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Anzac Memories: Living with the Legend [New Edition]



Loyalists and disloyalists

Although the Anzacs had won their battle honours in Europe, the battle for the Anzac legend was shaped by Australian political culture and by the ideological schism between loyalists’ and ‘disloyalists’ that had emerged during the war. The apparent national unanimity for the war and enlistment that had existed during 1914 and after the Anzac landing had been short-lived. The first to suffer exclusion from the national embrace were interned ‘aliens’ of German or other suspicious ethnic origin, but as the war progressed the term ‘alien’ broadened from its ethnic definition to include any individual or group that did not fully support the war effort.

Economic developments ensured that an increasing number of Australians, particularly within the working class, attracted suspicion as they became disenchanted with the war effort. The insecurity of international markets which accompanied the outbreak of the world war caused an initial increase in domestic unemployment. More significantly, prices and rents began to rise before the end of 1914, and were rocketing up by 1915. Federal and State governments imposed a freeze on wages, but the new Labor Prime Minister Billy Hughes reneged on promises to introduce a concomitant prices freeze. While working-class living standards rapidly deteriorated, profits seemed to be unaffected, and this apparent inequality of sacrifice infuriated the Labor movement and precipitated a series of strikes over wages and hours which culminated in a ‘general strike’ in New South Wales in 1917.1

These tensions were intensified by conflicts over Australian participation in the war, and in particular by the conscription referenda initiated by Hughes to boost recruiting. Conducted with great rancour, the conscription ‘blood votes’ of 1916 and 1917 widened existing social and political divisions. The Labor movement spearheaded the ‘No’ campaigns and gained the support of the majority of the working class. Many Irish Catholics, led by the charismatic Archbishop Daniel Mannix, and angered by the British suppression of the Easter Rising in Dublin in 1916, also opposed conscription. Middle-class, Protestant Australians were appalled by this apparent disloyalty, and their powerful representatives in parliament and press fumed about Fenians, traitors and spies.

Opposition to conscription was not necessarily opposition to Australian participation in the war, but the military conduct of the war and the appalling casualty lists fuelled dissent. After the failure of the first conscription referendum in 1916, Billy Hughes was expelled from the Labor Party and took his followers into a coalition with the Liberals. They formed the Nationalist Party and successfully contested the 1917 Federal election on a ‘Win the War’ platform. The radical remnant of the Labor Party now called for a negotiated peace and supported an anti-war alliance that questioned the sacred icons of nation, empire and patriotic unity, and adopted an increasingly radical anti-capitalist ideology. In turn, the civil authorities used the wide-ranging powers to act for public defence, conferred upon them by the War Precautions Act of 1914, for the surveillance and persecution of militants. As several historians have argued, by 1918 the consensus on the war had broken and ‘Australian society […] had virtually polarised along class lines’.2

Some radicals saw in this polarisation an opportunity for political transformation or even revolution. It may be that they misinterpreted the politics of working-class disillusionment and war weariness, and were seduced by the success of the Russian revolution. But whatever the extent or prospects of the radical challenge, there is no doubt that the spectre of disloyalty caused an unparalleled mobilisation of conservative middle-class Australia. This mobilisation was sustained by the constant need to exhort men to volunteer for the forces and Australians generally to support the war effort, and as the news from the front got worse loyalists felt increasingly embattled. After the Russian revolution loyalists perceived a connection between anti-war activity and industrial action, and assumed that they were all motivated by the sinister, foreign influence of Bolshevism.

In the conservative world view ‘loyalists’ — whole-hearted supporters of the national and imperial war effort at the front and at home — were distinguished from ‘disloyalists’ who undermined or opposed that cause, and who comprised a conspiracy network of enemy sympathisers, anti-war activists, strikers, shirkers (men who had refused to enlist) and Bolsheviks. Armed with this potent ideology and spurred by fear and suspicion, conservative State and Federal governments (only Queensland remained Labor), civil and military intelligence agencies, and private loyalist organisations formed a powerful network with, as historian Raymond Evans concludes, ‘each one single-mindedly dedicated to the eradication of the radical and alien influences they believed were surrounding them’.3

The politics of returned servicemen

The return of the soldiers in 1919 added a potent new ingredient to the cauldron of Australian domestic politics, just as it did in the troubled postwar nations of Europe. Both loyalists and their radical opponents sought to win the allegiance of returned servicemen and the symbolic support of the Anzac legend. Some labor militants hoped that because soldiers were mainly ‘members of the working class’, the ‘economic and industrial interests’ of returned men would be ‘identical with those of Organised Labor’. Ex-servicemen who rejoined the socialist or trade union movement were given prominent positions on political platforms and were frequently quoted in political leaflets and newspapers. Yet activists were also concerned that returned men might be hostile about labor ‘disloyalty’ during the war, and might promote the economic interests of veterans ahead of those of other workers. In February 1919, Nettie Palmer warned that if the Labor movement failed to repatriate the diggers into its ranks, they might be ‘induced to form dummy unions, employers’ unions’, and used as ‘a wedge driven into the power of Organised Labor’.4

Conservative publicists confidently proclaimed that the diggers would surely join the loyalist cause for which they had, after all, been fighting. However their hopes were also shadowed by anxiety about the acknowledged potential of returned servicemen for disorder, and by news of the participation of returned men in European uprisings. The perceived threats of social breakdown and revolution — and the frightening prospect of a radical force with military training — needed to be averted at all costs, and the loyalist network which had been created during the war galvanised into action.

Physical force provided the first line of defence. Police were used to protect strike breakers and control disorder when digger frustration erupted on the streets. Loyalist paramilitaries (like the Army to Fight Bolshevism in Brisbane) were organised by local alliances of military intelligence officers, service leaders and businessmen to put down radical activists and ‘disloyal’ diggers. This physical force was backed up by zealous official surveillance of what one intelligence report described as the ‘alarming number’ of ex-servicemen suspected of having links with radical organisations. Officers of naval and military intelligence, and of the Federal government’s Counter Espionage Bureau, were active on home-coming ships and at discharge depots. They countered suspected Bolshevik propaganda with their own anti-union and anti-labor leaflets, and supported veterans’ organisations with loyalist sympathies. Proven radical diggers were targets for surveillance and physical restraint, and information about the participation of ex-servicemen in industrial disturbances was rigorously suppressed to ensure an impression of their loyalism.5

Surveillance and physical force were usually linked to an ideological mobilisation of the ‘genuine digger’. ‘Genuine diggers’ were ex-servicemen whose behaviour and character matched the perceived virtues of the Anzacs, as well as the ideals and cause of the speaker. Despite the attempts of labor activists to define ‘genuine diggers’ in their own terms as egalitarian democrats, the mainstream press and conservative politicians fused the definition of the digger — as a disciplined and patriotic hero — with the language of loyalism. Aberrant ex-servicemen’s behaviour was, by contrast, defined as the fault of ‘hoodlums’, ‘revolutionaries’ or ‘undesirables’. Through this linguistic distinction the reputation of the diggers was inoculated against unsavoury influences, and the symbolic power of Anzac was enlisted for the loyalist cause. As the Queensland president of the Returned Sailors’ and Soldiers’ Imperial League of Australia (RSSILA) declared in 1919, the Anzacs would protect Australian society against ‘the sore on society that dared to preach disloyalty […] a microbe that would have to be cut out before it grew into a dangerous cancer’.6

Loyalists also sought to harness the diggers’ political energy within ex-servicemen’s organisations, and in the long term this proved to be a most effective strategy. There were several organisations competing for the membership of Australian veterans. The Returned Sailors’ and Soldiers’ Imperial League of Australia (the forerunner of the modern Returned and Services League) was formed in 1916 from the merger of several State Returned Soldiers’ Associations, and became a national organisation with State branches and suburban and rural sub-branches which served as soldiers’ clubs. The RSSILA was active in repatriation campaigns but avoided confrontational tactics. It adopted a national policy against participation in party electoral politics, partly to enhance its effectiveness as a bipartisan pressure group, but also so that it could appeal to diggers of all political persuasions.

However prominent loyalists were usually the driving force behind the establishment of local RSSILA branches, and influential ex-officers from the business and professional class were prominent in the State and national leadership. During the war the RSSILA had actively promoted recruiting and conscription, and it now identified the enemies of returned servicemen as the shirkers who had not gone to war but who had taken the jobs that ex-servicemen deserved, and trade unionists who opposed preference to ex-servicemen in employment. Despite its bipartisan policy, from the outset the League was entrenched in loyalist politics.7

Other veterans’ organisations had more direct party political links. The Returned Soldiers’ National Party in Victoria, and similar organisations in New South Wales and Queensland, were affiliated for a time with the National Political Federation, and sought to combine loyalist and digger causes on a party political platform. In 1919 they claimed to have recruited many members and to be a serious challenge to the RSSILA, but their maverick leaders fell out with Nationalist politicians and the organisations collapsed.8

Ex-servicemen in the Labor movement also created veterans’ organisations. In response to the perceived attempt by ‘Tory politicians […] to organise returned soldiers to smash trade unionism and the Labor movement’, members of the Victorian Returned Soldiers’ No Conscription League formed the Returned Sailors’ and Soldiers’ Australian Democratic League, and similar groups were established in other States. These labor organisations wanted a fair settlement for the diggers, and they identified Tory politicians and ‘profiteers’ as the enemies of returned servicemen. True to the racist and sexist heritage of the Australian Labor movement they also attacked women and coloured workers for taking ‘their’ jobs. The ‘Democratic’ appeal of the title intentionally contrasted with the ‘Imperialist’ sentiments of the RSSILA, and these radical diggers hoped to inject the egalitarianism of the soldiers into postwar society, perhaps as the leaven for an Australian socialism.9

There is little available evidence about the membership of ex-service organisations of the radical left and right, and it seems likely that their success was undermined by digger suspicion of the political conscription of their cause. The labor veterans’ groups were also criticised for their association with organisations that were perceived to have opposed the war and thus betrayed the men at the front. But the main factor in their demise, and in the triumph of the RSSILA, was the latter organisation’s achievement of State patronage.

