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The Meaning of Anzac Day

Anzac Day is a disputed day of reverence on the Australian calendar.

It’s often conscripted into arguments by both sides of politics, providing support for any point anyone wants to put forward.

“Anzac Day celebrates the landing at Gallipoii, a campaign that sums up the useless violence of war.”

“Gallipoli represents the birth of the nation.”

“Mateship began in the trenches of Gallipoli.”

“Australia’s self-identity is based on the invasion of another country.”

Australian graves on the Western Front

Australian graves on the Western Front

The place of Anzac Day in Australian cultural identity is complex. The legend may not be historically accurate, but the day is culturally significant.

As Martin Thomas says, historical ‘falsehoods are built on fragments of reality, and for this reason they reveal greater cultural truths’.[i]

It’s no wonder that mythology grows out of world-changing events. There are so many shades of grey. One thing that is certain is that WWI was a huge, life-changing time for millions of Australians. And we all know how a single far-off event can have enormous ramifications world wide. Pandemic, anyone?

Today I’m sharing extracts from my book about World War I and Australian story-telling. I haven’t found the answer to Anzac Day’s place in our lives, but I did uncover some interesting questions.

What do you think?

***

An extract from

The Purpose of Futility: writing World War I, Australian style, by Clare Rhoden, UWAP Scholarly, 2015.

World War I was an astonishing event. The millions of people caught up in the war had never experienced anything like it. For the first time, all of civilisation was trapped in a life-or-death struggle. Whole societies were pitted against one another in a devastating, horrific, technological war. Cultured Europe was transformed into a gigantic threshing ground that crushed cities into shards and men into bloody pieces. No wonder people thought this was the war to end all wars. It seemed likely to be the war to end all of humankind. Everyone continued to fight because to lose such a bloodbath was unthinkable; losing could only mean total annihilation, a return to the Dark Ages. The war was so horrific that everyone was sure that this would be the last time humanity ever resorted to the battlefield.

Everyone was deluded.

World War I, far from preventing more wars, probably made World War II  –which transformed ‘The Great War’ into ‘World War I’ – inevitable.

World War I, however, did change the world in significant ways. There were undoubted advances in engineering, medicine, and science, driven by necessity: improved machinery, engine technology, motorised vehicles, aerodynamics, weaponry, surgical instruments and techniques, medical and rehabilitation procedures, prostheses, building methods, communications technologies, and so on.

There were also irreparable damages and losses.

One of the most astonishing outcomes of the war was the proliferation of art and creativity, both inspired by and addressing the war. Viewed as the most literary war ever fought, World War I was the first to involve literate populations on a grand scale. The trove of written memorabilia from the war, and the overwhelming mass of writing about it since, ensure it will remain a focal point in the mainstream consciousness of the west.

Australian World War I prose is a distinct sub-genre. Here I provide a moderating frame over previous research which effectively identified the Australian writers’ reliance on old-fashioned heroic modes of writing war. Our central discussion of how leadership is represented in literature establishes Australian cultural egalitarianism as a factor in the infamously poor discipline of Australian troops. My underlying premise – that literature has both constructive and commemorative cultural value –goes some way to explaining Australia’s infatuation with all things Anzac.

Part of the difficulty we have in understanding the effects of war comes directly from the writings of veterans.

Although the most popular World War I narratives tell a story of disillusionment, horror and grief, most of the writers have a degree of pride and even enjoyment in their service. Many remember war as the best time of their lives, because its dramas, intense friendships, and shared purposes created a sense of community and personal worth that peacetime can never match.

Survivors need to believe that their experiences have some meaning, and the vast majority of soldiers wrote about World War I as a meaningful event. Reading their words in a later age, we use our somewhat jaundiced hindsight to view their motives and actions with a mixture of disbelief and amazement. We tend to evaluate the writings of veterans in terms of our own moral and ethical standards; we doubt that men truly enlisted with the joy of anticipation, with a desire to fight. To most of us, knowing the continued cost of war across the twentieth century, war is the worst calamity which humanity can inflict upon itself. Even though many veterans look back with pride and nostalgia on their service days, we prefer to believe that everything about war is repulsive, and that no aspect of it can be viewed positively; we believe that those who record their war service as the best time of their lives must be deluded.

The truth lies everywhere in between: no simple dichotomy exists, from which we must choose our side; no balanced midpoint satisfies all perspectives. It is not possible to say that war is either the worst event that can befall us or the best situation for comradeship and meaning. Like most human experiences, war is sometimes neither the worst nor the best, but something in between, something quite ordinary and even boring.

More often, war is both the best and the worst, and also quite ordinary for much of the time. This is the heart of war’s mystique for the writer and the reader. Stories of war can reveal much to us about the joys and the costs of living in a fragile world, because such stories reflect both the best and the worst of human life itself, and tend to elide the ordinary days. In war stories as in everyday life, small decisions can be fateful, and accidents, happy coincidences, and inexplicable sufferings are daily occurrences.

***

The Purpose of Futility

The Purpose of Futility

My book goes on to explore the novels written by WWI veterans, and the place of WWI generally in our nation’s history – the way we ignore the battles of colonization, the way we valorize masculinity, the way we overlook the bitter arguments about conscription that divided the home front…

I’d love to hear your thoughts.

 

 

[i] M. Thomas, ‘Leichhardt on the mind: the manhunt for the Prussian enigma’, review of Where is Dr Leichhardt? The Greatest Mystery in Australian History by Darrell Lewis, Australian Book Review, no 354, September 2013, p. 21.

One Comment Post a comment
  1. The other aspect, which I’m sure you address, is which voices we hear. In this era, the voices we largely hear are white post-colonial and male. The virtues are valorised, the history cherry-picked or buried. This censorship cheats us of truth. In researching for my WIPs, the oral histories of soldiers (rather than the historians) have been balanced – and brought into tighter focus – by the voices of women, of the young and the old, and non-combatants. In fact, the only way I’ve been able to make sense of any of it has been through the stories from those who were there, and those who spoke and wrote about it.

    April 27, 2021

I'd love to hear your ideas on this!

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