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Anzac Memories: Living with the Legend [New Edition]



Percy Bird

After completing his career as an Audit Inspector with the Victorian railways, Percy Bird retired to his comfortable weather board house on the Esplanade at Williamstown. He cared for his wife when she suffered a long-term illness in her seventies, and lived by himself after her death. Not long before his one-hundredth birthday, he moved to a Vasey Home for aged ex-servicemen and war widows in the eastern suburb of Sandringham, where he enjoyed the company of other residents and visits from family members until his death in 1990.

In old age Percy continued to take an active interest in all things Anzac. The new Anzac films and books of the 1970s and 1980s reaffirmed many of the meanings and identities of Percy’s war stories. For example, in 1975 the AIF Victoria Cross winner W. D. Joynt, whom Percy had known as a member of the same brigade, wrote a book about the crucial role of the Australians in the arrest of the British retreat of 1918. In Saving the Channel Ports, Joynt relied heavily on Bean and Monash for his depictions of the independent, effective Australian soldier and the classless AIF. Percy was very impressed by Joynt’s account, which matched and confirmed his own understanding of the war, and a number of the stories that he related in the interview as evidence of the quality of the Australians were taken directly from this book.1

Percy was, at first, equally impressed by the television series, ‘Anzacs’, and he began our second interview by telling me with great excitement of a recent viewing. The episode that excited Percy portrayed a brigade concert at which he had been booked to sing until prevented by illness:

And I said [to the residents of the Vasey Home] little did they think that an old man just on ninety, nearly ninety-eight years of age, was booked to sing at the concert [laughs]. If they’d a known that they probably would have got me to sing and it would have been on the film.2

For Percy the pleasures of ‘Anzacs’ were the recognition — at least in his mind and his telling — of his wartime role as a performer, and the affirmation that his identity as a performer was still valued in his old age.

However 1980s’ representations of Australians in the Great War also contained elements that threatened the ways in which Percy had composed his war memory in a fixed repertoire of anecdotes. ‘Anzacs’ touched off disturbing memories of Percy’s war, and he decided not to watch all of the series because he ‘wasn’t very much impressed with it’. He regarded it as ‘the Hogan film’, and didn’t like the way it used the Paul Hogan character to show the diggers having a wonderful time in the estaminets: ‘Most of the time we were looking around to see if we could get something to eat’. ‘Anzacs’ reminded Percy of the larrikin aspect of digger life about which he had felt uneasy during the war, and which he had sought to exclude from his own remembering and from his Anzac identity.

Percy also criticised ‘Anzacs’ for not accurately depicting life in the trenches and ‘what we had to put up with, in lots of cases’. Yet, paradoxically, the main reason for Percy’s decision not to watch the whole series was that its representation of wartime death and trauma recalled experiences that were not part of his composed memory:

I turned it off because I … was, it brought back too many sad memories to me […] about all my pals getting killed […] I like to forget all those things nowadays.3

Percy’s response to the television series reveals a tension between a desire for recognition of his experiences and the need to maintain composure in his remembering. It shows how, even in old age, Percy had to negotiate between shifting public versions of the war and his own memories and identities, and that even though he tried to filter out uncomfortable reminders, they could still be painful and troubling.

Another example of the ways in which changes in the public account of the war require renegotiation of individual memory and identity, is Percy’s explanation of enlistment. The awkwardness of that section of testimony reveals Percy’s ambivalence about volunteering in 1915, but it also hints that in old age he was still uncertain about whether, in the long run, the war and his decision to enlist had been worthwhile, and suggests that he was affected by recent questioning of Australian involvement. In the second interview Percy came close to articulating this unease, in a story about a friend who visited Germany in the 1970s and was asked why the Australian soldiers had come from so far away to fight in Europe. I asked Percy for his response to that story (he had not offered one): ‘Oh I just laughed and I said, “Now”. I didn’t say any more. But I was impressed with what he said’. Percy quickly shifted back to one of his standard stories, not wanting to fully consider the disturbing possibility that he had been fighting someone else’s war.4

Although this process of negotiation with public accounts had been part of Percy’s war remembering throughout his life, old age was a very different social and emotional context for remembering. By 1983, most of Percy’s 5th Battalion mates had died, and few of them were well enough to attend reunions or to march on Anzac Day. Percy now watched the parade on television:

Oh well, it gives me a thrill […] Well it just goes through me, goes through me body and I can feel that there’s the thrill there, thinking of my old pals. What we did and what we put up with.5

Anzac Day was clearly still a resonant and affirming occasion for Percy Bird, but with the passing of battalion veterans and their shared remembering of the war, a more general identity of the Anzac elite — frail and few but increasingly revered — was being provided by the media. This new, general identity worked well for Percy because it did not probe the tensions within the AIF or in his own experience as a soldier. It was also tremendously rewarding for Percy, in his old age, to be valued by ‘the nation’ in this way.