Throughout the latter years of the war the RSSILA courted the Hughes government, arguing that it was in the government’s interests to grant the League an official role as the sole representative of returned men. The RSSILA national president argued in June 1918 that ‘unless you do invest them with some such responsibility I think it will be a sure way to create those divergences that will be an ever-lasting trouble and annoyance to the Powers that be’. As historian Marilyn Lake has shown, a bargain was made and the RSSILA was granted official recognition in return for supporting ‘the powers that be’. The League soon proved its value in containing digger militancy. For example, after the Brisbane and Melbourne riots RSSILA sub-branch officers formed special forces of League members to maintain law and order. More practically, the sub-branches offered carefully controlled meeting places as an alternative to the more threatening gatherings of returned men in pubs and on street corners.10

In return for its ‘law and order’ stance, the RSSILA was allotted a place on all the Federal government committees concerned with repatriation, including the Repatriation Committee which had overall responsibility for the national administration of the Repatriation Act. Thereafter the League wielded enormous power in the creation and implementation of repatriation policy. Its efforts were based on the premise that returned men not only needed assistance, but also deserved special treatment because of their wartime achievements and national status. In effect, the League’s campaigns for special treatment promoted an image of loyal and disciplined soldiers who had fought and died for the national cause, and the League sub-branches sought to ensure that ex-servicemen lived up to that Anzac reputation.

Not all League members accepted these links between the national leadership and the conservative Federal government, or the methods and policies adopted by the leadership in the political trade-off. Throughout 1919 there were fierce conflicts within most State branches between League leaders and some of the digger members. In Victoria a ‘democratic ticket’, representing rank and file members with labor sympathies, contested executive elections against a ‘centre’ ticket of current office bearers and a ‘Tory’ ticket of employers and officers, ‘mostly of the haw-haw brigade’. But the outrage about hooligans and militants that followed the soldier riots of mid-1919 strengthened the hand of the loyalists, and left-wing critics within the RSSILA were silenced or expelled. In this regard the Australian politics of ex-servicemen matched the British pattern in which, according to historian David Englander, ‘this potentially disruptive community’ was reduced to ‘a manageable interest group within a pluralist democracy’.11

The RSSILA did not always get its own way, and in the inter-war years there would be many disagreements between the League and Federal governments that could not afford to accede to all the ex-servicemen’s demands. However the League was generally successful in its campaigns for special treatment, partly because of its official influence and national status, but also because its preferred policies usually coincided with the ideologies of the conservative Federal governments of the 1920s.

An example of this is the soldier settlement scheme, which appealed to ex-servicemen who wanted to achieve the Australian dream of an independent small-holding (and to publicists like Bean who thought of the Anzacs as natural Bushmen). It was also popular with loyalists concerned about ‘cities […] congested with idle men’, and for conservative governments was far preferable to alternative plans for State-supported manufacturing industries and co-operatives. Similarly, conservative governments and councils usually supported preference for ex-servicemen in employment, in principle if not always in practice, and believed it to be preferable to subsidies for their employment. The policy caused friction between the League and the Labor movement, which rightly suspected that preference would be used against trade unionists, and gradually came to oppose it. Yet when Labor gained power at the local, State or federal level, attempts to alter the policy were almost invariably quashed by alliances between the League and other loyalist organisations.12

With its vigorous and effective promotion of special treatment for ex-servicemen, it is not surprising that many newly returned diggers joined the RSSILA. League recruitment was also bolstered by government assistance. RSSILA officials were allowed to sign up diggers on the home-coming ships, and to wait at the end of demobilisation queues with badges and membership forms. League membership grew by about 1000 per week throughout 1919, and by the end of the year the organisation could boast 167 000 members, a much higher proportion of ex-servicemen than were recruited by comparable organisations in Britain, the United States and Canada. This success was testimony to the League’s political acumen, the intersection of League and loyalist ideologies, and the symbolic power of the digger in Australian society. Alternative veterans’ organisations were ideologically and politically out-manoeuvred by the RSSILA, and had virtually disappeared by the end of 1919.13

Most of the men I interviewed joined the RSSILA. The interviews help to explain why working-class veterans identified with the League, although they also show that individual motivations for joining and remaining in the RSSILA did not always coincide with the political motivations of the leadership. Ex-servicemen, who shared the extraordinary experiences of war, and the difficulties of home-coming, inevitably turned to each other for support and understanding, and usually wanted to join some sort of soldiers’ club. A high proportion of my interviewees joined the League within a few months of their return, in some cases on the home-coming ship. Ern Morton recalls that it was ‘natural’ for soldiers to want to band together in those first few years. A. J. McGillivray joined because he wanted to be able to talk about the war with people who would listen to him and believe his stories.14

The soldiers’ club was also a place to get a sympathetic hearing about a repatriation grievance, and to campaign for better conditions for ex-servicemen. In the trenches Fred Farrall had been inspired by trade unionist diggers, who recalled the ill-treatment of Boer War veterans and decided to form an organisation to look after their own interests. Signing the RSSILA membership form in the Sydney Domain on his first day home, he assumed that this was the organisation they had talked about in France. It is significant that very few of my interviewees could recall any alternative to the RSSILA. By the time the majority of diggers were demobilised in 1919 the official status of the League was a fait accompli; most ex-servicemen assumed that it was the diggers’ organisation and automatically joined up.15

After the initial success of 1919, League membership plummeted to only 50 000 in 1920, and halved again the following year so that less than ten per cent of returned men were still members. Several of my interviewees left the League in the 1920s and their stories help to explain its decline in that period. Some men were busy with their civilian lives and just forgot to renew their subscription. Alf Stabb and Harold Blake thought that in the early days the clubs were a haven for boozers and ‘no hopers’, and they preferred to spend more time with their families. Charlie Bowden stayed away from the club because he had few positive memories of his military past; he wanted to ‘give the war away’ and focus upon his career and family.16

Other veterans were alienated by the politics of the RSSILA. In the northern Melbourne suburb of Coburg, Ern Morton found that many Labor supporters despised the reactionary politics of League leaders, and that the local sub-branch wanted to suppress his own militancy; on one occasion he was chastised for proposing a motion that ex-servicemen from all countries, including wartime enemies, should band together to prevent another war. With some difficulty, Ern reconciled League and Labor Party membership, but he eventually resigned from the League after the Second World War when it decided to expel Communist members. Up in north Queensland, Sid Norris went along to one RSSILA meeting with digger mates from the Australian Workers’ Union. After heckling a clergyman preaching king and country politics, Sid decided to give up on the RSSILA and concentrate on union work. Ex-servicemen who had become active in the Labor movement were finding that the League did not represent their ideals or interests, and that there was no alternative ex-service organisation to which they could turn. The League had successfully appropriated the definition of ‘the digger’ so that ‘radical digger’ had become a contradiction in terms, and many left-wing veterans shed their identity as returned servicemen and gave their first loyalty to the Labor movement.17

Although radical ex-servicemen remained alienated from the RSSILA, often until they died, many other veterans rejoined the League in the late 1920s and during the Depression. Its decline was halted as membership grew to 50 000 in 1932 and 82 000 in 1939, and then received another huge boost during and after the Second World War. Most of the men I interviewed who left the League in the early 1920s, rejoined later in the decade or in the 1930s. The role of the local sub-branch as a meeting place in which veterans could re-establish wartime bonds was increasingly significant as soldier mates dispersed and it became difficult to maintain informal contacts. Unit reunions provided valued opportunities to meet men who had served in the same battalion, but they were often only annual occasions. In contrast, the League club was open all week, every week. Alf Stabb rejoined because he wanted ‘somewhere to go’ and because he wanted to meet up with old soldiers. A. J. McGillivray recalls that many men rejoined when their families were older and it was easier to leave them at home or to bring them along to club events. Within every suburban and rural community the soldiers’ club became an important focus of social life for ex-servicemen and their families, providing dances and other entertainments, sports clubs and, in some States, subsidised bar facilities.18

The soldiers’ clubs also became necessary as a resource for welfare support. As veterans grew older their war wounds sometimes flared up and required medical treatment, and they often needed increased pensions. Perhaps most importantly, many ex-servicemen, including half of my interviewees, were unemployed at some time in the Depression of the 1930s. RSSILA sub-branches helped unemployed ex-servicemen to find work and provided limited financial and material support for impoverished members and their families. They also campaigned for the retention and more effective implementation of the policy of soldier preference in employment. Many ex-servicemen recall that the League’s support at this time was invaluable. They had special welfare needs — although they were not necessarily worse off than other working-class Australians — and the League was an effective champion of those needs.

In hard times, veterans often used the League’s argument that they deserved privileged treatment because of their wartime achievements and sacrifices. Some advertised themselves as ex-servicemen when they were looking for work, and others recall that the sight of the League’s ‘great big badge’ often prompted job offers or favours. The badge was the most obvious way in which ex-servicemen could be identified in civilian life, and was an everyday assertion of difference and status. In effect, veterans used the Anzac legend to gain material benefits, and in doing so they reinforced a legend that represented their experiences in terms of individual honour and national pride.

Some ex-servicemen rejected the digger legacy and its rewards. Radical returned men like Stan D’Altera came to agree with Labor movement criticism of government policies, such as employment preference, that favoured ex-servicemen over other Australians. Stan also resigned from the Footscray sub-branch of the RSSILA during the Depression, because it refused to provide welfare support to lapsed members who could not afford the annual membership fee. As an alternative, he organised an ex-servicemen’s section of the local Unemployed Association, which respected the personal importance of a digger’s identity but did not place unemployed diggers above other people without work. Not many returned men could afford to take such a principled stand, and during the Depression the League, and the privileged Anzac identity it promoted, gained considerable support among ex-servicemen.19

League membership did not necessarily require acceptance of the loyalist attitudes of its leadership. The working-class veterans I interviewed who were active in League welfare work or in the social life of the local club, rarely associated the League with those attitudes, or indeed with any political perspective. It was even possible for members to define their involvement in dissenting terms. According to Jack Flannery, the Footscray sub-branch passed a policy of refusing membership to men who had been military policemen, and when an ex-MP was admitted, Jack and several others resigned their membership and formed their own branch in the adjoining suburb of Yarraville. However the hierarchical structure of the League, and its overall control by conservatives, limited dissent. Local clubs were monitored by State officials — in 1934 a sub-branch in the coal-mining town of Lithgow was disbanded after it published anti-war statements — and radical members resigned or were expelled. Excluded from the League, radical diggers lost access to the main postwar forum of digger culture and were marginalised in the battle for the Anzac legend.20

