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The start of the Gallipoli campaign on April 25 1915 might not have been a pivotal moment in the Great War but most, though not all, Australians and New Zealanders are emotionally invested in this year’s hundredth anniversary of that first landing at Anzac Cove. Some of us have personal reasons to reflect on an operation that ended in December of that year with none of the objectives of the Allied Powers achieved. My own maternal grandfather, James Robertson (1894-1955), turned twenty-one on April 25 when he came ashore at Gallipoli. That makes the event part of our family legend but for many Australians this ultimately futile military operation signifies the improbable first chapter of a coming-of-age tale for our nation.
In Australia the Anzac legend somehow encapsulates our national character. The young men who went off to fight for the British Empire in Gallipoli and later the Western Front found themselves entangled in a brutal conflict but also discovered a profound sense of camaraderie and national pride. The Anzacs might not have defeated the Turks on the beaches of Gallipoli but they learned all about esprit de corps: Simpson and his donkey, the jam-tin bomb, the trench periscope, the wry wit, courage, innovation, mateship and a wicked sense of humour all rolled into one. All the to-do about the Gallipoli centenary is not without its critics. Over 8,000 young Australians lost their lives during those grim eight months and yet there was precious little in strict military terms to show for all the sacrifice. The best moment in the whole business was the brilliant stealthy evacuation on December 10, 1915, which resulted in not a single casualty.
There are, of course, those who are critical of the emphasis placed on Gallipoli. British historian Peter Hart’s Gallipoli (2011) makes the case that the ultimate purpose of the Gallipoli campaign, taking control of the Dardanelles Strait, conquering Constantinople and removing the Ottoman Empire (Turkey) from the war, was doomed from the start because of poor planning and a complete underestimation of the enemy’s fighting capacity. The real military heroics, according to Hart’s 1918: A Very British Victory (2008), occurred on the Western Front in the immediate aftermath of the spring 1918 Ludendorff Offensive. During the hundred days that led up to the Armistice on November 11, 1918, the Allied forces utilised ‘integrated warfare’ to hammer the Germans in a remorseless drive to the Hindenburg Line and beyond. Systemised strategy, tanks, advanced communication systems, accurate artillery strikes, air reconnaissance, the tenacity of battle-hardened soldiers and the infusion of fresh American troops all combined to create a mobile warfare that proved unstoppable. The Germans did not lose the First World War on the home front; they were vanquished on the battlefield.
The hero of 1918, in the opinion of Peter Hart, was the ‘British Tommy’, and yet the Australian Army Corps, under the command of General John Monash, played a useful part in the proceedings. Whatever the brilliance of Monash, he was but one of 17 generals along the front in those last one hundred victorious days of the war. Hart is positive about the role played by Australians at Villers-Bretonneux (April 24-25, 1918), Hamel (July 4), Amiens (August 8), and Mont St Quentin (September 1), not to mention the ensuing assault on the Hindenburg Line. If Australian school books and politicians have paid too much attention to the Gallipoli misadventure and overlooked our subsequent (and more productive) contributions to winning the First World War, that was hardly the fault of John Monash.
Sir John Monash, knighted by George V on the battlefield after the dazzling success of Amiens – is often acclaimed as the founder of Anzac Day, a public holiday every April 25 in Australia and New Zealand. As a consequence, some might want to blame Monash for giving excessive importance to Gallipoli in our collective memory; but that would be to overlook a number of things, including the fact that Monash was a mere brigade commander when he came ashore at Gallipoli on April 26, 1915. The reality is that the first officially designated Anzac Day took place in 1916 and this, in a sense, set the birth date of the Anzac legend in stone. Moreover, John Monash’s electrifying bestseller The Australian Victories in France in 1918 was published as early as 1920, and made it abundantly clear that Villers-Bretonneux, Hamel, Amiens, Mont St Quentin, the Hindenburg Line et al were the places where the Australians made their real contributions to the defeat of the Kaiserreich rather than Gallipoli.
