Monash University Publishing | Contacts Page
Monash University Publishing: Advancing knowledge

Anzac Memories: Living with the Legend [New Edition]


Growing up with the Anzac legend

I had a military childhood. For the first twelve years of my life, from 1960 until 1972, my father was a senior infantry officer in the Australian army. With my two brothers, I grew up in army barracks in different parts of Australia and around the world. We were surrounded by soldiers and soldiering. My earliest memories are of starched khaki and green-clad men parading across asphalt squares, trooping and wheeling to echoed commands. When I was five, my father took his battalion to Borneo to fight the secret war of confrontation against the Indonesians. While the men were away, the army brats marched up and down in makeshift uniforms, childish imitations of our soldier fathers.

We also relished the warrior culture of Australian boyhood (girls were rarely included in our play). During the day we raced across school quadrangles between concrete trenches; when we came home we fought an hour of war before tea. We felt strong and proud with our wooden guns and tin hats, exhilarated by ambushes in the park and frontal assaults on unarmed hedges. Pocket money was spent on war comics and Airfix toy soldiers. I was especially proud of my collection of 2000 plastic soldiers, and would set them up in intricate battle formations and then pelt them with matchstick-firing guns. Death was count-to-ten and make-believe; war was an adventure.

At an early age we knew that Australians made the best soldiers. The heroes of my crayon war drawings always wore slouch hats, and Airfix Australians were my favourite toy soldiers. When we played war we dressed in the light khaki of Australian army scouts or bushmen, and were especially brave and stealthy. Of course, the Aussies always won. As we grew older this national fantasy gained historical confirmation. We read the story of Gallipoli in a popular cartoon history series about Australian heroes: navigators, explorers, pioneers and soldiers. During the public holiday on Anzac Day — commemorating the ANZAC (Australian and New Zealand Army Corps) landing at Gallipoli on 25 April 1915 — we listened to speeches about that national ‘baptism of fire’. In Canberra, we often visited the Australian War Memorial. My favourite exhibits were the dioramas of the landing at Anzac Cove and of the battle of Lone Pine. The sculptured Australian soldiers seemed strong and attractive, inspiring heroes for our games. Clambering over old tanks and submarines generated excitement and interest more than a horror of war.

Family stories were another way in which I learnt about Australians at war. Soldiering men dominated the family mythology of my childhood; two were recalled as heroes but one was a shadowy memory. My great-uncle Boyd Thomson was the son of a Gippsland pastoral family and was a promising architect and poet. When Gallipoli casualty lists reached Victoria in 1915, Boyd decided to enlist. He wrote a poem ‘To the Mother School’, justifying his decision:

Would you wish for your sons a happier aim

Than that a man go forth to die

For a faith that is more than an empty name

For a faith that burns like a scorching flame?

Mother thy blessing! and so — good-bye!1

Boyd Thomson died on the Somme in 1916, before he could record his experiences of war. His Scotch College school friends made a memorial booklet of his poems. In 1980 I found his grave when I was touring the battlefields of France. The family had selected an inscription for his gravestone:

He went forth

To die for a faith

That is more

Than an empty name

Death froze the meaning of Boyd Thomson’s life. When I was a student at Scotch College in Melbourne I proudly read Boyd Thomson’s name on the school Honour Roll. His memory became a romantic tradition in my family, and my father read to us the poems of the uncle he never knew. Boyd represented talent that was never allowed to mature, but his memory also upheld the values of his family, his school and his social class, and, above all, the duty of service to the nation and a just cause.

In contrast, the war of my grandfather, Hector Thomson, Boyd Thomson’s cousin and also a Scotch Collegian, was seldom mentioned. As a child I was told that in 1914 he had enthusiastically galloped from an outback station in Queensland to enlist in the Light Horse, and that during the war he had been awarded the Military Medal for bravery. But that was all I heard. Hector contracted malarial encephalitis while serving in the Jordan Valley. As a consequence, when he returned to Australia he was in and out of Caulfield Repatriation Hospital. After his wife died he struggled to cope with his two young sons and a farm ruined in the 1930s’ Depression. One of my father’s few positive memories of his childhood is of himself and his younger brother wearing Hector’s war medals to school on Anzac Day. They had the most medals. Much of the time their lives were hard and unhappy. Partly to escape from the difficulties of his civilian life, Hector lied about his age and re-enlisted for the Second World War. The soldiering that had perhaps ruined his life now served as a sanctuary of security and good mates. After the Second World War he sold his farm and lived in Melbourne. He died before I was born and his sons seldom talked about him; they had few happy memories to relate. The 1914–18 war was one of several factors responsible for Hector Thomson’s troubled life, and for his absence from our family mythology.

Figure 1  A letter sent by the author, aged five, to his father who was fighting in the war of confrontation against Indonesia, with the Australians wearing their distinctive slouch hats.

My other grandfather, John Rogers, provided a more positive and vivid connection with Australia’s soldiering past. The son of a Methodist clergyman, he won scholarships to Geelong College and then, in 1914, to the University of Melbourne. Midway through the academic year he enlisted in the AIF (Australian Imperial Force) as a private. After the landing at Gallipoli he was promoted rapidly in his depleted battalion, and then survived that campaign and the horrors of France virtually unscathed to finish the war as a captain on General Monash’s Australian Corps staff. He postponed a successful business career in 1939 to rejoin the army, and concluded his military career in 1945 as a Brigadier and Director of Military Intelligence. We grandchildren never tired of ‘Papa’s’ stories of the humour and adventure of war. He would recall the cunning of the Anzac evacuation from Gallipoli, or the Australian victories in France of 1918. He kept the sickening memories of war to himself, preferring to tell us funny anecdotes about the bold and cheerful ‘diggers’, as the Australian soldiers were nicknamed, who scorned military rank and etiquette but were the best fighters of the war. On Anzac Day we watched him march, stiffly but with pride, surrounded by his cobbers of the 6th Battalion. I was fascinated by his stories of wartime camaraderie and adventure, just as I admired Boyd Thomson’s dutiful sacrifice.