Percy also received affirmation of his Anzac identity from new audiences for the performance of his memories. He had always enjoyed performance, but as an old widower, with few other positive features in his life, it had become especially important for his emotional well-being. He loved to sing and perform and was able to win the acclaim of a variety of audiences — his family, school children, elderly residents at the home (‘they think the world of me’), RSL club men and historians — and thus feel good about himself. Furthermore, because there was little about his old age that Percy felt worthy of performance, the past was the mainstay of his shows. More specifically, he focused on his childhood and wartime pasts. Stories of those periods provided the most positive images of youth, and of masculine and national importance. They were also the most well-received stories; few audiences wanted to hear about the infighting of the railways’ Auditing Department, even though it was significant for Percy at the time.6

Percy’s performance of his memories in old age demonstrates a number of general points about remembering. It highlights the emotional value of remembering, which helps people feel good about themselves because they are listened to, and because they are able to represent themselves in positive ways. It also shows how the particular public for the performance is influential, on the one hand applauding and validating certain memories and identities, and in turn causing the performer to shape remembering in response to that validation. Percy told the old ladies in the Vasey Home about his childhood in Williamstown because they didn’t want to hear about the war, and he related his selective war stories about humorous events behind the lines to school children and to younger members of his family who were becoming interested in their Anzac grandfather. The new publics of old age continued the process of shaping Percy’s remembering, by causing him to emphasise certain aspects of his past and to ‘forget’ other experiences and meanings. They reaffirmed his safe Anzac identity as a singer, performer and raconteur.

Percy had also developed a particular way of remembering for historians, of which I was not the first to come his way. He liked talking to oral historians because he believed he had important historical experiences to record, and because our interest made him feel that his life had been noteworthy. As with all the audiences for his remembering, Percy liked to please me and to gain my approval. In our interviews he often stopped at the end of a story and asked ‘Is that all right for you?’, or ‘Are you impressed with what you’re getting?’ He then waited, expectant, to answer the next question. But then, often before I could ask that question, he would launch into another story from his repertoire. Despite his desire to tell me stories I wanted to hear, Percy’s composed memory of the war was so strong, and so clearly defined, that he often ignored or reworked questions so that he could recount his standard stories about concert parties and life behind the lines. If my question did not directly refer to one of those stories, he usually found the cue he needed in a word or phrase that I had used.7

By the time I interviewed Percy Bird in the 1980s, his account of the Great War was well worked out. Over the years he had composed a story of his war that he could live with, and that gained affirmation from the public legend of Anzac. Although depictions of the Great War in recent histories and films sometimes troubled Percy’s Anzac identity, for the most part he was able to exclude challenging reinterpretations by drawing upon modern accounts that matched his own Anzac stories and identities, and by performing those stories to eager and responsive audiences. Percy Bird’s remembering thus worked to exclude the aspects of the war that had been most difficult for him, and to highlight positive experiences and the proud, collective identity of Anzac.

Bill Langham

After finishing his working life in the Town Clerk’s office at Melbourne City Council, Bill Langham enjoyed an active retirement in Yarraville, where he and his wife participated in a number of local clubs and societies, often with music as a common interest. Bill was not a public storyteller like Percy Bird, and he had not been sought out to perform his Anzac memories for various audiences. Nevertheless he was interested in recent representations of the Great War, and was pleased to discuss those representations and his own remembering with me.

