WAR, MYTH & NATIONAL IDENTITY: A SHAPELESS RAMBLE
As Scott Wickstein
observes, during this week falls the 85th anniversary of the Battle of Amiens, of which gargantuan slaughter (50000 boys dead or wounded) German General Ludendorff would write, 'August 8th was the black day of the German Army ... put the decline of [German] fighting power beyond all doubt ... the war must be ended'. (*My War Memories* ll: 678-684) At the pointy end of this decisive allied offensive were four of Australia's five divisions (2nd through 5th). Scott wonders why this feat of arms is not writ large in Australians' memories.
This is also the 87th anniversary of the Battle of Pozieres, in a single hour of which, CW Bean reminds us, 'divisions were subjected to greater stress than in the whole of the Gallipoli campaign'. Pozieres is the battle in which Australia lost more of its youngsters than in any other. 23000 Australians were killed or maimed there between 23 July and 5 September 1916. The First Division was rewarded for its stunning capture of the village on the first day by having its number halved in three days of unbroken artillery bombardment. 5300 boys killed. The survivors, Bean wrote, 'looked like men who had been to hell' (quoted in Bill Mandle's eminently readable *Going It Alone*, Penguin 1977). Yet the Australians, bemused by the contemptuous British General Haig and the thoroughly detested British General Gough, ultimately prevailed. According to Gammage (*The Broken Years* 1975: 166), it was Pozieres that would 'set the standard'. Yet, like Amiens, Pozieres was destined to go missing in inaction.
It was our modest part in an unsuccessful invasion of a country we'd hardly heard of, at the behest of an imperial power, that would be adopted (by our current Prime Minister among others) as 'the birth of our nation'.
Geoff Honnor commented (in Scott's 9 August comments panel) that Gallipoli was significant for us because there the Australians and the New Zealanders had a theatre to themselves (well, them and a few tens of thousands of the locals, of course).
I reckon that, having made the Australian nation only 14 years earlier, our betters were resolved to use the first mass blood-letting available as a myth generator with which to make the requisite Australians. It certainly set a pattern for Australians being sent all over the planet to fight battles not always their own. And ANZAC Day is certainly the one holiday most of us take seriously (even I tingle at the nose and glisten at the eye when I hear The Last Post of an April 25). ANZAC Day was an emotional and wise-making day while a few of Gallipoli's survivors were there to take the romantic sheen off the operation and put things in their rightful context. Now that they're gone, and now that our betters see advantage in appealing to our martial side, well, I fear for the ANZAC tradition.
I remember Phil Adams theorising most compellingly one night that Australia has an empty void where, say, (white) America has its Valley Forge and its Little Big Horn (or white South Africa its Blood River and its Spion Kop - or even white New Zealand, whose pioneering ancestors faced massed ranks of the sort of well drilled defenders imperial romanticism du jour could understand and appreciate). Here, the defenders fought as they lived, in bands of moderate size and limited efficacy against well-drilled musketry. Even then, most of the dead were killed not by bayonet and ball, but by disease, dispossession and degradation. Hard for the victor to paint grand paintings and compose heroic poetry of such drawn-out tragedy. Even when Australia achieved its independence, it did so courtesy of negotiation and legislation. Don't get me wrong, I'm all for it, but a few red-faced suits in toppers do not a forge of nationalistic myth make.
So Australia had to have its defining bleed on someone else's beach.
I wonder also what it is in us that enjoys brave, stoic, shoulder-to-shoulder DEFEAT so much. Our side took the silver at Gallipoli, just as it had at Eureka (our Boston Tea Party, but sans ensuing War of Independence), the Shearers' Strike and the ghastly Singapore/Changi saga. And then there's the doomed Ned Kelly, the doomed Les Darcy and the doomed Pharlap. I suppose part of the explanation is that little nations rarely have big wins, so they go with what they have. I've heard it argued that Catholic Irish culture brought with it to Australia's shores an aesthetic preference for the tragic and the doomed. And then there's the sensuous joy of blaming a defining Other. The Poms do very badly out of our Eureka, our Gallipoli and our Singapore. The Yanks cop the blame for Darcy and Pharlap. We all define ourselves by opposition (except viz the Turks, who remain our very favourite historic foe), I suppose ...