My family and cultural myths reveal the selective nature of war remembrance. In this version war is fascinating and heroic, at worst a hard time shared by good mates. There is little recognition of the horrors of war or the fate of its victims. Public memorials and remembrance rituals transform personal mourning and sadness, and justify death as sacrifice for the causes of freedom and the nation; ‘their name liveth for evermore’ to remind us of noble qualities and fine deeds. This war mythology also defines a selective national identity. From war stories and memorials I had learnt that Australians, typified by Australian soldiering men, were the courageous and resourceful adventurers of the New World, and that the Anzacs had established Australian nationhood.

Yet there were tensions and contradictions in my own sense of this national identity. For example, Boyd Thomson identified with the Mother Country and Empire as much as with Australia, and in my years at Scotch College the imperial Remembrance Day was still given precedence over the national Anzac Day. Furthermore, the supposed egalitarianism of the AIF didn’t always match the social divisions in the Australian army of my experience, in which officers’ families were housed apart from the families of private soldiers. The only private soldiers I ever met were my father’s batmen. I stayed with the family of one batman on a number of occasions when my parents went away, and I was fascinated by different accents, food and family culture.

My family war myths show how only some experiences become highlighted in remembering, while others are repressed and silenced. They also reveal how some ‘private’ memories attain ‘public’ significance, both within the family and beyond. For example, as a prominent ex-serviceman and civic figure in Melbourne after the Second World War, John Rogers was invited to promote his version of Australians at war in countless Anzac Day speeches. In contrast, my grandmother’s war story remained unheard outside the family. To some degree she internalised the pre-eminence of men in the Anzac legend and believed that her own wartime story — in 1914 she was the first woman to study agricultural science in the Southern hemisphere — was of less public significance than her husband’s military career. Similarly, while Boyd Thomson’s short life was commemorated through readings of his memorial poetry booklet, Hector Thomson’s life was seldom mentioned.

The Anzac tradition that I grew up with articulated a selective family history and generalised it as an influential version of the nation’s wartime past. But one of the lessons of growing up in a relatively powerful family and class is a recognition that its members do not simply, or conspiratorially, impose their views upon society. Their views are pervasive because of public power, but they are also sincerely believed and propagated. My father and grandfather Rogers believed their version of the Anzac legend — in which Australian soldiers and Australians in general are all good mates and equally able to achieve their full potential — because it made sense of their own experiences of military and social success and corroborated their personal and political beliefs. By emphasising the qualities of Australian soldiers rather than the nature and effects of war, it also helped them to keep painful personal memories at bay, and to compose a military past that they could live with in relative comfort. It is not surprising that my work on the Anzac legend, including this book, has caused pain and anger within my family. Personal identities are interwoven with national identities, individual memories intersect with public legends, and critical analysis of Anzac thus inevitably collides with powerful emotional investments in the past.

The process of subjective identification thus helps to explain the resonance of national myths. Take, for example, my own childhood fascination with war, or at least with what I imagined war to be. Even today, martial music and marching men make my spine shiver, and I can feel within myself some of the entranced enthusiasm that impels young men to war. Patriotic military ritual and rhetoric touches a sensitive human nerve. It fulfils our common need for a sense of purpose and a proud collective identity. One explanation for the success of the Anzac tradition among generations who have not known war is that we gain vicarious satisfaction from the saga of loyalty, courage and self-sacrifice. Many young Australian men would like to think that we, too, are Anzacs.

Subjective identification works by linking personal experiences and emotions with public meanings. While watching a video of the ‘Anzacs’ television serial in 1987, I was moved to tears during a scene in which the platoon commander inspired his exhausted and mutinous men to fight on for the memory of their dead mates. As an Australian living in Britain the speech made me feel like a deserter from my homeland; as a critic of the Anzac legend it made me feel like a deserter from the values of my family, class and nation. Yet the rhetoric of Australian ‘mateship’ was resonant and appealing precisely because it addressed my own experiences and emotional needs and my own dislocated Australian identity. For all my rational scepticism, I was inspired and moved by the officer’s speech.

My subconscious identification with the Anzac legend is still strong, but in researching and writing this book I have tried to step outside my family and national myths. As an adolescent I believed the myths but felt incoherent, contradictory emotions about my family background and mythology. I was intrigued by lives — such as Hector Thomson’s — that did not seem to fit the story. As I grew older I began to investigate my Anzac tradition. In 1980 I visited Gallipoli and the battlefield of the Somme and was mesmerised by the tranquil beauty of each place. Although I was appalled by the number of Australian graves, the Australian war cemeteries confirmed my old understanding of the war. I felt proud to be Australian. On the Somme the old French gardeners who tended the war graves shook my hand with respect when I said, ‘Je suis australien’. The inscriptions on many Australian gravestones suggested that the families of the dead had felt the same pride:

He was just an Australian soldier

One of God’s bravest and best

He died the helpless to defend

An Australian soldier’s noble end

I concluded that the greatest significance of the war for Australians was the proud discovery of an Australian identity.2

After I came home I started to question whether that discovery had concealed other experiences and meanings of the war. At university, fellow activists in the peace movement argued that the Anzac legend deflected criticism of contemporary military alliances, and that soldier heroes were anachronistic and even dangerous in a nuclear world. Feminist friends pointed out that the tradition ignored or marginalised Australian women. Historical research also undermined my belief in the legend. I was concerned to find that my grandfather had used the example of the first Anzacs to promote conscription during the Vietnam War.3 While researching the history of the Melbourne working-class suburb of Brunswick between the wars, I discovered that not all diggers were treated as heroes after the Great War, and that there were massive ex-servicemen’s riots in the post-war years.4

I was beginning to think that my family myths of the war and Australian society might only represent the experience of a particular class. The story of Anzac that I grew up with was very similar to the official Anzac legend — both my father and grandfather Rogers were among the powerful public men who spoke on Anzac Day platforms — but I suspected that other groups in Australian society might have different memories of the war, and different relationships with the legend. In 1983, as part of a postgraduate research project to explore the history and politics of the Anzac legend, I set off into the industrial suburbs of Melbourne to record the memories of working-class diggers.