The many diggers who remained in the League enjoyed economic support, a vibrant social life and a valued opportunity to maintain links with other veterans. The RSSILA also became an influential forum for the articulation of digger identities and memories. The League club provided a refuge from civilian incomprehension, where ex-servicemen could talk about the war, recreating the language, jokes and behaviour of digger culture, and constructing shared ways of remembering their experiences. This reminiscence sometimes provoked intense feelings, but it usually focused upon moments of humour, positive experiences of mateship and good times out of the line. Ern Morton recalled that they would only talk about the ‘jovial side’ of the war or other pleasant memories such as the sunsets on Gallipoli. More negative experiences were ignored or were reworked in humorous terms. Dead mates were recalled with sadness, but also with an emphasis on their character and comradeship. Through collective remembering veterans thus composed more comfortable memories of the war, and positive, affirming ex-service identities.21

The particular ways in which ex-servicemen reminisced about the war were partly influenced by the psychological need to cope with difficult and painful memories. However the remembering of RSSILA club men was also shaped by the language and culture of the League which, in comparison with life in the AIF, provided a rather different forum for the articulation of digger culture and identity. During the war, small groups of rank and file soldiers had been able to articulate their experiences, and the troublesome, disrespectful features of digger identity, with a degree of autonomy, albeit limited by army regulations and mediated through official control of the printed media. After the war, digger culture was primarily sustained within the RSSILA, where it was more tightly contained within, and influenced by, the official culture of Anzac. Within the League it was difficult to sustain a digger identity that rubbed against RSSILA respectability, or to articulate war stories that did not match the League’s promotion of brave, disciplined and patriotic soldiers. In short, by bringing the politics of returned service men within the embrace of loyalist ideology, the RSSILA not only policed digger behaviour; it also gained symbolic control over the definition of ‘the digger’, and shaped the ways in which ex-servicemen could remember the war and identify themselves as Anzacs.

The League was also powerfully placed to institutionalise its respectable, loyalist definition of the digger, and of the Anzac legend, through national war commemoration. The monuments and ceremonies of Anzac commemoration would, in turn, provide a further, resonant source of representations about what it meant to be an Anzac.

Commemorating the Anzacs

National war commemoration is a powerful way to disseminate ideas about war and nation because it addresses the intense and widespread emotional need to cope with grief and make sense of loss. Monuments and ceremonies serve as focal points for mourning, where individuals can share their suffering and find solace and meaning through collective affirmation of the significance of death. They represent death at war as a sacrifice for the national good, and help to bind the bereaved into the ‘imagined community’ of the nation. The participatory nature of public commemoration is the key to its effectiveness. The rituals of commemoration — in the consecration of war memorials or annual memorial ceremonies — facilitate intense involvement in collective practices that are intended to be stirring and inclusive, and are thus potent occasions for identification with ideas about war and national belonging. Furthermore, because commemoration is sanctified as an occasion for mourning, those meanings acquire a sacred significance and criticism is defined as disrespectful and even heretical.22

The immense number of casualties in the Great War, and the difficulty of attending personal graves and funerals, generated a great need for public commemoration among the people of the combatant nations. Commemoration was especially important in Australia because it was almost impossible for Australian relatives to mourn at such distant gravesides, and because of the national significance that the war and the war dead had already attained in Australia. The nature and extent of Australian commemorative forms reflected the widespread desire for public commemoration. By the mid-1920s Anzac Day was instituted as a national holiday and almost every country town and city municipality had its own war memorial. Committees in each State capital were producing grand plans for ‘national’ war memorials, and Charles Bean had outlined his spectacular vision for the one truly national war memorial in Canberra. In terms of the number of memorials in proportion to war dead, and in their physical scale and ambition, Australian war memorials rivalled those of Europe.23

Australians wanted commemoration, but they did not always agree on the forms it should take. Some memorials and ceremonies were created in relative harmony, reflecting a common need for mourning and serving as a focus for community integration. Just as often, public interest degenerated into debate over the appropriate form of commemoration, with all sides determined to ensure that it represented and conveyed their perception of the significance of the soldiers’ deaths. In effect the debates were about how the war, the achievements of the AIF and the character of the Australians soldiers should be remembered, and about the lessons of the war for peacetime society. Symbolic control of ‘the digger’ and his Anzac legend would, ultimately, be won through the institutionalisation of a particular version of the war in the resonant rituals and monuments of national commemoration. The following brief account explores the origins of Anzac Day, and the enshrinement of the Anzac legend as an integral part of Australia’s war commemoration.24

Anzac Day originated during the war. In 1916 there was a ground swell of support for some form of anniversary commemoration of the landing at Gallipoli, though from the outset the anniversary was also linked to recruiting and fund-raising for the war, and was actively promoted by the various State War Councils. State and local commemoration committees, often comprising the same loyalist worthies who dominated war effort committees, were responsible for deciding the form of the day and for supervising its conduct. The Anzac Day Commemoration Committee (ADCC) in Queensland delegated the planning of observances to the Anglican Canon David Garland, who developed many of the practices that were adopted around the country. In 1916 morning church services were conducted throughout the State on Anzac Day. At public meetings in the evening, at which returned servicemen and soldiers’ relatives shared pride of place, a uniform resolution about the importance of the Day — to commemorate the heroes who had died preserving liberty and civilisation for their country and empire — was followed by one minute’s silence.

The ADCCs sought to ensure united action throughout their regions by subjecting local committees to the advice and regulation of the State committee, and by providing pamphlets with ‘Hints for Public Meetings on Anzac Day’. Canon Garland also crusaded by mail in other States and New Zealand, and even in Great Britain, for the wider adoption of Anzac Day rituals. Promoters of the day within commemoration committees and the newly-established RSSILA, concurred that it was necessary ‘to educate the people to strictly observe Anzac Day’. Their greatest initial successes were in State and Catholic schools, to which ADCCs supplied Anzac Day literature, badges and guest speakers to ensure that ‘the imperishable tradition’ of the landing at Gallipoli would be imbibed by the younger generation.25

Although Anzac Day continued to be observed in schools after the war, from 1918 up until the mid-1920s war commemoration was racked by conflict about its purpose and nature. In turn, this dissent hampered efforts to institutionalise Anzac Day through legislation. Some of the bereaved opted for more personal forms of mourning, or preferred simple memorial services without the trappings of national pageant; church services on Anzac Day continued to be well attended in this period. Others, including some ex-servicemen, were ‘wearied’ by the war and did not want to remember or commemorate it. When Western Front veteran Bill Harney got home from Europe, he felt ‘somehow ashamed of the war,’ and to ‘forget about it’ he rode 800 miles into the outback.26

As public and municipal interest waned in the early 1920s, Anzac Day virtually disappeared in some parts of the country. For example, in the Melbourne working-class suburb of Brunswick, Anzac Day was celebrated in local schools from 1915 as ‘the Anniversary of our boys’ heroism’, and in 1919 it was joined to Empire Day (May 24) by a public carnival month. Between 1920 and 1922 large gatherings of returned servicemen attended memorial services in a local theatre, but by 1923 the only Anzac Day service held in Brunswick outside of the schools was a brief ceremony at the tramway sheds. This story of inconsistent ceremonies and flagging attendance was echoed in the city centres, and for a time it seemed that Anzac Day would simply die away.27

However from the mid 1920s Anzac Day underwent a transformation, and by the end of the decade it was institutionalised as a popular patriotic pageant. The transformation was due to a number of factors. The RSSILA, which had always organised services and marches for ex-servicemen on Anzac Day, became more vociferous in its demands for public commemoration of the ‘diggers’ day’, which would promote national feeling and boost the special status of ex-servicemen. In 1922 the League’s National Congress resolved that Anzac Day should be known as Australia’s National Day and be observed with a statutory public holiday on April 25, ‘to combine the memory of the Fallen with rejoicing at the birth of Australia as a nation’, and to ‘inculcate into the rising generation the highest national ideals’. With the influential backing of Billy Hughes and ‘digger’ papers like Smith’s Weekly and the Melbourne Herald, the League galvanised popular support for the National Day. The 1923 State Premiers’ Conference was persuaded to recommend that each State take the necessary steps to institute April 25 as a National Day, on which religious and memorial services in the morning would be followed by addresses ‘instilling in the minds of the children of Australia the significance of Anzac Day’. There followed further disagreement about the nature of the public holiday, but by 1927 the appropriate legislation had been passed in every State.28

The convergence of a number of psychological and ideological factors influenced this revival. From the mid 1920s there was widespread interest in ‘spirit-soldiers’, as newspapers reported attempts to communicate with the war dead. The new State war memorials provided special places for such spiritual communion, and bereaved family members sometimes chose inscriptions for their soldiers’ headstones that reflected this attitude:



Perhaps the most famous popular representation of this feeling was a cartoon by Will Dyson entitled ‘A voice from Anzac’, which was published in the Herald on Anzac Day 1927, with an accompanying ‘Anzac’ poem by C. J. Dennis that urged Australians not to forget the war dead. In Dyson’s cartoon a spirit soldier on Gallipoli remarks to his dead mate, ‘Funny thing Bill — I keep thinking I hear men marching’. Many Australians wanted to maintain the memory of men who had died at war, and Anzac commemoration helped to fulfil that need.29

In the late 1920s there was also an upsurge in the publication of Anzac memoirs. This Australian development matched the trend in European military publishing, and suggests that a decade after the war veterans were finding it easier — or more necessary — to write and read about their experiences. The new memoirs were often nostalgic for wartime excitement, purpose and fraternity, and frequently contrasted the war experience with the dullness of civilian life and the divisiveness of the Depression. German historian George Mosse argues that veterans of the Great War created a ‘Myth of the War Experience’, which revered fallen soldier mates, emphasised positive memories and played down the terrible aspects of service. In this way, Mosse argues, horror was ‘transcended and the meaning which the war had given to individual lives was retained’ and transported into civilian society. Many Australian ex-servicemen shared these sentiments. On Anzac Day they were delighted by the chance to meet up with lost mates, and they relished their one day of national esteem at a time when everyday life was often hard and humiliating.30

Figure 13  ‘A voice from Anzac’, Will Dyson’s drawing for a cartoon in the Melbourne Herald, 25 April 1927. (1927, brush and ink with pencil heightened with white, 63.2 × 50.2 cm, Australian War Memorial [19662])

The onset of the Great Depression also had a more material influence. Returned men now had an urgent reason to highlight the special status and needs of veterans, and as ex-servicemen rejoined the RSSILA in large numbers they were encouraged to participate in commemorative activities. Furthermore, at a time of increasing social and political disorder, the Anzacs and the AIF were promoted by conservative leaders as exemplars of unity and discipline. Anzac Day was proclaimed a day of reunion and national reconciliation, and was enjoyed by some participants for that reason. In these ways public and private interest in commemoration were mutually reinforcing, and the revival of Anzac Day and enactment of State legislation were due to a combination of political skill and popular demand.

