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Anzac Memories: Living with the Legend [New Edition]


THE ANZAC REVIVAL (1939 –1990)*

The Anzac mystique under fire … and re-emergent

Australian military experiences in the 1939–45 war boosted the Anzac legend but did not alter its fundamental meanings and significance. In Britain, the RAF pilot had replaced the infantry man as the popular military hero, but in Australia the soldier retained his pre-eminent position and, as Robin Gerster argues, writers ‘big-noted’ the men of the Second AIF in terms similar to those that had been used to portray their First AIF predecessors.

There were some changes in the Anzac character, or at least in the way in which it was depicted. The Great War and the Depression had tempered king and country patriotism — poor recruiting figures in 1939 confirmed this change — and writers were now less restrained in their representation of digger larrikinism and virility. Australian soldiers and their legend also fared differently in different war zones. The initial victories in north Africa were the stuff of classical legend; the grisly, jungle war in the Pacific required new ways of writing about war and an emphasis on the Anzac qualities of humour and resourcefulness; the experiences of prisoners of war were, until very recently, the most difficult to represent in positive terms.

For the most part, members of the Second AIF perceived themselves to be living up to the legend of their 1914–18 predecessors, and Australian publicists represented them in those terms. Writing in 1943 of the ‘War Aims of a Plain Australian’, Charles Bean commented that the new generation of Australian soldiers had re-established the ‘Anzac spirit of brotherhood and initiative’, and offered renewed hope and vision for the postwar nation. Australians at war also won new admirers. George Johnston recalled that between the wars he had been cynical about the Anzac story, but that experiences as a reporter during the Second World War had opened his eyes to ‘the remarkable new breed of men’ — cynical, carefree and masculine, and with their own codes of loyalty, patriotism and comradeship — who comprised the First and Second AIFs.1

Despite the boost provided by the Second World War, which was reflected in improved Anzac Day attendance figures and a growth in RSL membership during the immediate postwar years, subsequent decades saw a decline of interest in the Australian experience of the Great War. The historians who pioneered the study of Australian history in schools and universities after the Second World War focused on more ‘suitable’ social and political topics. Liberal academics found it distasteful to write about war, and left-wing historians were disconcerted by the politics of the Anzac legend; in 1958, Russell Ward barely explored the obvious similarities between the soldiers’ legend and the ‘Australian Legend’ of the convicts and bushmen. It may also be that the scale and stature of Bean’s official history stunted re-evaluation of the Australian military experience; certainly his historical work was neglected in the 1950s and 1960s.2

In these decades the RSL was identified by many Australians with social and political conservatism, and Anzac Day gained a reputation in some quarters as a boozy veterans’ reunion that had little relevance for other Australians. Dramatists articulated the mood of a new era and generation. Ric Throssell’s play, For Valour, was based on the life of his father, a Light Horse man who had come home from the war with a Victoria Cross for bravery, but who was driven to suicide by personal and economic failure. First performed in Canberra in 1960, the play contrasted Anzac rhetoric with veterans’ confusion and pain, and suggested that the legend was a cause of suffering as well as pride. Alan Seymour’s play The One Day of the Year sparked controversy when it was published in 1962 and performed at the Adelaide Festival. Although the subtext of Seymour’s play reveals great respect and sympathy for the original Anzacs, as represented by the character Alf, the message that spoke most clearly for the times, and which was pounced on by RSL stalwarts, was that of young Hughie, with his contempt for the drunken rituals of Anzac Day and for the glorification of war and soldiers:

All that old eyewash about national character’s a thing of the past. Australians are this, Australians are that, Australians make the greatest soldiers, the best fighters. It’s all rubbish.3

The chastening experience of the Vietnam War added to the widespread disillusionment with Australia’s military past and present. Opponents of Australia’s involvement in that war scorned attempts to create a ‘New Anzac Legend’ which praised the men of the Royal Australian Regiment as proud bearers of their forefathers’ military traditions, and which justified ‘fighting the Vietcong in defence of the [Vietnamese] “people”’. Recent novelists and historians have sought to restate these positive themes, and to reaffirm national respect for our Vietnam veterans; writing in 1986, Lex McAuley characterised the Battle of Long Tan as ‘the legend of Anzac upheld’. But at the time of the Vietnam War and moratorium marches against conscription, many Australians were sceptical of the nation’s military tradition, and of its relevance in a changing world.4

