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An Odd Little Commemoration: ANZAC Mythology during Coronavirus

War commemorations nurse a dirty secret, though it is one displayed with a peacock flourish. The victors bring out the celebratory paraphernalia and talk about noble ideas; the defeated, quite simply, do not. We won, we celebrate and we, somehow, got things right. You, defeated, eat it, beat it. This does not quite work well with the ANZAC tradition, born, as it was in a defeat.

The Australians, along with their often-forgotten New Zealanders, lost in their effort to invade and knock out Turkey in 1915 during the Great War. The Australian New Zealand Army Corps was part of a grand gamble hatched by the chief of the First Lord of the Admiralty Winston Churchill. “I can visualize great movements and combinations,” he reflected, even as the Western front had become a stymied slaughterhouse of barbed wire and attrition. This entailed defeating an ally of Imperial Germany, Ottoman Turkey, in an effort to seize Constantinople.

The Turks refused to play along in this gambit, and proved more than a match in defending their territory. In the ensuing bloodbath, 87,000 Turks lost their lives, as did 44,000 French and British Empire soldiers. From Australia, 8,500 perished; from New Zealand, almost 3,000. The defeat of the Allied forces in 1915 remains one of the graver distortions in the pop culture mash that is ANZAC. Failed invaders became sacralised heroes.

The ANZAC Day formalities on April 25 have become the stuff of secular religion in Australia. Children are inculcated into it; journeys are arranged to visit Gallipoli, with Turkish hospitality at the ready. Prime Minister Scott Morrison, who has used, rather oddly, the spirit of ANZAC in dealing with the current pandemic, cites the familiar line. “ANZAC Day is a sacred day for all Australians. It is an important time to remember the sacrifices of those who have gone before us, those who have laid down our lives or suffered great hardship to protect the Australian way of life.” New Zealand prime minister Jacinda Ardern also observed that the Gallipoli services had become “a pilgrimage of sorts for many New Zealanders.” The ritual on April 25 rarely deviates: the ANZAC Dawn Service, the Australian Lone Pine Service, an assortment of wreath-laying ceremonies, the New Zealand Service at Chunuk Bair, Turkey.

But the effects of coronavirus have spooked the political classes sufficiently to cancel gatherings and make physical distancing a matter of priority. Parades have also been scratched. In a statement last week, Ardern noted that, “with global restrictions and isolation requirements in place in most countries it is simply not practical to hold this year’s event.”

Such measures have fallen poorly on aged ears. A centurion from New South Wales north coast, Henry ‘Corky’ Caldwell, has made a habit of marching for 75 years. When he got the news that ANZAC gatherings would be cancelled, he did not take matters too well. “It’s very important. I’ve been going to it ever since the war finished.”

Caldwell was fortunate to have a considerate daughter, taking it upon herself to post on Facebook about his disappointment. Thousands responded with notes of thanks for his service to country. One Phil Heesch of Grafton offered his jeep, with an idea that Caldwell would have his own private parade – observing physical distancing, of course – through the streets of Grafton.

Not having the usual parade day and gunfire breakfasts has produced a loose-ends spirit. “With parades and dawn services cancelled,” claims Channel 9 News, “many Australians are at a loss for how to pay their respects come April 25 this Saturday.” The conservative Returned & Services League (RSL), the druidical body of war commemoration, had a suggestion on what Australians might do. You might, according to the Victorian branch of the organisation, not be able to go to the Shrine of Remembrance, or a local Dawn Service, but you might #STANDTO. “As the Last Post is played during the ANZAC Day Dawn Service walk outside, stand in your yard, driveway, or on your balcony and observe a minute of silence in respect in respect of our veterans. Make sure you snap a quick picture and share it right there on our Facebook page using the hashtag #STANDTO.” Not even secular religions can resist the inexorable siren call of the hashtag.

Ahead of Saturday, there is much beating the drum for memory’s sake: Do not forget the significance of ANZAC Day, despite the anxiety caused by COVID-19. Remember sacrifices for a way of life preserved, whatever the current disruptions. But there is something to be said about forgetting the calls for war, the fictional necessity of having to invade or interfere in foreign conflicts for the sake of being relevant. The list of theatres of conflict Australia finds itself listed against should not be a source of pride. They read like a mercenary’s job list rather than a noble patriot’s calling, the woolly-headed commitments of commanders who should know better.

