Australians at war

Anzac Day may be subject to as much abuse as Christmas Day or Good Friday, especially in that part of the entertainment industry called football.  What follows is the Australian part of the chapter on war from a comparative history of Australia and the U S.  The book is called A Tale of Two Nations, Uncle Sam from Down Under.


There has been a certain naivety, or innocence perhaps, about Australians at war.

The Australian war experience got off to a bad start.  The colonies jointly – this war started just before federation – went off to the aid of the leading world power in a fight that had little or no intrinsic merit or interest to Australia.  The Australian participation in the war was deeply divisive at home, with consequences that are at best disputed, and for no discernible benefit to Australia, apart from paying some kind of respect or dues to the world’s leading power.  Very much the same damning assessment would later be made of Australia’s tagging along behind America in Vietnam, Afghanistan, and Iraq.  One difference is that in the case of both Vietnam and Iraq, the government of Australia told its people untruths, to put it softly, when that government determined to send off its young men to be killed in foreign conflict.

‘Plain George’ Turner had done the articled clerks’ law course, become an honorary officer of a number of friendly societies, and a senior chief warden in the Masons before becoming the first Australian-born premier of Victoria and then the first Treasurer of the Commonwealth of Australia as the Right Honourable Sir George Turner, P C., K C M G.  Truly, it could only happen in Australia.  He achieved his own kind of immortality in joining the decision to send colonial troops to help the British War on the Dutch settlers in South Africa (the Boers): ‘If ever the old country were really menaced, we would spend our last man and our last shilling in her cause.’  When the Vietnam War got very bad under President Lyndon B Johnson, an Australian Prime Minister called Harold Holt, who later disappeared while snorkelling in waters known to be dangerous, alarmed even his own supporters by declaiming ‘All the way, with LBJ.’  Some Australians have grovelled better than others.

The Australians were just showing solidarity, or fraternity, with Britons everywhere.  They were after all Australian Britons, Mr Deakin said.  They were ‘For the Empire, right or wrong.’  The troops were mainly bush men and the officers tended to be squatters.  These were the sort of men that Kitchener for the British wanted to use against the Bushveldt Carbineers to put the fear of God into those diamond-hard Boers.  But the Boers were fighting for their own land, and an Australian called ‘Breaker’ Morant – he was a gifted horse-breaker – was adjudged to have gone too far in shooting prisoners, and he was executed.  In his last ballad he said he was ‘Butchered to make a Dutchman’s holiday.’  There are still Australians who want him as a hero.

The early confidence turned sour, as happens.  It was a very dirty guerilla war, and the British use of concentration camps appalled many.  Billy Hughes said that the English were cowards and bullies.  Cardinal Moran gave intimations of martyrdom; Mr Barton offered the troops one of those peculiarly useless bromides that Australian troops would come to expect from their politicians.  He said that Australia stood for ‘truth and justice, not militarism’.  (When the then Prime Minister in 2013 reviewed Australia’s role in the Afghan War, Mr Abbott said that that that war had ‘ended not with victory, not with defeat, but with, we hope, an Afghanistan that is better for our presence here…..Australian troops do not fight wars of conquest; we fight wars of freedom’.)  The new nation was overjoyed at the return of its troops, but what had it got for the 518 of the 16, 175 men who did not come back?

Australia would lose more than 60,000 killed in World War I, and about half that in World War II.  It was only in the latter war that Australia was directly threatened, and it was Australian troops under their own commanders who halted the Japanese advance into New Guinea.  The appalling war crimes committed by Japanese troops serving under Emperor Hirohito on Australian troops and prisoners of war etched very deep in the Australian consciousness.  The frightful games that the Japanese play with their own brutal history have, to put it softly, not helped.  When Australians look back on their history during the two world wars, Japan is in a place all of its own.

Yet, when Australians commemorate their war dead, they tend to focus on the charnel house of the Great War, which posed no direct threat to them, and where the weight of their contribution to the Allied victory might depend on whom you are talking to.  This concentration on the First World War reflects the mystique, for the want of a better word, of Gallipoli.  The major commemoration day for the Australians is not 11 November, but 25 April, the anniversary of the landing at Gallipoli in 1915.

The scheme, largely that of Winston Churchill, and it cost him his job in Cabinet and saw him in the trenches, was part of a grand strategic vision to shorten the war by a dramatic intervention on the bridge between Asia and Europe.  This is how a middle-aged Australian described the landing to the English writer Compton Mackenzie.

He reported that all he knew was that he had jumped out of a bloody boat in the dark and before he had walked five bloody yards he had copped a bloody bullet in his foot and had been pushed back to bloody Alexandria before he bloody well knew he had left it.

He was a bloody lucky Australian.  Mr Mackenzie was there for the second, Suvla landing, and he left this wonderful remark: ‘An absurd phrase went singing through my head.  We have lost our amateur status tonight.’  Mr Mackenzie was one of those Englishmen who marveled at the musculature of those young Australians – and their cocky irreverence.

The trouble was that there were too many on high that had not lost enough of their amateur status.  On two occasions, the infidel invaders were within touching distance of achieving their objective, but on each occasion they were caught in time.  The whole expedition was botched from on high from the start.  The invaders were facing Turks defending their own soil, and with Allah on their side, and they ran into a man of military and political genius called Mustafa Kemal, who was more the Father of Turkey than George Washington was the Father of the United States.  There were months of stagnant fighting in trenches, the very type of war that the planners had sought to avoid, before the Allies slunk out under cover of night, defeated and demoralized.  The casualties on both sides had been horrendous, and all for nothing – except for the creation of modern Turkey.