In the 1960s and early 1970s, defenders of the Anzac faith wrote with great concern about its critics, and about the apparent decline of interest in the first Anzacs. In 1963, Peter Coleman mused in the Bulletin about ‘the tendency among some Australian historians to play down the place of Anzac Day in Australian history’, and noted RSL fears that Anzac Day was losing its popularity. Two years later, George Johnston wrote an article for Walkabout which assessed the state of the Anzac legend on its fiftieth anniversary, at a time when ‘it seems to have come to a point where it could be debased or twisted or even lost altogether in ambiguities of social misunderstanding’ as exemplified by Alan Seymour’s play. Johnston argued that Gallipoli still offered valuable lessons about the universal truths of the human spirit, and about the ‘legendary and undoubted’ qualities of Australian soldiers. Writing for Advance Australia in 1973, Jack Woodward recalled previous decades of misplaced criticism: ‘Anzac Day was accused of jingoism, cant and the glorification of war — whatever that means […] an image of bawdy, boozy, authoritarian camaraderie was seen by some to pass unworthily for patriotism, and the Anzac mystique came under fire’. For Woodward, Anzac was still ‘a credible legend of stoicism and fraternalism’, and patriotism, ‘bound up with national honour and freedom’, and was far preferable to the ‘non-patriotism of today’:

It has an alien ring to it and an unruly look about it. It seems to be promoted by ideological vagrants, spiritually footloose and with no visible moral means of support5

And yet, within a decade, the conservative columnist Gerard Henderson was claiming that Anzac Day 1982 took place ‘at a time of unprecedented revival of interest in the Australian involvement in the Great War and, more particularly, in the Dardanelles campaign’.6 This revival was not the work of traditional Anzac guardians in the RSL or among conservative patriots, but was led by historians and film-makers responding to a burgeoning popular interest in Australian history and national identity.

Historians can be credited with some responsibility for the reawakening of interest in Anzac. In 1965, Australians celebrated the fiftieth anniversary of the landing at Gallipoli and Ken Inglis wrote an article about ‘The Anzac Tradition’, in which he criticised historians’ neglect of the tradition and its founder, Charles Bean, and speculated about the nature of Anzac and its lessons for Australia. The article was rejected by the academically prestigious Historical Studies, but was published in Meanjin Quarterly, which then provided a forum for several prominent Australian historians to debate issues about the diggers and their legend. Inglis embarked upon a major study of the origins and history of Australian heroes and national identity, which resulted in many innovative publications about the significance of the Great War in Australian political culture and popular memory.7

Other historians begin to research and write about the war. In Melbourne, Lloyd Robson explored the origins and character of the First AIF, and introduced a generation of school and university students — including me — to debates about the Anzac experience. In 1974, the impressive results of Bill Gammage’s doctoral research using soldiers’ letters and diaries was published as The Broken Years: Australian Soldiers in the Great War, and in 1978 Patsy Adam-Smith combined oral testimony with soldiers’ writings in her best-selling account, The Anzacs. In their different ways, members of this generation of historians were influenced by the new social history, with its emphasis on ordinary people’s historical experiences. In British military history this new approach generated important new works, such as Martin Middlebrook’s The First Day on the Somme, about the experiences of soldiers in the ranks. In Australia, it led to the recovery of Charles Bean’s historical tradition of writing about war at the cutting edge. The new wave of Australian war historians acknowledged their debt to Bean and paved the way for a renaissance of Bean’s historical work, which to date has included publication of his Gallipoli diary, a major biography, a new imprint of the official history, and numerous newspaper and journal articles. Recognising a growing demand for writings about war, Australian publishers developed extensive military history lists in the 1980s, which ranged from academic studies to a Time-Life Books’ series telling ‘the whole bloody history of Australians at war’, and offering a ‘specially commissioned cassette of catchy songs from the years of Australians at war’.8

The Australian War Memorial played a significant role in this resurgence of military history and publishing. In 1980, new legislation provided official sanction for the War Memorial’s growing commitment to fostering military history. Its huge archive of primary source material about Australians at war was made more accessible to researchers, and a Research and Publications Section was established to coordinate a research bursary scheme and to organise a journal and national conferences dedicated to the history of Australian experiences of war. In the 1980s, it was probably easier to get funding to research and write military history than to be supported for work in most other fields of Australian studies. Many young scholars, intrigued by the issues raised by study of Australians at war, and suffering from the squeeze on university funding, took advantage of such opportunities.9

Underlying popular and academic interest in the history of the Great War was the blossoming of an Australian nationalism with particular interest in the national past. The enthusiastic independence of the 1972–75 Whitlam Labor government was one spur for the new nationalism, but it was subsequently fuelled by the economic and political insecurity of the mid-1970s, and promoted by both Coalition and Labor governments in the 1980s. Cultural nationalism directed intellectual and financial stimulus into an Australian film industry which, in turn, produced influential representations of national identity and Australian history.