For example, in 1929 the Brunswick RSSILA, which had collapsed in 1924 and been reconstituted four years later to campaign for veterans’ welfare support, decided to reinstate local Anzac Day commemoration. An inaugural town hall memorial service was held on the Sunday before April 25. Each year the Brunswick Sunday commemoration became more ambitious. In 1930 the local Citizen Force battalion escorted Brunswick returned men and a motorcade of nurses along Sydney Road to the town hall service, where a thousand people were packed in to hear addresses by representatives of the military, the church, the RSSILA and the Council. The following year Brunswick’s Sunday celebration was looked upon as the chief northern suburb Anzac gathering: ‘with Sydney Road thronged to watch returned soldiers march to the tune of martial music, and the Town Hall filled for a memorial service, Brunswick citizens commemorated Anzac Day’. At the service, Chaplain Captain Hagenaur expressed his ideal for the day:

[…] that the wonderful spirit which led, and the inspiration which filled the hearts of the men at Gallipoli, could reach and enter the hearts of every person in the nation […] there are many in our midst at the present time who deride discipline […] discipline made men of our Anzacs. May God awaken the Anzac spirit, rekindling it into a new spirit which will animate our nation. If this comes to pass, the dead will not have died in vain.31

The Brunswick commemoration was held on the Sunday nearest to Anzac Day so that on the day itself the people of Brunswick could join the celebrations in the city centre. In the city, as in the suburbs, these became more ambitious and better attended each year, with a Dawn Service at the city shrine followed by a march through the city by ex-servicemen, a public memorial service and reunions of AIF units. As General Monash remarked in Melbourne in 1926, Anzac Day had ‘grown year by year from small beginnings to a mighty solemnisation […] on this day a whole people pause to mourn their dead and honour their memory’.32

Coinciding with the fall and rise in popular support for Anzac Day in its first decade, was considerable dissent about the form and meaning of the day. This dissent highlights the role of pressure groups with rather different investments in commemoration. The choice of Anzac Day as the national day of remembrance was in itself significant. There were other options. Empire Day was a celebration of both national and imperial loyalty. It achieved a peak of popularity in May 1915, and throughout the war it complemented Anzac Day and was used by loyalists to sustain imperial fervour, especially in schools. Yet Empire Day was unequivocally identified with conservatism and was rapidly eclipsed by Anzac Day, which could be claimed by all ex-servicemen and most Australians as the national day.

Another alternative was Armistice or Remembrance Day, which commemorated the Armistice on 11 November 1918. The British idea of observing two minutes silence at 11 a.m. on that day each year was adopted in Australia, and in many places memorial services were held on the day or on the nearest Sunday, But whereas in Britain Remembrance Sunday became the national day of remembrance, in Australia it was always of secondary importance. Most Australians preferred to commemorate the war on the anniversary of the Anzacs’ baptism of fire, and not on the anniversary of the end of the conflict. This choice highlighted the proud national significance of the war, and reinforced the distinction between ex-servicemen and other civilians.33

This preference also meant that Australians would commemorate war on ‘the diggers’ day’, a day which reaffirmed the extraordinary power and status of these men. There were a number of challenges to RSSILA control of Anzac Day, and to the primacy of diggers on the day. One area of disagreement, which caused tensions within loyalist circles, was religion. While the churches sought to retain Christian observances, on several occasions the RSSILA tried, with varying success from State to State, to omit Christian references in Anzac Day services and replace them with a secular liturgy emphasising nation, empire and digger. Catholic clergy and believers, who had often been forced to accept the rituals of the Protestant establishment or to hold separate services, supported the RSSILA, but Protestant clergy were horrified, and joined with other military and civilian leaders to denounce the disavowal of religion as the trademark of communism.34

There was also disagreement between those who believed Anzac Day should be primarily a citizens’ tribute to the dead, and ex-servicemen who wanted the diggers’ day to honour all the men who went to war, and to serve the needs of the survivors while also paying tribute to dead comrades. This issue was hotly contested within Anzac Day Commemoration Committees and between the committees and the RSSILA. In Queensland, for example, Canon Garland was determined to maintain the citizen’s day against RSSILA wishes, and he was supported by organisations of soldiers’ mothers and by a Labor government that was hostile to the RSSILA. Opponents of the diggers’ day achieved a measure of success. In school ceremonies the emphasis was on wartime sacrifice and patriotism, and there were few mentions of ex-servicemen. Certain aspects of Anzac Day ritual, such as the memorial service, also emphasised the war dead and gave pride of place to the bereaved.35

Yet the centre-piece of the day, which received the bulk of media and public attention, was the march by returned men. Organised and marshalled by the RSSILA, the Anzac Day march through the centre of every capital city, suburb and country town empowered ex-servicemen practically and symbolically. As Ken Inglis argues, Anzac ceremonies and the soldiers’ clubs were added to the pub, the sports’ game and the races as male citadels. Anzac Day increasingly became an occasion of masculine assertiveness. The RSSILA chided returned men who did not join the march: ‘On such a day their place is in the march with their comrades — not on the sidewalks with their wives and families’. Soldiering men dominated on the day and remained central in the public memory of the war; women were confined to a passive role as sidewalk mourners.36

Another related issue was whether April 25 should be a day of mourning or celebration. Canon Garland believed at first that it was not ‘practicable in any way to mourn the loss of the fallen, and at the same time rejoice at the birth of Australia as a nation’. Some Australians, most notably in the Labor movement, maintained this concern. Yet most Anzac Day promoters perceived no contradiction between mourning and celebration, and the duality was embodied in ritual. The RSSILA and Premiers’ Conference recommendations of 1922 and 1923 called for memorial services in the morning and patriotic addresses and carnival in the afternoon; later this duality was embodied in the sequence of a Dawn Service followed by the Anzac Day march and unit reunions. As the day progressed, mourning would thus be ritually transformed into celebration. Although mourning remained a significant motivation for the bereaved and for many ex-servicemen, national celebration became the predominant mood and was emphasised in numerous speeches, such as that made by General Monash in 1924:

Mourning should not dominate the day; the keynote should be a nation’s pride in the accomplishments of its sons. The day should be one of rejoicing.37

There were also arguments about whether April 25 should be a public, industrial holiday. This was the most contentious issue when each State tried to implement the Premiers’ Conference recommendations of 1923. The RSSILA wanted a public holiday so that no ex-serviceman would be prevented from attending Anzac Day services by work commitments, and so that national commemoration could be properly observed by all Australians. On the Anzac Days before legislation was enacted, RSSILA members sometimes ‘waited on’ businesses to force them to close on the day, and at the State level the League campaigned vigorously for the holiday and against the ‘pusillanimous governments, business greed, and disloyal influences, which have so far succeeded in preventing it’. Many prominent loyalists, including most conservative politicians and officials of the Teachers’ Federation, also supported a public holiday as the best way to promote the national significance of the day.38

Opponents of the public holiday wanted commemoration to take place on the Sunday nearest to Anzac Day. Employers did not want to lose a day’s labour, and campaigned against the public holiday until they were persuaded by other conservatives, with the economic recession and class tensions in mind, of the ideological value of the day. Some church leaders and women’s organisations also opposed the holiday, fearing the intemperate dangers of carnival and preferring the more reverent qualities of a sacred Sunday. They too were generally won over when RSSILA leaders in most States proposed that hotels and other places of public entertainment should be closed on the holiday. Labor activists often opposed the public holiday, arguing that workers would be disadvantaged if they lost a day’s pay or had to work on the holiday. In Melbourne industrial suburbs like Brunswick and Richmond, even RSSILA sub-branches opposed the League’s position on the grounds that wages would be affected.39

Underlying labor opposition were ideological reservations about a carnival celebration of war. In the Victorian parliamentary debate over the Anzac Day Bill in 1925, the ex-serviceman Labor politician Pollard argued that he did not want to give ‘prominent generals, colonels, and other people of a militaristic turn of mind’ the opportunity to ‘glorify the spirit of war’, or to propagandise about ‘the necessity of preparing for more war’. Labor politicians concluded that the best way to remember suffering and sorrow was on the anniversary of the peace, or in the privacy of the home. They were castigated for ‘caring nothing for the sanctity of the day’ and for ‘holding the achievements of Gallipoli up to ridicule’. After protracted debates, the opponents of the public holiday were defeated.40

There were further debates about whether public houses and venues for gambling, horse-racing and other forms of public entertainment should be closed on the holiday. The campaign for a ‘closed day’ was conducted by a temperance lobby that included churchmen and members of the Soldiers’ Mothers’ Associations. In Sydney, for example, the campaign was led by Dr Mary Booth of the Centre for Soldiers’ Wives and Mothers (she was also Honorary Secretary of the Soldiers’ Club), who argued that the sacredness of the day would be ruined by drinking, gambling and other sporting or carnival events. Her argument reflected concern about the diggers’ larrikin behaviour, and was supported by the civilian authorities who policed Anzac Day. RSSILA leaders and conservative politicians in most States agreed that the day should be ‘closed’, although many of their members, and ex-servicemen who were not members, resented this policy which did not represent ‘true Diggers’. Mr J. T. Moroney was moved to write to the Daily Telegraph:

As a mere Digger […] I should like to register a kick against petticoat control of war anniversaries […] To hold solemn grief-reviving memorial services, to close hotels and forbid race meetings, seems a queer way for Australia to celebrate epic deeds. 41

Labor populists weighed in with support for the ‘diggers’ against the ‘wowsers’, claiming that the restriction would ‘cut out working-class amusements [hotels and races] while allowing other classes to motor, sail, golf, etc’. However the left was not always consistent on this issue; in 1926 the Worker regretted that the sacred day was becoming an opportunity for ‘filling the Bookies bags’.42

The outcome of the debate varied from State to State. For example, Queensland and Victoria legislated for a closed holiday, but in New South Wales, where the temperance movement was not as strong and Labor populism was ascendant, there were no such restrictions. The debate is significant because it shows that the wartime tension between digger behaviour and the Anzac ideal was reproduced in postwar society, and that attempts were made to use commemoration to reassert the ideal, and to control the behaviour of ex-servicemen.