Like Percy Bird, in old age Bill Langham no longer felt strong enough to march on Anzac Day, and there were too few survivors from his unit for a reunion. Books and films provided the main influences upon, and affirmations of, Bill’s war memories. He enjoyed reading war stories, including Bean’s histories, because ‘they give you a bit of a kick’. He liked the positive representation of his own experience and the validation of his youth, though he was not an uncritical reader. He argued that Bean must have got some things wrong because he could not have known about all aspects of the Australian experience of war, and he explained that books cannot recreate war as it really was.

This latter criticism was his main concern about recent Anzac films. For Bill, parts of the ‘Anzacs’ television series were ‘bloody terrible’ because they did not show how, for example, men were sucked under the mud at Passchendaele until they died of suffocation. Like Percy Bird, Bill wanted films to accurately represent his own experience of the trenches, even though this recognition brought back painful memories. Despite his reservations, Bill felt that the series was ‘mostly pretty good’ because at least it attempted to convey the horrors of trench warfare to a civilian audience.8

Bill claimed that he was ‘immune’ to the emotional effects of ‘Anzacs’, which just came ‘matter of fact’. This wording is revealing, and suggests how Bill came to terms with his war memories. In a reflective passage, he described movingly how he handled the risks of remembering:

Sometimes if you sit on your own and […] you start to think, then that’s the time they all come back to you. Then you wish there was somebody there, with you to speak to so’s you could forget those things. I often lay awake at night […] where I go back over the old trails there. Right back, I suppose it’s a funny thing, you never forget them. They’re always there. Although, as the years go on they get, they get milder and milder, they’re not as bad as they were when you were, like in the early years and things like that. Like everything is, you get used to them. But you always try to remember the, as I said we try to remember all those funny incidents and things that had happened. Then occasionally, as you’re remembering a few of them, one of the other ones slips in between somewhere. Yeah. Then you got to bring yourself […] back to reality then, and as I say one of the greatest things in the world to bring you back to reality is that music.9

This passage reveals the unpredictable nature of memory, and how disturbing memories can slip out unasked and unexpected. When this happened to Bill he tried to pull out of memory lane. Yet Bill’s memories did not become milder (in Bill’s words: ‘now they’re memories and I’ve got used to them’) just because ‘time heals’. Rather, ‘getting used to memories’ so that they are less disturbing is an active process, through which certain memories are emphasised while others are played down or ignored, or are worked through in satisfactory ways.

For Bill, like all of us, this composure was a social activity in which memories were reconstituted through particular and general public relationships. It was also a dynamic process. As the public contexts for Bill’s remembering changed over time, or between different social situations (even within the oral history interview with its different cues for remembering), Bill recounted different memories and different meanings about the past. For example, within Bill’s memory there were certain stories that he used when he wanted to explain the disillusionment of soldiers and ex-servicemen. Yet there were other stories that he recounted — often spurred by criticism of the Anzacs — when he wanted to argue that his war service, and Australian participation in the war, was worthwhile.

In this regard, Bill Langham differed from Percy Bird and Fred Farrall, each of whom had honed their war memories into a relatively fixed repertoire of significant stories. The flexibility of Bill’s remembering may have been due to the fact that, in contrast with Percy and Fred, he neither sought nor attained the public role of Anzac storyteller and historical source, and had not constructed his remembering into a fixed public performance. That flexibility may also reflect the fact that Bill’s war experiences were less traumatic and troubling than those of some other veterans, so that he had less need to compose a safe but rigid Anzac identity. For the oral historian the many threads of Bill Langham’s remembering are both confusing and enlightening. They show how within one person’s memory there may be different and even contradictory understandings of the past, and that a person can have a range of different identities which are adopted in appropriate circumstances. It may well be that, for Bill, this ability to adapt his Anzac identity served as a source of social survival and emotional strength.

Bill Langham’s remembering also shows how the Anzac legend worked for a man whose experience of the war and postwar periods could have easily facilitated an oppositional stance. In comparison with Percy Bird, Bill Langham’s experiences at the war, and when he came home, were provocative and challenging. Yet he did not become alienated from the war and its memory. He actively participated in the wartime life of the diggers and in the postwar rituals of remembrance, which addressed his practical and emotional needs and affirmed certain ways of understanding of his war. Bitterness and criticism were not erased from his remembering; indeed, the distinctive quality of Bill’s memory was that it included many different and even contradictory renderings of his experiences. Yet public affirmation of the aspects of Bill’s memory that accorded with the Anzac legend had, on the whole, caused him to highlight such aspects and to play down more dissenting memories. Bill Langham’s remembering thus reveals the interplay between individual subjectivity and public myth, which is the key to the resonance and effectiveness of the Anzac legend for war veterans.

