You know how the story goes. In the weeks following the Gallipoli landing Simpson bravely entered no-man’s land, risking Turkish fire, to bring aid to badly wounded Diggers. Simpson was killed but not before 300 badly injured soldiers had been ferried to safety. A noble tale indeed – if it were true – but is it?
Recently, the campaign to have Simpson awarded a posthumous Victoria Cross came up short when the findings of a year long enquiry by the Defence Honours and Awards Tribunal confirmed that Simpson had not been particularly brave and that the story had grown well beyond the facts. Simpson retrieved far fewer than 300 Diggers, probably fewer than 150, most were not seriously injured and it’s improbable he needed to wander into no-man’s land to rescue them. Sources were discovered to be unreliable with many of the 'eye-witnesses' attesting to Simpson’s valour not even present at the time.[i]
Simpson did his job, yet his service was so unremarkable that the Tribunal saw it as undeserving of any award, let alone the Victoria Cross. Don’t doubt Simpson deserves respect. As an Englishman on the run for deserting the Merchant Marine he redeemed himself in the service of the Anzac campaign, as did all the members of his 3rd Field Ambulance Corp. We should be happy to claim him.
Where else has the story strayed? Did we fight for freedom? Most definitely not; from start to finish, Gallipoli included, World War I was an imperial project. Despite modern day rhetoric aimed at inflating the campaign with a nobler intent, Gallipoli was an ill-conceived piece of military adventurism. No significant freedom enjoyed by Australia was ever at risk. If Australians fought for anything in World War I, any cause dear to Australian hearts, it was for racial purity as Prime Minister Billy Hughes declared on his return from the Versailles Peace Conference in 1919.
"The White Australia is yours. You may do with it what you please, but at any rate, the soldiers have achieved a victory and my colleagues and I have brought you that great principle back to you from the conference, as safe as it was on the day when it was first adopted."[ii]
What of the oft-repeated assertion that Gallipoli was the crucible that forged the nation? If this was true we would expect the nation never to have been as united as it was after Gallipoli. Even the most cursory reading of the history finds this to be anything but the case. In the years following the campaign Australians were never so divided. Arguments about conscription and the imperial ambitions of the war and corporate war profiteering split the nation. It was in this era that West Australia voted for secession[iii].
Elevating Gallipoli to a kind of national origin story is problematic for other reasons. Australian civil society had much to be proud of in the years leading up to Federation in 1901 and the Gallipoli campaign in 1915. Apart from the achievement of Federation itself, our forebears championed the ideal of social democracy with its commitment to economic justice, workers’ rights, the minimum wage and the suffragette movement. A militarisation of the Australian story has the potential to marginalise these not insignificant achievements. Surely we can step aside from the Edwardian concept that nations, real nations, 'manly' nations, must be born in bloodshed? What is it about the shedding of blood that it alone confers authentic baptism? Is there not a higher civic principle around which to weave our sense of common purpose?
What of 'mateship', so central to the spirit of the Anzac and to the Australian identity? No doubt the Diggers relied heavily on each other to survive the horror. I imagine Johnny Turk did much the same. Comradeship, resilience, self-sacrifice, compassion, bravery under fire are not exclusive to the Australian experience of war. To claim it for us alone is to deny our enemies their humanity. The German classic All Quiet on the Western Front depicting the suffering of German troops in the trenches was originally banned in Australia for this very reason, it commemorated the same virtues in the hated Hun that we had claimed as our own.[iv] We should know better; Turks, Germans, Russians, Japanese - they love their children too.
What of the fighting properties of the 'Digger'? Gallipoli was probably not the high water mark of Australia’s military prowess in World War I. Most historians agree that the Australian troops had not fully matured into a disciplined force until as late as 1917. Historian EM Andrews in The Anzac Illusion traces the populist idealisation of the Australian soldier to the wartime propaganda of journalists and the prejudices of CEW Bean, Australia’s official war historian.[v]
Why does any of this matter? Some have suggested that an increasingly secular society goes in search of its sacred stories. It looks for moments in its narrative to invest with the purpose and meaning reserved once only for holy days. Could any Catholic familiar with rites, rituals, sign and symbols not recognise that Anzac Day itself follows a liturgical format?
Politicians have also been quick to remake Anzac Day in their own image and likeness. In the years surrounding the Bicentennial it became obvious that 26 January was too surrounded by ambiguity to fulfil our need for a national day. Bob Hawke’s solution was to outfit Anzac Day for this purpose. Paul Keating, embarrassed by the Imperial context of Gallipoli, realigns the tradition with the more ideologically suitable Kokoda campaign. John Howard would make much of Anzac to fight his particular corner of the history wars; aligning Anzac with an older, pre-multicultural Australia. To do this he would have to focus unremittingly on the uplifting aspects of the story while ignoring less savoury moments. How many Australians know of the bloody role Anzac troops played suppressing the Egyptian nationalists in 1919?
Howard, Rudd and Gillard would make even more sinister use of the Anzac legend in their appeal for uncritical support of latter-day military adventures in Iraq and Afghanistan. No other middle power in the 20th century has been so ready to embark on overseas military excursions as Australia, a fact for sober reflection.
None of this should be taken as disrespect for the digger, past or present. We show those who came before us the most profound respect when we tell the truth about them rather than let their story be exploited for short-term political gain.
Catholics have become much better in recent years in reading their sacred stories with a critical eye, refusing to read them at face value, reaching beyond the literal text. So armed, should we not be sounding a warning, ever so gently, ever so respectfully, that the Anzac story is in danger of being misused and misread?
Australia needs a national narrative that draws out the best in us, not a narrative with the potential to divide us, whether it is on the basis of class, gender, race or past allegiance. Perhaps we Australians are not yet grown up enough to have our own Bastille Day, our own Fourth of July. Could it be because our greatest challenge is yet to come?
Michael Elphick is a consultant and a freelance writer. He welcomes comments on his writing at firstname.lastname@example.org
Read a letter by Raoul Walsh in response to this article.
[ii] Hughes to parliament; reported in P.E. Deane. “Australia's Rights: The Fight at the Peace Table”
[iv] Banned books in Australia: University of Melbourne. www.lib.unimelb.edu.au/collections/special/exhibitions/bannedbooks/exhibition/australia.html