The centenary of the First World War


‘They’ve got their priorities wrong — the dead are dead. You can always remember them, but to carry on with the celebrations … and that’s what it is, celebration.’ – UNCLE ALBERT


On 25 April 2015, many thousands of Australians rose before dawn and made their way to war memorials across the country, or indeed the world, to mark the 100th anniversary of the day on which Australian and New Zealand (ANZAC) troops landed on the Gallipoli peninsula and invaded the Ottoman Empire. Gallipoli is a name that is as familiar to Australians as Vegemite, so entrenched has it become in the national psyche over the past century, having come to symbolise, for many people, the intangible qualities of courage, sacrifice and mateship — even,  for some, the birth of nationhood. However, in commemorating the centenary of the First World War, historical fact plays only a very small part. Rarely, if at all, is Gallipoli referred to as an invasion, and statistics become inconvenient—for example, it is a little-known statistic that nearly 70 per cent of eligible males chose not to volunteer for military service in the First World War (in other words, the majority of the population did not go to war,  but stayed at home). The emphasis, it can be argued, is on the cult of Anzac, a national obsession — some say a secular religion — with its own commercial arm, ranging from biscuit tins to commemorative mugs.

‘I’ve always rejected the theory that we proved our valour as a nation at Gallipoli’, says Everald. ‘We sent guys over there to fight a war against the Turks, who had done absolutely nothing to Australia at all. We invaded and botched it badly and a lot of fellows died, and I don’t believe we should glorify that as the time we became a nation. The sooner we forget Gallipoli the better. I’m always worried about glorifying wars, but if we’re going to have a big celebration for a war it should be for the Battle of Kokoda. The fellows who fought and died at Kokoda actually won that battle and if they’d lost, Australia would have been invaded. It was extraordinary what they did — we should have a Kokoda Day, not an Anzac Day. But I would like to reach a point where we have things to celebrate in the life of the nation other than war.’

Attached to Gallipoli is the greater arc of the First World War and the bloodshed on the Western Front, which for a long time was eclipsed in the public consciousness by the myth-making events at Gallipoli, but is now generating its own momentum as a new theatre of remembrance. Pilgrimages to visit the grave sites of great-uncles in northern France and Belgium are a detour on many overseas holidays, and attendance at the dawn service at Villers-Bretonneux is rapidly becoming as much a rite of passage for flag-draped young Australians as watching the sun rise over Anzac Cove. ‘I’m sure young people are grateful that we had brave men and women who went to wars and there is a pride in what they did,’ says Everald, ‘but I think the Anzac thing has been totally overdone.’

From whichever angle you look at it, Australia is steeped in Anzac blood. To date, more than $500 million has been spent commemorating the Anzac centenary, of which $430 million has originated from government coffers. To put this in perspective, the total combined spending of all the other countries in the world is $200 million.

‘It’s all wrong,’ says Uncle Albert. ‘They’ve got their priorities wrong.’ To his mind, rather than spending money on ‘celebrating’ the dead — celebration having, in his view, superseded commemoration — it would be better spent on helping the living, in many areas of need. ‘To be quite honest, I think that those that are still alive are on a generous pension, whereas Aboriginal people couldn’t get a pension, let alone a war veteran’s pension. You were put to the back of the queue. It took a long time for my sister to be recognised on account of her husband [a Second World War veteran; p. 18] and to access a free hospital where Diggers could go.’ However, as Henry cautions, beneath all the pomp and emotion of Anzac Day lies the sombre reality of sacrifice for a cause, of Australians dead and injured in the service of their country, and indeed of the futility of war. ‘I’m pretty definite that I believe that any money that’s spent on those Anzac ceremonies is money well spent’, he says. ‘Australia is rich enough to be able to look after its returned servicemen in different ways as well.’ He thinks of his parents religiously watching the Anzac Day march on television every year, and turning out for their local march, knowing as they did, first hand, the terrible consequences of war.

For those who were there, whether in Vietnam, Germany or Iraq, there is perhaps no price that is too high for remembrance. In Henry’s way of thinking, it is important not to let cynicism belie the true purpose of Anzac Day. ‘I’ve never looked at it as being commercial. The children want to get involved in marches and ceremonies, raising the flags and singing along. It can bring people together. It was interesting in the mid-80s watching the Inala March going through streets where lots of Vietnamese had settled — they would come out and wave their Aussie flags.’

When Uncle Albert remembers the dead on Anzac Day, his thoughts turn in silent remembrance to those people who have suffered violent deaths not only on foreign battlefields, but on Australian soil. ‘All Australians are horrified by the Holocaust, the slaughtering of six million Jews in the Second World War’, he says. ‘They are perhaps less aware that many of my ancestors also experienced a horrible fate as the invaders attempted genocide on them. Up in Mackay you’ve got what they call The Leap. Aboriginal people — men, women and children — were rounded up and driven to a point where there was a big cliff. Those that didn’t jump off the cliff were either pushed or shot. I’ve always wanted to see that place because until I was told about it I knew nothing about it. The poisoning of the water holes — none of that figures in the history of this country. They are atrocities that happened — here. People should be more aware. We should have a memorial to those.’

Although Indigenous servicemen and women are now increasingly recognised and honoured for their service and sacrifice in war, Australia’s own Frontier Wars (the generic term referring to conflict between First Nations people and European settlers from 1788 onwards) are not part of the collective Anzac Day remembering. It is estimated that at least 20,000 Indigenous people and 2000 European settlers died in these wars on Australian soil, but that the true number of Indigenous people killed (men, women and children) may be as much as 100,000 — a figure that is roughly equivalent to the number of Australians killed overseas in armed conflict.

Whatever the differing perspectives may be on commemorating the Anzac centenary, and all wars, there is a certain irony in the notion that Anzac Day, built around Australia’s national cult of remembrance, also conceals a national cult of forgetting.


Text from the book:

‘Goondeen Understanding Australia ‘


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