Unfortunately I haven’t had time to pen a blog on ANZAC Day this year. My aim is to write about how Sir John Monash won the First World War for the allies.
Instead, I reproduce my article from last year, the 100th anniversary of the Gallipoli landings.
For the last ten years I have written an editorial on ANZAC day (and sometimes on Remembrance Day). Just a small piece seeking to make these days/events relevant to a modern (young) audience.
If you don’t like reading editorials or opinion pieces turn off or delete now.
Gallipoli was perhaps the first time that Australians did anything as Australians on the world stage. A debut. The nation was relatively new. Our population was a little under 5 million. The Federal Parliament still sat in Melbourne.
It turned into a tragic debut.
On 25 April 1915, 12,500 to 16,000 Australian troops landed at Gallipoli. In the days that followed, 860 Australians lost their lives and about 2000 were wounded. Ultimately, 8,709 Australian lives were lost during the Gallipoli campaign. A staggering 61,522 Australians died in the First World war.
This ANZAC Day I believe we should reflect on the unique character of the Australian soldiers. While Australians fought for the King and British Empire they were not British. They had grown apart from the traditions of Europe. They had established their own nation based on the democratic principles of universal suffrage for men and women. This and other concepts were foreign to the British and other Europeans and set the Australians apart. We should look at the early formation of the Australian identity.
I have identified 5 characteristics. Different people will produce different lists but here is mine.
2. Affinity with New Zealand
The first characteristic is mateship. I know the term is well worn and unfortunately become hackneyed. However, there is no other description for the strong bond that was forged between the Australian soldiers. It was a bond that saw them fight courageously in hopeless situations. It was a bond that saw them die for each other.
These soldiers were volunteers. They were young men and women, a number in their teens. They fought in difficult conditions against a determined foe seeking to protect their homeland. The carnage was palpable. The experience of war was mind numbing.
They were far from home chasing an adventure that had turned into a nightmare. Their cause was ambiguous. What did the British want with Turkey, anyway? Australians from different States and different backgrounds became mates. They depended on each other. In these conditions, close and permanent bonds were formed.
The depth of feeling between the men could be seen in how they responded to the (surprise) decision to withdraw. The Australian reaction is recorded as unique and different from that of soldiers from other nations. Some Australians made crude wreaths for their fallen friends. Others attended their grave sites and straightened their crosses. A sense of guilt gripped many soldiers as they were leaving before any military objective was achieved. Some questioned what purpose was achieved by the death of their mates. Some carried this guilt into their twilight years.
This mateship or bond made the Australian units quite formidable in battle. There were many attempts to split the Australians so that each Allied division contained Australian soldiers. They were viewed as tenacious and courageous fighters. It was hoped that their attitude would infect the troops from other nations. But it was Australians fighting with Australians that promoted this bond. Dividing the soldiers would have broken this spirit.
Has this mateship survived a century of change? Do we care for our neighbour? How far will we extend ourselves for the sake of others?
The second feature is the affinity between the Australian and New Zealand soldiers. Australians should never forget that our New Zealand friends form the other half of the ANZAC equation. Australians and New Zealanders alike distinguished themselves at Gallipoli. While many Australians were honoured, the highest award was bestowed on New Zealand’s Major General Russell who was knighted. Some 2,700 New Zealanders were killed in the Gallipoli campaign.
Not many people know that in the 1890s, New Zealand was invited to join the new Australian federation. New Zealand representatives attended the first two federation conferences. However, New Zealand politely declined the invitation. The Australian Constitution still contains references to New Zealand.
In the ANZAC spirit, isn’t it time the two countries reviewed their respective positions on consolidation/merger? Isn’t the future, shaped by grand schemes and big ideas? How grand would it be for these two countries to come together? Over the last weekend, one commentator was speculating on what would happen to the world economy if the 12th largest economy joined with the 54th largest (and fast growing) economy? 30 million people, two locations, one country.
The third feature is innovation. The Allied forces at Gallipoli were at a distinct disadvantage.
Faced with these difficulties, they had to think quickly and innovatively.