The tension between the Anzac ideal and digger behaviour also affected the form of Anzac Day ceremonies. In response to fears about unruly ex-servicemen, the RSSILA and civil and military authorities organised and marshalled well-disciplined, orderly Anzac Day parades, in which men marched in ranks in their wartime units. Newspapers commended returned men for living up to the Anzac reputation for discipline, and for providing a good example to all Australians. Threats to this order, such as the attempt by an Unemployed Soldiers’ Association to join the march in Melbourne in 1926, were discouraged. On that occasion the unemployed men eventually marched with their old units, and the RSSILA president commented that ‘loyalty to the spirit of Anzac prevailed’.43

Yet there were limits to this control. Both before the parades, as ex-servicemen gathered with wartime mates, and afterwards at unit reunions or informal gatherings in pubs and on street corners, the diggers were notorious for flouting ‘respectable’ codes of behaviour by drinking, gambling on two-up games, and even scuffling with police who tried to move them on. Such larrikin behaviour concerned the organisers, the press and middle-class respectability in general, and lay behind the attempts to enforce a ‘closed’ day. But because of the status and number of the diggers — this was their day and they controlled the centre of every city and town in the country — it was difficult to enforce standards of behaviour. In time an uneasy compromise developed, in which organisers and the press accepted the informality of the march and encouraged the police to turn a blind eye to most digger drinking and gambling. After all, it was only for one day of the year, and the worst excesses could usually be controlled at the march and in RSSILA clubs and at unit reunions.44

This concern over the behaviour of returned men demonstrates that the forms and meanings of dominant rituals are never fully imposed, but often exist in an atmosphere of continuous tension, involving behaviour that stretches the boundaries of acceptability. It also shows how the rituals of Anzac Day embodied a range of alternative and even contradictory practices and meanings, which enabled people to value the day and to participate in it for a wide range of reasons. Yet at the same time this openness was contained and channelled within certain established practices that were rigorously defended and were intended to promote particular, predominant meanings about Anzac and Australian society.

This same tension between openness and containment was apparent in efforts to make Anzac Day an egalitarian affair. Officers and other ranks were encouraged by ADCCs to march together and to not wear uniforms or other insignia of rank; when Generals Monash and Chauvel led the Melbourne parade in 1925, Monash remarked that he preferred to march in plain clothes so as not to be prominent among the ‘Diggers’. In fact, the egalitarianism of the day was limited and, to some extent, illusory. Protestant services sometimes precluded Catholic participation; senior officers were frequently invited to march at the front of the parade, or at the front of each unit; and the official platform was dominated by vice-regal representatives and civic and service leaders. Yet labor criticism of ‘brass hat’ control of Anzac Day failed to recognise the appeal of its egalitarian symbolism. For one day of the year many diggers recalled the interdependence of officers and men in the AIF, which was readily contrasted with the tensions of the workplace and of inter-war society. Anzac Day reasserted the equality, dignity and value of the ordinary man, both in the wartime AIF and in postwar Australia, and became a significant, affirming occasion for many working-class ex-servicemen.45

The national and military symbolism of Anzac Day also generalised the significance of Anzac in ways which excluded or marginalised alternative understandings of Australian participation in the war. Certain aspects of Anzac Day ritual — in particular the march in civilian clothes and the absence of weapons — were intended to emphasise that the diggers were citizen soldiers, and to play down celebration of the military and fighting. When AIF General Brudenell White was accused of encouraging military ardour in his Anzac Day speeches, he responded that he had seen too much of war to regard it with ‘anything but horror’. Yet in many ways the parade was a martial affair, with ex-servicemen marching in their units to the music of military bands, accompanied by regular servicemen in ceremonial dress armed with rifles and sabres. Anzac Day orators usually asserted that Australian participation in the war had been justified, that Australian soldiers had acquitted themselves superbly, and that commemoration of their noble sacrifices was necessary to ensure that the ‘rising generation’ would be morally prepared to fight in a future war.46

In the early postwar years, when Anzac Day and the national war memorials were still to be made, radical Australians had hoped that commemoration might provide rather different lessons. Radical nationalists argued that the digger should be commemorated because his achievements had won international recognition and laid the foundation for independent Australian nationhood. For example, Mary Gilmore, socialist, feminist and poet of the horrors of modern war, campaigned for a memorial ‘fit for Goulburn and Australia’, which would defy the misapprehension that Australia was ‘a back number that can never build like Europe or America’. In 1925 Labor leader Matthew Charlton supported the Bill for a National War Memorial on the grounds that Anzac commemoration might be used to ‘train the young minds of the future in the paths of peace’.

However it was not easy to commemorate the war in terms that combined pride in the Australian soldiers and their national achievement with anti-imperialist or even pacifist lessons. During the war the language of Anzac had become infused with loyalist ideology, and radical Australians had been tarred with the brush of disloyalty. After the war radicals were poorly placed to wrest the symbols of Anzac from loyalist control. Their exclusion from wartime patriotic committees, and from the RSSILA, was usually perpetuated in their exclusion from commemoration committees. Not untypical was the National War Memorial Committee of Victoria in 1921, which comprised five city financiers, two manufacturers and six professional men, two of whom, Monash and Chauvel, had been AIF commanders. Radical Australians did not have the institutional power or ideological coherence to shape commemoration in their own terms.47

Towards the end of the 1920s, socialist and pacifist concern about the ‘glorification of war’ solidified into outright opposition to the official Anzac Day ceremony. For example, in 1927 the Sydney Labor Daily agreed that the vital lesson should be ‘Never Again!’, but complained that:

In the flamboyant jingo Press the occasion will be recalled in the main as a propaganda stunt associated with the ‘glories of Empire’. The fact that the Empire is unrepentant and would have the dose repeated in China or anywhere else tomorrow will be conveniently overlooked.48

The prevailing view of the left, derived from international pacifist and socialist literature, was that the war had been an imperialist struggle between European ruling elites for national and economic gain, and that the soldiers of both sides were the unwitting victims of a trade war. Although left-wing critics of Anzac Day sometimes blamed Australian losses on the British and asserted an anti-imperialist Anzac nationalism, they more often criticised any patriotic rhetoric as cant and rejected Anzac Day altogether.49

Several of my interviewees — usually men who had become active in the labor and anti-war movements — identified with these criticisms of Anzac Day. Bill Williams felt that the day was used by the organisers to glorify war. Although he marched in tribute to his dead friends, he demonstrated his principled opposition to militarism by not wearing his medals. Ern Morton went to the first few marches to meet up with his mates and remember the good times, but he stopped attending when he realised that the political use of the day was contrary to his own views about the war.50

While radicals were alienated by the politics of Anzac Day, some other diggers felt excluded by its particular representation of war and military manhood. Bill Bridgeman gave up on Anzac Day because it was mainly for and about soldiers, who were the ‘real’ Anzac heroes, and because he felt that the contribution of navy men like himself was not adequately recognised. Charles Bowden decided that he had no real part in the day because he had been in a train-driving unit rather than the infantry, and was not a real Anzac. Anzac Day was thus an uncomfortable or alienating event for some diggers because it did not recognise or affirm their identities — or their politics — as soldiers and as ex-servicemen.51

However for many returned servicemen Anzac Day was a profoundly important occasion. The majority of my interviewees first marched on Anzac Day in the 1920s, and then marched every year until they became too frail or were the only survivors in their units. They stressed that reunion and reminiscence with wartime mates, and remembrance of mates who had died, were the main reasons for their participation. Though some veterans like Bill Williams and Charles Bowden found it difficult to meet and talk about the war, most ex-servicemen actively sought opportunities for reminiscence at the Anzac Day ceremonies and at unit reunions. Stan D’Altera and a group of Yarraville digger mates went to the Dawn Service in the city every year to show their respects to dead comrades, and then returned to Yarraville to share the traditional tot of rum and to reminisce about old friends and old times.52

Throughout the year, ex-service RSSILA members remembered and reconstituted their war memories and identities at the League’s clubs. Anzac Day focused that process in potent ritual form, and provided generalisations about the war, and about Anzac identity, which ex-servicemen participants used to articulate their own war experience. The nature and sequence of Anzac Day rituals contributed to this memory composure, by evoking a particular sense of the war experience. Digger participants re-enlisted with their unit for the day, shared a drink before the Dawn Service just as they had shared a tot of rum before going over the top, marched together again, re-enacted the funeral rites for dead cobbers, drank at collective wakes for the dead, and then left their soldier mates and returned to their civilian homes and lives. This ritual recreation of the war experience, repeated year after year, was a potent form of collective, participatory remembrance. It facilitated a reconciliation with the past through which positive experiences were emphasised and affirmed, while negative experiences were played down. By reliving their military service in these ways for one day of the year, veterans remembered the camaraderie and excitement of the war, and confirmed its significance as a highlight of their lives.53

Participation in Anzac Day did not necessarily require acceptance of the military and patriotic meanings of the day. For most of my interviewees, Anzac Day did not ‘glorify war’. Few of them had enjoyed the military aspect of their experiences or wanted trench war to be romanticised and celebrated. Yet at the same time the dominant messages of Anzac Day — that the Australians were fine soldiers and men, and that the fighting and dying had been worth it — addressed their own emotional need for justification, and provided a public language and sense to articulate the war experience, and their Anzac identity, in more positive and affirming ways. For men like Ern Morton or Charles Bowden the gap between that public legend and their own individual experience was too great. For them, Anzac Day was a painful or alienating occasion. For many others, Anzac Day helped to close the gap by providing understandings to help them live with their wartime past. The battle for the Anzac legend was won by loyalists in the inter-war years because they achieved control of public commemoration, but also because the version of the war that they enshrined in commemoration fulfilled the subjective needs of the majority of Australian ex-servicemen.

Bean’s Anzac history

The Anzac legend and the postwar identities of ex-servicemen were also influenced by the histories and literature of the war. Valuable surveys of Australian war literature have been produced by Robin Gerster and others. The focus here, however, will remain on the work of Charles Bean; because Bean’s official history, while informed by his own Anzac ideal and historical methods, and by the social and political context in which it was produced, was enormously influential in shaping the ways in which Australians understood their participation in the war and ex-servicemen identified themselves as Anzacs.