Fred Farrall

In 1938, Fred Farrall and his de facto wife Dot Palmer left Sydney to look for work in Melbourne. In the years during and after the Second World War, Fred was an influential figure in the Melbourne Labor movement. He became a leader of the Federated Clerk’s union, staunchly opposing a right-wing coup that occurred within the union, and retained his pro-Soviet communism during the schisms on the left following the crises of 1956 and 1968. He was also active in the Campaign for International Cooperation and Development, a peace movement organisation with close links to the communist parties of Eastern Europe. After his retirement from work and trade-union activities, Fred became active in local politics and was elected to Prahran City Council. His work for old people won him great popularity, and with the support of the Combined Pensioners’ Association he was appointed Mayor of Prahran. Fred retained an active interest in local and national politics up until the final months of his life.

During retirement, Fred Farrall experienced another major shift in his relation to the war and to his own Anzac past. In the 1960s and early 1970s he started to read and talk about his war outside of the Labor movement. He went to Sydney to attend the Anzac Day ceremony and reunion of his old battalion, he pinned his war service badge back in his lapel, and he retrieved the discharge certificate that had been hidden away for many years and hung it up on his living room wall. After years of silence he now talked eagerly and at length about the war to students, film-makers and oral history interviewers.

In our interview Fred explained the change in a number of ways. It was partly an old man’s renewed interest in his youth: ‘I suppose as you get older you have some sort of feeling for what happened long ago’. But Fred was only able to have positive feelings about his wartime youth which he had shut away in a drawer of his mind for many years — because of changes in the way Australian society responded to the Anzacs and remembered the war. In his old age Fred was able to enjoy the respect, even veneration, that the few remaining Great War diggers received from people in the street who noticed an AIF badge, and from Veterans’ Affairs officials who described it as a ‘badge of honour’ and who gave veterans free passes on public transport and paid their increasing medical costs.

Well, there was a time when it just didn’t fit into that picture at all […] Well, we’ve never had much over the years of value from that sort of thing so if there is anything now, even to the extent of getting some respect, well I think it’s worth doing.10

Renewed public veneration of the Anzacs was affirming for Fred in his old age. More specific shifts in the Australian popular memory of the war recognised aspects of Fred’s experience that were once neglected, and thus encouraged him to recall his wartime past and to identify himself as a digger. He was particularly impressed by the recent British and Australian histories of the Great War, based on soldiers’ accounts, that attempted to convey the effects of conditions on the Western Front. When we conducted our second interview in 1987, Fred was reading Peter Charlton’s new book Pozières: Australians on the Somme 1916:

I was there later and I know all that country and all those places that are mentioned […] in your mind you possibly go back all those years […] It seems to … when he’s writing about Albert, the town of Albert, you know … you know it revives, it certainly revives memories if you’ve been, if you’ve been to that place. Whatever it is. And this is the grip, this is the grip the book has on me.11

Pozières was compulsive reading for Fred because it was about his own experience, and because it portrayed trench warfare in terms that connected with his own sense of what it had been like. Fred was equally appreciative of the ways in which the ‘Anzacs’ television series depicted life on the Western Front (he was less happy with its representation of digger larrikinism). Certain themes of the new social histories and films — innocent patriots or adventurers sacrificed by politicians and generals and transformed into weary or disillusioned soldiers — had always been part of Fred’s war story, but his story was now recognised and affirmed by the popular public narratives. Perhaps most importantly, the representation of the war in Pozières and ‘Anzacs’ showed Fred that his wartime fears and feelings of inadequacy did not reflect badly on his manhood, but were in fact common results of trench warfare. When Fred described his postwar nightmares about being shelled, he added that, ‘Here, to now, I didn’t know that there were so many others like me until I read this book on Pozières’.12