Oral history and Anzac memories

I conducted interviews with twenty-one Great War veterans, most of whom lived in Melbourne’s western suburbs and for whom brief details are provided in Appendix 2. My initial contacts were with members of the local Returned and Services League (RSL) sub-branches, although I was also referred to digger friends who were not RSL members. Readers who are interested in the details of the oral history project, and in the methodological issues of oral history, are referred to Appendix 1. To summarise, in the interviews I adopted a guided life-history approach which focused upon the men’s prewar lives and their experiences as soldiers and ex-servicemen.

The interviews did highlight certain contrasts between the experiences of working-class diggers and my perception of the Anzac legend. There was little romance or heroism in the war stories I was told; many men admitted that if they had their time again they would not enlist. They recited familiar anecdotes about the egalitarian Anzacs and AIF, but their emphasis was sometimes different from that of conventional stories. For example, mateship was a sacred memory, but it was the creed of the diggers in the ranks and did not necessarily include officers. Even men who respected capable officers had often detested the authoritarian practices of the army. Most vividly, many of the old men scornfully contrasted their status as national heroes with the way they were ill-treated after the war. Indeed, a number of ‘radical diggers’ had become disenchanted with the RSL and official Anzac commemoration, and had joined socialist and pacifist movements in the inter-war years. To a certain extent, the memories of working-class veterans thus represented a forgotten and even oppositional history.5

However the interviews also suggested that the memories of working-class diggers had become entangled with the legend of their lives, and that veterans had adopted and used the Anzac legend because it was resonant and useful in their own remembering. For sixty years most of these men had been members of the RSL and attended Anzac Day parades. Many of them had read the official history of the war and quoted anecdotes as if they had come from their own experiences. In some interviews I felt like I was listening to the script of the film Gallipoli. Memories were also reshaped by present-day situations and emotions. Lonely old men were sometimes eager to recall the camaraderie of the AIF or the adventure of the war, and to reassert a proud Anzac identity.

I was fascinated by this relationship between the Anzac legend and digger memories, and instead of simply or naively challenging the legend I now wanted to understand how and why it worked, or sometimes didn’t work, for veterans of the war. This interest was informed by new theoretical work about memory, subjectivity and ‘popular memory’, including writings by international oral historians such as Luisa Passerini and Alessandro Portelli, and by members of the Popular Memory Group at the Centre for Contemporary Cultural Studies in Birmingham. From these writings I developed the working model of remembering, and of the relationship between public legends and personal memory, that informs this book and is summarised as follows.6

We compose our memories to make sense of our past and present lives. ‘Composure’ is an aptly ambiguous term to describe the process of memory making. In one sense we compose or construct memories using the public languages and meanings of our culture. In another sense we compose memories that help us to feel relatively comfortable with our lives and identities, that give us a feeling of composure. In practice the two processes of composure are inseparable, but for the sake of clarity I will deal with them separately and identify certain features of each process.

The first sense of the construction of memories using public language and meaning requires a cultural approach to remembering. The basis of this approach is that there is no simple equation between experience and memory, but rather a process in which certain experiences become remembered in certain ways. Only a selection of an individual’s myriad experiences are recorded in memory, and for each of these there are a range of ways in which the experience might be articulated. Raymond Williams usefully describes how the initial, inarticulate consciousness or ‘structure of feelings’ regarding an experience is articulated through public forms and metaphors, which shape and bind that consciousness into a more fixed state. According to the Popular Memory Group, public representations of the past — including the very recent past that has only just been experienced — are thus used as an aid in the constant process of making sense of personal experiences:

[…] provoking reflection and inviting comparison between the more general accounts and the remembered particulars of personal experiences. For if the effect of the public field of representation is to generalise significance, it must be by offering forms and general interpretative categories by means of which people can locate their own experience in terms of wider social patterns. Popular memories work in just this way, struggling to generalise meanings in such a way as to pull together and give a shared form to a multiplicity of individual and particular experiences, and so to reconstruct people’s sense of the past.7

The available public languages and forms that we use to articulate and remember experience do not necessarily obliterate experiences that make no acceptable public sense. Incoherent, unstructured and indeed unremembered, these unrecognised experiences may linger in memory and find articulation in another time and place, or in less conscious outlets. New experiences constantly stretch the old forms and eventually require and generate new public forms of articulation.