In 1981, Peter Weir’s film Gallipoli sought to breathe life and meaning back into the Anzac story. Screenwriter David Williamson claimed to be motivated by the quest for national identity: ‘as for myth, a country, for its own psychological well-being needs to generate its own myths, otherwise it doesn’t feel whole’. At the film, Phillip Adams ‘watched the faces of the young audience and saw them yearning for a world in which they could believe in the transcendental power of an abstract idea […] where once more people could have the sort of faith in values, institutions and themselves that would give them such a rush of conviction and courage’. British audiences were less convinced about such faith, as Jill Tweedie wrote from London a few months before the Falklands War, and at a time when European citizens were becoming more vocal about the threat of nuclear war:

We, here, can no longer afford to admire war games, however heroic they may once have been. We, here, can no longer afford to confuse ignorance and a boyish wish for adventure (clearly depicted in the film) with nobility, patriotism or courage.

Australian letter-writers attacked Tweedie for ‘degrading the memory of their compatriots in the first world war’, and in Australia Gallipoli was a huge popular success. On the one hand it matched contemporary attitudes about the tragedy of war, and suited the Australian desire to blame the British for the loss of Anzac lives (in the film, the man who gave the command for the Light Horse men to continue their suicidal attack at The Nek is portrayed as a British officer, even though he was an Australian). At the same time, the film also evoked for Australian audiences strong feelings of sympathy for the Anzacs, pleasure in their Australian characteristics, and pride in their courage and their achievements.10

The success of Gallipoli in 1981 was echoed by a general interest ‘in all things military and Australia’s war history’. The War Memorial recorded that in September 1981 it had had 83 570 visitors, fifty per cent more than in the same month the previous year, and that the Memorial was now Canberra’s most popular tourist attraction. RSL membership was surging in all States and, after a recruiting drive lasting twelve months, the Army Reserve boosted its numbers by about 8000 to just under 30 000 members. At schools and universities more students were taking courses that examined Australian participation in wars, particularly the Great War, and publishers were doing particularly well with war history. A Penguin spokesman reported that sales of Bill Gammage’s The Broken Years had increased in 1981, and that 17 000 copies had been sold since 1975. The Anzacs had sold 30 000 copies in hardback since its publication in 1978, and in the first two months of the paperback release in August 1981, 15 000 copies were delivered to bookshops which were already placing orders for additional stock.11

Anzac Day also benefited from this extraordinary revival. With the added poignancy of the decreasing numbers of ‘original’ First World War Anzacs, April 25 became the subject of intense media interest, and Anzac Day crowds and marches became larger every year. Key anniversaries were important catalysts for media attention and public participation. In 1965, a return to Anzac Cove by a party of veterans reignited interest in their fifty year-old story; and in 1990 the visit of a second party to Gallipoli for a seventy-fifth anniversary ceremony generated extraordinary national interest. This fascination with Australia’s military history has made a significant contribution to the obsession with the national past in Australian political culture, and to recent debates about national identity and purpose.

Anzac histories and Australian popular memory

Within this resurgence of interest in the Anzac legend there has been both continuity and change in the meanings attributed to the Australian experience of the Great War. Charles Bean’s official history has played a pivotal role in the revival of interest among historians in Australian military participation in the Great War, as a source of evidence, as a historical model, and as the focus of debate. Almost invariably, modern Australian historians of the Great War acknowledge their debt to Bean, and very often they draw upon his work for anecdotes and for explanations of the Anzac experience. John Vader’s 1972 account of Anzac is scattered with stories lifted straight out of ‘Dr Bean, the historian who wrote the Diggers’ story so accurately’. In Jane Ross’s 1985 analysis of The Myth of the Digger, over a third of the references to the First World War are from Bean’s writings.12

There are, however, a number of differences in emphasis and characterisation between Bean’s history and the mainstream of recent, popular Anzac histories represented by the work of Bill Gammage and Patsy Adam-Smith. In the new histories there is a greater emphasis on the personal tragedy and horror of the war, and a suggestion that not only was the war a waste of young lives, but also that they were wasted without good cause or reason. Adam-Smith describes the Great War as ‘the greatest tragedy the world has known’, and implies that Australians died ‘for no cause at all’. Time-Life’s ‘Australians at War’ series is promoted by the slogan, ‘Our Men … Other People’s Wars’, and the overall impression conveyed by these histories is that Australians were fighting a British or European war, and that they were sacrificed by British politicians and generals. Whereas Bean was at pains to emphasise that Australian soldiers sustained their imperial loyalty throughout the war, most modern historians, whose Australian identity does not generally include an imperial sentiment, highlight the wartime decline in the soldiers’ bonding with ‘the mother country’ and empire.13