On the surface of it, such commemorations seem sweetly felt, and many a sentiment will be genuine enough. But as with the historically clipped versions of the Gallipoli landings available on RSL memoranda and the creation of the ANZAC “legend”, the nature of war as being necessary and a good thing will persist. As with each year, the incompetent classes, the political buffoons and gamblers who sent people to die in distant fields and towns the soldiers could hardly spell, let alone pronounce, will get a commemorative pass. Even on Zoom, Facebook or whatever zany mechanism war commemoration takes, facts will be resisted and mythology revered.

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  1. leefe

    Frankly, I’m enjoying the respite from the annual boganfest that ANZAC Day has become.

  2. New England Cocky

    The ANZAC Campaign in Gallipoli was probably Australia’s greatest defeat at the hands of the English. Australia troops took Lone Pine on Day One and held it until Turkish reinforcements arrived about 1500 hours and pushed them off it. Meanwhile done on the beach the English officers were playing parades with the Truks picking off enlisted men at will while the officers drank tea. There is photographic evidence of this occurring.

    When an objective biography of Churchill is written in about 30 years his ill-conceived strategy failed twice, once at ANZAC Cove and again in WWII with the too long and unnecessary Italian Campaign. Then there was Churchill’s support of the White Russians against the Communists in Russia.


  3. Phil

    ‘ Meanwhile done on the beach the English officers were playing parades with the Truks picking off enlisted men at will while the officers drank tea. There is photographic evidence of this occurring.’

    Ah yes the British Officer Class. I think it was Rommel who said and he stole it from another time. His quote about British soldiers ” Lions led by donkeys ” I will never for get watching Parkinson interviewing this puffed up British officer from the eighth Army who served in the desert war. He was asked what his most memorable experience was from the campaign. After he arranged the plums in his cake hole he said ‘ You know Parky it’s when my batman Jones brought me in an ice cold bottle of Champers into my tent.’ I nearly put my foot through the telly.

    Getting back to that old chestnut class.There was a brilliant series on the ABC Radio about twenty years ago, it was called ‘Australians at war ‘In one of the series, It tells the story of the officers in Changi who would steal the enlisted mens spare uniforms so they could have clean pressed clothes every day. My dads brother was in Changi he told me that was true. I will be at an Anzac memorial parade if there is one near me.

  4. Josephus

    Thanks for this clear headed article Binoy. The reference to the upset centenarian is moving, though I have read that the inevitably damaged returnees wanted only to forget if they could, until years later the appalling bloodbaths were turned into sacred myths. So today crowds of Australians travel to Gallipoli, sleeping according to an ABC documentary on a beach that the troops never landed at . There they drink copiously and fall asleep while patriotic newsreels run on giant screen.

    Churchills’ failings have been recognised perhaps?

    Personal note: half the local people where I live boycott the ceremony, while the other half always attend (normally.) I note that the choices they make roughly reflect their almost half- half votes for the Greens or for the Coalition/Labor/One Nation.

    I am ambivalent ; some years I attend and some not. When I attend it is out of respect for grieving relatives of people remembering their dead or damaged forebears. Other years I cannot stomach the religious atmosphere, aware as we must all be that not all servicemen and women were Christians.

    But most offensive for me is precisely the one- sidedness, the partisanship, of the whole event. Last year I boycotted. I had outlined my objections to the very right wing organiser of the event, a Vietnam vet. I told him that both my grandfathers had been conscripted in WW1, one being an officer in the German imperial army and the other being an officer for Austria-Hungary. Obviously they survived, but one had a permanent limp, while the other never composed a note again. I then asked the Vietnam vet why patriots such as they were not remembered too. The Turks alone are remembered a little these days , I noted. He replied: ‘It is too early.”

    Too early! My parents both served in Britain during WWII , one in the army and the other as an army interpreter. They did not commemorate the war. They left Europe instead.

    Nor are the victors entirely blameless on any side. Dresden anyone? The British upper class often admired Hitler , while the US kept out of the war for a few years , in thrall in part to rabid priests and industrialists. The Swiss did very well out of it .

    This Anzac day I will revere my parents and grandparents privately, whatever side they served, as well as the relatives of those I know locally. I shall never attend the ceremony again, plague or no plague. I take comfort that the author has not fallen for the propaganda, whether of Scotty or of those who, like my Vietnam vet , invent myths to glorify tales of homelands invaded in both world wars and in our age Libya and Syria.

  5. Andrew Smith

    Blame John Howard and his mob for popularising the celebration, not commemoration, of war and ANZAC Day along with flag, English language, and nebulous ‘Australian values’ (not sure where the alleged description of Howard by one of his colleagues as ‘lying little rodent’ fits in there?).