A further aspect of this cultural theory of remembering is the distinction between the ‘general’ and ‘particular’ publics within which we articulate and remember experience. The ‘general public’ includes the various media which provide generally available representations and interpretative categories (‘the public field of representations’) in an indirect, impersonal relationship. We also make sense of experience by using the meanings available within the active relationships of a ‘particular public’ group, such as a wartime platoon. The particular public is significant in a number of ways. Firstly, a member of a particular public may participate in and contribute to the development of those meanings. Secondly, because of the importance of social acceptance and affirmation the particular public is especially influential, and potentially repressive, in the construction of meaning and identity. Thirdly, a particular public may provide an important site for the maintenance of alternative or oppositional meaning, a source of public strength for its members to filter or even reject and contest more general meanings.8

How we make sense of experience, and what memories we choose to recall and relate (and thus remember), changes over time. Memory ‘hinges around a past–present relation, and involves a constant process of re-working and transforming remembered experience’. Thus our remembering changes in relation to shifts in the particular publics in which we live, and as the general public field of representations alters.9

It also changes in relation to our shifting personal identity, which brings me back to the second, more psychological sense of the need to compose a past we can live with. This sense presumes a dialectical relationship between memory and identity. Our identity (or ‘identities’, a more appropriate term to suggest the multi-faceted and contradictory nature of subjectivity) is the sense of self that we construct by comparisons with other people and with our own life over time. We construct our identities by telling stories, either to ourselves as inner stories or day-dreams, or to other people in social situations. Remembering is one of the vital ways in which we identify ourselves in storytelling. In our storytelling we identify what we think we have been, who we think we are now and what we want to become. The stories that we remember will not be exact representations of our past, but will draw upon aspects of that past and mould them to fit current identities and aspirations. Thus our identities shape remembering; who we think we are now and what we want to become affects what we think we have been. Memories are ‘significant pasts’ that we compose to make a more comfortable sense of our life over time, and in which past and current identities are brought more into line.

There are many ways in which our remembered experiences — of both the immediate and distant past — may threaten and disturb identities and thus require composure. Traumatic experiences may violate public taboos or personal comprehension (although in some situations people make a conscious attempt not to repress trauma, like the Holocaust survivors who are determined to recall and relate their experience for the sake of those who died, and as a lesson to us all). Dramatic life changes often render old identities irrelevant and require drastic re-evaluation. Everyday psychological life comprises frustrated desires and debilitating losses which we seek to compose into a safer, less painful sense.

Thus our public remembering and private inner stories often seek to compose a safe and necessary personal coherence out of the unresolved, risky and painful pieces of past and present lives. Yet stories rarely provide complete or satisfactory containment of threatening experiences from the past. Our attempts at composure are often not entirely successful and we are left with unresolved tension and fragmented, contradictory identities. Composure, ‘based as it is on repression, and exclusion, is never achieved, constantly threatened, undermined, [and] disrupted’. Repressed feelings and impulses are expressed or ‘discharged’ (sneaking through the barricades of conscious coherence) in particular forms — such as dreams, errors, physical symptoms and jokes — which reveal hidden, painful and fragmented personal meanings. Thus the dreams of soldiers reveal the repressed significances of a soldier’s war, the psychological impact of fear, carnage and guilt. Slips or errors of expression may be more than just carelessness or confusion; for Freud, the error or ‘parapraxis’ was due to the unconscious association of a particular word or phrase with a repressed desire. Physical symptoms — such as the nervous flicker of an eyelid or the edge of the mouth, or a more serious speech impediment — may also be connected by a psychological chain of association with an unresolved trauma. Jokes and laughter are often ways of discharging difficult or painful memories.10

Oral historians sometimes listen only to the spoken narrative and neglect these hidden texts. Just as the stories of remembering reveal the particular ways in which a person has composed his or her past, these hidden forms of meaning can reveal experiences and feelings that have been silenced because they could not fit with public norms or with a person’s own identity.

This brings me back to the key theoretical link between the two senses of composure, that the apparently private process of composing safe memories is in fact very public. Our memories are risky and painful if they do not fit the public myths, so we try to compose our memories to ensure that they will fit with what is publicly acceptable. Just as we seek the affirmation of our personal identities within the particular publics in which we live, we also seek affirmation of our memories. ‘Recognition’ is a useful term to describe the process of public affirmation of identities and memories. Recognition is essential for social and emotional survival; the alternative of alienation and exclusion may be psychologically devastating. We may seek recognition in other, more empathetic publics, but our memories need the sustenance of public recognition, and are composed so that they will be recognised and affirmed.

‘Identities’, ‘general’ and ‘particular publics’, ‘recognition’, ‘affirmation’ and ‘composure’; these are key concepts for the exploration of the processes of remembering. This new theoretical framework informed my investigations into the relationships between Anzac identities, memories and myth. In 1987 I conducted a second set of ‘popular memory’ Anzac interviews with five of my initial interviewees. In these second interviews I focused on how each man composed and related his memories, and explored four key interactions: between interviewer and interviewee, public legend and individual memory, past and present, and memory and identity. The relationships that I had developed previously with each of these men facilitated this new approach. In long, detailed interviews they were encouraged to go back over their experiences as soldiers and ex-servicemen, and to reflect upon the ways in which they had come to terms with their wartime past.

The popular memory approach suggested a particular structure for this book, which explores how the Anzac legend works for soldiers and veterans by highlighting the interactions between experiences, memories, identities and the legend, and by showing how these interactions have changed over time. The three main parts of the book focus, respectively, on Anzac experiences and narratives during wartime, the postwar period, and the 1980s and 1990s. For each of these three periods I have written one chapter using oral testimony in a conventional manner, a second chapter about the making and remaking of the legend, and a third chapter comprising ‘memory biographies’.

The initial, oral history chapters (1, 4 and 7) draw upon the testimony of all my interviewees and outline the main features of their experiences as Anzacs during and after the war, and into old age. They note significant aspects of the life experience of working-class Australians who fought as soldiers in the Great War, some of which correspond with the legend of Anzac. Yet these chapters also reveal the complex and multifaceted nature of the Anzac experience, and suggest ways in which it sometimes contradicted the legend.

In the chapters about the making and remaking of the public legend (2, 5 and 8), I explore how influential individuals and organisations drew upon the Anzac experience and, through processes of selection, simplification and generalisation, moulded a national legend. How was an official legend created and, more importantly, to what extent did it gain the support of the diggers and of Australians at home? My argument is that an official or dominant legend works not by excluding contradictory versions of experience, but by representing them in ways that fit the legend and flatten out the contradictions, but which are still resonant for a wide variety of people.

