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Anzac Day Then & Now
By Tom Frame
University of New South Wales Press LtdCopyright © 2016 Tom Frame
All rights reserved.
REFLECTING ON A RETROSPECTIVE
Reflections to 1965
My first publication on the theme of Anzac was an article entitled 'Anzac, the substitute religion' in the fortnightly journal Nation on 23 April 1960. I began by quoting a characterisation of Anzac Day by John Douglas Pringle, the Scottish-born editor of the Sydney Morning Herald:
Anzac Day is Australia's only true national day, and it calls forth deep emotions. Yet when the march is over and the hotels are open, the day quickly degenerates into licence and by six o'clock at night half the diggers are staggering blind drunk from pubs and regimental reunions – a drunkenness tolerated cheerfully by police and the community.
Anzac Day was often called 'the one day of the year' and the phrase gained wider currency in 1960 as the title of an irreverent play by Alan Seymour which the governors of the Adelaide Festival rejected. I wanted to examine an aspect of the day less generally noticed or understood: the continuing contest between leaders of the Returned Services League (RSL) and Protestant churchmen for custody of Anzac commemoration. This was my central theme in a much-quoted article appearing in St Mark's Review in November 1965 marking the fiftieth anniversary of the Gallipoli landings. It was entitled: 'Anzac and Christian – two traditions or one?'
I tried to compare, contrast and comment upon three incidents. The first was a debate among Melbourne churchmen during 1937–38 about the amount of religious content that should feature in the Anzac Day service at the Melbourne Shrine of Remembrance. The second was a resolution passed by the New South Wales RSL Congress in 1955 that would remove all denominational content from Anzac Day services and preclude clergy from taking any leadership role. The third incident was in 1965 (the fiftieth anniversary year) when Anzac Day fell on a Sunday and the RSL refused to shift the march to the afternoon (as it had done before) to allow churchgoers to attend worship services in the morning. I concluded with a letter to the editor of the Sydney Morning Herald by a Second AIF member:
a trend which is becoming increasingly in evidence in the RSL ... to de-Christianize Anzac celebrations and to replace worship of God alone with a reverence for the spirit of our departed comrades. If this trend continues, a new religion of ancestor worship could develop, complete with ritual, signs of which are already in evidence at some RSL gatherings.
This kind of commentary led me to consider the custom at RSL gatherings of enacting a ritual in which the hall is darkened except for an illuminated cross, the chairman recites Laurence Binyon's 'They shall grow not old', and the members respond with 'We will remember them', followed by Rudyard Kipling's line 'Lest we forget'. This ceremony, I suggested, was devised by people who were unable to get comfort from traditional Christian affirmations about what happens after death. The term 'substitute religion' conveyed my sense that the rituals and monuments Australians had constructed to commemorate participation and loss in war constituted a cult bearing comparison with phenomena elsewhere in the world that were being given such names as civic or secular religion.
Like other Australians born midway between two world wars I grew up in the shadow of Anzac. I could say with my age-mate the novelist Peter Shrubb 'Anzac Day was the only day of the year with any kind of holiness in it'. The twenty-fifth day of April was a heavy presence in our schooling, both on and off the curriculum. But if we went on to university we were unlikely to see or hear much about Anzac, even if we studied history. All that the word Anzac represented was virtually absent from Australian historical writing. I began to wonder why. That question became connected in my mind with curiosity about the condition of organised religion in Australia. Having set out to explore that subject, I found my interest shifting away from formal institutions and towards the broader theme of what had been happening in the twentieth century to religiosity, faith and the sense of the sacred, as the Christian churches were losing their power to enjoin obedience, to confer consolation and to deliver those other services for which they had long been vehicles. Between 1960 and 1965 I read and thought about the commemoration of war in that context.
In January 1964 I presented a paper to the History section of the Australia New Zealand Association for the Advancement of Science (ANZAAS) Congress in Canberra entitled 'The Anzac Tradition'. I aired my puzzlement over historians' near-silence on the subject and in particular the absence of CEW Bean from the canon of Australian historiography. Bean was general editor of the twelve-volume Official History of Australia in the War of 1914–1918 and himself author of the six volumes on the Australian Imperial Force (AIF). Why, I asked, did we hear so little of those works devoted to recording and celebrating the performance of Australians in the Great War? Why so little discussion of Bean's large question: 'How did the Australian people – and the Australian character, if there is one – come through the universally recognised test of this, their first great war?'
I looked at the vision of Anzac expressed by the nation's most popular wartime versifier, CJ Dennis, in his poems The Moods of Ginger Mick, about the transformation of an unruly larrikin into an ardently patriotic member of the AIF. When Dennis kills Mick off at Gallipoli, his mate 'the Sentimental Bloke' gives him an epitaph devoid of Christian consolation:
'E found a game 'e knoo, and played it well;
An' now 'e's gone. Wot more is there to tell?'
