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Anzac Memories: Living with the Legend [New Edition]



What happens to historical remembrance when the last surviving witnesses pass away? There are almost no living Australians who can remember the First World War, and in a few years there will be none who can remember the Second. In Anzac Memories I have explored how Australian First World War veterans remembered their war, and how their remembering was shaped by wartime and postwar experience and by their use of Anzac narratives which changed across the years. I’ve also shown how the memories of war veterans about their wartime and postwar lives can be used to complicate the national story of the Anzac legend.

The passing of these witnesses to history poses a new set of questions. How has Australian war remembrance changed as we leave the era of personal memory? Will it flourish ‘more luxuriantly’ as it is freed ‘from the limitation of historical fact and the human frailties of surviving representatives’.1 As individual memories fade away will it be cultural representations of the war — in film and fiction, for example — that endure and ‘eventually overtake the private and familial myths’.2 How and why does a twenty-first century Anzac legend work — or not work — for new generations of Australians? How does the relationship between public historical representation and individual historical understanding work when the personal resources for making sense are second- or third-hand family stories combined with popular history and official commemoration? How can historians best contribute to Australian war remembrance? With the centenary of the Anzac landing looming in 2015, historians and other commentators have been taking these questions very seriously. My reflections in this postscript are a contribution to the debate.

The Anzac revival of the 1980s and early 1990s which I outlined in chapter 8 has gathered pace in subsequent years. Indeed, historian Mark McKenna argues that the years of the Howard government from 1996 to 2007 saw a ‘revolution’ in Australian war commemoration as Anzac became a key element in Australian political nationalism.3 I’m not convinced by the revolution thesis — Anzac has been conscripted for political use and abuse ever since 1915 — but over the past two decades there have been significant changes in institutional support for Australian war commemoration, and in the forms and meanings of Anzac remembrance.

As the vast cohort of veterans from the two World Wars has diminished the RSL has become less influential in commemoration. Filling that gap, more surprisingly, the Department of Veterans’ Affairs (DVA) has expanded beyond its repatriation role to become a key player in official commemoration. The Department now provides schools with extensive educational material about Australians at war. DVA sponsorship, alongside support from other levels of government as well as local communities, has contributed to a proliferation of war memorials and renewed efforts to renovate existing memorials. As Ken Inglis noted in the 2008 edition of Sacred Places, his classic history of Australian war memorials, in the ten years since the first edition there had been ‘more making and remaking of war memorials […] than at any time since the decade after 1918’.4

Following government support for the visit by Gallipoli veterans to Anzac Cove in 1990 to commemorate the 75th anniversary of the landing, a sequence of officially sponsored events has galvanised popular interest in all things Anzac. In 1993 the interment of the Unknown Australian Soldier — anonymous remains dug up from a First World War cemetery in France and entombed in the Hall of Memory at the Australian War Memorial — captured the national imagination. During the event people queuing to pay their respects initiated a more personal ritual, as they wedged the metal stems of red poppies on the Rolls of Honour next to the names of family members. In 1995, Con Sciacca, Italian migrant and Minister for Veterans’ Affairs in the Keating Labor government, instigated ‘Australia Remembers’, a year-long popular festival of publicity and events to commemorate the 50th anniversary of the end of World War II and to acknowledge the service and sacrifice of men and women who contributed to the war effort.5 When the last Australian World War I veterans died in the early 2000s they were honoured with state funerals. In Hobart in 2002, Alec Campbell was eulogised by Prime Minister Howard as representing a story of ‘great valour under fire, unity of purpose and a willingness to fight against the odds that has helped define what it means to be Australian’.6

