Some truly informative Anzac centenary TV

Yes, there has understandably been concern along such lines as these: Gallipoli 2015: Lest we forget to turn a buck.

Why should we be surprised when the Anzac centenary becomes little more than a carnival of jingoistic schmaltz and corporate opportunism? It just represents our wallowing in the Anzac myth, writes Jonathan Green.

Freed from actual memory, unchained from any linear connection to observed reality, commemoration can be whatever you want it to be…

But full marks to ABC-TV for some programs I have seen in the last few days, and will see later in the week.

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First, Lest We Forget What? Sunday 19 April 8.30pm ABC2; Wednesday 22 April 9.30pm, ABC1.

The real failure in any military is to believe your own myths and legends.

– Major General (Ret.) Jim Molan AO DSC

Kate Aubusson is 27. She grew up in the suburbs of Sydney and she started working as a journalist a few years ago. She is part of the generation that saw the resurgence of the Anzac legend in the 90s as a defining story of what it means to be Australian. For her, it’s all about Gallipoli, the Anzac Spirit. Boys from the bush, sacrifice, mateship and being born as a nation the day the Diggers landed at Anzac Cove. In the next 4 years we’ll spend over $300 million to remember the First World War – more than any other nation. This is important to her. She had relatives who fought in World War One. When she was a kid she would stand for the minutes’ silence and say ‘Lest We Forget’, but in that silence she never knew exactly what she was supposed to remember… and in many ways she still doesn’t. So she is going on a quest that follows the path of the ANZACs. Starting at Gallipoli, and travelling to the Western Front. What she wants to find out is…When we say, “lest we forget” – Lest we forget what?

I have to confess I was irritated by Kate Aubusson at first, but as the program proceeded I applauded what it was doing – very honest, very respectful in the proper way, very useful as a crap detector in these times. From the program website:

There is a huge divide between the military history taught to our Defence Force as opposed to the soft military history we, the general populace, are taught:

There’s lots of myth about Anzac. Everything you know about Simpson is largely myth. The story about how troops went ashore in the face of thunderous machine gun fire is rubbish. The biggest myth about Anzac is that it probably would have succeeded.”
– Dr Roger Lee (Head, Australian Army History Unit), speaking about the Gallipoli Campaign in a lecture at RMC Duntroon

See also Melinda Houston in the Sydney Morning Herald.

I’m of a generation that grew up regarding war – and its celebration – with suspicion shading into revulsion. Kate Aubusson, on the other hand – whose documentary this is – was suckled on Peter Weir’s Gallipoli and came to adulthood in the full flourishing of Australia’s resurgent nationalism. She’s also a journalist, though, and in the lead up to the 100th anniversary of the Gallipoli landing, is wondering just how much of her own emotion and sentiment about the event is grounded in fact. Starting with that contemporary Australian rite of passage, the beer-fuelled group tour to Anzac Cove, she proceeds to gently dismantle the various myths…

Aubusson is very likeable and this is completely accessible. But it’s also a powerful, frank, very moving and immensely important contribution to the Anzac conversation.

Earlier ABC1 showed Australia’s Great War Horse, more conventional but very informative. 130,000 Australian horses  served in the war but were never to return home. It included the amazing story of the horse “Bill the Bastard”:

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[Michael] Shanahan persuaded his captain, Banjo Paterson, to let him take Bill into battle when 100,000 horses headed out into the 50C desert for the pivotal Battle of Romani. Both sides desperately needed a win to take control of the wells. “August 5, 1916, should be a date writ large in Australian history,” said Prof Perry. “It was a magnificent effort.”

Spotting others in trouble, Shanahan was able to get four Tasmanian troopers from the Light Horse Brigade on Bill’s back with him, obtaining him a Distinguished Service Order. “Bill went for six hours, his stamina was monumental,” said Prof Perry. “One general went through 17 horses in the night.”

See also Bill the Bastard: the story of Australia’s greatest war horse.

Compass offered a feature on Lieutenant General Sir Stanley George Savige, one of Australia’s most decorated soldiers, a founder of the ex-service family support charity Legacy. This part I never knew before:

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See Australian-Assyrians commemorate life of Lt General Sir Stanley Savige.

Lieutenant General Sir Stanley George Savige, at that time a 28 year-old captain serving in the specially assembled Allied unit nicknamed “Dunsterforce”, was second-in-command of a supply column assigned to re-supply the Assyrians fighting in Persia. Unable to complete the task due to the fall of Urmia he nevertheless persisted in his endeavour to assist the Assyrians by persuading his British commander that he should remain with them.

For six weeks Captain Stanley Savige used all the means at his disposal to protect the refugees against the perpetual onslaught of the Turkish forces. Reasoning that the Turkish commander would concentrate on killing him before harming the refugees, he strategically placed his command at the rear of the refugee procession and deliberately drew enemy fire. By offering his command as a target, even though outnumbered one hundred to one, the captain managed to slow the Turkish advance long enough for most of the refugees to flee. This act of courage and self-sacrifice is far beyond what is expected of a regular junior officer in the field.

Coming up on ABC1 on Tuesday is Why Anzac with Sam Neill: the actor remembers his fallen family.

… “I do sort of have a foot in both camps,” says Neill, a New Zealander who also has a home in Sydney.

The result is a program that crosses the globe from Gallipoli to France and Crete to Australia in an effort to make sense of New Zealand and Australia’s shared history.

At the outset, Neill makes a clear distinction that can be lost among the flag-waving and cheap patriotism that tends to sit at the margins of the Anzac legend. “I hate militarism,” he says. “I loathe nationalism. But I honour those who serve.”

One of those in his own family whom Neill honours in the program is Guy Bridgeman, his grandfather’s cousin. Neill brings Bridgeman’s poignant story to life through a series of letters, photographs and family stories. A “gentle, kind and thoughtful man”, Bridgeman evidently also took seriously his patriotic duty and enlisted in the Otago Mountain Rifles as soon as Australia and New Zealand followed the mother country into war against Germany.

Bridgeman landed at Gallipoli twice and survived to fight at Passchendaele, where he was badly wounded. Incredibly, he was still insistent that he be returned to the front when he succumbed to the flu.

“Of course, he is remarkable, but he is also one of millions of remarkables,” says Neill…

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