One practical consequence of this recognition was that it opened up public platforms outside of the Labor movement that now welcomed Fred’s participation in war remembrance. Fred took to these new opportunities with great relish, and in turn benefited from direct social affirmation of his memories. For example, during the Vietnam War and in the anti-nuclear campaign the peace movement became a prominent force in Australian society. As an old soldier who was also a pacifist Fred was uniquely placed to contribute to this movement. In the 1980s he wore his war medals at the Melbourne Palm Sunday peace rallies and, sought out by reporters, held up the medals as an ironic symbol of the folly of war and remarked, “This is why I’m here. I don’t want to die, but there’s a lot of young people who want to die a lot less’. Oral historians, including college students, film-makers and academics, also sought Fred’s account of the war, and Fred used each interview to make similar points about the folly of the war and the terrible lot of the soldier.13

Fred’s new attitude to the war and public war memories was affirmed by an incident that occurred when he visited the Australian War Memorial in Canberra in 1985:

Nearly got a job there. I was there about eighteen months ago, you know, and oh gee, look here, I got the surprise of my life […] I was treated like a long lost cousin [and was asked to talk about the Western Front to other visitors]. ‘Well’, I said, ‘I wouldn’t mind doing that, but’, I said, ‘I’m a worker for peace and not for war.’ ‘Oh’, the bloke said, ‘you know this place was built as a Peace Memorial and so you’re at liberty to express your opinions along those lines as you see fit.’ […] So up I went. Well I was there for two or three days really. It looked as though I was going to have, at eighty odd, as though I was going to get a permanent job.14

Fred was very impressed with the War Memorial. He told his audience that the dioramas made as good an attempt as possible to portray trench life, and then added, from his experience, the sounds, smells and feelings that they could not convey. Fred brought the old models to life for an eager audience, and felt satisfied that at last his story of the war was being told. He believed that by describing the conditions of his war he was making his message of peace.15

As these examples show, in the last two decades of his life Fred made a profoundly important reconciliation with his wartime past, and between his own memory and the public narratives of the Anzacs. This affirmation of Fred’s military past, and the opportunities to tell his story of the war to younger Australians, were immensely fulfilling for Fred in his old age. As public representations of Australians at war changed, Fred Farrall came to live with the legend.

In old age Fred’s memory still had a radical edge. In social contexts that reaffirmed his identity as a radical digger, such as the Palm Sunday rallies or our interviews, he used the new interest in the Anzacs to make criticisms of war and of Australian society which rubbed against the Anzac tradition. Fred was still critical of the guardians of that tradition. Although Fred enjoyed meeting up with old mates at the reunion of his battalion in Sydney, he still refused to march on April 25. In 1985 Fred invited me to join him for Anzac Day. He wore his medals and we went to watch the parade, but Fred had no desire to join the march. He agreed that the day provided an important opportunity for veterans to meet old friends, and that some form of commemoration of Australians who had died at war was necessary. But he was critical of the patriotic nature of the day, and remarked that, by contrast, his mates on the Somme had been ‘the least patriotic blokes you could think of’. Anzac Day remained alienating for Fred because it explained and justified wartime sacrifice in terms of national achievement and pride, which he did not accept.16

Yet the partial recognition of Fred’s war experience which was provided by the new Anzac legend also caused the displacement of certain aspects of Fred’s radical analysis of the war. Anzac histories and films showed that for the poor bloody infantry ‘war is hell’, yet between the lines they usually promoted the digger hero and a national legend. Fred was so pleased with the new recognition that he did not always see that other aspects of his experience were still ignored or denied by the legend. He did not consider the absence, in most modern books and films about the war, of depictions of tensions between officers and other ranks in the AIF, of the postwar disillusionment of many diggers, or of an analysis of the war as a business, all important themes in his discussions with me. Fred assumed that any museum depicting the horror of the Western Front must be a ‘peace memorial’, but did not recognise the ambiguities of a museum that is also a memorial celebrating the nation’s military achievements. When I asked Fred if he had considered these issues when he was at the War Memorial he was confused, and he responded, ‘No well … that, no I never, I never got down to considering that really’.

The Anzac legend of recent years, with its representations of the horror experienced by soldiers and its blame for politicians and generals, is appealing and inclusive for old diggers, perhaps especially for radical diggers who feel that at last their war story is being heard. The new Anzac narratives offer fresh ways for veterans to articulate their military past and to reconstitute their Anzac identities. Yet the stories and meanings that do not fit today’s public narrative are still silenced or marginalised, and at best only resurface within a sympathetic particular public, such as a gathering of fellow radicals or an oral history interview.