This interpretation of Australian participation in the Great War has been contested. During the 1980s and 1990s, a number of conservative commentators have challenged what Gerard Henderson describes as an attempt by the left (he includes Gammage, Adam-Smith and Peter Weir) ‘to win back lost ground’ and ‘redirect the Anzac Legend’. Henderson outlines the ‘newly emerging mythology’:

The current Anzac revival […] attempts to distinguish between the Anzacs as individuals and the cause for which they fought. The former are to be glorified but the latter is condemned since it led to the death or disfigurement of so many Australian sons.

Henderson makes a case against such ‘pacifist platitudes’, arguing that, in 1914, Germany was the aggressor, that Australian interests were threatened by that aggression, that there was no viable alternative to defeating Germany in the field, and that this was the understanding and motivation of most Australian soldiers. Other historians have added academic weight to this response; in 1991 in Anzac and Empire: The Tragedy and Glory of Gallipoli, John Robertson argued that ‘these men sacrificed much for what they rightly considered a noble cause’. Yet the direction of most Anzac histories, fiction and film suggests that the ‘futile waste’ and ‘other peoples’ wars’ theses have been incorporated into Australian popular memory of the Great War.14

In modern Anzac histories there are also changes in the characterisation of the digger, who is generally less chaste and virtuous than Bean’s ideal Anzac. Patsy Adam-Smith apologises for any distress she might cause to Anzac survivors or their families, but argues that it is necessary to include, for example, details of the extent of venereal disease in the First AIF. Bill Gammage uses the testimony of diaries and letters to evoke the horror of modern battle, and to show that in such circumstances Australians could be both the victims and perpetrators of brutality. Yet in the final analysis these histories come to the same conclusion as Bean, that through their endurance of terrible circumstances the Anzacs were truly heroic. Adam-Smith cautions that although ‘War is hell’, in our attempt to denigrate and outlaw it, ‘we must remember not to castigate the victims of war — and every man who fights is a victim’. She argues that details about digger boozing, womanising and disrespect for authority do not in any way ‘lessen the immortality that the men’s endurance made legendary’.15

Like Bean, today’s historians emphasise that it was the positive national characteristics of the Anzacs which made them such stoic and effective soldiers. This is Bill Gammage’s summary of the Australian achievement at the Gallipoli landing:

They were not experienced soldiers, they were too precipitate and they made too many errors to be that. They were ardent, eager, brave men, naive about military strategy, but proud of their heritage and confident of their supremacy. Despite their mistakes, they did what few could have done.

In other chapters Gammage notes that ‘mateship was a particularly Australian virtue’; that trench raids suited the Australian temperament, ‘for its chief weapons were stealth, individual initiative, patience and skilled bushcraft’; and that ‘Australian success in battle was largely attributable to that same unrelenting independence which so regularly offended law and authority’. This is vintage Bean, both in its use of national character to explain Australian war experiences and achievements, and in the particular nature of the Anzac characterisation.16

Not all recent histories have used the lens of national character and achievement to explain the Anzac experience. Military historians, like Jeffrey Grey, have focused instead on the influence of factors such as command, training, fire-power, logistics and supply. Other historians have confronted the nationalist Anzac history head-on. The work of Carmel Shute, Robin Gerster, Richard White, Marilyn Lake, Lloyd Robson and David Kent, among others, has highlighted the neglected or ‘dark’ side of the Anzac experience, and has explored the processes by which a selective ideal or legend was installed, and aberrant experiences were marginalised or excluded. Tony Gough summarises this approach in his conclusion that the Anzacs were ‘not so bronzed, not so democratic, not so courageous, not so physically superior nor so well behaved as has been popularly imagined’.17

Yet the limited impact of these critical reinterpretations of the Anzac legend, and the predominance of nationalist accounts, is reflected in the representation of Anzac histories in recent Australian films. Films are the pre-eminent myth-makers of our time, and in the 1980s a string of films and television mini-series about Australian soldiers in the Great War — including Gallipoli, ‘1915’, ‘Anzacs’ and The Lighthorsemen — have had a major influence upon Australian popular memory of Anzac. In particular, Gallipoli and ‘Anzacs’ were major commercial successes, and provoked extensive media attention.

