Anzac 2009: Thinking about memorialisation and commemoration

SHE pledged not to marry when her boyfriend was killed at Gallipoli, and she kept that pledge.  In 1960 she was still knitting socks for the Red Cross, which she started to do when her boyfriend sailed out of her life in 1915, never to return.

When you have known and loved a person, a son or daughter, a husband or wife, a mother or father, a close friend, and they have been part of your every day life, part of you, precious, to be treasured, held close, alive to you as you are to them, you precious to them as they are to you in all and everything that is important, meaningful, memorable, and yes, so vulnerable… and they are taken by the State, never to return, or if they return they are irretrievably altered or damaged…

What do you do?  How do you grieve?  What do you do?

Several years ago I was asked by Tasmanian Vietnam SAS veteran Peter France to deliver the Anzac Day address at Ringarooma.  It was an invitation I felt most privileged to be offered, because when Peter was farewelled from his home town all those years ago, en route to Vietnam, one of the town’s residents, Trevor Sharman, had been at the forefront of organizing the occasion.  Trevor had been a platoon commander in the largely Tasmanian 2/40 Battalion, had been a prisoner of war of the Japanese from early 1942 until September 1945, and had been the inspiration behind my attempts to write a history of the 2/40 Battalion, finally published in 1995.

At Ringarooma on that day Trevor’s widow, Phyl and his family, had allowed me to wear Trevor’s war service medals, and to speak about him in my account of what happened to the 2/40 Battalion.  Afterwards in the Ringarooma Hotel, where Trevor had been the publican, most people there knew both Peter France and Trevor Sharman.

However, and not for the first time, I also feel disturbed that Anzac Day in its current structure and form is flawed, that it fails in some way to do justice to those who have borne the cost of war, that it should encompass much more than it does, that it should provide much broader commemoration than it does, and recognize in much greater depth of reality – yes, reality – of the effects of war.  And that it should tell us more, much more, about real history.

I say this in the cold light of understanding that in every war since the beginning of the 20th century, up to and including the current war in Afghanistan, Australian politicians across the major party political spectrum have always fallen over themselves in enthusiasm for sending our young men to die on foreign battlefields in the “national interest”, which, certainly since World War II has simply meant the party political interest.

But, in the aftermath of each and every one of those wars, bar none, when the people in uniform have returned and require repatriation and rehabilitation, they have always been forced to fight long and hard, often without success, to have all the consequences of their willingness to serve in Australian military services overseas, duly recognized and adequately treated. 

And I say this in the cold light of understanding that you will be able to walk through the streets of Melbourne’s CBD to the city’s cenotaph for the dawn service on Anzac Day this year, as in past years, to the sight of large numbers of people, mainly young, leaving city nightclubs totally drunk, hailing taxis, being sick in the gutter, totally unaware of the existence of Anzac Day at all.   

These things need to be understood because on the occasion of the 94th anniversary of the first day of the ill-fated attempt to gain control of the Gallipoli peninsula, and thereby control of the shipping route into the Sea of Marmara, and warm water ports south to Russia to assist efforts on the eastern front, we need to ask ourselves about the purpose of Anzac Day. 

How many Australians know the reason for the most well-known military operation involving Australian troops, and which for nearly a century has been the centerpiece, the archetypical symbolic representation for memorialisation and commemoration of all battles, all wars, all overseas activities of Australians in military roles since April 25th, 1915? 

The ten-month military campaign for control of the Dardanelles, the ancient Greek Hellespont (bridge to Greece), was similar in purpose to that of the Trojan war, more than 3,000 years earlier, and was fought on land near to the location where the Persian king Xerxes built his pontoon bridge of boats to invade Greece in 480 BCE, and where Alexander of Macedon crossed over 150 years later on his 12 year campaign which extended as far as the Indus River in modern India. 

Gallipoli is a place soaked in blood, and if its hills and valleys and roads and tracks could speak their memories they would talk of the tramp of the feet of soldiers and the sounds of awful battle extending back in time well before Achilles and Hector saw, and perhaps walked upon that land.

But the ancients, their mythical heroes and their gods – even their vengeful gods – would have been appalled at what happened in 1915.  In that short space of time, before the worse horrors of 1916, more than 100,000 soldiers died on Gallipoli, more than half of whom were Turkish, and of whom 26,000 were British, over 7,000 were Australian and most of the remainder were French.  The permanently injured and incapacitated were several times that number. 