In any case, it is not certain that John Monash had any problems with April 25 being the commemorative day for the Anzac legend. The Gallipoli campaign did not achieve its objective to knock the Ottoman Empire out of the war and keep Russia in, and yet the goal was no less respectable for that. Imagine the murder and mayhem that would have been avoided if the Allied supply lines to Russia had been unlocked at Gallipoli and Lenin’s October 1917 putsch (aided and abetted by the Kaiserreich) never occurred. If we are to define the Anzac legend, at least from an Australian point of view, as the contribution of a free and modern nation to the cause of freedom-modernity in the world, then even the Gallipoli campaign, however futile, takes on an affirmative meaning.
The Communist Party of Australia (CPA), founded in 1920, attempted to commandeer the Anzac legend for its own nefarious purposes. Over 400,000 Australian men, out of a population of less than 5 million people, enlisted for the Great War, and more than 340,000 of them returned home. Surely these worldly and military-trained proles who helped whip the Kaiserreich could be co-opted into a movement to create a dictatorship of the proletariat. Well – no. My paternal grandfather, Howard McCann, who served on the Western Front from 1916-18, preferred, much like James Robertson, the vagaries (and self-reliance) of small business to the millennialist joys of Bolshevism. The Anzacs endured death and every kind of hardship in the pursuit of victory against the Prussian ideology, but they were rarely crazy enough to sign up for the psychic suicide of Communism. The CPA folded in 1991.
Over the past fifty years a new kind of leftism in Australia has replaced the Marxism or Fabianism of old. We might call it, as per Christopher Hitchens, the ‘soft left’ or, more accurately perhaps, anti-bourgeois bohemianism. It borrows from Lenin the notion of the Great War as an ‘imperialist war’ but has less to do with Marxism-Leninism than radical pacifism. Joan Beaumont’s Broken Nation: Australia in the Great War (2013) is an exemplar par excellence of anti-Anzac legend polemicism. Beaumont, at almost every public appearance, insists that there is no ‘theme’ to her tome, only a scrupulously honest attempt to chronicle the heartbreak and divisiveness in Australia that accompanied the defeat of the Kaiserreich. The tragedy, as the luminous historian-commentator Mervyn F Bendle has argued, is that latter-day leftist ideologues such as Beaumont, an employee of the Australian National University, occupy the commanding heights of academia in Australia. They are in a position, thanks to the beneficence of the Australian taxpayer, to indoctrinate a new generation into believing that Australia’s role in the defence of civilisation throughout the twentieth century was a crime against civilisation. The folly of these ideologues (they call themselves honesthistory.net.au) is to pour scorn on every Australian military undertaking. Thus, Australia’s routing of the Japanese in the Battle of Kokoda in New Guinea, one of the first setbacks of Imperial Japan during the Second World War, was no victory at all because Tokyo never intended to occupy Australia as such, merely incorporate it as a subjugated associate of the Greater East Asia Co-Prosperity Sphere.
Marxist intellectuals of old at least pretended to be fond of ordinary Australians, but the anti-bourgeois bohemian professoriate of today is another matter altogether. They absolutely abhor the fact that Anzac Day crowds grow larger every year. My father died in November 2011 and I still recall the emotion I felt accompanying him on his last Anzac Day march through the main street of Adelaide in April of that year. What my father understood (he fought with the Royal Australian Navy against the Japanese), not to mention Ralph Edwards, our childhood neighbour and a sniper at Tobruk, is that the freedom vital to Australian society is dependent upon the defeat of the global enemies of freedom. The Australian Defence Forces, as I write this, are playing their part in the struggle against the Islamic State.
The Anzac legend comes down to this: we did not defeat the Kaiserreich on our own, did not crush the Nazis on our own, did not beat Imperial Japan on our own, and will not overcome the Islamic State on our own, but we will always do our share in freedom’s fight against submission.
This essay is published in the Spring 2015 edition of the Salisbury Review