The makers of these films acknowledge their debt to Charles Bean’s official history. John Dixon, one of the producers of ‘Anzacs’, recalls that his interest in the diggers was ‘ignited’ by Bean’s history, and he encouraged his co-producer to read Bean’s ‘masterpiece of fact and observation’. Although Bean was the starting point, the history underlying these films is the modern reworking of Bean’s themes as represented by Patsy Adam-Smith and Bill Gammage. Gammage served as the historical adviser on Gallipoli, and Adam-Smith was brought in as a story consultant for ‘Anzacs’ because of her ‘fine work’ using ‘the reminiscences and insights of old soldiers’, and because her ‘feminine perspective’ would curb any tendency for the series to become a ‘macho romp’.18

These films convey the main themes of the new Anzac legend. There is no homage to the imperial alliance, and every Anzac film blames arrogant British generals for Australian losses, and exonerates Australian leaders. Australia’s egalitarian soldiers and society are contrasted with their class-ridden British counterparts, and in Australian war films the grazier’s son and the working-class lad invariably find their national brotherhood in the trenches. The films celebrate digger larrikinism and disrespect for military regulation, and direct it at British officers (or Australian officers with British accents). Paul Hogan of Crocodile Dundee fame plays the shamelessly larrikin Pat Cleary in ‘Anzacs’ because, according to John Dixon, ‘men like Hoges are scattered through Bean’s volumes and digger diaries’, and Hogan’s public image embodied the qualities ‘that made Australian soldiers different and successful’. The films show trench warfare to be miserable, bloody and terrifying, yet the Australians endure, and emerge with pride in their manhood, their military achievements and their new national identity.19

There are elements of these films that gesture towards more complex and even critical tellings of the Australian experience of war. In ‘Anzacs’, for example, some Australian soldiers are deserters and others suffer from cowardice and nervous collapse. Civilian voices condemn participation in the war; servicemen express bitterness and disillusionment; Australian military nurses have more than walk-on parts; and we see something of the impact of the war upon women at home.

However, as critic James Wieland argues, ‘these threads are not picked up’, and the films give in to the demands of fiction and romance, and of the legend of Australian character triumphant. As in Bean’s history, contradictory experiences are not ignored; rather, they are worked into the films so that the legend is reaffirmed. For example, of the two deserters in ‘Anzacs’, ‘Pudden’ is represented as a dim-witted and confused soldier who is brought back to his senses by his mates (in the book and original telescript he redeems himself through heroic death). The other deserter, caricatured as ‘Dingo’, is an evil, selfish man who cares nothing for his mates and only wants to stir up trouble. Just like one of Bean’s ‘undesirables’, he is a troublemaker, and his murder by one of the ‘genuine diggers’ is thus exonerated by the film.20

By framing the Australian experience of the Great War in terms of national identity and achievement, and by using cinematic strategies of characterisation and simplification which draw the audience’s sympathies towards particular characters and highlight particular meanings about the war, films and series like Gallipoli and ‘Anzacs’ offer a narrow but appealing representation of Anzac.

Anzac Day, 1987

The popular resonance of this revitalised Anzac legend is reflected in impressive film and television viewing figures, but also in the growth of public participation in Anzac Day commemoration. When I returned to Australia in 1987 to conduct my second set of interviews, I went along to the Anzac Day ceremonies in Melbourne in order to assess continuity and change in the ways in which the Australian experience of war is represented, and received, on April 25.21

At the start of the day, a mixture of veterans and young onlookers waited in the grounds around the Shrine of Remembrance for the Dawn Service and the moving bugle notes of the Last Post, and then filed through the Shrine and received paper poppies from the attendants. Although the ceremony emphasised the sacred nature of commemoration and suggested certain ways of remembering the war and the war dead, the Dawn Service was a relatively unstructured occasion for personal reflection and reminiscence.

At the parade later in the morning, the First World War veterans numbered fifty-eight, thirteen less than in 1986; the number of Second World War veterans was also reduced, and the strongest contingents of the 15 000 marchers were from the post-1945 wars. The streets were thickly lined with onlookers, waving flags and clapping as each unit marched past. Municipal and military bands marched between the service units, playing an assortment of tunes which echoed and overlapped in ways that reminded me of a carnival or festival.

One striking feature of the parade was the diversity of groups included in Anzac Day. Young people were particularly prominent in the crowd, but they also marched alongside service relatives, sometimes wearing the medals of veteran relatives who could no longer attend. The newspapers emphasised this aspect of the parade, one commenting that ‘World War 1 veteran Charlie Stevens and Timothy Doughty, 8, symbolise the two faces of the Anzac Day march’. At the official ceremony the Governor, Davis McCaughey, highlighted the presence of young and old at the parade, and one of the themes of his speech was that Anzac Day is an occasion to recollect past experiences and to renew commitment to visions of the future: ‘The old dream their dreams. The young see their visions. Each needs the other’. One Second World War veteran told a Sun journalist, ‘The warmongering accusations and attitudes of 15 to 20 years ago have gone. Youngsters seem to respect us a lot more now’.

