Anzac Day: an immigrant’s education

6968598698_f28850d25b_z This Anzac Day, my eleventh in Australia, was a milestone for me.

While I didn’t attend a Dawn service – something I would still like to do – for the first time I got an education about April 25, 1915 and what it means

(And…what it clearly doesn’t mean to a fair proportion of Australians, including SBS sports journalist Scott McIntyre, sacked for his disparaging views.)

Firstly, I wanted to understand why “April 25” and what in fact was being commemorated.

An excellent article by Age journalist Tony Wright “Nation forged by heroes & horror” was a great starting point. Wright wrote his account of the significance of Anzac Day in Gallipoli ahead of the commemoration services.

While evoking the horror of the battles below the cliffs at Anzac Cove –  “shells roaring a few metres overhead, the bodies piling up and the flies and the lice” – Wright provided a neat summary of the important facts and figures:

– that about 40 per cent of the male population between the ages of 18 and 44 enlisted to fight in the Great War (the Returned Services League provides the exact number, 331,781)

– that they were all volunteers (this came as a complete shock)

– that they all thought they were going on a “fine adventure’ (another shock), the RSL says they “rushed to enlist for an exciting war”.

– that 8709 young Australian men died at Gallipoli on a patch of land ” barely larger than an Australian farm” and more than 21,000 were injured, (and that more than 60,000 in total died during the War and more than twice that number were wounded).

– that the invasion of Gallipoli by the Anzacs was a military failure, that achieved “precisely nothing for the invaders in the course of World War 1”.

The innocence, bravery and naivety of the Anzacs astonished me, the loss of life monumental for a small country of just 4.9 million at the time (though I disagree with Wright that the numbers are unimaginable: as a Jew, the slaughter of six million by the Nazis in the holocaust is truly unimaginable).

First Anzac Day, Hobart Domain, Tasmania - 1916

First Anzac Day, Hobart Domain, Tasmania – 1916

Another excellent article, by Tony Stephens, author of The Last Anzacs entitled “Legend outgrows the men who fought“, provided an understanding of what was achieved from the point of view of actual Anzac veterans.

Peeling back the almost cult-like, untouchable heroic status that Anzac Day has undoubtedly achieved among many Australians (among them, the “poorly-read, largely white, nationalist drinkers and gamblers” McIntyre derides in his contentious tweets) there thoughts are sobering and cautionary:

– Tom Epps of the 27th Battalion: “It provided a lesson in the futility of war.”

– Harry Newhouse of the 4th Battalion: “The Turks never did anything to us and we never did anything to the Turks. We did not think we were going to fight them, poor buggers.”

– Albert White of the 25th Battalion: “I never understood what we were fighting for. I went because most of my cobbers went.”

– Ted Matthews, of the Ist Division Signals: “Some people called us ‘five-bob-a-day murderers’ but the politicians were the murderers. Politicians make up the wars. They don’t go to them.”

Stephens writes that Gallipoli built national pride and confidence, but that it’s a “tired cliché to say it marks the birth of a nation, or a coming of age”.

Other events, he says like Federation in 1901, prime minister John Curtin defying Churchill in the Second World War and bringing troops home to defend Australia against Japan, the 1967 referendum that included aborigines in the Census ( I would add the 2008 Rudd government apology to the stolen generations), could all be said to be defining moments in the continual evolution of the shifting Australian national identity.

Many Australian I know – educated, smart, well read – don’t care much for Anzac Day, or how it is remembered.

There views may not be as extreme as Scott McIntyre, but what they really want is some authenticity about how Gallipoli and the Anzacs are remembered and they revile the crass commercialisation, hijacked by the likes of VB, Anzac biscuit makers, Woolworths and others.

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There were hundreds of people, including senior politicians like Malcolm Turnbull who welcomed the sacking of McIntyre for airing his views, but debate about what Anzac Day should mean is healthy and necessary if it is to have resonance for immigrants like myself and our children.

I agree with Guardian columnist and satirist Geoff Lemon, who wrote in light of the sacking of McIntyre, that while his tweets were historically “flawed”…

“…the greatest insult you can offer the fallen is to lie about who they were and what they did – to whitewash their sins and burnish their glories.

Keeping Anzac Day alive and strong starts with education – in my case self-education – not deception, myth-making, political spin and marketing tricks.

I feel a greater affinity with my adopted country, armed with a bit more knowledge about its history.

Lest we forget (…what really happens in war-time)

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