    An English woman, the IR person at the local Canakkale university some decades ago, complained of one off trips (many official) visitors unwilling to do anything of substance for the local community, a tour operator also complaining about behaviour of backpackers (including the now popular wearing of the Union Jacked flag like a superman cape, while very drunk as though at a music gig) and former Turk business partner describing MPs etc. at an official drink, sorry, event in Istanbul, as upmarket or VIP backpackers, i.e. pissed up bogan yobbos.

    Way over rated, and I say that with two grand fathers who fought WWI in Europe, and did not like reminders of war, while one grandmother’s brother served in Gallipoli with the Manchester Regiment, under an Anglicised Germanic-Romanian name….

  6. johno

    But there is something to be said about forgetting the calls for war. OR, a LOT to be said.

  7. DrakeN

    I’m getting old, and came to Australia over 60 years ago to be trained in an aviation field by veterans of WW2 .
    They would rarely be drawn on their experiences of the war, and few of them would be seen at Anzac commemorations except to turn up at their pubs to meet and yarn with those who shared their experiences.
    Several of them were unable to bear the involuntary flashbacks and nightmares that they suffered and so killed themselves.
    As a youngster I was completely unaware of their actual histories but later reading of the kind of traumas which many of them experienced made me understand why they were reluctant to share them with others who were not directly involved.
    My own father, a tank driving Corporal in the war in Europe never spoke of his experiences, but remained bitter with the authorities and generals who mishandled so much of the action.
    Likewise, he would never attend the Remembrance ceremonies on November 11th.
    My maternal grandmother, whose brother was killed in WW1 in an entirely pointless advance, was also scathing of British military Command and remained a thorn in the side of the British Legion (equivalent to RSL) until she became incapacitated and unable leave her home.
    So, with that youthful background, and later contact with returnees from the Korean and Vietnamese debacles, I find myself somewhat jaded by the whole ANZAC day scenario and the hypocrisy by those in governments profitting politically from their encouragement of warrior heroism and National jingoism.
    I will not be up and about standing in my driveway at dawn tomorrow and will no doubt be criticised once more by neighbours for my lack of enthusiasm for the whole charade.
    So ‘un-Australian’ of me.

  8. wam

    I thank my mum and dad pretty well every day for not be conservative south australians and for allowing me to see past the self-praise and ‘trust me it is for your own good’ bullshit into the greed, corruption and ignorance of war mongers churchill, menzies and his clones the lying rodent and this government.
    But I give special thanks 3 times a year, feb 19, april 25 and nov 11 with poppies and a minute silence.
    This year will be different because I will not be alone, like the last 5 years, because I will be in the driveway with my neighbours in theirs and two doors away will be a bugler who has offered to play the last post.
    I suspect it will be a truly fitting tribute to the ANZACs.
    The three shocking things about ANZAC day:
    We were invading turkey
    simpson and his donkey and Albert Jacka are no longer considered part of the commemorations
    Kemal Ataturk’s poem is lost.

  9. Kathryn

    The flag-waving, cloying celebration of ANZAC Day was resurrected in earnest by John Howard in order to drum up support for his ILLEGAL entry into Iraq/Syria, a disgusting, horrendous war that caused the torture, death and displacement of countless MILLIONS of Iraqis and Syrians and the total destruction of those countries once regarded as the cradle of civilisation! The outrageous cost of the Iraqi/Syrian conflict cost – and is STILL costing – Australians trillions, enough money to feed, clothe and educate GENERATIONS of our children! The bitter truth is that the ruthless, conniving LNP have ALWAYS used war, hatred, division and fear to promote themselves in shameless incidences of flag-waving, faux-nationalism.

    The truth is that ANZAC DAY was never very popular before John Howard decided to exploit the day for his own political purpose! I remember briefly watching the ANZAC DAY March in the early 1960’s and there were hardly any one marching in it. Certainly not many men or women who had fought under the oppressive and condescending military rule of MacArthur! The FACT is that many veterans of World War II DESPISED ANZAC Day because they (justifiably) thought it celebrated and glorified war. My father fought long and hard on the Stanley Track in New Guinea in WWII and returned with recurring malaria and Beriberi – he (and many mates of his from the second world war) REFUSED to march on ANZAC DAY and refused to watch it on television. Many of the comments (above) are totally justified! The overwhelming majority of my parents generation – including my father, my mother and most of their friends (many of them heroic soldiers of the 2nd world war) DESPISED Churchill and had nothing but contempt for the manner in which Australian soldiers were treated like CANON FODDER by the British and by the arrogant American General MacArthur. The hypocrisy, self-congratulatory, war-mongering nature of ANZAC DAY is repugnant to many people who regard war as a criminal act often used by unconscionable, self-serving politicians (like Robert Menzies, Harold Holt, John Howard et al) for political expediency at a time when their career as political parasites is coming to a justifiable end and when they STINK in the polls!