Other groups were marching for the first time. Members of the Women’s Land Army, previously excluded by the RSL because they were not part of the defence force, were clearly delighted to join the parade, and newspapers featured their forgotten wartime experiences. Eighty veterans of the South Vietnamese army — ‘boat people’ refugees whose war ‘has not ended’ — were also new faces in the 1987 parade, marching between members of Australia’s ethnic communities who served in allied forces: Greeks in national costume waving Greek and Australian flags, Poles, Serbs (only the Chetniks, as the pro-Tito partisans would not march alongside them) and Italians. Ethnic community involvement in Anzac Day — albeit only from a selective sample of those communities — seems to counter the concern expressed in the 1960s and 1970s that the Anzac tradition would be irrelevant to postwar migrants. It shows how Anzac Day has come to embrace and espouse a broader definition of Australian racial and national identity.

Perhaps the loudest cheers of the day were for Australia’s Vietnam veterans. This Anzac Day was perceived by many commentators to be a precursor to the ‘Welcome Home’ events that were held throughout Australia in October 1987, and that both symbolised and reinforced the new public mood of recognition and reconciliation towards the Vietnam veterans. In Sydney, Vietnam veterans were given pride of place at the head of the main body of Anzac Day marchers, and newspapers like the Canberra Times headlined the theme of ‘Vietnam veterans “home”’: ‘in emotional scenes after the parade, Sydney’s Vietnam veterans said they felt they were finally being accepted by the Australia community’. Certainly more veterans from that war were marching than in previous years. Melbourne Herald journalist, Bernard Clancy, recalled that after returning from service in Vietnam he rejected his father’s request to march on Anzac Day 1969.

He didn’t understand. I couldn’t explain. It was like that, the Vietnam war […] you began to try to teach yourself to forget. The bad dream is over.

After ‘eighteen years in hiding’, he realised that people were interested in the Vietnam war, and he decided that he could face his memories in public and join the parade. Hearing the clapping from the crowd, ‘that’s when you stop marching and start floating’:

That’s when your throat constricts and your chest swells. That’s when you realise there are people who care. There are people saying ‘thanks, mate’. ‘Good on you boys!’ There it is again … and again … and again. And you notice something else. All the way along Swanston St there was chiaking in the ranks. Now there is absolute silence. ‘Eyes right!’ for the red hats — and suddenly it’s all over. Gee it’s good to be back home. It wasn’t like that, in Vietnam.

Not all Australians felt included on Anzac Day 1987. For the two previous Anzac Days, members of the National Aboriginal and Islander Ex-Service Association had staged their own march in the suburb of Thornbury, and in 1987 they erected a cross for members of their Victorian communities who had died fighting for the Australian forces in twentieth-century wars. Representatives of the Association were angered by the attitudes of the RSL’s Victorian President, Bruce Ruxton, and by the League’s refusal to allow Association members to march as an Aboriginal and Islander contingent in the official parade. RSL officials responded that the march would be destroyed if ‘thousands of splinter groups’ marched under their own banners rather than under the banners of their military units.

Ruxton’s 1987 attacks on the visiting South African Archbishop, Desmond Tutu, and on Asian immigrants (four years previously the State RSL conference had passed a motion in favour of a greater percentage of Anglo-Saxon and European migrants), caused anguish in other circles, and demonstrated that Anzac commemoration is still a political, and politicised, occasion. In an attempt to disassociate his church from what he saw as ‘Mr Ruxton’s statements of […] discrimination’, a vicar in the Melbourne suburb of Prahran refused to hold an Anzac commemoration service and received the backing of the Anglican Church. The President of the Prahran branch of the RSL responded that ‘you have denied us the opportunity to pray for and honour our dead […] I have always been under the impression that it was a Christian concept to pray for the dead and I do not recall anyone sponsored by Moscow, your Bishop Tutu included, doing so’.

Throughout the 1980s, feminist groups organised protests on Anzac Day, and in 1987 an Anti-Anzac Day Collective — an umbrella organisation including Women Against Rape and Women for Survival — staged a protest march from the United States Consulate and along St Kilda Road to the RSL’s city headquarters. The motivations of feminist participants, as expressed in their broadsheets and by spokeswomen, ranged from protest against male violence and rape through to more specific critiques of Anzac Day and its reinforcement of ‘militarism, male glorification of war and institutionalised mourning’:

[…] no other day of the year embodies a celebration of manhood, military thinking and all things associated with it that continue to oppress us.

