ANZAC’s Complicated Legacy | Damien Zuccarini

I don’t have a favourite aspect of the Anzac legend. I don’t think I even can. The very concept of the Anzac Legend bothers me. This is our recent history. Its members, who have all died, are still within living memory of many millions of people. The events are so well documented that we can follow some of them minute by minute in the diaries, letters and reports created by the participants.

I understand the desire to turn these stories into legend and myth, especially in a country like Australia after the war and certainly in the last decades of the 20th century. I understand how the virtues and values of the AIF made for such fertile imaginative ground in an inter-war world. The romance of war, lost on the battlefields of Europe and the Middle East, was much harder to destroy far away in the colonies, where people experienced little hardship compared to those on the continent.

I understand how and why the AIF became a legend.
But I don’t think I can believe in it.

But what does it matter if I believe in it or not? It’s important to tens of millions of Australians and the government tightly controls public commemoration and the Anzac brand. The military indoctrinates its members with to strive for an unattainable Anzac perfection. A newly minted army officer once told me that during his training his instructors had screamed at these cadets, ranting at them about how unworthy they were, how they could never live up to the Anzac reputation and how they could never lead a digger.

It draws hundreds of thousands every 25th April to dawn memorial services across the world, in events whose gravitas and sombre communion even I can’t deny. It’s this secular religion that makes the legend a reality that we have to contend with. The history may vary widely from the myth, but the myth is potent enough and popular enough to be able to divorce itself from the past. “The AIF”, historian Peter Stanley points out, “has become revered as [our] romantic nationalist mystique”.[i]

The last two or three decades has seen a steady dismantling of the Anzac legend, at least in academic circles. All its basic tenets of natural fighting prowess, mate-ship, equality and the rest have been questioned, criticised and reassessed. But this new understanding hasn’t moved far beyond academia. The short spike in Anzac TV series during the centenary showed the same romantic tragedy and nationalist triumphalism. Popular histories from the 50s and 60s were reprinted and a new slew of books turn up on shelves, from children’s books to all kinds of history and dozens of romance novels. The legend remains deeply entrenched in the Australian imagination. Little in the popular realm even attempts to challenge it in light of new understanding. Even for those in academia the revision of that history has produced harsh reaction from the right; I’m exactly one of those “cadre of academics” associated with those elite, Canberra institutions, that noted crank Bendle talks about there.

But that’s the strength of this legend. Its followers take any attempt to examine it and broaden it as denigration. Lest anyone think I’m exaggerating here, just have a look at what happened to ABC presenter Yassmin Abdel-Magied after she tweeted the words “LEST.WE.FORGET. (Manus, Nauru, Syria, Palestine…)” on Anzac Day 2017. She was attacked by the press and government ministers and bombarded with rape and death threats. There’s no doubt much of the faux outrage was inspired by racism and misogyny, but you don’t even need to attack Anzac; merely recognise that Australia’s history is less than perfect, to be met with a violent, histrionic reaction.

To imagine that the Anzacs were perfect, individually and as a whole, is wilful delusion. They were men and as such fallible. It is no dishonour or disrespect to recognise their humanity in all its complexities. We must know and understand their failures, their embarrassments and their crimes (for they are many and varied) to better place their successes, victories and virtues. To deify them and to force them to represent only what was best, without recognising the fullness of their character, good and bad, robs them of the complexity of their own stories. It robs them of their humanity and us of our history. But while I struggle with the Anzac Legend, I also think there are some little stories that deserve better recognition.

The Anzac mythology upholds a very particular character as representative of the AIF, but little about this legend is uniquely Australian. The language used to express the values, that of the larrikin, the digger and above all else mateship, may be particularly Australian but the values are not. Irreverence and camaraderie are close to universal.

These aren’t values to be denigrated in any way. But they’re representative of most militaries in war. But the AIF did have a character unique to the Australian experience. Much is made of the fact that the AIF was an entirely volunteer organisation. From a population of fewer than five million more than 330,000 men and women served in its ranks between 1914 and 1918. Conscription was put to the people in referenda twice and twice it was defeated. People joined the AIF for the duration of the war. Few pursued careers in the military and although many had prior service it was in the militia, the part time army.

