Anzac Day

One of a host of poignant images one could have used:


Still encrusted in Somme mud, the First World War officer’s watch frozen in time at the moment he died when German mine exploded

THE FARMER REMEMBERS THE SOMME by Vance Palmer (1885-1959)

Will they never fade or pass!
The mud, and the misty figures endlessly coming
In file through the foul morass,
And the grey flood-water ripping the reeds and grass,
And the steel wings drumming.

The hills are bright in the sun: There's nothing changed or marred in the well-known places; When work for the day is done There's talk, and quiet laughter, and gleams of fun On the old folks' faces.
I have returned to these: The farm, and the kindly Bush, and the young calves lowing; But all that my mind sees Is a quaking bog in a mist - stark, snapped trees, And the dark Somme flowing.

See also John Kelly, A Soldier’s Story.

Anzac Day stories abound this time of year and remind us of sacrifices made, heroic deeds undertaken and the absurdity of wars. This day is special because of that. We take time out to remember. We listen to stories of great heroism in the face of incompetent decisions by senior military staff. We revile at the carnage on both sides and in the process are forced to examine what makes humans treat each other this way. Three constants stand out among these stories. They are all interesting, they are all informative and they have embedded within each of us an indelible connection to someone or something associated with those who have served. They also enrich our knowledge and have contributed to an ever more revealing and grander story of our country’s history. Yet, despite the great victories and defeats, the logistics, the weaponry, the massing of great armies, it is the stories of individuals that most attract our imagination and our interest. It is the ordinary men and women who capture our thoughts and attention, because without them, wars cannot proceed, causes cannot be pursued and evil cannot be challenged.

One such story is that of my grandfather, Frederick Harrison Capper…

In today’s Sydney Morning Herald Gary Foley sounds a note that some might object to on this day, but I honestly can’t see why. He makes a pretty good case, I think: Gallipoli not the only war to define Australian warfare.

As an Aboriginal person who had family serve in World War I,  I am acutely aware that there are many Aboriginal families who had relatives who fought at Gallipoli. I am nevertheless always deeply concerned each Anzac Day about the way in which Gallipoli has become so politicised in the evolving memory of so many Australians. As historian Don Watson has written, “the more politicians and media commentators talk of the values of Anzac Day, traduce it for convenient contemporary instruction and daub themselves with the soldiers’ moral courage, the more like a kitsch religion it becomes”…

Recently I read Anzac’s dirty dozen : twelve myths of Australian military history ed Craig Stockings (2012).

Australian military history is a landscape of legends. Yet across the length and breadth of our military heritage, accuracy and objectivity are often shunted aside so that tales and myths bent on commemoration, veneration, and the idealisation of Australian virtues can thrive. In Anzac’s Dirty Dozen a team of renowned historians resume the battle to expose a host of stubborn fantasies and fabrications that obscure the real story.

Uneven, but still well worth reading.

Craig Wilcox begins by tackling the fiction that our military history begins on Gallipoli, as well as the wider doctrine that this is where ”the nation is born”. So central to Australian self-awareness has the notion become that, in Paul Kelly’s words, ”The re-energising of Anzac has become the central organising principle of Australia’s past”. Wilcox tests the weight of our pre-Anzac history, as well as the stereotypes that grew out of 1915 and became so rapidly entrenched.

Fellow historian John Connor follows up with a careful study of the popular belief that our first AIF was an all-volunteer (indeed the only all-volunteer) army of World War I. This ”fact”, in turn, is understood to explain the superiority of the Australian soldier. Connor provides clear evidence of several other volunteer forces in World War I, as well as contrasting the contemporary understanding of ”volunteer” as ”freely choosing” with the social and cultural realities of 1915…


This is on ABC1 at 6pm tonight.

Gallipoli from Above: The Untold Story is the true story of how a team of Australian officers used aerial intelligence, emerging technology and innovative tactics to plan the landing at Anzac Cove. Generals William Throsby Bridges and Colonel Brudenell White were charged with the difficult task of landing 20,000 ANZAC troops on a heavily defended and precipitous shoreline. They used an aircraft carrier, a tethered balloon and a squadron of biplanes to gather detailed information on the disposition of the Turkish defenders and developed a plan for the landing that avoided significant casualties.

It is now nearly 100 years since the landing and hundreds of books, movies and documentaries have failed to grasp the significance of the ANZAC achievement. Instead, the mythology has clouded the real story of how these two influential Australian officers took control of the landing using every innovation they could muster to safely land their men on Z Beach. Based on Hugh Dolan’s book 36 Days, Gallipoli from Above: The Untold Story will change forever the way Australians think about Gallipoli.

See also my post One hundred years ago or thereabouts…

My father’s cousin, Norman Harold Whitfield.