But how many Australians would realize that, and how many would have any understanding that the Anzac contribution to the overall Gallipoli campaign was, although not insignificant, much smaller than that of the British and French?

Then again, 50,000 Australians died on foreign battlefields in the period between April 1915 and November 1918.  More than 80% of Australian casualties in World War I occurred on the western front between 1916 and 1918, not at Gallipoli in 1915.  Pozieres in 1916 was the site of 30,000 Australians casualties, more than seven times those at Gallipoli.  If any place should be at the forefront of commemoration of Australian sacrifice in war, for all wars, it should be Pozieres.  But it is not.  This is a demonstration of an essential failure in our understanding of our past.

It is hard to imagine any other nation in the world (except the totally dysfunctional) failing to acknowledge a Pozieres as significant in their national memory. 

Australia’s future was irrevocably altered by World War I in many ways, but the immense cost has always been accepted as somehow justified by final victory in a British imperial endeavour, thereby pushing aside the human sacrifice on all levels, refusing to seriously acknowledge, to understand and to respect on its own terms what had happened to a whole society. 

Gallipoli somehow obscures the greater loss, perhaps because the greater loss is too much to bear.  Australia’s population at the time of World War I was not much more than three million. But 50,000 dead and 200,000 injured equates to about 350,000 dead and 1,400,000 million injured in relative terms to Australia’s current population.  That is the immensity of the cost of World War I, just on the battlefield.  In terms of the destruction of the future leadership of Australia, of the intellectual, innovative, business and working capacity of the whole generation of Australians after World War I, and the consequent inter-generational effects, the costs are beyond calculation.  How many Australians consider these matters on Anzac Day? 

Yet this is just the tip of the iceberg.  As a young boy in the 1950s in Evandale in northern Tasmania, I came to know an elderly woman.  Her name was Miss Bonner.  I don’t know her first name. She taught me to play draughts, and we played draughts regularly, probably once a week, between 1958 to the end of 1960.  She had a photo on her mantelpiece of a World War I digger, her boyfriend who was killed at Gallipoli.  (I do wish I knew his name).

Miss Bonner had never married.  She had pledged not to marry when her boyfriend was killed.  But when we played draughts she would always be knitting socks at the same time.  It was just what she did.  At some time, possibly when I was in grade six at Evandale State School, she told me she had been knitting socks for the Red Cross since her soldier boyfriend sailed out of her life, never to return. 

Miss Bonner was not granted a State funeral, but she was more deserving of that honour than a six-week veteran of Gallipoli who happened to live longer than anyone else, as were all those people, in their thousands, both men and women, who in so many ways paid a much, much higher price. 

There is something intrinsically weird about a country which accords greater public recognition to a person for their longevity, above all those who fought through the whole Gallipoli campaign plus the western front, let alone all and every one of those who died or were seriously injured.

And that’s just in relation to World War I.  It will be a real travesty if the last surviving veteran of World War II comes to occupy a higher place in the collective memory of our society than “Weary” Dunlop, Vivian Bullwinkel, and the diggers of Kokoda.  Unfortunately, the craven alliance between political opportunism and the mass media in Australia is virtually bound to guarantee such an outcome.

In this context, it is shocking to read, once again, the recurring story about how Australia deals with the repatriation of our people in uniform from combat zones and foreign wars.  The stories of traumatized diggers from Iraq and Afghanistan are a mirror image of the Vietnam veterans’ experiences.  It appears nothing has been learned in this country, that the same pattern of obfuscation, bureaucratic bungling, blaming the victim, delaying appropriate medical responses and denying benefits will again be repeated, in the hope that veterans will just go away, become invisible.

The political record of Australia’s treatment of its veterans is disgraceful, extending back to the beginning of the 20th century.  After World War I it was only due to the sheer weight of numbers that appropriate legislation was enacted for the repatriation of diggers into civilian life.  The history of that is the bitter conflict between returned men and unionists about preference for employment, the alienation between those who experienced combat and those who had no idea, the division between the bereft and distraught families, especially widows with young children, but shattered parents as well, and those who did not.  The RSL became a powerful political lobby, but without its efforts it is clear that little would have been done for veterans and their families of both world wars.

