Anzac Day: Reflecting on Australia’s Diverse Experiences of War

Small plaque set in a boulder in a natural landscape.

On a walking track across the road from the Australian War Memorial is this memorial to Aboriginal people who have served in Australian defence forces. Find your way to this simple place of reflection on Canberra’s Mount Ainslie via the Creative Spirits website.

I have written several posts over the years about the origins of Anzac Day from the Anzac Day celebration in South Australia in 1915 and the solemn commemoration in Brisbane on 25th April 1916 marking the first day that the Australian and New Zealand troops, together with large numbers of troops from other countries in the Allied forces attacked the Ottomans on the beaches of the Gallipoli peninsula.

I have written about the strong Christian history of Anzac Day that still permeates our Anzac Day ceremonies today (see, for example the 2016 national Anzac Day order of service – pdf), and the early observances of the Anzac Day silence – a reverent, respectful pause to remember the wreckage wrought by war. In another post I wondered about how respectful Australians really are when I found Anzac logos emblazoned on some rubbish bins.

Today is the one hundredth anniversary of Anzac Day and the 101st anniversary of the landing of Allied troops at Gallipoli. This anniversary is an opportunity for deep reflection about how this day can continue to reflect the ongoing history of Australia and our society’s needs both now and for the future.

It is understandable that the effects of World War I and the second part of this maelstrom which was World War II continue to reverberate today. Anzac Day focuses on the Australian and New Zealander contribution to these horrific conflict, so much so that we might forget to reflect on the enormity of these wars on a global scale. Statistics on World War I are hazy, but one estimate suggests that 65 million troops were deployed in the War, over half of whom were killed, wounded or taken prisoner. The impact of World War I on Australia was significant, and so it was in many other countries throughout the world.

In my Anzac Day post last year I wrote about how the fighting at Gallipoli was not simply between the Ottoman forces and the soldiers from the Antipodes accompanied by a few, much maligned British officers. The Allied forces were represented by men and women from both the British and the French empires. It was a multi-ethnic and multi-lingual combined effort. In that post I focused on the too often forgotten contribution of Indian soldiers in the battles of the Gallipoli peninsula.

Australia today is very different to Australia one hundred years ago. The 2011 census showed that 1 in 4 Australians were born overseas and 43 percent of Australians had at least one parent born overseas. While people born in Britain continue to dominate these figures and nine percent came from New Zealand, the 2011 census showed that six percent of Australians were born in China and 5.6 percent were born in India. There were people born in China and India who lived in Australia one hundred years ago and some served in the AIF during World War I, but by any account Australia has a more diverse population now.

Does today’s Anzac Day reflect the fact that many Australians had no forebears living in Australia one hundred years ago? A few days ago historian, Carolyn Holbrook observed that Anzac Day is so powerful that marginalised groups in Australia seek to be linked to this national day. “These groups do not criticise Anzac for its militaristic, colonial or racist connotations”, Holbrook observed. “Rather they seek to be embraced by it.” Yet many Australians would find it difficult to successfully weave their stories into the Anzac Day legend. Continue reading

Historical Research on Show in Sydney All This Week

Conference sign stating name of conference

The Australian Historical Association conference is being held this week at the University of Sydney. Photo by Julie-Ann Robson

This week we can get a peek at the themes and topics will be in the histories we will be reading over the next few years.It is the week for the annual festival of history, more soberly known as the conference of the Australian Historical Association.

I have done a preliminary scan of the conference programs and the abstracts of papers to be presented at parallel sessions and in this post will share an overview of the conference.

Not surprisingly the words surrounding the issues of race, empire and colonialism in history dominate the abstracts. A perennial topic of interest at these conferences is the post-settlement history of Aboriginal Australians as well as other topics surrounding colonial life in Australia. We had a great plenary panel last week at the Global Digital Humanities conference on ‘Indigenous Digital Knowledge‘ which featured Australian Aboriginal academic researchers, including the Aboriginal historian, Julia Torpey. I wonder how many Aboriginal historians will be presenting at this year’s conference?