I explore the relationships between experience, memory and the legend in more detail in the memory biographies which comprise chapters 3, 6 and 9. These ‘memory biographies’ explore the particular ways in which veterans composed their memories of the war in relation to the legend, and in relation to their own shifting experiences and identities (the writing of memory biographies is discussed in Appendix 1). They explain how men of war related to the range of masculine and national identities available to them during key periods of their lives — enlistment, battle, behind the lines, repatriation and old age — and how they sought to compose comfortable ways of remembering the war and identifying themselves as soldiers and veterans.

This book includes the memory biographies of three diggers whom I interviewed in 1983 and again in 1987 — Percy Bird, Bill Langham and Fred Farrall — chosen because they had very different experiences of the war and postwar periods, and very different ways of remembering the war and relating to the Anzac legend. The following thumbnail sketches introduce the main features of the life stories of these three men, and evoke the variety of their experiences.

Percy Bird grew up in the Melbourne port of Williamstown, and was engaged to be married and employed as a clerk with the railways when he enlisted in 1915. He fought with the 5th Battalion on the Western Front until he was taken out of his unit to do clerical work behind the lines. A gas attack damaged his throat and he was sent home in 1917. After a brief period of rehabilitation he married his fiancée and returned to his job with the railways, where he rose through the ranks of the Auditing Department. Running parallel to a stable family and working life, Percy was active in ex-servicemen’s organisations and was a keen participant in Anzac Day and other forms of war commemoration.

While still in his teens, Bill Langham left home and school in rural Victoria to work in the stables at Melbourne’s Caulfield Racecourse. He was under age when he enlisted in the AIF, and despite parental protests he joined an artillery unit of the 8th Brigade and served on the Western Front, where he was a driver with a horse team that transported guns and ammunition. He was wounded in the head just before the Armistice. Back in Australia, Bill battled to get a pension and adequate employment training, and was in and out of work throughout the inter-war years. Yet he shared Percy Bird’s enthusiasm for the soldiers’ club and veterans’ reunions, and for occasions of Anzac remembrance.

Fred Farrall grew up on a smallholding on the New South Wales Riverina, but like Bill Langham was keen to leave the country. In 1915 he left home on a ‘Kangaroo’ enlistment march to Sydney, and in the summer of 1916 he joined the 55th Battalion on the Somme. Fred was not a confident soldier. Most of his mates from the enlistment march were killed or wounded, and he was himself wounded and ill on a number of occasions, and eventually suffered a form of neurosis or shell-shock. Upon his return to Australia Fred decided to stay in Sydney, but he was in a poor physical and emotional state; he struggled to find work and had a nervous breakdown in 1926. At about this time he became active in Labor politics and gradually established himself as an active pacifist and socialist, and a leading figure in the trade union movement. Unlike Percy Bird and Bill Langham, Fred Farrall was alienated from all things Anzac and was virtually unable — at least until his later years — to speak about his wartime past.

I am not arguing that these three men were typical Anzacs, or even that between them they cover the range of possible digger experiences. They did, however, have extremely varied experiences as soldiers and veterans, and thus serve the aim of this book, which is to explore the relationship between the Anzac legend and the lives and remembering of the Anzacs. These three men also had very different ways of remembering their lives, and of composing their life stories, as the following sections explain.

Percy Bird

Percy Bird rang me as soon as he received my initial letter asking if I could interview him, and was eager to talk. We conducted our first interview in September of 1983 at the house in Williamstown in which he had lived for much of his adult life. He was a widower and lived alone, an old man of ninety-four who was physically frail but had an energetic and lively mind. When I arrived he handed me twelve pages of wartime anecdotes, which he had prepared specially for me, titled ‘The 5th Battalion, 1916 and 1917, France’. He then related these same stories with great glee, and sung some soldiers’ songs in a quavering but beautiful tenor voice. He told me that he had talked and sung about his youth and wartime experiences to local school children and at recent veterans’ reunions. When I conducted the second interview with Percy in 1987 he had moved into a home for elderly ex-servicemen and war widows. It was on the other side of town but near to his daughter. In that interview he repeated most of the same anecdotes and told me how much his fellow residents enjoyed his stories and his singing.

There were two outstanding features of Percy Bird’s remembering. Firstly, a primary aim of his remembering was entertainment, and he derived enormous satisfaction from his performances and the positive response of audiences. Secondly, these performances drew upon a fixed repertoire of anecdotes. The written stories that Percy gave me, and the stories that he wanted to tell regardless of my questions, were short, discrete anecdotes, loosely arranged in approximate chronological order but also prompted by cue words in a previous story or a question, or by the established sequence of the performance. One section of Percy’s written story, which begins when his battalion was returning to the Somme for the winter of 1916-17 after a spell in Belgium, conveys this anecdotal form particularly well:

On the way back to the Somme we marched about fourteen miles the first day. Marched about twelve miles or so the next day. Came to a village and passed outside the village for about four miles when we came to a big field. The Colonel told us the village we passed had an epidemic or something there so we were sleeping out in the open, but we would all receive canteen parcels. They all thought they would be receiving cigarettes but all we got were tins of acid drops.

It rained all night and we were wet through and had to march twelve miles to the next place where we stopped for three nights.

There was a big Brewery in the village.

In our peregrinations around the country we were always on the march and the English Tommies went round in buses. So a yarn went round that while we were on the march a Tommy Regiment called the West Ridings were in the vicinity and an English officer hopped out from somewhere and yelled, ‘Are you the West Ridings?’ Back came the reply, ‘No, we’re the bloody Australians walking’.