The ranks were filled from the cities, the suburbs and the bush by civilians. Even the officer corps was fleshed out by the professional and middle classes of lawyers, bankers, teachers and the like. These men saw themselves not as regular soldiers, but as civilians in uniform. They saw their role as merely a job, not a calling. They were there to fight the war, to defeat Germany, or the Ottomans, and to go home and back to the farm or the factory.

Australia had one of the strongest trade union and labour movement in the world in the early 20th century. It was the first country to vote a labour government into office and ideas of unionism, collective bargaining and fair work practices were strong in the minds of many working Australians. The language they used and the tactics they employed to deal with the discipline and hierarchy of the military demonstrates just how powerful these beliefs were. Soldiers routinely referred to their officers as their boss, refused orders they thought were unfair and protested their ill treatment by military authorities. They released soldiers imprisoned under field punishment, refused to salute officers and rejected the distinction between officers and other ranks imposed by the British army. They went into clubs, restaurants and hotels set aside of officers, believing strongly that they had the right to drink or eat where they chose.

They took strike action when they felt too much was asked of them, when they were refused rest or when they felt hard done by. When battalions were to be broken up due to lack of replacements in 1918, they mutinied. Refusing orders to disband, they ‘counted out’ senior officers sent to negotiate with them.[ii]

In autumn 1918, after months without leave, Australian battalions took to strike action when they were ordered back into battle. After being promised a fortnight’s rest they were ordered back to the front for an offensive after just a few days. Unhappy troops – veterans, mostly – refused to move. The battalions were well understrength after months of fighting and the men felt they had been lied to, that they had sacrificed enough and that they were being overused. The soldiers took action in the way they knew how. They shot no officers and destroyed no property. For men used to fighting for their rights in the workplace it was natural that they would turn to collective action in trade union style.

And so it was in the 15th Brigade, under the command of Harold Elliot. Called Pompey by him men he was a courageous and fatherly figure, both liked and respected by the men under his command. It was his unique character that allowed Pompey to negotiate with his men, although rant and then plead were the words used by diarists, and convince them to follow his orders.[iii] Other officers, less well known and less admired by their men failed in similar efforts.

The civilian attitudes made them difficult soldiers to discipline. The standard punishment of the army, called ‘field punishment’ was particularly odious to Australians. Field punishment consisted of being bound to an object, a post or a wagon or gun carriage in the open for a number of hours. Due to the danger of artillery this punishment was not just humiliating but also potentially fatal. Diaries and letters from soldiers are full of stories about field punishment. They usually tell of Australian troops coming across British soldiers undergoing field punishment and freeing them, fighting with guards and military police.

There was a powerful resistance to the dehumanising and anti-individualising aspect of military discipline and authority. The AIF by and large saw themselves as civilians first and soldiers second. They understood the need for discipline and obedience and as more than one Australian noted “we have discipline where it matters”, on the battlefield.[iv] But the trappings of military culture and authority were repellent to the Australian working man. Strict obedience to hierarchy and the seemingly pointless requirements of military discipline were not only alien to Australians but went against their own values. Mutual respect was the key to the AIF as most of its officers discovered.

This side of the AIF, the strength of its civilian values is one that ought be remembered and celebrated in Anzac. The ideas from the labour and union movements, the fair go and mutual respect deserve a place alongside mateship and the larrikin as part of Anzac. The men who fought for the eight-hour work day and living wages were the same men who filled the ranks of the AIF and who fill Australian cemeteries in Europe and Turkey. This is a part of the Anzac story that deserves a better place in our telling of it.


[i] Stanley, Peter Bad characters: sex, crime, mutiny, murder and the Australian Imperial Force. Pier 9, Sydney, 2010. p.17

[ii] Counting out consisted of soldiers on parade counting down from ten to one, before shouting a final obscenity at the officer concerned. This was a particularly powerful form of insubordination that humiliated officers when it occurred.

[iii] McMullin, Ross. Pompey Elliott. Scribe Publications, Carlton North, Vic, 2002. p.490

[iv] Stanley, Bad Characters. p.114

Damien Zuccarini is a graduate student at the University of New South Wales – Canberra and is currently completing his PhD under the supervision of John Connor. He completed his BA(Hons) at Victoria University in Melbourne with the dissertation “Imperial or Australian: Anglo-Australian relations during the First World War”. He moved to Canberra in 2017 to commence his PhD. Damien also runs a First World War history blog Scrap Iron Flotilla.

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