, increasing numbers still march in honour of the First Australian Imperial Force.