This theme is also reflected in the keynote presentations. If you are in Sydney this week, book now for a public lecture by leading Australian historian, Ann Curthoys. She will be speaking about ‘Race, Liberty, Empire: The foundations of Australian political culture’. This is a free event held at 5:15pm on Wednesday at the City of Sydney Library. Curthoys has written books such as Freedom Ride: A Freedomrider remembers, How to Write History that People Want to Read (co-written with Ann McGrath), Is History Fiction? (co-written with John Docker), and she has co-edited Connected Worlds: History in Transnational Perspective (free via ANU Press and a great read). This is a great chance to hear an Australian author talk about the kind of history she writes. Continue reading

Australians and the Great War at the National Library

A collage of drawings, cartoons and text from wartime publications interspersed with statistics about the war covers one wall at the Exhibition.

A collage of wartime publications displayed at the National Library of Australia’s ‘Keepsakes: Australians and the Great War’ exhibition.

With two daughters now living in Canberra and research required for my book, I am frequently visiting our national capital. On the weekend I attended a seminar about writing during World War One at the National Library of Australia. In the lunch break we had the opportunity to join a curator’s tour of the Library’s World War One exhibition, ‘Keepsakes: Australians and the Great War’.

Like many cultural institutions in Australia, the National Library of Australia is holding an exhibition to showcase the material held in their collections about World War One. We often think that libraries only hold published material, and archives are the home of manuscripts, ephemera and other items. However, the delineation between libraries and archives is not so straight forward, for example the Public Records Office of Victoria holds a number of school readers from the nineteenth century. Libraries such as the State Library of New South Wales hold significant collections of handwritten World War I diaries.

One of the reasons that government libraries in Australia hold unpublished archival material is that in many cases government archives were established many years after government libraries. The National Library of Australia emerged from the Commonwealth Parliamentary Library which was established in the early years of Federation whereas the National Archives of Australia traces its founding back to concerns expressed by Charles Bean in the 1940s about the need to preserve war records.

The Director of Exhibitions, Dr Guy Hansen, explained that the Keepsakes Exhibition was not about developing a particular narrative about the Great War but about highlighting the extent of the primary sources about the War held by the Library. The ‘Mementos of the War’ section shows autograph books, letters, photos and diaries of women and men who served in the War. Here visitors can see a memorial plaque or ‘dead man’s penny’ issued by the government to the next of kin of soldiers who died in the War. Continue reading

Indian Soldiers Fought at Gallipoli

Group of soldiers wearing turbans gathered on top of a hill around a gun barrel on wheels.

The Australian War Memorial says of this photo, “A group of gunners from the 7th Indian Mountain Artillery Brigade with one of their guns, which was used to support the Australian and New Zealand troops on the Gallipoli Peninsula. The guns of this brigade were the first shore at Anzac Cove on 25 April 1915; from then on they won, and kept, the admiration of the infantry.”

The Anzac Day that was bigger than ever has been and gone. Returned soldiers from Australia and New Zealand have marched for another year, remembering wars past and present. This year was the centenary of the event that started it all – the landing of British forces at Gallipoli. Australians and New Zealanders were there.

And so were many Indians.

New Zealand journalist, William Hill landed as a soldier with the Auckland Infantry Battalion. While in hospital later that year he wrote a letter in which he recalled:

The first realisation of what the war really is like came to us as we stumbled across the beach, which was just littered with wounded men – English, French, Indians, New Zealanders and Australians.

29/8/1915

On Saturday Indian soldiers marched at Anzac Day events around Australia. The presence of Indians in the Anzac Day marches is an important reminder of the nature of World War I. It was a war of empires. The imperial overlords mustered the colonials to battle the armies of other empires. At Gallipoli the armies of the French and British empires fought the Ottoman forces on their home soil. The British forces included soldiers from England, Scotland, Ireland, Australia, New Zealand, the India subcontinent and Newfoundland which is now part of Canada.

One hundred years after the first landing of troops at Gallipoli Australians hear very little about the Indian soldiers who played an important part in the fighting at Gallipoli. Yet there are many references to the Indians at Gallipoli in the diaries of the Anzacs. Continue reading

Australia: Respect, Rubbish Bins and Underwear

Anzac Rubbish BinI was astonished. There have been so many complaints about the branding of Anzac and Gallipoli but I never expected to see a rubbish bin adorned with the official logo of the centenary of the landing at Gallipoli.