All the while, newspapers reported that attendance at Anzac Day events, and especially the Dawn Service, continued to grow, with the World War generations of servicemen and women increasingly replaced by younger people with no direct personal experience of war. The Anzac Day protests of the 1980s are now a distant memory, and the trend towards inclusiveness has been sustained, perhaps most obviously in media attention on Australian servicemen from non-Anglo backgrounds and on migrants marching with contingents representing allied forces (including the Turks, allies in the Korean War and now welcomed as friends rather than First World War enemies). In her Prime Ministerial speech at Anzac Cove in 2012, Welsh migrant Julia Gillard remarked that Anzac belonged ‘to every Australian’, ‘not just those who trace their origins to the early settlers but those like me who are migrants and who freely embrace the whole of the Australian story as their own’, and to ‘Indigenous Australians, whose own wartime valour was a profound expression of the love they felt for the ancient land’.7 There is now widespread recognition of the significant role of indigenous servicemen and women, though the Australian War Memorial has resisted calls for a gallery to represent black Australians who fought against European settlement. Some local communities have moved in that direction. In the Queensland mining town of Mount Isa, for example, commemoration of the Kalkadoon people’s ‘heroic, desperate and failed’ resistance in 1884 has challenged settler historical narratives and reshaped the local Anzac story.8

Since I returned to live in Melbourne in 2007 I’ve taken groups of university students to a Dawn Service that is very different to the one I recall from my first attendance with student friends in 1982, or indeed the 1987 Service I described in chapter 8. Then it was a small affair with several hundred participants in a simple ceremony focused on the reading of the Ode and the bugler’s Last Post and Reveille. After the ceremony we quietly filed through the Shrine of Remembrance and then enjoyed a cup of tea provided by volunteers and chatted with veterans. Now tens of thousands pack the Shrine forecourt and reach back to St Kilda Road, a master of ceremonies explains the origins and meanings of the day through loud speakers, there are speeches by servicemen and women and student winners of Anzac essays, and we flinch as the crack of a rifle salute interrupts a choir singing ‘Abide with Me’. Though participants make their own meanings — in the two minute silence my thoughts drift to my family at war — we are also told what to think, and more so than in the 1980s. By contrast, where my parents live in Bateman’s Bay on the New South Wales south coast, the Dawn Service has a more local and informal feel, there is almost no military presence, and the clergyman who speaks keeps it short and simple. There is no universal Anzac Day template.

Critics argue that changes in Anzac Day are symptomatic of a wider politicisation of Anzac commemoration and a shift in emphasis from mourning and remembrance to national pride and even celebration.9 When Carolyn Holbrook interviewed Malcolm Fraser in 2012 about his attitude to war commemoration when he was Prime Minister from 1975 to 1983, Fraser remarked that if he had ‘gone to Anzac Cove for Anzac Day, people would have said “what the hell is Fraser doing?”’.10 By 1990, Prime Minister Bob Hawke was telecasting live to the nation from the Dawn Service at Gallipoli and praising the soldiers whose exploits defined ‘the very character of the nation’. Two years previously, the bicentennial celebration of European settlement had been plagued by protests about the white invasion of 1788, and Hawke and his speech-writers found in Anzac a more positive and inclusive national story.11 Hawke’s successor Paul Keating also made good use of war remembrance for political purposes, though his republican leanings favoured World War II when, he argued, Australia was fighting for its survival and asserting its independence from Britain. As Prime Minister from 1996 to 2007, John Howard refocused attention on World War I, in which his father had fought, and his Anzac tradition of mateship and egalitarianism redefined those attributes in conservative terms that emphasised national unity over social dissent. Anzac became a central plank of Howard’s critique of ‘black armband history’ and his appeal for a more celebratory Australian history.12 Howard’s Anzac tradition also had a military aim, as he invoked the ‘great tradition of honourable service by the Australian military forces’ in support of military intervention in Iraq and Afghanistan. In this new ‘war on terror’, Howard claimed in 2002, Australia was fighting ‘for the same values the Anzacs fought for in 1915: courage, valour, mateship, decency [and] a willingness as a nation to do the right thing, whatever the cost’.

It’s clear the level of public investment in and political usage of Anzac remembrance has escalated in recent decades. It’s equally clear that significant numbers of Australians — as evidenced by Anzac Day crowds, backpackers at Gallipoli and the commercial success of military history books — are drawn to war commemoration and fascinated by Australian war stories. Yet interest in and understanding of Australians at war is not simply created by politicians and journalists. A study of how Australians relate to the past suggests that people are most distrustful of versions of the past propagated by politicians and in the media, and more likely to trust the histories produced within their own families and by museums.13 As historian Jay Winter notes, ‘politicians have not succeeded in telling people how to remember’.14 Yet how people remember Australians at war — or rather, how they understand and relate to a past that is beyond lived experience and personal memory — is framed by cultural narratives. And some agencies, including branches of the state, have more power than others to generate those narratives.

