Australian historians unravel the Anzac myth

by Toby Manhire / 25 April, 2012
Beyond the bluster over Jock Anderson's remarks, a real debate about the Anzac idea is alive in Australia.
The storm surrounding Jock Anderson’s characterisation of Australian soldiers – he said some World War One troops were “bludgers, poachers and theives” – has drowned out an interesting debate happening in Australia, much of which appears to support the thrust of Anderson’s remarks.

A trio of books has recently emerged threatening the Australian idea of the Anzac character.

Geoff Strong surveyed the new works in a report for the Melbourne Age newspaper last week. He writes: “Many historians now believe the myths surrounding this most hallowed day have diverted us from the truth.”

The first book Strong looks at is the same one that NBR journalist Anderson cited on Radio New Zealand, former army officer and historian Graham Wilson’s Bully Beef and Balderdash.

While Wilson has told Newstalk ZB that Anderson’s remarks were “mind boggling”, and suggest he has not read any more than the blurb on his book, his own comments in the Age go some way (on the surface at least; I haven’t read his book, either) to supporting the Anderson line.

He tells Strong in the Age:

We were not a disciplined fighting force like the British, or even the New Zealanders, and had an appalling discipline record ...

In reality, most were urban and probably factory workers who didn't know one end of a rifle from the other. In terms of fighting skill, the Turks we fought at Gallipoli were much better soldiers and it wasn't until 1917 that the Australians became an effective fighting force.

Then there’s historian and academic Marilyn Lake. The co-author of What's Wrong with Anzac? argues, in Strong’s summary, that “it was untrue that Australia's national identity was formed in Gallipoli in 1915” and that “the Anzac myth had been used to legitimise military actions, particularly in Iraq and Afghanistan”.

She tells Strong:

From when we were formed as a nation in 1901, we had already achieved headlines and attention on the world stage by our advanced social democracy, including minimum wages and women's equality. Visitors came from around the world to see how these social experiments worked.

Finally, Strong turns to a collection edited (and contributed to) by University of NSW historian Craig Stockings, Anzac's Dirty Dozen. In it the writers attempt to demolish a dozen myths surrounding Australian military history.

Stockings tells the Age that “one of the persistent myths was that Australia became embroiled in other people's wars by factors outside its control, but this was the reverse of the truth”.

Says Stockings:

Every war … has seen us take a deliberate decision to go to war in support of a powerful ally. It is a kind of premium on an insurance policy hoping that if we do this they will come to our aid if we were to find ourselves under threat.

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