Turning to real life, I found little or no more of Christianity in the monuments of Anzac than in the sentiments of Dennis. Of the country's three main war memorials, I observed, Melbourne's Shrine of Remembrance and Sydney's Anzac Memorial are ancient Greek in architecture and iconography. The only allusion to Christianity in the third, Canberra's Australian War Memorial, of which Charles Bean was a principal creator, appears in a stained glass window labelled 'Ancestry', where accompanying cricket stumps and other objects is a church spire. The official description tells us this represents, 'the European tradition of Christianity', a phrase signalling a civilisation as much as a religion. I might have added that were this still an age of chivalry the design of that window could have served well for Charles Bean's personal coat of arms.
The secretary of the History section of the ANZAAS gathering, Barbara Penny, arranged for discussion of my paper to be opened by Arthur Bazley, Charles Bean's batman from 1914 to 1918 and for more than twenty years his assistant on the war histories. Among other discussants was Gavin Long, Bean's successor, in charge of the official histories of Australia in the war of 1939–1945, who remarked that this was a historic occasion: for the first time in his experience, academic and military historians were talking together about war and its meanings. The Sydney Morning Herald reported my talk, welcomed it in an editorial, and invited me to write two articles for Anzac Day, which also appeared in The Age. My ANZAAS paper was published in 1965 in the literary magazine Meanjin Quarterly, whose editor Clem Christesen made it the first item in a symposium with contributions over the next three issues from Geoffrey Serle, Michael Roe and Noel McLachlan. Christesen republished the paper in 1968, in a Meanjin anthology entitled On Native Grounds.
I travelled to the place where it all began in 1965. For the fiftieth anniversary of the campaign the RSL and its New Zealand counterpart the Returned Services Association organised a pilgrimage to Gallipoli: a cruise around the Mediterranean with stops for visits to war cemeteries; receptions in Istanbul; and a landing on the Gallipoli peninsula on 25 April. For more than half of the three hundred or so pilgrims this was a return to Gallipoli, half a century after they had gone ashore as invaders. I went along as reporter for the Canberra Times, which was now edited by Pringle. This was a historian's dream: three weeks with all those veterans of the AIF and the New Zealand Expeditionary Force who between ports had nothing to do except talk. I literally had a shipload of primary sources.
I learned a lot about the character of the RSL, especially the egalitarianism which made it perilous for ex-officers to pull rank. I learned a lot about the NZ in Anzac, including the touchiness of New Zealanders whenever Australians behaved, or so it could seem to their trans-Tasman cousins, as if they were big brothers. I learned a little about Turkish perceptions, such as the inability of the old enemies to realise that Anzacs were not mere colonials who would be content with ceremonies honouring them as British, but distinct and proud peoples: Aussies and Kiwis. Above all, I became more aware that I was observing what I had started to think of as Anzac religion: not anti-Christian, not at all, but not denominational either, centring on the veneration of dead comrades whose spirits might or might not be inhabiting a hereafter. They shall grow not old. As for those who did grow old, a common valediction at the wharf in Athens was 'See you at the hundredth'.
My experience of the pilgrimage affected what I said and wrote about Anzac from then on. The transfer of control of Anzac ceremony from Protestant churchmen to leaders of the RSL was all but complete. Anzac Day had become a case study in the secularisation of public life.
Reflections from 1965 to 2015
Anzac went on occupying me as a subject of research and reflection. For the 1969 ANZAAS Congress in Adelaide I wrote a paper on the Australians at Gallipoli, an attempt to disentangle history from legend, which was published in 1970 as two articles in Historical Studies. Also in 1969 I gave a Macrossan Lecture on Charles Bean, who had died in 1968, at the University of Queensland. A revised version is included in volume seven of theAustralian Dictionary of Biography which was published in 1979.
From 1970 I had plenty of company, as more and more historians began to explore the Australian experience of war, and especially the Great War. Most notably Lloyd Robson published in 1970 The First AIF: a study of its recruitment 1914–1918, a statistically rigorous investigation whose conclusions challenged some of Bean's claims; and Bill Gammage's The Broken Years: Australian soldiers in the Great War, originally a doctoral thesis for the Australian National University, appeared in 1974. It is a collective self-portrait tenderly and skilfully crafted from men's own letters and diaries which went into edition after edition and remains in print to this day. Gammage's central message is that only mateship made these men's experience endurable. My own exploration of Anzac in the 1970s was enriched by living and working in Papua New Guinea. Here dawn services enabled a momentary union of black and white, skin colours invisible in the dark and peacetime roles suspended, among the graves of Papua New Guineans and Australians in war cemeteries. Back in Australia after 1975 I used another ANZAAS congress, in Melbourne in 1977, to try out some thoughts, this time about monuments and ceremonies as evidence for historians.
Like most students of Anzac commemoration I assumed that we were studying an institution in decline, powerless to survive the dying of men from the two world wars. Whether or not veterans of the Vietnam Conflict marched with their fathers and grandfathers, it seemed unlikely that the experience of an army composed of conscripts and professional soldiers, implicated in an ultimately disastrous American enterprise, could be grafted on to Anzac legend. In a recent review of Anzac observance Christina Twomey spots two items from 1980 as signs of the times: in Larry Pickering's Australian cartoon a child asks 'What was that holiday, Dad?' and a Bulletin headline proclaims 'Last Post for Anzac'. But change was in the air, signalled in 1981 by the film Gallipoli, directed by Peter Weir with screenplay by David Williamson and having Bill Gammage as historical consultant. In keeping with the spirit of Gammage's book, Weir and Williamson took as their starting point not the heroic landing of 25 April but the pointless massacre of 7 August. The film depicts soldiers as victims, and their war not, as for Bean, an epic, but a tragedy. They are not even, visibly, killers. We do not see one Turk shot or bayoneted.