A couple of days before Christmas we came out of the line and C and D companies were billeted in tents between the villages of Dernancourt and Méaulte where there was a big Railhead. A number of Tommy permanent base men and German prisoners were also there. On Christmas Day the Germans sang a number of Christmas carols. It was wonderful.On one occasion when the men were working one morning at the Railhead the Tommy captain in charge said to them, if they unloaded the two trains that were there then they could knock off at twelve noon and have the afternoon off. They had the job finished at twelve noon but another train came in and the captain said they would have to unload that. They told him he had promised them the afternoon off and they were going to have it. He went to our Captain and told him the men wouldn’t work in the afternoon. Our captain said to him, ‘I believe you told them that if they emptied the two trains that were there at the time by twelve noon they could have the afternoon off, so take my advice and give them the afternoon off and you will get a lot more out of them whilst they’re with you’. So he did what our Captain said.11

The form and content of Percy’s remembering are significant in a number of ways. Most of the other men I interviewed told their stories as an unfolding life story with a smooth, sequential flow. Percy’s remembering was more akin to the anecdotal style of the stand-up comedian. Percy’s anecdotes also combined his own story with that of the men of his battalion — it was usually the story of ‘us’ rather than ‘I’ — and were presented as a history of the battalion. At first reading the anecdotes appeared to be simply descriptive, but a closer reading showed that each story had a punchline or ‘tag’ which helped Percy to fix it in his memory, gave it a purposeful theme and made it a ‘good’ story. Some of the main themes through which Percy articulated his war memory were the humour of trench life, lucky escapes from enemy shells, his successful participation in army concerts, and the nature and effectiveness of the Australian soldiers. In Percy’s remembering the war was never horrifying or disillusioning and there were obvious silences; for example, about enlistment and his feelings in the line. Extensive questioning sometimes drew him to discuss these aspects of his war, but he was always eager to return to his own, standard stories. Through his memory biography, I will explore how Percy Bird came to compose his remembering of the war in this form and with these meanings.

Bill Langham

When I first met Bill Langham in 1983 he was in his late eighties but was alert and remarkably healthy. He lived in his own house in the western suburb of Yarraville. The west had been Bill’s home since his return from the war, and he had been an active participant in its clubs and societies. He shared his home with his wife of fifty years and a retired son. His wife showed tolerant amusement at Bill’s ‘yapping on’ with me and got on with other activities in and out of the house during the interviews. They were both still very active in various Yarraville musical associations, and Bill was relatively content with his life as an old man. He also seemed comfortable with memories of his youth and a successful working life. The war retained a tangible presence, with a photo of Bill in uniform on the mantelpiece and occasional meetings with other diggers, but it did not have the powerful emotional charge that some of the other men I interviewed were still struggling to cope with. Bill’s war experience had been incorporated into a more general sense of his life, identity and value system, which included contradictions and occasional doubts, but which on the whole worked well for Bill’s peace of mind and personal fulfilment.

One key thread of this identity, which was influenced by his war experiences but also shaped the way he remembered the war and his life, was Bill’s image of himself as a successful battler, the epitome of the ‘little Aussie battler’, a resonant character in Australian working-class and national folklore:

That, see my life I reckon it was changed altogether when I came back. I was, I was a real roustabout, anything that went I did. Didn’t matter what it was I put my hand to, and I’m not skiting when I say that whatever I tried to do I made a success of.12

Bill related his own success story to a more general story of Aussie battlers and pioneers; like the ‘cockies’ in the district where he grew up ‘who started with nothing’ and ‘they struggled but they worked and they worked long hours and they made a success of it’. Bill’s identity and world view was not simply an enterprise ideology for self-made men. It was a class-specific story with a clear sense of the hurdles faced by working-class men and was imbued with the belief that his own ability to earn a decent living was due to the struggles of the union and Labor movement. In Bill’s view of the world working people were distinct from, and ill-treated by, the powers that be, which included the Royals — who ‘get a lot of money out of the country and they get it from the people’ — and the ‘big nobs’ who started the war and ‘looked to the poor ordinary citizen to fight it for them’. Yet in Bill’s world view this populist ideology did not include an analysis of the structural causes of inequality and oppression, and served primarily as the background to his identity as a battler who had overcome life’s obstacles, including the war.13

Bill’s identity as an old man also influenced his remembering. In the interview he made frequent comparisons between past and present. Sometimes these were explanatory contrasts between schooling or prices, and even about his own changed attitudes, but often the contrasts were value-laden and critical of social change. Thus the streets were no longer safe, and modern youth — the target of most of Bill’s comments — was not as tough or well disciplined as his generation and lacked its bush and military training. These contrasts were made by many of the men I interviewed, although they were more common in Bill’s remembering than most. They reveal his ignorance of a youth culture with which he had relatively little contact, and the anxiety of an old man no longer able to defend himself on the street and conscious of the loss of his own physical strength. These contrasts acted for Bill as an important reminder of his own young manhood, just as in turn memories of youthful masculinity were a source of emotional pride and strength in old age.14

Another significant context for Bill’s remembering was the interview itself and our relationship. Bill enjoyed having his memory ‘jogged’ because his wartime experiences were important to him: ‘I don’t want to forget the mates I made, I don’t want to forget the things I did’. With most of his digger mates long gone, the interview was a rare opportunity for Bill to reminisce about the war. Once he began to talk he derived a great deal of pleasure from relating and performing his story to me, often accompanying words with mimicry and play-acting; his strutting depiction of a self-important officer was sharper than any verbal description. Like Percy Bird, Bill remembered in vivid detail and showed little sign that his memory had been affected by mental or physical deterioration.15

Yet unlike Percy Bird, Bill had not sought out audiences for the performance of his war memories, and did not feel any strong need for public affirmation of those memories. Nor did he perform one particular, fixed version of his war. In fact, the most striking feature of Bill Langham’s remembering was its candour and openness. He did not relate a stock of anecdotes or deliver a well-rehearsed autobiographical monologue. Rather, his remembering was reflective and discursive, and sometimes self-questioning. He decided that he should tell me stories that he preferred not to relate to other audiences or to dwell upon when he was alone, and he did not appear to be consciously with-holding any memories. Although the pain of the memory of one particularly gruesome battle story was clearly evident on Bill’s face, he tried to tell the story in a matter-of-fact manner because he felt it was an important part of the history of the war.