This process of assimilation to the dominant narrative is similar to that undergone by diggers like Percy Bird and Bill Langham when they joined the RSSILA and marched on Anzac Day back in the 1920s. Through participation in collective remembrance, ex-servicemen enjoyed recognition and affirmation of a particular, positive Anzac identity, and they articulated their memories of the war using the public narratives of the legend. This memory composure was essential for individual peace of mind but, in the process, memories that were not recognised by the legend were displaced and marginalised. In the 1980s Fred Farrall learnt to live with the new Anzac legend and as a result of that process the way he remembered the war, and his identity as an Anzac, changed.

A past we can live with?*

The concluding sections of the memory biographies of Percy Bird, Bill Langham and Fred Farrall show how their Anzac memories and identities were affected in different ways by popular memories of Anzac in the 1980s. For each man the influence of new Anzac representations depended on his original experience of war, on the ways in which he had previously composed his war remembering, and on the social and emotional context of old age. But for all of them the Anzac narratives of the 1980s facilitated new ways of remembering — sometimes troubling, sometimes positive and affirming — and different Anzac identities.

This book has explored the creation of individual and collective memories of the Australian soldiers’ experience in the Great War. Oral testimony indicates the variety of Anzac experiences: of enlistment; of battle and life in the trenches; of digger culture and life out of the line; of rehabilitation and repatriation; of the culture and politics of ex-servicemen; and of becoming old diggers. The diverse and even contradictory experiences of Australians at war have been narrated in an Anzac legend constructed in terms of the preconceptions and ideals of its narrators, according to the requirements and constraints of different media, and in relation to the social and political demands of the AIF and Australian society. In this process, the sharp edges of the Anzac experience have often been rubbed smooth, as legend-makers have fashioned a compelling narrative and a homogeneous Anzac identity defined in terms of masculine and national ideals. While the specific contents of the Anzac narrative and archetype have changed over time and in different circumstances, the legend has always worked to construct a ‘typical Anzac’ or a ‘genuine digger’ and, in turn, to render aberrant experiences and identities as alien, atypical and un-Australian.

At the individual level, Australians who served in the Great War have struggled to compose memories of their war. Through participation in Anzac remembrance, and in the culture of soldiers and ex-servicemen, they have drawn upon public narratives of Anzac that have provided interpretative categories to help them to articulate experience in particular ways. In turn, the public narratives and identities of Anzac have recognised key aspects of the diggers’ experience, such as comradeship, endurance, personal worth and national identity, and have provided a positive affirmation of that experience. The Anzac legend has thus helped many veterans to compose a past that they can live with.

Within this process of memory composure, experiences and understandings that are not recognised and that cannot be articulated through the public narratives are displaced or marginalised within individual memory. For some men the gap between personal experience and public sense is too great to allow for reconciliation and, unable to make acceptable sense of their war, they have been forced into alienation or silence. Memory composure, however, is not a static process. As personal circumstances and needs shift, and as the public narratives and meanings of Anzac change over time, the possibilities for remembering, and for fashioning new identities, also change. Old diggers like Fred Farrall are thus able to forge a new relationship with the legend of their lives.

A historical approach that emphasises the relationship between individual and public memories has implications for Anzac history-making and politics. It provides a starting point for critical analysis of Anzac narratives — from Bean’s writings to modern-day films — which assert a single, homogeneous Anzac identity, and which assume that the legend is the accurate and uncomplicated account of an essential Anzac experience. This critical analysis informs recent studies that have explored neglected aspects of the Australian experience of the Great War and the processes by which a selective Anzac legend has been created and installed.

Such revisionist Anzac histories provoke outrage and determined refutation from Anzac traditionalists. For example, in an article entitled ‘History as a Kangaroo Court’, which appeared in a 1988 IPA Review (‘Australia’s journal of free enterprise opinion’), Tim Duncan attacks the rewriting of Australian history by young, radical historians who are critical rather than celebratory about Australia, and who blame their forebears for its faults:

Some of these people may not like their country and its history. But they cannot stop from enjoying its comforts, the reality of which every day contradicts the vile stuff they write.