But we would do well to remember and understand that part of the cost of war between the two world wars was a nasty and ugly political dog-fight, divisive and antagonistic as any that have plagued Australian political history at any time, and utilized and manipulated cynically to the maximum by all political parties. 

After every war the same pattern of political behaviour has played itself out.  The John Howards and Kevin Rudds love the fanfare, nationalistic rhetoric and photo opportunities associated with farewelling our military forces, or visiting them on foreign fields of action, replete with khaki, flak jackets and helmets, but when it comes to the return, the rehabilitation and the repatriation, it is a much different story.  They are nowhere to be seen.  These matters ultimately are left to the veterans themselves.  The photos of the funerals show young wives with children, often babies, who will never know their fathers.  Their lives are dramatically and tragically transformed, for their whole lives – for the rest of their lives.

During the last years of the 1970s and early 1980s when I was researching the history of the largely Tasmanian 2/40 Battalion, I attended some reunions, held annually as close as possible to 23 February, the anniversary of their surrender to the Japanese in Timor on 23 February, 1942.  Invariably, “Weary” Dunlop would attend the reunions, a man who spent his whole life working on behalf of veterans and their families.  His message was always to speak about what was happening in the political arena to address veterans’ concerns, and many of the issues he spoke of had been political footballs for a generation. 

My research with these men, then in their 60s and 70s, provided an insight into how they were forced to work together to overcome the bureaucratic and political obstacles that confronted them at every turn.  Their unity was their strength, but it was hard, unremitting work and never-ending.

It was arguably more difficult for Vietnam veterans, and now for those who have seen combat in Timor, Iraq, Afghanistan and elsewhere.  Their numbers are smaller, which weakens their political clout.  They did not serve as regional units, so their avenues for cooperative effort are harder to organize.  But the signs are clear.  We have only just heard the opening shots in what will be a hard road for our latest war veterans, especially those with serious physical injuries and exposure to traumatic events.  The families of these people, especially the wives of men killed or seriously wounded, can look forward to callous bureaucratic treatment, if history is a guide.   

How do we reconcile all this with Anzac Day, with memorialisation and commemoration?  I don’t know.  My father was in the second AIF between 1942 to 1946, then served until 1948 as a member of the Australian contingent of the BCOF in Japan.  He never marched on Anzac Day.  After his death I found among his private correspondence letters to government departments requesting service medals he had never received.  He had served in the Australian army for six years, at least three of those years outside Australia.  He did receive the medals that were his due, but he never wore them, he never showed them to his family, and he never removed them from their tissue-paper wrappings.  But they were his, and he would have been denied them if he hadn’t persisted in his own very private way to obtain them.

Australian politicians feel compelled to send our military forces to fight in wars that serve their own personal and partisan political interests rather then the interests of the people of Australia.  This is especially (and increasingly) true in the contemporary environment of dependence on the United States for our foreign policy decision-making and military commitments, a position firmly entrenched by the Howard-Downer compliance with the Bush doctrine, and continued in its main essentials by the Rudd government. 

What this will continue to mean for our people in military uniform into the foreseeable future is that they will be sent to combat zones of no relevance to Australia’s interests.  Some of them will die in combat, some will be permanently incapacitated in various ways, some will be diagnosed with debilitating incapacities which only reveal their manifestations years after service.  In all cases, these people will be forced to fight for assistance. 

In this context, it is little wonder that there has never been any attempt at an official government level in the 90 years since 1915 to explore and explain the history of Anzac Day.  To my knowledge, there is no history of Anzac Day.  But how can we, as a nation, have such an important day in our annual calendar, a national day of commemoration, a day regarded by many as the most significant in that calendar, or one of the two or three most significant, without an understanding of the history of the day? 

The current form, structure and content of Anzac Day has not “evolved” in a predetermined way, but by way of protracted, rancorous and vitriolic conflict and division, both within the ranks of returned service people and within the broader community.

In many ways the history of Anzac Day reflects the broader social and political issues at large in the community, and actually highlights them, often quite starkly

The main elements of Anzac day, veterans’ marches and church services, began in 1916, both in Australia and overseas, but with the end of the war a period of conflict developed, with various rival veterans’ organizations challenging the claim of the RSL to represent diggers’ interests, including what happened on Anzac Day. 