He also developed an active relationship with my questioning in which he would ask me to clarify what I meant by a question (rather than focusing on a keyword which sparked off particular memories), or would paraphrase a clumsy question more succinctly (‘I think what you’re trying to get me to say is whether it’s [Anzac Day] trying to glorify war or not’). He was quite willing and able to disagree with me when I played devil’s advocate or expressed an opinion with which he did not concur. Bill’s self-awareness was also apparent in the relationship between his remembering in the two interviews. He played his copy of the first tape several times between the two interviews, including on the morning of the second interview. In the new interview he sometimes referred to comments he had made on the earlier occasion, but, unlike Percy Bird and Fred Farrall, he knew which stories were on the first tape and was careful to avoid repetition. He rarely contradicted his earlier version, but did provide many new stories as well as fresh angles and complexities about the first set of stories.16

Bill’s remembering was not entirely flexible and independent. In his stories he often matched his past with his identity as a successful battler and with the identity of the Anzac legend. Although Bill’s wartime and postwar experiences might easily have facilitated an oppositional stance to the war and the legend, his participation in various public practices of remembrance led him to generalise about his experiences in terms of the legend. Yet unconventional experiences were not scrubbed from Bill’s memory. Because of the relatively unproblematic nature of Bill’s identity as a soldier and a man, he did not need to compose a fixed, unitary version of his war. His remembering comprised a multifaceted layering or patchwork of stories and understandings, which derived from the complex and often contradictory range of his experiences and from the different public ways of making sense of those experiences. Although certain experiences were highlighted in his remembering, the many facets of Bill’s war memory remained accessible enabling him to relate them in appropriate circumstances. Even during the interview different contexts prompted different ways of remembering the war. Bill’s memory was not neatly composed into a single, seamless account and, as a result of this, of the three memory biographies his was hardest to write. In it, I try to evoke the complexity of Bill’s remembering while also showing how he came to emphasise certain memories and identities.

Fred Farrall

I first heard about Fred Farrall through a friend who knew him from the Melbourne Labor History Group. I attended a meeting of the group so that I could meet him and his comrade Sid Norris, who was also a digger and a socialist. I wrote at the time:

Fred, eighty-five, sprightly and alert, had on his lapel that night his 1919 returned from active service badge. He had also been a member of the Communist Party; of course I wanted to interview him!17

We met for our first interview in July of 1983. Fred lived by himself in a small house in the inner Melbourne municipality of Prahran. His de facto wife Dot had died four years previously to the day, and Fred had gradually learnt to fend for himself around the house. On the walls of the lounge room where we conducted all of our interviews hung a pictorial history of Fred’s life. Filling one wall were a dramatic portrait of Lenin and pictures of Marx and of Fred with Tom Paine, the only living Australian to have met Lenin. On the wall above Fred’s armchair were photos of Fred and Dot as Mayor and Mayoress of Prahran and, superbly framed, a photo of Fred as a soldier next to his beautifully inscribed discharge certificate.

From our introduction at the meeting Fred had gathered that I was interested in the experience of Australian Great War veterans who were also political radicals, and he now welcomed the opportunity to tell his story of the war and its aftermath to a historian who promised a wider audience. It was not the first time that he had told his life story as history. Apart from the discussions of the Labor History Group, which had resulted in articles by Fred for their Recorder, he had talked about the war to Melbourne college students and to the producers of a film about the AIF hero Albert Jacka. He liked being interviewed because he believed that he had a story with an important political message to tell, and because in his old age talking was almost his only way of being politically active (‘all I can do now is talk’).18

Over the next seven years I made many visits to Fawkner Street for taped interviews and untaped discussions, and to bring Fred copies of tapes and transcripts (he was delighted by the transcripts, but immediately set out to ‘correct’ his grammar and prose), and articles I had written based on the interviews. When the tape recorder was off, as we made a cup of tea or a meal together, Fred shed his interview persona and opened up about other aspects of his life, and asked me about my life and thoughts. When I went to England we maintained a correspondence which was partly sustained by Fred’s interest in my attempts to publish a book about radical diggers. Fred read my manuscript drafts with approval, and was especially interested in my prefatory stories about Hector and Boyd Thomson and my personal connection with what he regarded as the tragedy of the war. Over the years and despite our differences — I did not share Fred’s uncompromising pro-Soviet socialism — we developed a friendly and trusting relationship. We said goodbye in June 1990, with Fred close to death.

Fred Farrall was an obvious choice for a case study, for a number of reasons. Firstly, I know more about Fred’s life and memory than about any of my other interviewees. Many hours of tapes, combined with notes from untaped discussions, provided a wealth of material about Fred’s life and thoughts. Secondly, Fred’s life is relatively unusual because he was a digger who became a political radical. Through his biography I can trace why and how he took that divergent path, and analyse his relationships with the dominant Anzac legend and the more radical tradition of the Labor movement. Thirdly, Fred’s identity as a digger and his remembering of the war went through several different phases. His memory biography shows how his identities and remembering changed over time through interactions between personal identity and public affirmation that were very different to those experienced by Percy Bird and Bill Langham.