The ‘popular memory’ theory which informed the first edition of Anzac Memories is still, to my mind, a useful approach to understanding Anzac remembrance, though it now needs a postmemory twist.15 The theory focuses on remembrance at two levels, public (or collective) and private (or individual), and the interconnections between these levels. At the public level there is on-going contestation about how the past is represented. Some social agencies are more powerful than others and more effective in promoting their version of the past. Branches of the state may be especially powerful in this regard, and state-sanctioned commemoration — such as Anzac Day — may be especially significant in framing the forms and meanings of remembrance. Yet official versions of the past are only successful in as much as they are meaningful and resonant for a significant proportion of the population. In this book I’ve argued that a major reason for the success of the Anzac legend — from wartime inception through to Anzac revival — was that it worked for the men whose story it told. For the most part, and for most veterans, it resonated with at least some aspects of their war experience and provided a positive way to make sense of their war and postwar lives, albeit through stories that muted some discordant memories. (Other historians have shown how Anzac remembrance also needed to work for the bereaved family members who were the other important stakeholders in war commemoration, though their commemorative aims often cut across those of the more powerful ex-service lobby.16) Had that not been the case, had most soldiers resented their representation in the Anzac Book, or in Bean’s official history, or on Anzac Day, then we might have had a very different Anzac legend.

The relationship between public remembrance and private memory has changed with the passing of the generation who witnessed the war, who could draw upon their own experience to support, complicate or contest Anzac narratives. The notion of ‘postmemory’, coined by North American writer Marianne Hirsch, is useful here.17 Hirsch uses the term to refer to how the Holocaust is transmitted by survivor witnesses to their children. Postmemory includes not just spoken stories, but also potent silences and the ways in which the Holocaust experience impacted upon cultural practices in everyday life, such as the use of food or clothing. For the second generation, postmemories can loom so large in family life and have such emotional affect that they seem, at times, to be their own personal memories. (Hirsch is clear that postmemory is not the same as memory of one’s own experience, though it bleeds into the lives and identities of subsequent generations.) Family postmemory, like individual memory, draws upon the collective narratives of the wider culture to create meaning about the past, but with different consequences.18 On the one hand, without direct knowledge of the remembered past, family postmemory may be more vulnerable to cultural mythologising. On the other hand, the next generation may have less need for a reassuring collective narrative and be more able to bring a critical perspective to the past.

Family history connections loom large in remembrance of the twentieth-century world wars, which had such dramatic effects on so many families. The centenary of the outbreak of the 1914–18 war will be profoundly significant in Australia and many other countries because it is so deeply embedded in family history, though for Australia we might sound two cautionary notes.19 Over 300,000 Australians served overseas with the First AIF, but a narrow majority of men of eligible age did not volunteer; some of their descendants may have an equivocal response to commemoration.20 We also need to better understand how post-World War II migrants and their descendants relate to Anzac. Participation of migrant contingents at Anzac Day marches suggests an attempt by some at least to embrace Australian ritual and identity and perhaps adapt it in their own ways. On the other hand, perhaps the reinvigoration of Anzac Day and nostalgia for the two world wars (which, according to John Howard, ‘helped define what it means to be Australian’) shores up an idealisation of the old white Australia in the face of increasing ethnic diversity.21

Australians who do have a family connection to the First World War often make sense of the war through what they know of their forbears’ war stories. As I suggested in chapter 10, sometimes that family war history proudly celebrates the Anzac qualities and achievements of its central characters; while sometimes the awkward details of the story complicate any simplistic national narrative. In a recent study of family members’ publication of letters and diaries from the First War, Bart Ziino shows how ‘the nexus between family remembering and the public myth of Anzac remains mutually constitutive: Anzac frames and affirms family histories, while at the same time it is proving adaptable to the expanding variety of experiences that emerge in family histories’.22

Though some family historians bring careful research and a critical eye to their war history, to what extent can we say the same of young Australians who flock to Dawn Services and backpack to Gallipoli? Bruce Scates argues that young Australian Gallipoli pilgrims often use personal connections to make sense of Anzac. His research shows there is often a heartfelt attempt to connect to dead ancestors, and to the war dead more generally, and to emphasis the folly and futility of war rather than patriotic flag-waving.23 Critics respond that the hunger for ritual and meaning among young Australians is ‘manufactured by the prevailing political and commercial imperatives in contemporary Australia’, and that lessons learnt through the ‘growing commemoration of the Anzac Legend in the classroom’ can tend to be ‘automatic rather than analysed’.24