Gallipoli was memorable for the Australians and New Zealanders (Anzacs) because this was a form of debut, and their casualty lists loomed larger in their smaller country towns.  Very few country towns in Australia do not have a memorial to those lost in this war, frequently with additions for later wars.  But this was a complete military failure, what Churchill would describe in another context as ‘a colossal military disaster’.  The British suffered far more casualties than Australia; the French lost as many as Australia; and the Turks lost as many as Britain, France, and Australia combined.

The glow that Australians now see this disaster in comes from the need for a sustaining myth that found a little more to latch on to in the U S with the man who could not tell a lie.  So, each year around 25 April, young Australians make what is in truth a pilgrimage from Asia to Europe to sit huddled under a flag that is hardly their own and reflect on an heroic miss just across the water from the ruins of Troy.  If you go there on a clear quiet day, you can feel a marvelous peace near the water where men had torn at each other hand to hand most barbarously for nothing.  There is a moving monument on which Kemal assures the foreign mothers of the fallen that their sons are resting in peace.

The charge at Beersheba by the Light Horse was one of the last of its kind, but the men had to put the horses down before they came back.  More killingly, they were part of the sausage factory on the Western Front, the last gasp of ruling monarchies and a cruel and effete ruling class.  They produced a general of the first order in Monash, but he too had to serve under a butcher.

It was the Western Front that killed so many and broke so many who were left nominally alive.  It also strained the Imperial bond.  The Australian troops were volunteers.  The English were conscripted.  As we shall see, two referenda in Australia were defeated when the government of Billy Hughes sought to introduce conscription, but the civil stress at home was great.

The diggers were divided on conscription.  Some did not want others forced into this hell and some did not want to fight beside men who were there against their will.  One thing they did agree on.  They were revolted by the English practice of shooting deserters.  The Australians had a higher desertion rate and many generals wanted them to follow the British model.  The government refused.  They thought it was not right to put the death penalty on men who had volunteered to fight in a cause that was not immediately their own.

Another issue for the Australians, and a throbbing cause of tension, was that until late in the war they were fighting under British officers.  Americans and Canadians had their own command.  Why not Australia?  Monash said that the drive to a kind of military independence ‘was founded upon a sense of Nationhood.’  They did not get their wish until November 1917.

As debuts go, this was a hell of a deflowering, and they lost their amateur status the hard way.  Except when they got pissed on Anzac Day playing two-up, under the gracious licence for the day of the Establishment, the returned men of Australia did not want to talk about it.  As if to rub salt into the wounds, some were offered ‘selection’ lots, and that operation was also botched.

There would be lingering resentment about the way that the Poms’ earls, lords and knights had shoveled colonials into the cannon and then got lousy with the medals.  This resentment really flowered when the Poms cheated at cricket in an effort to defeat a boy wonder called Bradman during the Depression.  The Poms were bad winners and worse losers.

In the Second War, the Japs got very close.  Darwin was bombed.  There was real tension with the mother country about Australian troops being kept to face Rommel in the desert rather than defending their own homes against the Japs coming down in the jungle.  The fall of Singapore to the Japs – the guns pointed the wrong way – and the loss of English capital ships led Australians to turn their gaze to across the Pacific and look to Uncle Sam as their new protector and Godfather.  That still position holds.  It was by and large American troops that pushed the japs back at the most frightful cost, on the islands and on the oceans.  The American admirals were preeminent, and Australia has nothing like that monument to the US Marines at Iwo Jima.

Australia was well served by Prime Minister Curtin, but it produced no one of the standing of Roosevelt, or that paradigm of clean and simple leadership – yes, leadership – President Harry Truman, the great president who said that ‘The buck stops here’, the man who took two heavy decisions of equal import, to bomb the Japs and to fire Macarthur, for which his troops and nation should be forever grateful.

Not many people in Australia or America want to talk about later wars.  Australia committed to each of them as part of its alliance with the U S, like an act of homage or a payment of insurance.  If you are looking wholly at the white community, possibly the most disgraceful phase of Australia’s history came with the refusal of most Australians to acknowledge the return of soldiers from Vietnam.  It would have been unthinkable to have rejected the troops defeated at Gallipoli, but Australia did it to those defeated in Vietnam, and then their government got lousy about compensating them, and looking after them.  This was very, very ugly, and on a national scale.  It put a big dint in the national myth of ‘mateship’ – Australians were kicking their own troops in the guts.

Well, didn’t Turkish or German soldiers have mates?  Studies done by the military show that in life or death, soldiers do not see themselves as part of an organized machine, but as equals within a tiny group – another term is ‘mates’.  A decent footy coach would tell you the same.  People do not play for a jumper, and only a real mug dies for a bloody flag.

After the Great War, and the horror of the Western Front, soldiers felt that it was impossible to come to terms with a world ripped apart.  One of them later wrote about the horror, and it became a best seller and it is now a classic.  He then wrote books about the problems that the men had in rejoining civilized life.  The writer was Erich Maria Remarque.  The classic is All Quiet on the Western Front.  The later books include The Way Back and Three Comrades.  These books are a sustained and enduring paean to mateship.  The notion that Australians might have some primacy in a basic part of humanity is at best rather sad.  We are yet to found a myth.

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