There it was on Glenferrie Road. I was walking to the hairdresser, minding my own business, and the anniversary was thrust in front of me, unasked, via a rubbish bin!

I took a photo and showed it to a local resident. They took it in their stride. “I think they put Christmas banners on the rubbish bins in Hawthorn too”, they said. I vaguely recall seeing Christmas bells on the rubbish bins. It makes them look pretty and we don’t seem to mind trashy (pardon the pun) promotion of Christmas do we? Anzac is also sacred so if it works for Christmas it must be fine for Anzac.

The Anzac rubbish bin actually says a lot about us. We have a rather haphazard sense of respect. To my knowledge no-one else has raised an eyebrow about these bins and the fact that the logo of a supposedly revered anniversary is a wrapper for a rubbish receptacle.

The banner on the bin highlights the official government logo for the centenary. The Australian government’s Anzac Centenary website stipulates that permission must be sought for any use of the logo, so I presume that the Department of Veteran Affairs has approved the Boroondara Council’s use of the logo on rubbish bins. There is no controversy about these bins in the local area so if they have been noticed, which we can’t assume in a country that plasters logos on everything, people have thought the bins are fine.   Continue reading

Australian Wartime Entertainment in a Century of Wars

Banner of the title of the exhibition on the wall at the entrance to the exhibition.The arts were important to many Australian soldiers during the World War I. This is evident from reading the diaries of Australian soldiers. Soldiers wrote about the books they read, the songs they sang together, quoted extracts from poems and many diaries have sketches and accounts of the beautiful churches they visited. I am planning to do some further research on the singing of Australian soldiers so I was pleased when I accidentally found an exhibition at the Victorian Arts Centre about the entertainment of Australian soldiers.

The exhibition, ‘Theatres of War: Wartime entertainment & the Australian experience‘ tells the stories of the professional entertainers who put on concerts for Australian troops in war zones over the last one hundred years. The exhibition looks at the entertainment provided during wars to boost morale on the home front, military personnel who entertained troops and those entertainers who were not part of the military but who travelled to war zones to entertain the soldiers.  Continue reading

The Anzac Day Silence, Religion and Garland

At today’s National Ceremony for Anzac Day attendees will stand for one minute’s silence to remember all those who have lost their lives in wars and to reflect on what Anzac Day means. The minute’s silence has been part of Anzac Day since the first commemorations of Anzac Day on 25th April 1916. Digitisation of old documents allows us to see how the Anzac Day we know today was first conceived.

As I noted in my post, The Emergence of Anzac Day, planning for the first anniversary of the landing of Australian and New Zealand troops at Gallipoli started early in 1916. Queensland’s Anzac Day Commemoration Committee (ADCC) was formed at a public meeting in Brisbane on 10th January, 1916. This committee war chaired by the Premier of Queensland, T J Ryan, and included leaders of the Roman Catholic, Church of England, Presbyterian and Methodist churches, the Salvation Army, members of parliament, the mayors of Brisbane and South Brisbane, members of local councils and military representatives. The honorary secretary was an army chaplain, Canon D J Garland.

Canon David John Garland

Canon David John Garland

Canon Garland was a Church of England priest who had years of experience in public advocacy. He had been instrumental in campaigns which led to religious education being reintroduced in state schools in Western Australia (1893) and Queensland (1910). Most recently he had been invited to New Zealand to lead a campaign to have religious education reintroduced in schools there. The outbreak of World War I had derailed this campaign. Garland moved back to Brisbane and became a military chaplain.

Garland was asked by the Anzac Day Commemoration Committee in 1916 to devise a program which could be used throughout Queensland to commemorate Anzac Day. Committee member, H J Diddams recalled in 1921 that the program Garland submitted to the ADCC on February 18th included a minute’s silence (Diddams, p. 9). The ADCC encouraged towns and cities throughout Queensland to follow this program, the elements of which were publicised in newspapers such as The Brisbane Courier. Continue reading