When Bean was appointed official war correspondent it was also anticipated that he would write Australia’s official war history, and from 1915 to 1918 he gathered extensive documentary and oral evidence for this purpose. When the war finished, Bean completed his historical investigations by returning to Gallipoli with a group of Australians to solve the military riddles of 1915, to provide paintings and relics for the proposed national war museum, and to organise the Anzac cemeteries. In April of 1919 he embarked from Cairo on a ship bound for Australia.

On the voyage, Bean prepared recommendations for the Australian government on both the official history and the war museum. Bean’s plan for The Official History of Australia in the War of 1914–1918, which was accepted with only minor alterations, reflected his ambition for the project. He was to write six volumes about the Australian infantry at Gallipoli and on the Western Front, and would be general editor of a photographic history and of a further five volumes on the Light Horse in Palestine, the Australian Flying Corps, the Royal Australian Navy, the New Guinea expeditions, and the home front. The omission of the latter volume from Bean’s initial proposal reveals that his main concern was to record and commemorate the achievements of Australian servicemen.54

Bean commenced his new work at Victoria Barracks in Melbourne, but from October of 1919 until 1925 the historical team was based at an old homestead at Tuggeranong outside Canberra. Bean preferred the quieter surroundings and was proud to be making the national war history near to the site of the new federal capital. While he began writing, a small and dedicated staff assisted with the immense task of sorting and classifying sources, proofreading manuscripts, and producing indexes, maps and biographical footnotes. Bean worked as hard as he had during the war. He supervised the production of histories of individual AIF units, and corresponded in great detail with the British official historians about the drafts of the respective histories. He wrote a series of journal articles about the making of the history, and a concise, one volume account of the Australians at war, Anzac to Amiens. The official history took more than twenty years to complete, and the final volume about the Australian victories of 1918 was not published until 1942. Bean’s last publication, in 1957, was a fond remembrance of Generals Bridges and Brudenell White of the AIF, entitled Two Men I Knew. By its scale alone, Bean’s historical project was and still is one of the most impressive achievements of an Australian historian.55

It was also an extremely innovative official military history. Bean was critical of conventional military history, which was mainly concerned with military strategy and which used jargon and generalisation about the experience of battle:

[…] when reading in military works, that, for example, the commander, ‘by thrusting forward his right, forced the enemy to withdraw his left and centre’, I had often longed to know just what this meant.56

Bean believed that the fate of a battle often rested with the men in the line, and that military history was inadequate if it did not show the interplay between battle plans and the actual experiences and motivations of soldiers. Because of the small size of the AIF, and because Bean’s terms of reference were to write about Australian participation in the war rather than the general trend of campaigns, it was relatively easy for him to adapt his journalistic focus on the ‘cutting edge’ to the writing of ‘a new kind of war history’:

This could tell how plans, made on the flagged maps in the General Staff office, or perhaps even around polished tables at Downing Street, worked out in the actual experience where Billjim and his beloved Lewis gun lay in the mud of a French crater blazing at German helmets bobbing along a broken-down trench.57

Bean also wanted Australians to be able to identify with the men of the AIF. He named about 8000 soldiers in the text and described them in biographical footnotes which showed that the AIF was ‘a fair cross section of our people’, and which tied ‘this national history into the everyday life of our people’. Though recent critics have shown that Bean sometimes neglected other important military factors, such as weaponry, support, training, logistics and leadership, Bean’s interest in the experience of frontline soldiers was ahead of most of his contemporaries.58

The range and use of sources for the history was also innovative. Apart from Bean’s own 300 volumes of wartime diaries and interview notes, which ‘provided most of the colour, though by no means all’, the main sources were the unit diaries and official records of the AIF (21 500 000 foolscap sheets arranged according to unit and date); soldiers’ diaries and letters which were acquired by the War Memorial following public appeals to ex-servicemen and their families; official photographs which were used in the creation of about 2250 maps and sketches of military engagements; and published monographs and histories — including German unit histories — which located the Australians in a wider context.59

Bean was particularly concerned about the accuracy of his evidence, and personally read and checked almost all of the source material, in comparison with the British official historians who worked from précis prepared by clerical staff. When he encountered inconsistencies there was ‘nothing to do but read more deeply and widely until in most cases one reached the conviction that, of the facts laid bare, there was only one reasonable explanation’. He was also wary of the subjectivity of sources, and was careful to record the origin and authority of each item of evidence, and to assess its veracity: ‘Was it first hand evidence? Was it from a man likely to be on his defence? Was it from Captain A or Captain B, to whose trustworthiness one attached different values?’60 On the whole Bean found that because soldiers were trained to make accurate observations upon which their lives often depended, interview material did accord with other evidence (apart from the second hand reports of commanders, and the confused remarks of wounded men). Indeed, as he remarked to the British military historian, Liddell Hart, the accounts of eyewitnesses were frequently more reliable than official despatches. Bean was thus an early advocate of Australian oral history.61

Bean’s most impressive achievement was to ensure that the history was not simply the official viewpoint of military authorities or his government employer. His experience of wartime propaganda and censorship, and his determination to write a history that would be trusted and taken to heart by ex-servicemen and other Australians, made him insist that he should be allowed to write an uncensored history. In 1919, a Military Board was asked by the government to approve Bean’s proposal for the history. It concluded that unless all page proofs were submitted to a committee for the deletion of libellous references, the books could not be termed an ‘Official History’ and should instead be called the ‘Story of the AIF by the Official War Correspondent’. Bean responded angrily:

The fact that the public knew that there was any Government authority or body acting on behalf of the Government which was ruling any statement that it considered to be ‘libellous’ or ‘dangerous’ out of the book, would entirely destroy the public confidence in it, and rob the history of its value in one blow.

Prime Minister Hughes accepted Bean’s reasoning — he was also influenced by a powerful ex-servicemen’s lobby that opposed censorship — and the military history was written without government interference 62

In this regard the official history differed enormously from Bean’s wartime correspondence, and represented his own historical judgements rather than the dictates of the War Office. It also bears favourable comparison with the work of the British official historians, who had few qualms about excluding material that reflected badly upon British commanders or soldiers, and who were subject to interventions ‘for political expediency’ by the Foreign Office and other government departments. The British Cabinet’s Sub-Committee for the Control of Official Histories was aghast when Bean’s histories included ‘uninstructed criticism’ of senior British officers, and on several occasions sought to bring ‘the histories into line’. In the main, Bean resisted these efforts, and his published history was more critical than other official accounts about British strategy and command on the Western Front.63

Bean was also free to write about the terrible conditions and effects of trench warfare. In many frank passages his history revealed the less ‘heroic’ aspects of Australian behaviour both in and out of the line. For example, Bean wrote about the ‘unmanning’ effects of life under fire, and quoted an AIF sergeant’s description of the Australian First Division after it had been relieved from the bombardment at Pozières:

They looked like men who had been in Hell. Almost without exception each man looked drawn and haggard, and so dazed that they appeared to be walking in a dream, and their eyes looked glassy and starey. Quite a few were silly, and these were the only noisy ones in the crowd.

Similarly, at various points in the account of the Gallipoli landing, Bean described weary, half-dazed and confused men running back from the enemy or straggling in the gullies. He acknowledged that there was a proportion of Australian soldiers who avoided action by feigning illness or seeking safe work behind the lines; that Australian soldiers sometimes wounded themselves to get out of the line; that ‘at times of strain, or before a great battle […] a certain section persistently “went absent”’; and that there were at least two AIF mutinies in 1918. When Brigadier Edmonds of the British Historical Section wrote to Bean in 1928 arguing that he should delete references to shell-shock and malingering from the Australian history, Bean simply scrawled in the margin of the letter that ‘Edmonds was never in a real bomb [sic]’.64

However Bean’s uncensored official history was not quite as frank and critical as some subsequent historians and readers have assumed. Bean’s published criticism of wartime commanders was less harsh and more qualified than the comments in his wartime diary. In a revealing 1929 correspondence with his friend the AIF general and parliamentarian John Gellibrand, Bean joked about his role as ‘the public and official executioner of hard-won reputations’, and explained that he was ‘pretty cautious about attributing blame’ because of the likelihood of extenuating circumstances. Bean was especially generous to Australian commanders, and on occasions even asked the British historians ‘to lighten the effect of the criticisms’ of senior Australian officers, including Gellibrand. It seems that he was occasionally swayed by loyalty to friends among AIF staff and regimental officers, and by the fact that these colleagues formed a high proportion of his historical informants, both during and after the war. Bean was equally protective of the reputation of Australian soldiers, and in attempts to persuade the British historians to make less of Anzac failures (such as the abortive night-time assault by Monash’s Fourth Brigade during the Gallipoli August offensive) he was not averse to concealing damaging information from them.65

Yet for the most part Bean had too much integrity to consciously censor or self-censor the historical record. Far more important were his ideal of the character of the Anzacs and his perception of the national significance of their achievement. He had begun to articulate his Anzac ideal during the war, when his preconceptions about soldiering and Australian character were remoulded by experiences among the Anzacs. The postwar crystallisation of that ideal in the history was, in turn, influenced by Bean’s methods of historical reconstruction, and by political and historical debates in which Bean was an active participant. Though Bean worked extremely hard to create a comprehensive and accurate history, it was, like all histories, shaped by the circumstances and attitudes of its creator.