Finally, the particular forms in which Fred remembered and related his life are instructive about the ways in which memories and identities are composed. Fred Farrall was a storyteller who used a particular narrative style to make specific meanings about his life. Like Percy Bird’s anecdotes, though unlike Bill Langham’s remembering, Fred’s story did not change much between tellings; in 1983 he related stories to me in much the same form as he had told or written them in other recent historical contexts, and in 1987 he repeated many of the same stories and found it difficult to respond in new ways to my popular memory interview approach. At times I became frustrated by the difficulty of breaking into the monologue to ask a question, and by the lack of dialogue or discussion. More than any of the men I interviewed, Fred had his story well and truly composed; he wanted to ‘improve’ the transcripts of the interview to produce a more polished text and to iron out inconsistencies. In comparison with Percy Bird’s anecdotes or Bill Langham’s multi-layered remembering, Fred Farrall’s story was deliberate, detailed and sequential, a well-rehearsed unfolding of the transformations of his life, often superbly told through tensions and twists towards climactic punchlines.19

Most importantly, Fred’s stories composed a particular meaning in which his war and his life was a process of conversion. Stripped to its essentials, Fred’s narrative is as follows. The naive and patriotic farm boy goes to war as a willing recruit but unwitting sacrificial lamb. He becomes a frightened, inadequate and disillusioned soldier on the Western Front, and a confused and traumatised veteran upon his return to Australia. After several years in a personal wilderness he discovers in the Labor movement supportive comrades and a new, socialist way of understanding his life and the world, and regains his self-esteem as a man. He articulates his disillusionment about the war in political terms and thus redefines the war as one stage on the way to his enlightenment.

Many of Fred’s stories were framed in terms of this development towards conversion. The narrative is often interrupted and explained by an ironic reflection that situates a particular incident within the larger pattern that he made of his life. One example shows how Fred’s remembering worked in this way and conveys his skill and style as a storyteller. The example is the opening section of a much longer story in which Fred takes his audience from his parents’ farm to the Western Front:

The war broke out in 1914. Well of course in August 1914 I was then actually fifteen years of age, and as I’d wanted to be a jockey I wasn’t very robust, in fact I was very small. So my father then began to make some changes, politically speaking, because the Labor Party were not very enthusiastic about the war. Although there was a Labor government, Andrew Fisher, who pledged Australia’s support to the last man and the last shilling, as politicians can easily do. But there was a fair bit of opposition from other sections of the Labor Party and my father became a staunch supporter for the war. When the landing was made in Gallipoli, of course, we all had to have it read to us from the papers after tea at night. It was sort of … almost something like a religious service and we listened to it and we believed it.

The war went on and 1915, in September 1915, I’d reached the age of eighteen. What did I say? Did I say earlier that I was fifteen when the war … I was sixteen when the war broke out. In another month’s time I was seventeen then, so I’d reached the age of eighteen and having given away the idea of being a jockey I began to build up my physique somewhat. Previous to that I’d, you know, endeavoured to keep my weight down, but after that denial on the part of my father to do what I wanted to do I just sort of grew up more. The physical standard for joining the army in 1914 and early 1915 was very, very high and I had no hope anyway at being able to measure up to that sort of thing, that standard. But after Gallipoli, or while Gallipoli was on, and they’d suffered a lot of casualties, they lowered the standard considerably here.When we were in the harvest field in November 1915, we were hay-making and Dad had one or two or three men working for him in the harvest as we used to have. They would be swagmen that would be picked up in Ganmain and brought out to do some work, you see. So I was working with one of them, Bill Fraser, and I said to Bill one day, ‘I’m thinking about going to the war, Bill’. Well he was an Irishman and he gave me some pretty good advice and a bit of a lecture while we were picking up sheaves of hay and putting them in stooks where they belonged. He told me that I should stay on the farm. He said, ‘You should remember’, he said, ‘that next to your life the most valuable thing you’ve got is your health. You stay here on the farm and look after it because it’s worthwhile keeping’. And finished his advice by saying ‘Let the rich men fight their own wars’. Well, I didn’t take Bill’s advice. I had listened to the Prime Minister and his ‘last man and last shilling to defend the Empire’, the Premier of New South Wales, the Archbishop. I did what they said to do. I enlisted.20

This excerpt is a typical example of Fred’s storytelling technique. The listener’s interest is sustained by the tensions between different characters and courses of action. The narrative works as a story precisely because it is framed by Fred’s retrospective vision of his life. The ironies are resonant because we know, as Fred came to know, the consequences of his enlistment, and that Fred should have listened to Bill Fraser’s advice.

That doesn’t mean that the details about how Fred felt and acted at the time are invented, merely that the way in which he composed his story of enlistment caused him to highlight certain experiences and make sense of them in particular ways. Like all stories it is meaningful, and the meanings came from the present as much as the past. At the same time it excluded alternative senses, and either reworked contradictory experiences to fit the narrative or ignored them.

Nor was the larger story of Fred’s life as a process of conversion an invention. Fred was a simple farm boy, he was a traumatised soldier and veteran, and he was transformed by political activism and understanding. The way in which Fred composed his memories in these terms made sense of those actual experiences. But Fred highlighted conversion as the primary theme of his autobiography because it enabled him to fit his war service and political radicalism into one coherent story. The identity of the soldier as unwitting victim fitted into his overall sense of his life, and the public sense of the Labor movement that sustained it. Because his wartime inadequacy thus gained political purpose and meaning it was, to a certain extent, easier to live with and remember. Yet, as the memory biography that commences in chapter 3 will show, for many years Fred did not have a comfortable or coherent sense of his experience as a soldier, and even the political analysis of conversion did not resolve the personal traumas of Fred’s war.

Anzac Memories: Living with the Legend [New Edition]

   by Alistair Thomson