The most important issues focused on the closeness of the RSL in political terms, with conservative politics, and during the 1920s this proved very divisive, alienating trade-unionists, Irish Catholics with no love of Empire and others, both among returned soldiers and the community at large.  This is demonstrated, in part, by the fact that in 1919 the RSL had a membership of 150,000, but this had declined to 30,000 by 1924, less than 10% of returned veterans.

It wasn’t until 1927 that all Australian States had a common public holiday on Anzac Day, and that year also marked the introduction of the dawn service in Sydney, a feature of Anzac Day which soon became standard everywhere.

An aspect of Anzac Day which caused controversy for decades, well into the 1960s, surrounded religious issues.  The competing claims of those who wanted a secular Anzac Day with those, especially Protestant clergy, who saw religion as intrinsic to the occasion, came to a head in NSW in 1965, when the State president of the RSL declared Anzac Day was “bigger than churches…”, to be rebuffed by a leading Protestant clergyman that the RSL created a “pagan atmosphere”.

Also gradually resolved during the 1960s was the dilemma for Catholic veterans in attending Anzac Day services involving Protestant prayers, hymns and sermons.  As a result many Catholic veterans of the two world wars had never participated, or if they marched, left the parades before they reached the cenotaphs and memorials.  The same is true for many veterans who always felt Anzac Day ceremonies should never have had any religious element at all, but should have focused exclusively on commemoration and remembrance. 

Women were banned from attending the dawn service in Melbourne in the 1930s, and from being on the official dais, and although this began to break down soon after the end of World War II, it was only during the 1980s that restrictions imposed on women were removed altogether.

Other very significant controversies have been associated with questions about the meaning and purpose of the day.  These have surfaced periodically since the 1920s, when the labour movement expressed concern that Anzac Day was designed to glorify war in the interests of imperialism.  In the 1960s, student criticisms of Anzac Day had similar concerns, albeit a totally different context, which included widespread student familiarity with Alan Seymour’s play, The One Day of the Year, (part of the English literature curriculum at senior high school level across the nation by 1965 – amazing really), the intertwined issues of conscription for Vietnam and the Vietnam War and the (often overlooked) strident conservatism, strong media presence and powerful political influence of the RSL at the time. 

About 20 years later Anzac Day became a focus of attack by women’s groups, partly because the sacrifice of women in war had been ignored by the Anzac tradition, which promoted a masculine digger image which excluded the role of women, the suffering and the burden borne by wives and mothers as a result of war.  Some women’s groups also sought to highlight the relationship between war and rape.

The reasons why Anzac Day has been such a beacon for emphasis on fundamental social and political issues which have both united and divided us since 1916 require our understanding in a much more mature way than we have been willing to acknowledge for nearly a century now.

We do our veterans no service by glib sentimentality, or by self-indulgent nationalism, or by our incapacity to acknowledge that Anzac Day falls far short of what it should be doing, in form and content, to really encompass the story of the cost of war.  Anzac Day is rightfully a day of mourning “For the Fallen”, in the words of Laurence Binyon’s ode:  “They shall not grow old, as we that are left grow old”.  But it is also a day when we should reflect on the awful cost borne by our Miss Bonners of all our wars, those whose lives were forever marred by grief.  It is also a day when we should reflect on the shattered lives of the permanently incapacitated, and recall for example, that as late as 1938 there were 90,000 men in repatriation hospitals from World War irreparably injured.

Anzac Day should be commemorated in a way which does justice to those who have borne the cost of war in the past, and those who still bear that cost, and others who will do so in the future.  We should consider a form and content for the day which raises our consciousness about our responsibility as a society to ensure that our people who are exposed to danger “in the national interest” are looked after by us upon their return, and that the families of those who die or are injured in any way should be looked after by us without equivocation.

Peter Henning        


Peter Henning

...At Ringarooma on that day Trevor’s widow, Phyl and his family, had allowed me to wear Trevor’s war service medals, and to speak about him in my account of what happened to the 2/40 Battalion.  Afterwards in the Ringarooma Hotel, where Trevor had been the publican, most people there knew both Peter France and Trevor Sharman.

However, and not for the first time, I also feel disturbed that Anzac Day in its current structure and form is flawed, that it fails in some way to do justice to those who have borne the cost of war, that it should encompass much more than it does, that it should provide much broader commemoration than it does, and recognize in much greater depth of reality – yes, reality – of the effects of war.  And that it should tell us more, much more, about real history.