Part of the problem with this debate is a confusion about contemporary Australian war narratives. Though young Australians may well take pride in their military forbears, they are more likely to pity the terrible experience of war than celebrate a warrior hero. The decline of its warrior elements is a striking change in the Anzac legend. As I argued in chapter 8, this change was already apparent in the 1980s and had been prefigured by influential social histories from the 1970s, such as Patsy Adam-Smith’s The Anzacs and Bill Gammage’s The Broken Years. They sought to unhitch the story of the First AIF from a militaristic nationalism and instead depict war as anything but glorious and soldiers as ordinary Australians who suffered the horrors of war yet demonstrated remarkable (though still distinctly Australian) qualities of endurance. Historian Christina Twomey has shown how this was an Australian variant of an international transformation of understandings about war and war service, and about suffering, trauma and remembrance more generally. Drawing upon Didier Fassin and Richard Rechtman’s study The Empire of Trauma, she argues that it is only since the 1980s ‘that it has been widely accepted that “a person exposed to violence may become traumatized and so be recognised as a victim”’. In the 1970s, Holocaust remembrance and cinematic representations of damaged American Vietnam War veterans contributed to this change; the American psychiatric profession’s creation of the category of ‘post-traumatic stress disorder’ in 1980 was a ‘signal moment’. Twomey notes that just as Australian feminists in the 1980s were protesting about male wartime violence against women, veteran groups and the media — incensed by the protests — articulated an alternative narrative of ex-servicemen as themselves victims of war. Trauma thus became a ‘point of entry for empathetic identification’ with old Anzacs and helped bring an audience back to Australian war commemoration.25

This analysis helps explain Fred Farrall’s reconciliation with Anzac in the 1980s, as he enjoyed newfound public recognition and sympathy for an old digger. It also explains why Australians can readily combine criticism of war and pride in Australian soldiers. Yet just as the radical edge of Fred Farrall’s war story was tempered by his embrace of a more affirming Anzac legend, the construction of a ‘universal victimhood of the Broken Years’26 can mute the diversity of Australian war experience. We see this in family war histories that show the stoic courage of broken veterans but will not, quite understandably, represent grandad as a wartime killer. We see it in blockbuster war histories by journalists which are critical of military folly and sympathetic to the long-suffering serviceman, yet portray Australian soldiers, and explain Australian success, in terms of national character.27

One of the reasons for the success of the Anzac legend is its plasticity; the story and its meanings stretch and shift with the times and in different contexts and this malleability helps ensure popular support. The versatility of the legend is not always welcome, for another concern about the Anzac resurgence of recent years, articulated by historian Marilyn Lake and her co-authors in their book What’s Wrong with Anzac?, is that the dominant presence of Anzac has caused a ‘militarisation of Australian history’. Other important topics in Australian history, such as the achievement of Federation, the struggles for women’s and workers’ rights and the social democratic advances in the years immediately before World War I, quite simply get less air play than war history. That’s a fair point. It was not too difficult to find a publisher for a new edition of this book about three old Anzacs, but I expect my history of four migrant women — with its focus on domestic life in post-World War II Australia — won’t get a second life.28 Not all topics are equal in the history marketplace.

Historians do need to keep researching, producing and promoting histories about less favoured topics. But that doesn’t mean we should leave the study of Australians at war to the journalists and politicians. As Lake argues, we need history to ‘run counter to myth-making’.29 Nor should we underestimate the extent, if not the impact, of rigorous critical histories about Australians at war. The booming Anzac marketplace creates opportunities as well as challenges. For example, many recent military histories have confirmed that Australian military success (or failure) has little to with national character and natural talent, and much to do with training, leadership, logistics and support.30 Political histories such as Neville Meaney’s study of Australian diplomacy during and after World War I have debunked ‘one of the most widespread misconceptions in Australian military history’, that Australians have often been ‘fighting other people’s wars’.31 Other studies have reported the ‘Bad Characters’ as well as the good among Australian servicemen and women (‘many were Anzac heroes. Some were criminals. Some were both’), and represented indiscipline, fear and brutality alongside courage, endurance and comradeship.32 This is not disrespectful, concludes Craig Stockings, editor of two recent books which challenge the ‘zombie myths of Australian military history’ (historians can chop off their head but they keep on coming). It simply recognises the diversity of military experience and that Australian combatants are less distinctive than we might like to think.33