    Why on earth would Australia “celebrate” the fact that Britain sacrificed the lives of thousands of Australians as CANON FODDER on the beaches of Gallipoli? Why on earth should we honour and kowtow to the memory of the diabolical, arrogant Winston Churchill – a deplorable aristocrat who was willing to sacrifice Australia to the Japanese invasion, insisting that our troops STAYED in Africa and Europe fighting for the British cause instead of returning to the Malay peninsular and New Guinea to fight against the marauding Japanese army working their way down to Australia – a ruthless, notoriously cruel army that ended up bombing Darwin in a bombing attack that is known to have been TWICE as heavy as that experienced in Pearl Harbour!. If it wasn’t for the fact that we had a Labor PM in power at the time, John Curtin, who had the sense to defy Churchill, we would all be speaking Japanese right now! See the link below ….

    The LNP have dragged us into EVERY single war since WWII and that includes Korea, Malaya, Malaysia, Vietnam and Iraq. It takes the war-mongering LNP to drag us INTO a war and a Labor government to drag us OUT of it!

  10. James Lawrie

    Andrew Smith wrote: “Blame John Howard and his mob for popularising the celebration, not commemoration, of war and ANZAC Day along with flag, English language, and nebulous ‘Australian values’ (not sure where the alleged description of Howard by one of his colleagues as ‘lying little rodent’ fits in there?).”

    I couldn’t agree with you more.
    After Whitlam got us out of the debacle of neo-colonialism that was the US-Vietnam War we only had Fraser, Hawke and Keating before Howard dragged our nation back into being coalition token soldiers, useful primarily for US public relations exercises but militarily too small to be much use. Howard did the blood-soaked mathematics of sending just enough troops to keep his US masters happy and not enough to create a groundswell of opposition over Australian lives being thrown away. The only morally decent deployment they could do was to help Timor Leste and it turned out that was purely so we could steal that fledgling nation’s natural gas.

    Then of course Howard had the Australian troops off to the Afghanistan debacle (under the long list of “US Imperial Debacles and Atrocities”) which was purely a deflection exercise to divert the US population’s attention into some nifty power politics, placing military bases in a country that bordered Russian allies and Iran and severing any hope of communication between the two. The reason; to attack “a country that harboured bin Laden” as if striking some benighted out-of-the-way place that had training camps was ever a reason to do so, the Taliban having expressly told bin Laden not to mess with the USA but that being conveniently overlooked. The irony that causes tears of frustration was that it was all to deflect the US’s population’s anger against Saudi Arabia – the nation that promptly funded the insurgency against the USA in Afghanistan and paid for those Australian deaths they piously commemorate.

    Of course the argument was promptly made that the Taliban, and later Saddam Hussein, were terrible people or organisations who committed atrocities. So in response we did the same. Hardly the “Western Values” we claimed to be exporting. No, it was all just ugly power politics. To this day the US population still doesn’t seem to have grasped why bin Laden thought it necessary to attack them but rather prefer the comfortable inanity that they “hated their freedom”, overlooking that a) the US people are hardly free (and if their right wing militias have their way, they will be even less so) and that b) their propping up the seventy year long war crime that is the Israeli Occupation might probably be a tad more pertinent. Australia, as pathetic as always, is silent on the glaringly obvious and goes so far to help the US enable the Israeli far right apartheid state create such a toxic situation that now no one dares any other solution as the Palestinians may pay back atrocity with atrocity. Another bin Laden is undoubtedly training right now. Howard remains unrepentant as does his successors, both LNP and ALP. Yet they turn up on ANZAC day and bow their heads.

    So ANZAC day, a PR exercise from the people who turned the Canberra War Memorial into Military Disneyland, continues to slowly and carefully distort the message learned in the slaughter of The Great War. Australian soldiers, ever eager to engage in combat and other less savoury activities (there was no shortage of troops volunteering for operation Sovereign Borders) will continue to serve in places they have no right to be and the complacent Australian public will continue their yearly absolution by caring, if just for the moment.

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