Commemorating the centenary of Gallipoli.

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Katharine Massam.

photo soldier
ANZAC Sunday Ceremony, Mosman Council, flickr cc

Surely, the first thing to say about the Gallipoli landing is ‘never again’. This sounds controversial in contemporary Australia, because the word ‘Anzac’ has become synonymous with so many qualities we admire – resilience in adversity, self-sacrificing concern for others, and larrikin confidence. But when we import Anzac into sport and politics and advertising to stand for these rich strands of Australian life, we risk militarising our national identity. Our history is more complex than that.

Australia has an extraordinary record of social experiment and workers’ rights, of global leadership in the rights of women to vote and sit in parliament, of legislation for the eight-hour working day and for a ‘living wage’, and of robust democracy which deserves to be remembered. We also have rich and challenging stories of sacrifice and suffering in the face of dispossession, and of hardship endured against discrimination on grounds of race, gender, class, and orientation. Our focus on Anzac Day captures only part of the national story.

Asking deep questions about war has been difficult in Australia since the beginning. We still deny there was a war between the British and the Aboriginal peoples. After Australian troops returned from the Boer War in 1902, those who tried to evaluate the cost and impact of the conflict were accused of dishonouring the heroism of the troops. It was, as Henry Reynolds says in the collection of essays What’s Wrong With Anzac, ‘allowing politics to intrude on hallowed ground which was beyond the reach of calculation’.

photo soldiers+cart
ANZAC Day Parade, Edwin Lee, flickr cc

The task for churches then and now is to hold together respect for the fallen and the memory of grief and loss, of valour and camaraderie, with the call to work unswervingly for lasting peace and justice. There were people who warned that militarisation of Australian identity would steal resources from other needs, would distract the people from nation-building, would highjack the sense of enterprise and hope, and open the way to ‘an abyss of misery and wretchedness’. We need to remember them too.

It is likely that on 25 April 1915 we will hear a lot about Australia ‘becoming a nation’. There is nothing to support this view historically. It was very clear to the soldiers, to the political leaders in Australia and Europe, and to the families at home that the Anzac troops were part of an imperial force. Recruiters urged men to enlist for the Empire, and the despatches from the front detailed the extraordinary fighting spirit of the ‘colonial troops’.

Perhaps only at the Peace Conference in Versailles did the Australian cause separate from that of Britain, mostly over issues to do with maintaining a White Australia, and only then did Prime Minister Billy Hughes famously claim a right to speak ‘for 60,000 dead’. We need to beware of the distortion of the historical record as the anniversary takes on a life of its own.

One way to honour the memory of the Anzacs at Gallipoli is to give time and attention to the complex realities of their experience. There are some great resources collected at the website Honest History (www.honesthistory.net.au). Joan Beaumont’s book Broken Nation: Australians in the Great War won the Prime Minister’s Award for History, and is the ‘one book’ many would recommend (watch an interview with her about it), and it is the first book up for discussion in the subject New Texts in Contexts offered this semester as an intensive at Pilgrim Theological College. There are also networks planning events around April 25 to inspire peacemaking and to pray for peace. I hope the commemoration of the Gallipoli landing moves us towards deep understanding of the place of Anzac in our heritage, and reinvigorates a national conversation about the courage of all who work for peace and justice.

Dr Katharine Massam is Coordinator of Studies in Church History at Pilgrim Theological College, University of Divinity. A version of this article was published in the Uniting Church newspaper Crosslight March 2015.

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