For Bean the purpose of the official history was to explore ‘a great theme — the reaction of a young, free, democratic people to this great test — slowly working itself out to the climax of the astonishing victories of 1918’. The historical exposition of Australian achievements in the war would also serve as a memorial to the men of the AIF. Bean did not perceive any tension between the historical and commemorative roles of the history — he thought that ‘the only memorial which could be worthy of them was the bare and uncoloured story of their part in the war’ — but his nationalistic ideal undermined the intention to provide ‘the bare and uncoloured story’. Indeed, Bean wanted the Anzacs and the AIF to serve as models for national development, and the themes of his history — the importance of the bush, the digger qualities of decisiveness and discipline, the unity and harmony of the AIF — were intended to promote a particular vision of ‘the only country in the world that is still to make’. In turn, postwar developments in Australian social and political life influenced Bean’s history-making and caused him to emphasise certain themes.66

Take, for example, the ways in which Bean’s history constructed a particular version of the Australian experience of battle, and of Australian military manhood. In the final volume of the official history, Bean explained that there was ‘overwhelming evidence that the AIF […] was found to be amongst the most effective military forces in the war’. He understated structural explanations of that effectiveness and argued that the AIF’s success was primarily due to the national characteristics of the Australian soldiers. From his pre-war journalistic travels Bean was convinced that the distinctive Anzac qualities of independence, initiative and mateship had been forged in the bush. In postwar Australia Bean was active in the parks and playgrounds movement, which he hoped would maintain ‘the digger spirit (or the Australian spirit) in the big cities like Sydney’; in a letter to Gellibrand he described the movement as a ‘Society for the Preservation of Anzac Standards’. Bean’s history, in which he emphasised the character-forming role of outdoors or rural Australian life, was influenced by his general determination to explain and sustain the formative influence of the bush upon Australian character and society.67

In the history, the typical, bush-bred Anzac was also an imaginative and bold fighter. He was the type of man who had so inspired Bean during the war, but this Anzac ideal was very different to the image of soldiers as emasculated victims which was prevalent in European war novels, such as Robert Graves’ Goodbye To All That and Erich Remarque’s All Quiet on the Western Front, which began to circulate in Australia in the late 1920s. The RSSILA campaigned against this ‘unbalanced’ and ‘degenerate’ fiction, which, it claimed, belittled the dignity and achievements of soldiers on the Western Front. In contrast, the League praised mainstream Australian war writing for depicting military manhood in terms of daring and stoic courage, and claimed that it had ‘revitalised […] the spirit of the AIF’.

Bean was also determined that his history should inspire the younger generation with ‘the real nobility in the ordinary unpretentious Australian’ soldier. For example, he wrote of the Australian soldier at Pozières that, ‘having resolved that any shell-fire must be faced, he went through it characteristically, erect, with careless easy gait […] in many cases too proud to bend or even turn his head’. The dazed and even ‘silly’ men who came out of Pozières were, according to Bean, ‘utterly different from the Australian soldiers of tradition’. The implication of these passages is that Australian soldiers are characteristically indifferent to fire, and that men who do not cope in this way are not characteristic Australians.68

In comparison with some members of the RSSILA, Bean did not wish to portray the Anzacs as ‘supermen’. In the history he refined the subtle definition of heroism — that ordinary men who endured life in the line and did their jobs were real heroes — that he had begun to articulate in his war correspondence. Yet he believed that the AIF ‘contained more than its share of men who were masters of their own minds and decisions’, and that the majority of them were motivated by distinctively Australian ideals of duty or of manhood. For example, he used mateship to explain military endurance and discipline:

[…] to be the sort of man who would give way when his mates were trusting in his firmness […] that was the prospect which these men could not face. Life was very dear, but life was not worth living unless they could be true to their idea of Australian manhood.

Mateship was the primary relationship and motivating force for most soldiers in all armies during the war. Bean, however, believed it to be uniquely Australian, and through the history and activities such as the ‘Society for the Preservation of Anzac Standards’, he hoped to rekindle ‘the spirit of stand by your cobber and give it a go’ in the divided society of postwar Australia.69

Bean also argued in the history that the Australian soldiers were willing to stick at the job because they believed in the justice and necessity of their cause. In the volume about 1918 he wrote that, although the diggers were homesick and tired of the war, they did not want to go home until they had finished the job of showing the Germans that warlike methods did not pay:

[…] whenever talk of peace crept into the newspapers there was only one opinion in most of the trenches: ‘No use going home with the job unfinished, to be done again in ten or twenty years’ time by our children’.

The conclusions in this passage about Australian soldiers’ dutiful sentiments were drawn from wartime conversations with members of one particular AIF unit, but they were also influenced by Bean’s own attitudes, and by postwar political developments. Bean was concerned about the resurgence of pacifism in the 1930s, and by the onset of another war against Germany. He was especially critical of ‘the sheltered innocence’ of school teachers who believed that ‘by sustaining a pride in the military efforts of our countrymen, the history of war encouraged war’. He condemned the ‘careless verdict of ‘impatient radicals’ that both sides were to blame for the origins of the 1914– 18 war, and in the history he contrasted the brotherly ideals of the British Empire with the Prussian ‘might is right’ ideology, and stressed that the cause of humanity had required Britain and Australia to oppose Germany in 1914.70

According to the history, national loyalty was another explanation for the Australian soldiers’ fortitude: ‘men’s keenness […] was for the AIF — for their regiment, battalion, company — and for the credit of Australia’. Bean also argued that, despite some friction between the Australians and the British High Command, the diggers’ imperial loyalty, which he described as ‘loyal partnership in an enterprise and […] complete trust’, was sustained throughout the war. There was some evidence to support at least the first of these conclusions about national loyalty, but Bean’s emphasis upon, and characterisation of, the Anzacs’ national and imperial identities was also informed by his own ideological position within Australian postwar politics.71

An example of this was Bean’s concern that riotous diggers should not be seen as representative of the Anzacs after the 1919 Peace Day riots in Melbourne. He condemned the ‘unworthy demonstration’ by ‘the inevitable riff-raff’, and praised the ‘tried leaders’ of the AIF who organised returned men to suppress the rioting, and who disclaimed ‘genuine digger’ involvement. The same emphasis upon Anzac discipline, and the concern to rebut claims about digger indiscipline, is evident in the history. For example, both during and after the war British commentators frequently asserted that, in their initial military engagements, the Australians were often handicapped by their irregular behaviour and indiscipline. Bean refuted such claims at every opportunity, and in the 1934 edition of the first volume of ‘The Story of Anzac’, he added a preface to that effect.72

Along similar lines, Bean was incensed by images of the larrikin digger which were prevalent after the war in soldier memoirs and in the popular press. In 1946 he complained:

[…] great damage was afterwards done to the Anzac tradition by caricatures, that became popular in Australia, of the indiscipline of her troops in the First World War, portraying the life of the ‘dinkum Aussie’ as one of drunkenness, thieving and hooliganism […]

He argued that this ‘false legend […] travestied the First AIF and damaged the Second’, and stressed in the final volume of the history that discipline was responsible for the success of the Anzacs, and that the larrikin reputation applied only to a few ‘reckless or criminal individuals’. In effect, the history’s emphasis on the wartime loyalty and discipline of the diggers, and on the inspirational leadership of the AIF, promoted those same qualities in civilian society, and, in the political context of Australia at that time, reinforced loyalist ideology.73

We can see how Bean shaped his history in particular ways and with particular meanings, by considering the process of his history-writing and the strategies used in the creation of his text. In preparation for writing about each major battle, Bean brought together a huge variety of relevant source material into an ‘Extract Book’. In each Extract Book, evidence was arranged by theme and by the geography of the battle, usually from the extreme left flank to the extreme right. Guided by the appropriate Extract Book, Bean then produced a handwritten manuscript, which was transcribed by his staff and circulated to senior members of the AIF, and to the British Historical Section, for comments. Although Bean gave due consideration to the comments he received, manuscript drafts that are housed with Bean’s other papers at the Australian War Memorial are, in most cases, remarkably similar to the final, published history.74

In postwar correspondence with his friend Gellibrand, Bean wrote frankly about the process of researching and writing the history:

[…] working through the records is like going on a particularly interesting voyage of discovery, with a sort of excited anticipating of what you will find when you get through […] as I work certain big conclusions, simple ones, seem gradually to stand out of all the matter one assimilates […] I am finding it easier to see light through a maze of experiences.75

Bean concluded that he was less a historian and more a storyteller, narrating the discoveries that emerged from the evidence. Yet in Bean’s ‘storytelling’ the discoveries did not simply emerge from the evidentiary maze. Rather, Bean used a variety of narrative strategies and linguistic techniques to make sense of the evidence in terms of his own preconceptions and historical judgements, and to fashion a compelling literary and historical text.

Take, for example, a key passage in Bean’s history of the Anzac landing. Bean wanted to show that the AIF brigadiers who recommended evacuation on the afternoon of the first day had based their recommendation on the evidence of the wounded and confused men on the beach, but were mistaken about the morale of the men at the front:

But in this first experience of battle few senior officers, even among those immediately in touch with the firing line, had yet realised the character of those whom they commanded. While there were some of weaker fibre who tended to fall back into the gullies, and while here and there even the bravest had been placed under a strain beyond their bearing, there was nearly always present some strong independent will, among either the officers or the men, which would question any order for retirement.

Typically, Bean makes this point by embellishing the history with an account of an incident he had witnessed and recorded in his diary:

Towards evening some New Zealand and Australian infantry were lying out on Plugge’s, when several salvos of shrapnel fell about them. Further to the right the Otago Battalion lost thirty men in a few minutes. A message came shouted from the rear: ‘Pass the word to retire!’ Lieutenant Evans of the 3rd Battalion, sitting in the open on the edge of the plateau amongst the bullets, caught it up.

‘What’s that message?’ he asked sharply.

‘Word to retire, sir,’ said a man lying beside him.

‘Who said retire?’ Evans asked. ‘Pass back and ask who said retire.’ ‘Yes — who said retire?’ called several of the men around him. ‘Pass back and ask who said to retire?’

