Filling The Void

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As a boy growing up in Australia, if it fell on a weekday we would have a day off school so that we could watch the morning military parade through the streets of Melbourne and wonder at the solemnity of the service at the Shrine of Remembrance in St. Kilda Road. Then, for many, the afternoon was spent at the MCG watching the traditional Aussie Rules football match.

This was Anzac Day, Aussie style, and there were plenty of opportunities in the 1950’s and 60’s to learn about the significance of Anzac Day. The last time I was in Melbourne for Anzac Day was in 1991. However, there is a view that there is a current over-saturation of Anzac content on Australian television and contemporary life in general, as Australians remember the military landing on the beaches of Gallipoli in the Dardanelle Peninsula, Turkey. This year will mark that event’s centenary.

Of course, there are those who do not feel that much of a connection to the Anzac legend and who question its ongoing relevance as a foundational part of the “Australian character”. There is, it seems, a limited tolerance for the legend that “the spirit of the nation was forged on the shores of Gallipoli”.

However, in this centenary year and amongst all of the documentaries, tele-movies, mini-series and plays that have apparently been on offer down-under (and about which I keep abreast with my regular reading of the Australian Daily Review), there have been those who, in the words of one critic, “have been quite willing to help those with no family history of the military to understand why so many Australians have such a strong emotional connection to Anzac Day which extends so far beyond those lost in war.”

This is especially the case when it is considered that Australia has become such a culturally diverse nation. Why is it that in Australia, a country that now regards itself as very much a member of the South-East Asian family of nations, a very specific Anzac legend endures as a fundamentally Australian image in a nation defined by its diversity?

It was with the above in mind that I read a review of a 90-minute documentary with the title “Why Anzac?” which recently aired on Australia’s ABC TV broadcaster. The program was written and hosted by the New Zealand actor Sam Neill – who is probably best remembered for battling with dinosaurs on an island off the coast of Central America. It apparently promised a fresh take on the Anzac legend and an expose of the realities behind the myth. It could be seen as the latest in a long line of films, etc., that can be traced back to Peter Weir’s film Gallipoli in 1981, and is as up-to-date as Russell Crowe’s The Water Diviner.

Neill’s motivation in writing and presenting the documentary is stated as: “To understand why we choose to elevate our biggest military catastrophe into an Australian and New Zealand foundation myth.” This has “puzzled and troubled” Sam Neill. It seems that his film covers much ground that has already been trodden He does, however, manage to add some details beyond those we usually hear, including “the involvement of indigenous people from both nations and how censorship worked to build a heroic Anzac legend back home while the war was ongoing.”

Sam Neill traces the development of the legend over the century since Gallipoli, as it strengthened Australasian resolve in World War II and the fierce opposition during the Vietnam War. In referring to Gallipoli and the European countries, he notes that “almost every country in the world built statues for its winners, but when it comes to the military history of both Australia and New Zealand, there’s no great victory to point to.” Perhaps it has something to do with both nations being subsumed under the British Empire that was.

Whilst he recognizes and understands Anzac Day as “a moment of national remembrance and a day to pay respect to those who have served and sacrificed their own personal safety and lives”, he goes on to opinion that “reaching back to Gallipoli as the bedrock of Australian values remains particularly difficult.”

Then comes what the reviewer seems to consider the most valuable insight in the program -Neill’s view that Gallipoli was part of a war that “we were involved in to support Great Britain, but it is often characterized as a more significant moment in moving away from the motherland than Federation, just 14 years earlier.” Further, Gallipoli also allowed Australia to “shift its focus from its ugly colonial past. And if you must have a bloody massacre as a defining moment in a nation’s history, the military disaster that was the Gallipoli campaign is probably preferable.”

In the words of the historian, Peter Stanley, “Anzac grows to fill a void”.

I am writing this article on the eve of Anzac Day. Whilst writing, I have received an email from a movement to which I subscribe, “No Glory in War: 1914-1918”. Their latest emailing is headed with the words, “Anzac Day 25 April: Gallipoli 100 years on”.

The movement’s newsletter (to which I am indebted for much of what follows) states that 25 April, 2015, marks the hundredth anniversary of the start of the British-led military invasion of Gallipoli on Turkey’s Dardanelle Peninsula. This campaign resulted in over 200,000 dead and wounded in an eight-month period.

Gallipoli was a military disaster. Yet, a century on, politicians seeking to glorify the First World War, are calling the huge loss of life at Gallipoli “a price worth paying”. No doubt, at the various remembrances around the nation, the usual personages will be rolled-out and the expected platitudes will be uttered.

The Australian government is spending $A300 million (around £150 million) commemorating the WWI centenary, and using it to promote militarism and nationalist myths. Veterans’ groups have condemned the “nationalist circus” that Anzac Day has become.

The UK government, which is spending £60 million on its own nationalist circus commemorating WWI, has a number of Anzac Day events, in both London and Turkey. There will, of course, be little mention of Winston Churchill’s role as the prime mover of the Gallipoli catastrophe, the circumstances of which led to his dismissal from the British government 100 years ago.

Rather than celebrating the rewriting of history to promote new wars being waged on this 100th anniversary, it is important to remember what really happened at Gallipoli.

He held the warm mug in his lap, shut his eyes and resumed his reverie. Watson sat beside him, eyes wide open. He sipped his tea and fixed his eyes on the void of the porthole. As he sipped, small bubbles fizzed at the side of his mouth where his flesh recoiled from the scalding liquid. The liquid was hot and bitter, and he knew it was tea, but couldn’t quite taste it. The fluid sat uneasily in his gut. Must be rising seasickness, he tried to convince himself.

I can see Hall with the scouts. He’s signalling from the Hill,” Watson whispered to Mayer beside him. “What’s the message?” said Mayer. Watson began to decipher the signal spelt out by the flag. As he listed the letters to Mayer, a shell burst over the plateau. Hall fell, face forwards into the ground, flag firmly in his grasp. Watson waited for him to get up, keeping the binoculars steadily on the same spot despite the rocking of the little boat. Then he lowered the binoculars and turned to Mayer. “Signal did not get through.

(Extracts from the book Watson’s Pier, by Joshua Funder, great-grandson of the Australian soldier and signalman, Lieutenant Stanley Watson. One of the first ashore at Gallipoli on April 25, 1915, Watson believed the Anzacs landed at the wrong place – and he believed it still when he revisited Anzac Cove 60 years later).

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24 April, 2015

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