Selling Anzac

I’ve written before about Anzac Day, and about visiting Gallipoli.
This Anzac Day, with biscuits already in the oven, I’m thinking about its place in the national consciousness and the Anzac-related thread running through the history wars.
(I should say this is a public debate in Australia, as the situation’s quite different in NZ, where the PM doesn’t feel a need to see herself as an upholder of “traditional” national values – or even a definer of such things.)
Some commentators, such as Mark McKenna, have difficulty digesting the recent resurgence of interest in Gallipoli as history and Anzac Day as commemoration. He’s been critical of what he would see as the cynical publishing phenomenon: a clutch of new or recycled titles on Australian experiences in war flood onto the market every April (and November). He looks at the dawn service at Anzac each April as either a politician’s ploy or “crass commercialism”, or both, and has registered his disgust at John Howard’s manipulation of the emotional connection we have to the idea of Anzac, and sees parallels between the Dardanelles disaster and the Iraq invasion:

To me, this cheap choreography, much of it encouraged by the state, is not “sober mourning” but an example of the new Australian patriotism – largely unreflective and blind to its exploitation. (Quarterly Essay, 24.)

On the other hand, historian Inga Clendinnan, whose response to Anzac Day is unashamedly personal (and who would generally agree with McKenna about mixing history and politics) is not overly disturbed by the kerfuffle.
But she writes, in response to McKenna:

I think many Australians are indeed watchful for “another Gallipoli waiting around the corner”, precisely because they know Gallipoli to have been a blunder: “a shameless waste of British, Australian, New Zealand, French and Turkish lives”. The painful heroism of individual Anzacs does not sanctify the cause, as individual Anzac survivors have made clear time and time again, while the project itself is now generally agreed to be an ill-conceived, stupid waste.


Two thoughts on this:
That distinction made by Clendinnan is very important, now and then. When we hear Bush or Howard disparaging criticism of Iraq as being unpatriotic and – worse – unsupportive of the soldiers in the field, this is the timeless answer. We saw the Opposition get into all sorts of strife trying to find a way to both support the individuals in the forces AND reject the idea of the war in Iraq. It is possible to do both.
Mind you, I can’t see that anyone besides Winston Churchill and that ninny Hamilton has thought the landings were anything less than a disaster since … oh, I don’t know… say dawn on April 26, 1915. Anyone who argues otherwise would be skating on no historical ice at all.
I am, as so often, with Clendinnan, on having both a personal and more dispassionate response to Anzac Day.
I hate to see crass commercialism take over such events, but in some ways I don’t mind the commercialism so much as the crassness. If you take away the John Farnham concert and John Laws commentary from those poor long-suffering people at dawn on a pebbly beach, you simply have a pilgrimage no more commercial than any other. And indeed if there weren’t a whole lot of tour operators organising them, they’d never get there.
I’d rather visit the place on any other day of the year – and indeed I have. There I met a whole lot of young British and Irish backpackers who were “doing Gallipoli” without any idea what had happened or even why they were there. It was just another tick on the list after the Oktoberfest and the running of the bulls. Each one was profoundly shocked by what they learned, possibly even more affected – or in a different sense – than we descendants who vaguely knew what to expect; and one of the most poignant moments for me at Anzac Cove was when one pale young man from Dublin had to walk away, sobbing, and sit staring at the sea for while to recover. He had no idea.
If it wasn’t for crass commercialism, he would never have known. And it will change his view of the world, and war, forever.
That morning, I glanced down at one of the headstones in Ari Burnu cemetery and saw this:
Trooper Ernest Butcher
2nd Light Horse
4 August 1915

I’d never heard of him, but I knew he was one of my mob.
When I got back I ran a quick search on the War Memorial database and found him: Port Melbourne. He could have been from anywhere. But no. Fisherman’s Bend. He was one of my mob. We figured out the connection (a cousin, in that generation). Mortally wounded 4/8/1915. Obviously enlisted on the first day – the first hour – as his number is 56.
Then a couple of weeks ago I finally got round to reading my copy of John Hamilton’s Goodbye Cobber, and Good Luck, about the charge at The Nek. And there he is, straining against the leash of army life during training at Broadmeadows:
22-year-old Ernest had driven a milkman’s cart around the streets of Port Melbourne, past the pier where the regiment would soon embark. Butcher was charged with being absent without leave from 2.15 to 6.30am and fined 15 shillings.
15 shillings! A fortune.
But the day before the infamous charge at The Nek (on which Peter Weir’s film is based):
Trooper Ernest Butcher, the errant milkman from Port Melbourne, was cooking his tea in the trenches when he’d been struck by a piece of flying shell fragment; Ernest died at the dressing station, and they carried his body back down the ridge to Ari Burnu where Lex [Borthwick] dug the grave and helped bury him.
The next day, Lex Borthwick was in the second line in the charge – and was one of the few who survived.
I quite like it that the errant milkman’s final thoughts focused on tucker rather then the prospect of running into a machine gun fire, but surely “mortally wounded” is one of the most horrifying phrases in history, drenched with screams and agony and dirty field dressings.

And on that note of sober mourning, I’m off to the dawn service, which in Warrandyte is at the civilised hour of 10.30.

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