The inquiry could be heard proceeding from mouth to mouth, and the next minute there came back a very different command: ‘Advance, and dig in on the forward slope of the hill’ The men picked up themselves and their rifles and went forward. Shortly before this a call had come that someone was hit. Two stretcher-bearers of the 3rd Battalion immediately strolled casually across the hilltop, hands in their pocket, pipes in their mouths, past the crouching infantry, exactly as a man would roam round his garden on a Sunday morning. Ten minutes later they wandered back in the same manner. Their attitude was — as no doubt it was intended to be — a sedative to all around them.76

In comparison with this passage, the notes that Bean jotted down on the day simply record the change in the order from ‘retire’ to ‘advance’. The diary he worked up for publication in the months after the landing contains an account of the incident which is almost identical to that in the history, except that in the history Bean added more colour (the metaphor about Sunday gardeners), improved the details (only one of the stretcher bearers was smoking a pipe in the diary version) and concluded with the telling generalisation about the intention and effects of the stretcher bearers’ actions. The passage in the history demonstrates the way in which Bean used anecdotes about ‘typical’ diggers to corroborate historical generalisations about the motivations and behaviour of soldiers, and to reinforce his guiding theme of the strong positive characteristics of the Anzacs.77

Bean used a variety of other linguistic techniques to marginalise aberrant behaviour, and to deny it any general or typical significance. For example, although Bean had noted in his Gallipoli diary that self-inflicted wounds were ‘not uncommon, even among Australians’, in the history he mentioned them only in a footnote which stated that there were ‘a very few cases’ in the AIF. He argued that the few occurrences were inevitable in war, that they occurred mainly among new arrivals who were unable to face the strain, and that a man who shot himself instead of refusing to go up the line was of ‘finer fibre’ than other malingerers. Similarly, although Bean’s history is relatively frank about Australians running away during battles, the incidents are defined as not too serious, not typical of the Australian soldier or the force generally or, at worst, the inevitable consequence of strain. The Australians often ‘withdraw’ while the Turks ‘bolt’, and when Australians do ‘retire’ or ‘fall back’ it is because of ‘a strain beyond their bearing’ or the effects of ‘murderous fire’. Stragglers usually have the excuse that they are wounded, exhausted or dazed, or else they are men of ‘weaker fibre’. Likewise, although Bean accepted that some Australians deserted from the Western Front before major battles, he emphasised that this was ‘the very time when the average Australian refused to go sick or, not infrequently, broke away from convalescence to get back to his mates in the line’. In contrast, the deserters who were responsible for giving the Australians a reputation as ‘bad boys’ were, according to Bean, a small proportion of ‘“hard cases” and ne’er-dowells […] in some cases actual criminals who had enlisted without any intention of serving at the front, and ready to go to any lengths to avoid it’:

A few men — of a character recognised by their comrades as well as by their officers to be worthless to any community — by open refusal to go into the trenches were causing some of the younger as well as some of the more war-worn of their comrades to follow their example.

Bean’s deserters are not ‘average’ or ‘typical’ Australians. By isolating and stigmatising such malingerers as an alien minority, Bean inoculates the reputation of the AIF and preserves his Anzac ideal. To validate that inoculation and disguise his own role in the textual process, Bean cites the scorn of loyal comrades. Stragglers and deserters themselves have no say in Bean’s history.78

Bean’s war correspondence could be dismissed as propaganda because it excluded incidents that reflected badly on the Australians. In comparison, as a historian Bean did not deny or ignore evidence that contradicted his Anzac ideal, but admitted and then reworked it so that it was no longer contradictory, but instead reinforced his glowing characterisation of the typical Anzac.

Bean’s Anzac legend was also effective because he ensured that his history was widely read. In comparison, the British official history was not written or marketed ‘to be a popular success’. Members of the British Historical Section hoped that their publications would attract ‘sufficient interest’ from the ‘well informed’ section of society to ‘influence public opinion when questions of imperial policy are being debated’, and thereby contribute ‘to the national education’, but their work was primarily intended ‘for the education and instruction of officers’. Not surprisingly; there was little popular interest in the heavily censored and turgid volumes of the British official history, and sales were comparatively low.79

Bean was criticised by Australian army staff for not writing a history on the British model, but he made no apology for writing ‘a national history and not a military one’, which would provide the people of Australia with a commemorative record of the achievements of their men at war. Bean and his colleagues at the Australian War Memorial devised a variety of imaginative schemes to ‘spread wide the true knowledge of the AIF’. They used ‘national grounds’ to persuade the government to subsidise a retail price of one pound and one shilling per volume, and commercial logic to commit the publishers at Angus and Robertson to circulate ex-servicemen or next-of-kin with details of a subscription discount scheme. The set that I inherited from my grandfather, John Rogers, was purchased by subscription and still has the original dockets for pre-payment tucked into each book (the photo volume was a gift from an ex-serviceman friend, who enclosed a note saying that ‘from the point of view of history, as it affects you and your children […] I forward this volume with pleasure’).80

In the early 1920s the first few volumes of the Australian official history sold well, but sales decreased towards the end of the decade and the Commonwealth expressed concerned about the burden of the history upon government resources hit by the Depression. With Bean’s support, the Australian War Memorial took on greater responsibility for financing the history, and devised a series of ‘special selling campaigns’. Mail-order and lay-by schemes were set up to ‘bring the history within the reach of the ex-soldier wage earner’. Sales representatives were employed on commission to sell the books at workplaces and servicemen’s clubs, and RSSILA sub-branches agreed to sell sets of the history in return for a percentage of the takings. Most effective of all was a scheme for Commonwealth public servants, who were able to have the purchase price docked from their fortnightly pay. By 1934, Bean and the director of the War Memorial, John Treloar, were celebrating the ‘astonishing success’ of these schemes and a ‘boom in sales of the Official History’. By 1942 most volumes had been reprinted many times over and total sales exceeded 150 000 copies. Vigorous marketing, and a renewed interest in the war which was also reflected in the sales of war fiction and in Anzac Day attendances, ensured that Bean’s history was indeed a popular, national success.81

The official history was also well received by the critics. Although reviewers in Britain and New Zealand noted that Bean overstated Australian achievements and understated those of other Allied forces, in Australia the volumes were celebrated as our ‘Iliad and Odyssey’, and reviewers highlighted the key passages about the ‘mettle’ of Australian men and the national significance of their achievements. There was some concern that the volumes about the Western Front were too soft on both British and Australian commanders, but reviewers generally praised Bean’s vivid and realistic depiction of the ‘barbarous business of war’, and compared it favourably with the censored and rather dull reports that Bean had produced during the war. Some reviewers were concerned that the scale and detail of the history would deter readers (Bean responded that the detail was the main story), but others applauded the innovative focus on front-line soldiers, and the use of personal anecdotes which brought the history to life for Australian readers.82

The history was read and used in many different ways, and it had an indirect influence as a major source for public history and remembrance. Bean’s historical tradition was perpetuated in the unit histories, which he often supervised, by the Australian official historians of later wars, and by popular war histories which freely used Bean’s evidence and conclusions. Excerpts from the official history were reproduced in school readers and then quoted in student essays, and Anzac Day writers and speakers borrowed passages from Bean to explain the significance of the day. Furthermore, as Michael McKernan has recently recorded, Bean was a key figure in the creation of the Australian War Memorial, and thus enshrined his version of the war in a building which served the multiple purposes of memorial, museum and archive, and which would become one of the country’s most popular tourist attractions. For the most part, representations of the Anzacs that drew upon Bean’s history were informed by his generalisations about the national meaning of the war and the positive qualities of the Australian soldiers. Very rarely did they use or discuss the more complex and even contradictory evidence which is hidden away in the 10 000 pages and four million words of the history.83

For readers, Bean’s history was a resonant and appealing narrative. In 1938, Tas Heyes at the War Memorial wrote to Bean about ‘the reception accorded it by all classes […] That it stands high in the regard of Australians is amply indicated by the hundreds of unsolicited letters of appreciation which we hold’. Among those letters were some from civilians applauding Bean’s contribution to Australian understanding of the war and its significance. Mr M. E. Marshall of South Australia railways claimed that by contrast with the usual ‘droll and uninteresting’ school history books, Bean’s history evoked ‘the courage and life and interesting features which every young Australian, who looks with admiration at the name of ANZAC, will be sure to enjoy and derive from them a wider view on the immortal history of our Australian soldiers’. Other readers were delighted with personal references to ex-servicemen relatives, and some remarked that family members who had died at war lived on in Bean’s prose. My brothers and I used to look up ‘J. D. Rogers’ in the index and then read about his exploits, discovering, just as Bean had intended, a proud, personal connection with the AIF. We also thumbed through the photographic history (which included some of ‘Papa’s’ photos) until it became the most battered volume, as it often is on library shelves.84 Ex-servicemen also recorded their approval of the history, and in doing so revealed the range of ways in which they read and used its account of their war experiences, and what the history meant for their identities as ex-servicemen. R. L. Leane, an ex-AIF officer who became Chief Commissioner of Police in South Australia, wrote to Bean ‘to appreciate as no doubt do Diggers as a whole, the opportunity to go over old actions, see where mistakes were made and successes occurred’;

[…] as usual you have given me [the] most generous lookout. I feel proud of the fact because you were there and therefore speak from personal experience […] When finished the history will provide a tradition for future generations, and if they live up to it, we need have no fear for the future.

Harold Gieske, who had served in the 26th Battalion and after the war worked in north Queensland, claimed that to be mentioned in a volume of Bean’s history was ‘a greater honour than any war decoration’, and Gellibrand was only half-joking when he told Bean, ‘I propose to have my headstone marked merely; “see Bean Vol iv”’. From Western Australia, G. H. Nicholson wrote of his postwar economic tribulations in the mining industry, and claimed that ‘your history more than compensates’:

I never thought Passchendaele was ranked so high in the war efforts […] and to think that you appreciated the part played by my men is just thrilling. It has made me realise that after all my life wasn’t wasted.85

Bean’s official history seems to have been equally popular among working-class ex-servicemen. A couple of the men I interviewed, who had not wanted any contact with the war because it was such a painful memory, had not been interested in the history. But I was amazed to find that almost half of my interviewees had bought copies, and that some had acquired the full set (many also had copies of their unit history). They had bought it as a source of information about events and names, to read about the actions of their own unit, and so that they could get a wider picture of the war. A few were concerned that Bean had not been able to cover particular events, and that no writing could convey the real experience of the trenches, but most admired the accuracy and frankness of Bean’s account and enjoyed it as ‘real good reading’.86

Radical diggers who had been alienated by the loyalist politics of the RSSILA and Anzac Day were critical of the official status of the history, but even they were impressed by the absence of any obvious political censorship or bias. Although wary at first, Fred Farrall and Stan D’Altera both became Bean enthusiasts. The history, even more than Anzac Day, could be read and enjoyed for many different purposes, and was thus appealing to a wide range of diggers. Above all, it was popular among ex-servicemen because it focused on their experiences in the line — including actual battles they had fought in — recognised what they had been through, and admired their achievement.87

Bean’s official history thus provided positive ways in which a veteran could make sense of his experience. However, by producing an account that generalised the Anzac experience according to the themes of national identity and achievement, and that marginalised war experiences that did not fit those themes, Bean’s official history played an influential role in shaping the ways in which ex-servicemen articulated their own war experiences and identified themselves as Anzacs. In the next chapter we return to the memory biographies of the three diggers to discover their individual experiences of repatriation, and to explore the relationships between their war memories and identities, and the postwar organisations, rituals and histories of Anzac.

Anzac Memories: Living with the Legend [New Edition]

   by Alistair Thomson