The film reached a wider audience than any other representation of Anzac, and contributed to a heightened participation in Anzac activities discernible during the later 1980s. Agitation against Anzac observance by radical feminists at this time may also have enhanced commemoration, though that was far from their intention. Under the slogan 'Women Against Rape' the radicals set out to create their own tradition of rape in warfare to invoke against the keepers of the Anzac tradition; but the image of the Anzac as rapist probably outraged more people than it attracted, and the movement was renamed the Anti-Anzac Day Collective before fading away.
By 1990, the 75th anniversary of the Gallipoli campaign, observers were reporting a resurgence of commemorative activity, most spectacularly evident in that year on the sacred soil of Gallipoli. The Menzies Government's commitment to 50th anniversary celebrations had been unequivocal but parsimonious: a stamp honouring Simpson and his donkey; landscaping of the ground between the Australian War Memorial and Lake Burley Griffin and renaming it Anzac Parade. The pilgrimage of 1965 was conducted with the aid of £20,000 from the Commonwealth Government. The only people awaiting the pilgrims as they stepped ashore, apart from Turkish officials, were four young Australians, two boys and two girls, who had hitchhiked from England.
The Dawn Service at Anzac Cove on 25 April 1990 included an address by the Prime Minister, Bob Hawke, in the presence of a party of very old men who had served either on Gallipoli or during the Great War and who had been flown across the world on Qantas Flight 1915 with their minders at public expense to become objects of veneration by several thousand backpackers in a ceremony also seen live by millions at home on television. The service became an annual event, attended by steadily increasing numbers of Australians and New Zealanders, most of them young. More than 8000 people assembled for the Dawn Service in 2000, when John Howard and Helen Clark, Anzac Prime Ministers, inaugurated a Commemorative Site at a place the invaders had called 'North Beach'. Still the numbers rose, to 17,000 in 2005, and dipped after warnings that there was a 'high threat' of terrorist attack in places around Turkey frequented by tourists. Then a new threat to the sacred landscape appeared: bulldozers, called in to make the site more accessible to visitors. 'It's pointless', said Bill Gammage, 'to destroy Anzac to let more people see it'.
Meanwhile at home, more and more people were attending services at dawn and later in the day, and the numbers marching and watching the march were increasing in communities large and small. At the Australian War Memorial in Canberra, where attendances at the dawn service would pass 20,000 early in the new millennium, the remains of a man exhumed from a French war cemetery were placed in a space now deemed to be the Tomb of the Unknown Australian Soldier on 11 November 1993, giving the Hall of Memory an aura of sanctity hitherto lacking. Charles Bean would have approved. Bill Gammage, who had proposed the interment, had asked in the tone that permeated The BrokenYears, whether it could be done before the last Anzac joined his mates. It was, by not quite ten years.
In 1984 I decided to focus my study of commemoration on war memorials, their making and remaking. Setting out with Jan Brazier's assistance to compile an inventory, I was surprised to learn that many new memorials were being installed every year. Assiduous research by Shirley and Trevor McIvor disclosed more than 100 fresh projects and more than 30 refurbishments between 1995 and 2005 in Queensland alone. If the initiators of Great War memorials could tour their country's landscape now, they might be at once saddened that so much mourning was still necessary and gratified that service and sacrifice were still accorded such honour.
Excerpted from Anzac Day Then & Now by Tom Frame. Copyright © 2016 Tom Frame. Excerpted by permission of University of New South Wales Press Ltd.
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Table of Contents
ANZAC DAY: CONTROVERSY AND CRITICISM Tom Frame,
PART ONE: FOUNDATIONS,
1 Reflecting on a retrospective Ken Inglis,
2 Anzac: Celebration or commemoration? Gareth Knapman,
3 The nation's secular requiem John A Moses,
PART TWO: FEATURES,
4 Naming the day: ANZAC or Anzac? Robert Nichols and Peter Stanley,
5 Anzac Day's religious custodians Michael Gladwin,
6 Anzac Day and national identity John Connor,
PART THREE: FRACTURES,
7 Owning Anzac Day: The One Day of the Year Heather Neilson,
8 'They've got a right to their feelings': The One Day of the Year reconsidered Christina Spittel,
9 The fall and rise of Anzac Day? 1965–1990 Jeffrey Grey,
PART FOUR: FERVOUR,
10 Best we forget? Poetry and civic performance Jeff Doyle,
11 Anzac hymns: Ancient and modern? Tom Frame,
12 'Commemorators-in-chief' Carolyn Holbrook,
13 Remembering the fallen or reflecting on fallen-ness? Tom Frame,
APPENDIX 1: POEMS,
APPENDIX 2: HYMNS,