The Australians were responsible for self-firing rifles that created the impression that the Allied soldiers were still in occupation, when in fact, they were in retreat from Gallipoli. These rifles were connected to empty buckets that filled slowly with dripping water. When the water reached a certain level the rifles would fire. And the process would then start again.
Grenades were made from empty tin cans.
On the European continent, Monash became famous for his innovative strategies. He pioneered the quick assaults on enemy positions by a small group of soldiers. These soldiers carried no equipment and moved quickly. Their lightning fast forays caused confusion in enemy ranks. Their small victories reduced German morale.
Monash used (harmless) smoke bombs to create the impression that the Allies were launching gas attacks. The Germans resorted to their gas masks which reduced their vision and made them vulnerable to attack from their flanks by Allied forces not wearing masks.
Monash was among the first to see the benefits of tanks in any land engagement. Even though the first tank models were abject failures, Monash pressed his views until later models began realising the potential he had predicted.
Even today Australian innovation regularly places us on the world stage. Unfortunately, too often, Australian ideas are not developed here. Foreign investors have the vision and capital that we lack.
The next feature is humour. In the face of adversity, Australians will always find some humour and wit. Despite the trying circumstances Gallipoli was no exception.
For example, the beach at Anzac Cove was dubbed Brighton Beach. Australians produced plays and sketches to boost their morale. There was often a joke at the expense of an officer
Humour was evident among the ANZACS in the Second World War. I’ve just finished reading a history of the Outram Road Prison, Singapore. During World War II, Outram Road was a high security (generally) solitary confinement prison that Changi prisoners were sent to if they “misbehaved”. Many reported that Outram Road made Changi look tame. Few Australian prisoners survived their stint at Outram Road.
At Outram Road, Australian prisoners had nicknames for the prison officers. One was called “Prune Face” not because of his wrinkles but because “he gave you the shits”.
One (brave) prisoner once interrupted the beating of his mate, (and probably saved his mate’s life as a result). For his courage he was flayed (with a whip and the flat of a sword) to within an inch of his life. After a few hours, of “punishment” he was returned to his cell and greeted by a new cell mate who was shocked and appalled at his bloody condition. Despite the torture he had just experienced, the prisoner turned to his new cell mate and said (with a smile) “Welcome to the luxury suite at Outram Road…”
Some Australian humour was directed at authority. A cynical view of our leaders and politicians remains a strong trait in the Australian make up.
Finally, the Australian contingent at Gallipoli were set apart by their sense of inclusion and equality. Despite a national White Australia policy, the Australian Army at Gallipoli comprised soldiers from a number of different countries, as well as indigenous men. No better example of inclusion was Monash himself. He was an outsider on many levels. Monash was a German with Jewish heritage. He was also a reservist. He had not served in the regular army until Gallipoli, at age 50.
Monash would never have reached the heights he did but for the culture of inclusion in the Australian Army. By contrast, the British Army was structured along class lines. This cultural divide created a number of issues. In preparation for the war on the Western Front, Monash sought to promote a regular to an officer’s rank. The British protested. They maintained that you couldn’t have working- class men leading businessmen and those with university degrees. Monash prevailed.
Is Australia an inclusive society today? Is our decision making and policy formulation guided by prejudice and fear or equality and a “fair go” for all?
The Australians and their unique character saw them win many victories on the Western Front. Most notable was the Battle of Amiens (France) when on 8 August 1918, five Australian divisions, together for the first time under Monash’s command, began an offensive that turned the direction of the war.
If 25 April 1915 is remembered for its tragedy, 8 August 1918 should be remembered for its success in breaking the resolve of the great German Army. Here was an Australian standing head and shoulders above his contemporaries. British Field Marshal Bernard Montgomery said of Monash;
“I would name Sir John Monash, the best general on the western front in Europe”
Such was the brilliance of Monash’s planning and attack that King George V, knighted him on the field of battle. This was the first time in 200 years that a British monarch had bestowed an honour in this manner…. but perhaps more of that story on Remembrance Day.
This ANZAC Day we needn’t glorify war to honour those who died for this country. In fact, Gallipoli should remind us that war is not the answer to international disputes. As well as honouring those that died, let us remember the Australian character they brought to the conflicts in Europe. A unique character for a fledgling country. Has their legacy been preserved?
Lest we Forget.