Just as important in recent decades has been a flourishing of histories about war’s aftermath. These have illuminated the postwar experiences of war veterans, with new sources, such as the Repatriation files, facilitating new historical understanding.34 Importantly, these histories have also focused attention on the immediate and long-term impact of war upon women and families.35 They show that war history need not be military history, and indeed that histories that start with war can and must explore multiple issues in the wider society. The trick for historians is thus to take advantage of the militarisation of Australian history, of publishers or documentary-makers looking for war stories, but to take that history in other directions and thus shine light beyond the war and battles and onto less favoured historical topics.

The study of remembrance has been central to this history of war’s aftermath, in Australia and abroad. From the intimate remembrance of the bereaved through to the ‘sacred places’ of war memorials, from school history lessons to popular film, many important recent histories have explored how individuals have made sense of loss and grief, how social agencies have promoted commemorative forms and meanings and how the state has engaged in Anzac. These histories illuminate the complex interplay between individual memory (and postmemory) and public representations of the past.36 This work points to a dual role for historians of such a potent and contested subject as Australians and war: first, to scrutinise and explain the past; second, to investigate how and to what effect that past is remembered and represented.

More than that, because scholarly writings and lectures have only limited and gradual impact on popular understandings of the past, scholarly researchers need to engage as public historians in the creation and contestation of Australian war histories. The long centenary of 1914–18 is creating ample opportunities. Historians are joining centenary committees, working with museums to develop new exhibitions, making radio and television documentaries, and debating what’s wrong and right with Anzac.37 In this context, ‘historian’ includes not just academic and professional historians, but also the amateur and family historians who combine thorough research with careful interpretation.

Witness accounts — war diaries and letters, memoirs and oral history — are important sources for war history, though of course there is much that soldier witnesses like the men in this book cannot know, for which we need other sources and other types of history. We are living in ‘the era of the witness’, in which our society valorises first person testimony — the soldier’s story, the survivor’s evidence — as the most direct and authoritative account of past events.38 Historians who use witness accounts need to take care, in both senses of the word ‘care’: by respecting the narrator yet also bringing a careful critical reading to the account. Perhaps care in that latter sense is especially necessary when the story passes out of living memory. After the last witnesses have passed on it may be easier to distort their stories, neglect the awkward edges and enlist them for other agendas. When Prime Minister Howard eulogised the ‘last Anzac’ Alex Campbell at his funeral in 2002, he did not say that Campbell was an active trade unionist who came to oppose war.39

The distinction between ‘common memory’ and ‘deep memory’ suggested by Saul Friedlander and other historians of Holocaust remembrance may be useful here.40 For all its frailty and forgetting, the ‘deep memory’ of survivor witnesses offers a rich and heterogeneous account of historical experience which can complicate and disrupt the conventional account of the ‘common memory’. But as witnesses pass away and the traces of deep memory fade, the common memory, Friedlander argues, ‘tends to restore and establish coherence, closure and possibly a redemptive stance’. That risk is perhaps greatest when the common memory is a national story, such as the Anzac legend, backed by the power of the state and promoting a selective version of national history.

With oral history, we can at least preserve deep memories. Thirty years ago, when I recorded my interviews with working-class World War I veterans, I was struck by how their stories cut across the conventional expectation of the Anzac legend yet had been affected by a lifetime of living with, and sometimes against, the legend. I used those memories in two, interconnected ways: to illuminate the men’s experience of war and its aftermath, and to understand their remembering in the shadow of the legend. In this era of Anzac postmemory, I like to think that the memories of men like Percy Bird, Bill Langham and Fred Farrall might continue to be used, with due care, to counterbalance and disrupt the national mythologising of Anzac’s ‘common memory’.

Anzac Memories: Living with the Legend [New Edition]

   by Alistair Thomson