The forgotten heroes

Note to book publicists, feature writers and documentary makers: just because something happened a while ago, that doesn’t make it “forgotten”.
In the past couple of months, I’ve seen that description applied to the Anzacs of World War 2, naval veterans of both World Wars, HMAS Sydney, RAF crews, and in the week of Remembrance Day, not just John Monash but the entire Western Front.
Monash. One of our most famous and revered military minds. I find this astonishing.
Yes, the Howard Government obsessed over Gallipoli on Anzac Day and failed to organise Remembrance Day celebrations in Fromelles (mind you, I doubt John Howard, for all his failings, forgot the Western Front, either).
It’s perfectly reasonable to question both the Gallipoli campaign itself and its glorification. But to claim, as Jonathan King did in The Age last month, “it has taken the Commonwealth 90 years to realise the significance of the Western Front” is stretching the point beyond breaking.
The Western Front was the Great War in everyone’s mind, for its duration and for generations afterwards. It is so utterly seared into our collective memory, the photographs and poems absorbed on an almost visceral level, the diaries and letters amongst the literary canon, even though so many who came back who never discuss it.
But who exactly has forgotten?
Not me. Not anyone I know. Not anyone who has ever read one of the trench poets or seen a Frank Hurley photograph or read a war diary.
I grant you, the First World War campaigns in Serbia, say, are unfamiliar to many and don’t feature largely in the collective imagination.
But the Western Front?
What nonsense.
I can’t count the number of books on the Western Front sitting on my bookshelf: some may be obscure but many are certified best-sellers. Some of those are written for young readers. Not everyone has a precious copy of CEW Bean but countless people have copies of Carlyon or Adam-Smith – or indeed Sassoon and Graves or even Hemingway. Who do you think reads all these books and watches the movies, documentaries and TV series? Millions of people, of all ages. And they all remember.
A monumental national effort went into commemorating the dead in Europe after both World Wars; both here, in the form of the Shrine and the War memorial in Canberra, but also in the places where the bodies lay. Do you imagine the hundreds of thousands of people who remember our dead or fractured grandfathers and fathers and uncles (and grandmothers and aunts), don’t actually realise they served in the mud of Flanders and France and Italy?
You can’t really think we’re that stupid.
Next it’ll be “Weary Dunlop, the forgotten doctor of the Burma railroad”.
Or “Tobruk, the forgotten battle that turned the tide of war”.
There are myriad ways to remember and commemorate. Turning a cemetery into a tourist hotspot like Gallipoli in April is not the only possible form of acknowledgement. Turning life and precious ritual into a History Channel voiceover is absurd and alienates those who have not forgotten – and will never forget.

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