Anzac Day is a good time to reflect on those whose lives were taken in wars involving Australia. With the extinction now of our First World War veterans the realities – not to mention the politics – of commemoration in Australia are bound to become ever more difficult and, perhaps, controversial. There has long been an Australian tendency to deify the Digger – to place him on a pedestal as some sort of white-hat crusader who found glory on the battlefield, even in death. The truth, as I have discovered by walking the battlefields in France and the Middle East is grittier, often more disturbing and always more compelling.
The Australian government has received more than 600 public submissions about how WWI should be commemorated. Some expound the mythologies of Anzac. Others are characterised by a desire to strip it of embellishment as its centenary nears.
One submission stood out to me. It is from Vietnam veteran Jim Robertson. He writes:
”… if I may, an observation made from some experience of these matters – I have served on two similar Commonwealth committees. These ‘commemorations’ all too often turn into a celebration and more particularly one long photo opportunity for politicians … And two more if I may – PLEASE, in your reports, publications and promotions, try to avoid the utterly demeaning term ‘fallen’ when speaking of war dead – they did not trip over a stick or a garden hose, they were drowned, burned, shot, gassed and eviscerated to lie face down in mud or sand or at the bottom of the ocean. ”War is humankind’s most horrific activity and it must be portrayed as such for that is how veterans see it. It should not be made to appear otherwise by false sensitivity or photos of politicians trying to look dutifully serious. And do please, avoid that other offensive expression, ‘win’ or ‘won’ when referring to combat decorations. War is not a card game or Lotto. Decorations are not won, they are awarded. I wish the committee well.”
I, too, hope that we start to see the wars that have involved Australians from beyond the cliche. While official history and semi-official accounts of the various units can serve their purpose very well, they are best read with the personal writings of Australian soldiers themselves. Recently, while at Fromelles to research two Australian Rules footballers who fought at the Somme, I read a potted history of the 29th Battalion to which one footballer belonged. Fromelles was a human butchery – a British bungle that cost 2500 Australian lives in barely 48 hours, eclipsing the worst days of the Diggers’ eight pointless months at Gallipoli. According to this history, the 29th Battalion, which took part in the attack on Fromelles in 1916, had ”achieved in its failure a renown that will never die, a glory that cannot pass away. It tried and it died.” I doubt whether too many of the Australians who were swallowed by the mud at Fromelles, after the German machine gunners cut them down, found glory in it.
Same goes for the mates who searched for them across the body-littered no man’s land for the next few days. In an essay in The Australian Literary Review this month about the great collection of WWI soldier diaries held by the State Library of NSW, historian Peter Cochrane eloquently observed how the tone of the diaries began to change after the men saw action:
”The quaint imperial conviction that war was manly and glorious gave way to the grim certainty that it was butchery or murder in a vast slaughterhouse … Novices charging to glory became, if they survived, dour professionals sustained only by duty and mateship. Rivers of blood destroyed the romance of battle.”
More than 61,000 Australians died in WWI, at least 50,000 of them on the European Western Front. The war stultified Australia for at least a generation. It’s why we need to remember, of course. Germany lost more than 2 million soldiers, conscripted men and boys, in the same war. One of the saddest places I have visited on the Somme (a big call, given the profound melancholy that marks this part of the Western Front) is the German Cemetery at Fricourt. Throughout the legion of British and allied cemeteries that have come to characterise the topography of the Somme and Flanders, you will always find visitors who’ve come to remember their dead. At Fricourt, where the dead are buried four to a grave, there are only the gardeners.