Duncan is particularly concerned that histories using this approach, such as the People’s History of Australia, are cheap and well distributed, and may be ‘heavily used in schools’. In his criticism of that book, he savages my own chapter about the Anzacs:

As for the Anzac legend, according to Alistair Thompson [sic] it ‘forgets the black Australians who fought against the invasion of their country […] ignores the inequalities and conflicts of class and status, sex and race’. The Anzacs were simply too brutal, they killed Germans like rabbits, and were neither more resourceful than any other soldiers, nor any more protective of their mates.17

Some academic historians are equally concerned about challenges to the Anzac legend. In a 1988 Australian Historical Studies article entitled, ‘No Straw Man: C. E. W. Bean and Some Critics’, John Barrett assesses recent studies by myself, David Kent and Lloyd Robson. We had tried to show how Bean constructed a particular version of the Anzac experience in his war correspondence and history, but Barrett was having none of it:

[…] it may be that Bean’s essential [his emphasis] balance was not so wrong. However grim the prospects became in the Anzac area […] the bulk of the force gritted its teeth and stuck it out. The AIF as a whole would have been defamed had the demoralised been exaggerated — just as it may be libelled by any elevation of the larrikin element to a majority of the force.18

Like Bean, Barrett asserts that there is an essential Anzac experience and identity, and defines away contradictory behaviour as atypical.

Another, sophisticated reworking of Bean’s thesis is John Robertson’s Anzac and Empire. In a concluding chapter which asks, ‘Was It Worth While?’, Robertson comes straight to the point of recent historical debate about the Anzac legend:

The notion that the ‘Anzac legend’ was ‘created’ by C. E. W. Bean or was a figment of his imagination seems to be coming fashionable among a younger generation of historians […] Eliminate Bean’s writing from the story, and the same picture emerges of bravery, recklessness, a cynical or disrespectful attitude towards authority outside battle, stern discipline under fire, and so on.

The creators of the Anzac legend were, of course, the men themselves.

Robertson claims that Australians ‘simply drew inspiration from what had happened in the battlefield’ for their Anzac legend. He argues that Australian soldiers were effective and distinctive because of their mateship and their close relationships with officers, and because of the national identity that arose as ‘for the first time Australians made a spectacular and praiseworthy contribution […] to the course of world history’. For good measure, he wonders ‘what qualifies people who have never experienced the rigours of campaigning or the terrifying savagery of battle to belittle the valour of those who have’.19

Recent critics of the Anzac legend have not sought to belittle the Australian soldiers. Rather, we have argued that, by explaining the Australian experience of war in terms of national character and achievement, Bean and his successors have narrowed the range of our understanding of Anzac, and have excluded or marginalised individual experiences that do not fit the homogeneous national legend. Furthermore, by claiming that the legend was ‘of course’ created by ‘the men themselves’, and that subsequent generations of Australians have drawn direct inspiration from Anzac achievements on the battlefield, these historians neglect the ways in which the soldiers’ story was regulated and shaped in particular ways by Anzac legend-makers, and in the context of Australian social and political culture.20

I am certainly not arguing that historians should ignore the experience and testimony of Australian soldiers. There is plentiful evidence in such testimony to make for histories representing the range and complexity of Australian experiences of war, which recognise patterns of commonality as well as difference and contradiction. I am arguing that the use of soldiers’ testimony, whether taken from contemporary diaries and letters, or from memoirs and oral accounts, needs to be sensitive to the ways in which such testimony is articulated in relation to public narratives and personal identities. The different forms of participant testimony are an attractive and valuable source for historians. Anzac histories, however, have often used such personal testimony interchangeably and uncritically, and while the testimony is assumed to be a direct expression or essence of the Anzacs’ experience, it is easily used in ways that suit the ideological and narrative imperatives of the historian. An alternative use of personal testimony in a history of the Anzac landing, for example, might explore the ways in which participants constructed and articulated the meaning of the event, and how their articulation changed over time and in relation to the public, national narratives of the landing. ‘What actually happened’ at Anzac Cove on 25 April 1915 can only be understood in relation to the articulation of the event, and personal testimony is thus part of the history of the event and not just a historical source.