The women protestors received short shrift from the official marchers and the mainstream press. The Sun recorded that ‘Anti-Anzacs face cold war’, and quoted one Second World War digger’s remark that ‘I reckon they should line them up and shoot them. It spoils your bloody day […] To think they’re trying to get rid of Anzac Day’. As the women protestors marched in one direction chanting ‘One, two, three, four, Anzac glorifies the war’, some of the younger ex-service marchers responded, ‘Kick all dykes to the floor’. Yet by marching away from the Shrine the feminists avoided the violent conflict that had marked Anzac Day protests in previous years; they also rejected another tactic from earlier years, of seeking to join the official march and lay a wreath for women victims of war. Press coverage in 1987 was, correspondingly, much reduced in scale and indignation.

Ken Inglis has shrewdly noted that the radical feminists of the 1980s had a tactical dilemma ‘similar to that of the communists half a century ago: to attack a popular tradition head on might alienate sympathy; to seek incorporation in it might make the radical critiques invisible’. Although the position of women within Anzac Day has clearly shifted in recent years — witness the inclusion of a greater range and number of women participants — Anzac Day is still, pre-eminently, an ex-service blokes’ day. Feminist protests highlight this fact, and the ways in which the Anzac legend sustains a particular, gendered construction of the Australian experience of war, and of Australian national identity.22

On the Monday after Anzac Day 1987, John Lahey wrote in the Age that Anzac Day ‘is one of the most spectacular things we do’: ‘the public own this ceremony, in a way that it does not own Moomba [Melbourne’s annual peoples’ festival], which is structured for it anew each year, or even the Melbourne Cup, which has its areas of social privilege’. Anzac Day is certainly a popular occasion, and whether they are in the march or on the roadsides, Melbourne people do play an active, participatory role, with thoughtful respect but also with humour, fun and occasional unruliness.

Yet Anzac Day is structured and institutionalised in particular ways, and it does emphasise certain attitudes and understandings about Australians and war. The organisers control who is and who isn’t allowed to march, and they ensure that the primary allegiance of participants is to military units rather than to other identities of gender, race or even sexuality (gay ex-servicemen have been refused permission to march as a separate contingent). Anzac Day may be a popular pageant, but it is also a martial affair with military music and ritual that uncritically endorses the role of the military services in Australian history and society. The two-up games which are played by ex-servicemen throughout the day, and which for the press symbolise the unofficial and larrikin element of the event and of Australian military manhood, come across as an institutionalised ritual that offers little real threat to the order of the day.

The rhetoric of Anzac Day also shows that while the event is open to reinterpretation, it reasserts certain inalienable values and understandings. As a State Governor with liberal sentiments, Davis McCaughey was able to make an official address in 1987 that explored issues not usually associated with Anzac Day. In the International Year of the Homeless, he claimed that the men who died on the first Anzac Day would have been horrified to know that 100 million people, including Australians, were living without shelter in 1987. Fatalism was ‘not the Anzac spirit’, and he urged us to renew our commitment to the service of others and to banish selfishness and greed. McCaughey’s speech shows how the idea of ‘the Anzac spirit’ can be like an empty box, and that it is possible to fill that box with new and even radical meanings. In this context it is significant that Bruce Ruxton, Victoria’s most vocal Anzac traditionalist, was on a pilgrimage to Gallipoli during April 1987, and thus missed Melbourne’s Anzac Day and his usual opportunity to fill ‘the Anzac spirit’ box with his more conventional ideas about racial purity, the importance of the monarchy and Australian defence preparedness.

Yet even without Bruce Ruxton, much of the rhetoric of Anzac Day 1987 reaffirmed traditional Anzac meanings. There were hymns about ‘knightly virtue proved’, and Sir Eric Pierce’s lyrical oration of the Anzac Requiem explained that Australians fought to ‘defend the free world and Commonwealth against a common enemy’, and died so that ‘the lights of freedom and humanity might continue to shine’. After televising the march and service, Channel Nine broadcast an Anzac Day special about ‘Our Magnificent Defeat’ at Gallipoli which ‘brought Australians together as a nation for the first time’. Features in the press and electronic media highlighted the distinctive qualities of Australian soldiers — ‘resolute, brave and resourceful fighters’ — who forged a legend.

