Australia’s leaders, its media and some historians persist in talking up the big Anzac game

Paul Daley


Our four-year, half-a-billion-plus dollar festival of Anzac commemoration officially ended last November.

But it may still be too early to hope that our national remembrance might now extend beyond inflated myths about Australia’s first world war role in Europe and the Ottomans.

We cling hard to our Anzac myths, us Australians.

We spend an awful lot of money on fostering and preserving them; witness the staggering $600m spent on Anzac 100, another $100m on the John Monash centre on the European western front and the $500m slated for the proposed Australian War Memorial extension.

Related: Anzacs witnessed the Armenian genocide – that shouldn’t be forgotten in our mythologising | James Robins

Despite the fact that other nations experienced many more casualties, Australia spent more on first world war commemoration in the past four years than any other country.

We’ve also done a whole lot of diplomatic spadework to ensure that Australian participation – “sacrifice”, valour, spirit, “loss” – remains not only acknowledged but celebrated in the places where our 62,000 personnel died during the war.

We create stories such as that about the famous Ataturk wordsYou, the mothers who sent their sons from far away countries, wipe away your tears; your sons are now lying in our bosom and are in peace. – and witness our commemorators in chief get mightily peeved if the facts get in the way, when their myths are challenged.

Anzac has become a national faith, a secular religion. And fact, of course, runs a distant second to belief when it comes to faith.

It’s been easier to mythologise Anzac, of course, since the death in 2002 of the last one, Alec Campbell, a socialist who abhorred war and wanted no fuss made of his passing, least of all a state funeral – but was afforded one by then prime minister John Howard regardless. For in death the Anzacs could be recreated, simplified and mythologised even more, they could be denied of the dimension and the character that afforded them humanity, which is to say a complex capacity for good and evil, bravery and cowardice, compassion and cruelty.

If it’s quiet reflection you’re after this Anzac Day, keep the sound down on your TV until the bounce at the MCG

From what has been portrayed in too much popular history and political-jingoistic shorthand as a noble withdrawal (never a retreat!) at Gallipoli, to an over-emphasis on Australia’s contextually modest contribution to eventual allied victory on the western front and its decisiveness in winning the war, Australia’s leaders, its media and some historians persist in talking up the bloody big Anzac game.

Ironically it was to some of the battles in the Middle East that Australian forces arguably contributed most significantly – such as at Beersheba in 1917 – even though they have drawn the least cultural, political and historiographic attention.

Howard liked the European western front story. His father and grandfather both fought there in world war one. But he was also attuned to the fact that is where Australia played a part (no matter how small in the grand scheme of things) in the end-game of victory.

If it’s quiet reflection you’re after this Anzac Day, keep the sound down on your TV until the bounce at the MCG to avoid the metaphors likening sporting prowess to battlefield courage and sacrifice. Football, I always tell myself, is the perfect metaphor for peace – not war. The rubbish war/footy hyperbole around the Anzac Day AFL match is still unsurpassed.

Then read this by French academic Romain Fathi, a lecturer at Flinders University, who has dedicated years to researching the complex, often disarmingly pragmatic commemorative relationship between Australia and Villers-Bretonneux. Better still, buy his book, Our Corner of the Somme – Australia at Villers-Bretonneux, a forensic and courageous examination of the way Anzac has been infused into the geography, memory and culture of a small French town.

It’s a remarkable tale of what can only be called commemorative astroturfing, not least through the Victoria school, built in the 1920s with funds from the state of Victoria and where the banner sign out front reads DO NOT FORGET AUSTRALIA. VB, as the hordes of Australian commemoration tourists and politicians who flock there on Anzac Day like to call it, wanted something rather more utilitarian than a school. They wanted, as Fathi points out, an abattoir. But the metaphorical difficulty of funding a slaughterhouse on the European western front, where some 45,000 Australians were cut down (upwards of 15,000 could not be identified or found upon death) gave rise to the school instead.

VB was chosen due to Australian participation in the Second Villers-Bretonneux, ending on 25 April 1918 – a neat symmetrical resonance of calendar that counterbalanced the (by then still largely unacknowledged) disaster of the Gallipoli landing three years earlier.

“All these elements were combined to establish the “historical importance” of Villers-Bretonneux as a site of Australian experience of the first world war in terms of fighting, in terms of the production of meaning and in terms of mourning and remembrance. This in turn led to the development of post-war links between Australia and France, with the former eager, like most former combatant nations, to memorialise the part it played in the war and ensure that her dead would be cared for and remembered,” Fathi writes.

Related: 'He would approve of this': Wayne Macauley recasts an Anzac legend

“As a consequence, an economy of gratitude developed after the war between France and Australia, at a local level.”

Anzac Day is also a good day to think about John Simpson Kirkpatrick, the soldier, mythologised beyond self-recognition who, for a short time, brought wounded diggers from the rugged heights of Gallipoli on the back of his donkey.

Much has been written about Simpson and the donkey. But novelist Wayne Macauley has re-cast Simpson in far more human terms than much of the early (and later pop) historiography, as the eternal helper wandering through a later Australian landscape, social and geographic. It is masterful and beautiful, and a triumph in thought-provocation.

Macauley’s Simpson returns and Fathi’s Our Corner of the Somme are the most challenging and thought-provoking things I’ve read about Anzac since the end of the profligate four-year centenary.

They are welcome evidence that art and hard-headed history together, perhaps, with documentary and occasionally even journalism, offer us the best antidote to unbridled Anzackery and nonsensical deification of Australian soldiers and their deeds.

And that’s surely a good thing to think about as we move on from the commemoration madness of Anzac 100.

• Paul Daley is a Guardian Australia columnist