One of the dilemmas of a historical approach which challenges the homogeneous, nationalist story of Australians at war is that it may threaten the personal composure that veterans have found through the legend. Histories that recall difference, difficulty and exclusion may open up traumatic and painful memories. On the other hand, new historical narratives can enable individuals to recover and explore aspects of the personal past that have been silenced or repressed, and can facilitate reparation and reconciliation with that past. Perhaps more importantly, new histories can help give voice to the experiences of individuals and groups who have been excluded or marginalised by prior historical narratives. For many years the Anzac legend neglected and thus silenced the wartime lives of most Australian women and of men who did not go to war, and it is only in recent decades that histories have begun to articulate those forgotten lives.

Issues about the relationship between personal and public histories are now of little more than academic interest to the very few surviving Australian veterans of the Great War. But these issues are relevant to veterans of other wars, and to the creation of histories and popular memories of those wars. The memory of Australian participation in the Vietnam War is a case in point, and suggests contemporary applications for the ideas and approaches outlined in this book.

For many years Vietnam veterans felt rejected or disregarded by Australian society, and their internalised trauma was a source of terrible psychological and social wounds. In the late 1980s there was a transformation in the regard with which Australians held Vietnam veterans. ‘Welcome home’ marches by Vietnam veterans have generated enormous media and public attention, and new books and films have portrayed the Australian soldiers’ Vietnam experience in sympathetic terms. After two decades of public neglect and exclusion, this renaissance of sympathetic public recognition for Australia’s Vietnam veterans — recorded in Bernard Clancy’s moving account of his second ‘home-coming’ on Anzac Day 1987 — has been tremendously affirming for the veterans, who have returned in great numbers to Anzac Day and other forms of public remembrance. In turn, the new public forms and meanings of remembrance have helped veterans to articulate their Vietnam experiences in positive terms emphasising comradeship, masculine self-worth and national identity. In many ways this process is similar to that experienced by Australian Great War veterans in the inter-war years, as they found recognition and affirmation in the Anzac legend of the ex-servicemen’s culture and public remembrance, and thus composed positive Anzac memories and identities.

Yet recent popular accounts of the Australians in Vietnam are also constructing a new history which excludes or redefines contentious aspects of Australian participation in that war. Books, films and ceremonies make the diggers’ experience the centre-piece of the Vietnam narrative, and portray that experience as “The Legend of Anzac Upheld’. These new accounts emphasise a particular version of the digger experience, that of decent mates who were effective jungle fighters in a bloody but necessary war. Little is heard about the negative aspects of Australian relations with the Vietnamese, and not much information is presented from the perspective of opponents of the Australian Task Force in Vietnam and back home. The symbolic ‘coming home’ of Vietnam War veterans in the 1990s may make the veterans’ wartime past easier to live with, but it is also reshaping the popular memory of Australian soldiers in Vietnam, and silencing significant aspects of individual and collective experience. This new popular memory of Australians in their most significant recent war matches the political agenda of conservative historians and activists, who favour a celebratory national history which excludes dissenting voices and stories of conflicting interests within the nation.21

Figure 15  The Herald-Sun’s (2 January 1993) response to the author’s writings which suggested the Australian ‘straggling’ at the Anzac landing had been censored from the British official history after pressure from Australia. (Mark Knight)

Figure 16  This image in the Sydney Morning Herald (26 April 1993) conveys concern about radical historians’ questioning of the Anzac legend. (Michael Mucci)

There are alternative accounts of Australians in Vietnam that do recognise the complex and divisive issues that the war posed for servicemen and for Australian society. These are not easy histories to live with. Vietnam veteran Terry Burstall describes his own pain at the loss of the hope that the war had served some purpose: ‘I had clung to the false hope for over twenty years that “they” had not died for nothing. Now I could squarely face the fact that they had’.22 Through autobiographical war writings and visits to Vietnam, Burstall makes an impressive effort to come to terms with his personal Vietnam history. Burstall’s project suggests that it is both necessary and possible to create a critical popular memory of Australian participation in the Vietnam War. This account would recognise the experiences of Australian ex-servicemen alongside those of other participants. It might help veterans to develop ways of remembering the war that are challenging and empowering in their lives, and it would enable all Australians to explore the lines of fracture and conflict in our past.

*    New edition note: this conclusion to the first edition was written in the early 1990s and has not been changed. It provides my perspective at the time.

Anzac Memories: Living with the Legend [New Edition]

   by Alistair Thomson