A very few news features — such as Michael Cathcart’s article for the Age about ‘The Dark Side of the Diggers’ who were involved in right wing secret armies between the wars — suggested dissonant views. But for the most part, Anzac Day 1987 evoked the same messages as contemporary Anzac histories and films: that Australians are good fighters and good mates; that the Australian armed forces have been successful military units; that through their sacrifices and military achievements Australian service men and women have established a nation in spirit; and that Australians today can and should learn lessons from the tradition of Australians at war. Modern Anzac Days do, however, differ from recent histories and film in one respect. In order to explain and justify the sacrifices of service men and women, the rituals and rhetoric of Anzac Day affirm that Australian participation in war has always been justified, and imply that Australians have always been unanimous in their support for such participation.

The voices and views of old diggers still contribute to the Anzac Day representation of Australians at war. In 1987 most news coverage by the print and electronic media included interviews with veterans. The theme that sounded most clearly from their published testimony was mateship. For veterans, the primary purpose and value of Anzac Day is the opportunity it provides to remember wartime mates who died during or after the war, and to meet up with other survivors and recall common experiences. As one Second World War veteran remarked: ‘Anzac Day is a day you remember your mates who are not there. It’s not about glory, it’s about mateship. You can let go everything you’ve bottled up over the year’.

Sometimes the interview excerpts which are cited in media coverage of Anzac Day are used to distil key themes about the Australian experience of war, and to show how memories of war are interwoven with popular memories. Bill Owens, one hundred years of age, a shopkeeper before 1914 and a 58th Battalion veteran, recalled in 1987 that ‘the war made me a man’. Cyril Feathers, an intelligence officer with the 23rd Battalion on the Western Front, and only a month away from his own one-hundredth birthday, explained that ‘General Monash showed the British how to fight a battle’. Veterans highlight themes in their remembering that have been reaffirmed by Australian popular memory of the war. The media uses such quotes because they are clear, effective and acceptable ‘sound bites’ about the war, and because this testimony can be represented as the authentic voice of Anzac.

Yet a striking feature of Anzac Day media interviews with veterans is the fact that so many of the men who are asked about the war find it difficult to remember or relate their experiences, and can only do so in particular contexts and using specific narrative forms. One man, an officer in the British army who won many medals during the Normandy landings, was unable or unwilling to tell his war stories on Anzac Day 1987, despite the urgings of his family. He deleted the details of his war experience from a statement provided by his family, and would ‘only say that there was a tragic story behind each medal’. I hate war. I lost too many friends.’

Similarly, Australian Second World War veteran, Jack Nolan, had ‘no desire to talk about the enormity of what he saw, beyond jocular exchanges with old soldier mates. Not even his family is privy to what still gives him nightmares’. For Jack Nolan the legacies of war are ‘nerves’, an arthritic condition and friendships. Each year he camps overnight in his car near the Shrine of Remembrance so that he is ready to meet his mates for the Dawn Service: ‘it is moving. I can’t say much; I think a lot’. The only way in which he can articulate his experiences of war is through the ‘teasing jocularity’ shared with wartime mates.

Other ex-servicemen interviewed on Anzac Day are explicit about the process of using public narratives and images to help remembering. Gallipoli veteran Roy Grant explained: ‘These days I need help to remember, photographs, books and medals. They help […] They make the memories more vivid’. As he picked up various books and memorabilia, they prompted anecdotes about mates who ‘bought it’, about battles — ‘so many of them’ — and about ‘lovely days’ on leave in Paris:

Some of the memories haven’t been very good to me though. Not sad so much because they were brave mates who were killed and I helped to bury them.

There are times I try not to think about today. But I got my medals out yesterday and gave ‘em a bit of a polish. Always do. I’ll be there all right … good suit, shoes, neat, medals tucked into the top pocket. As it should be. Been going since 1919. Don’t know if I’ll be around for the next one though […] Saw a young naval officer there last year. Went up to him. Saluted, cutting away sharply like we were taught to. Hope he’s there this year.

These interview excerpts suggest that Anzac Day is still a special and affirming occasion for old diggers. They show how public remembrance prompts individual remembering which can be both difficult and pleasurable, and that representations of Anzac in ceremony, history or film support the recollection of certain memories while silencing others. Thus the remembering of old diggers is shaped in relation to the particular forms and meanings of the public legend, and according to the particular publics of remembering. These are the themes of the final memory biography chapter, which explores the experiences and remembering of Percy Bird, Bill Langham and Fred Farrall as old Anzacs in the 1980s.

*    New edition note: I have not changed this chapter, which was written in the early 1990s. It provides my perspective, at the time, on the Anzac revival, and words such as ‘recent’, ‘modern’ and ‘today’ refer to the 1980s and early 1990s.

Anzac Memories: Living with the Legend [New Edition]

   by Alistair Thomson