For decades, left-wing historians have persistently maintained that the Great War was a series of mistakes and was ultimately meaningless. Author Mervyn F. Bendle’s latest book explores the origins of such thinking, writes Aline Le Guen
There has been much debate about the essence of Australian culture. And no part of Australian history has come under more attack from left-wing commentators and historians than the Anzac tradition.
The Anzac is both a symbol that many have come to embrace as uniquely Australian and a target of political scorn. While thousands attend Anzac Day services, an Australian critic claims that the day celebrates ‘slaughter’.
In his new book Anzac and its Enemies, Mervyn F. Bendle thoroughly explores the origins of the assault on the Anzac tradition. He dissects historical arguments made over the last 100 years that attempt to invalidate the Anzac tradition.
The Anzac tradition is most associated with the war correspondent Charles Bean. Bean had worked as a journalist and had travelled around rural Australia where he had seen those qualities that would later form the core of the Anzac legend, as described by Bendle:
[M]en and women had to stand firm before adversity, work hard, make sacrifices, cooperate and help each other…it was an environment that didn’t encourage hierarchy or servility, but bred instead the stoicism, egalitarianism and mateship that Bean was to locate at the core of the Anzac spirit.
These qualities were memorialised in the Anzac and led Bean to believe that Australia’s defining moment was in the Great War because it was the moment when we became ‘known to ourselves’.
Anzac stood, and still stands, for reckless valor in a good cause, for enterprise, resourcefulness, fidelity, comradeship and endurance that will never own defeat.
Bean didn’t accept that the only relevant information about the battles came from the dispatches of High Command. He sought to get to the experience of the men on the front lines. He wanted his readers to understand that the Australian soldiers were a fair cross-section of Australian society, ‘…that the company commander was a young lawyer and his second in command most trusted mate a young engine driver …’
This egalitarianism wasn’t something that Bean simply wrote about. He saw himself as ‘a plain Australian’, and practiced what he preached. Bean was offered a knighthood three times, in part for his work on The Official History of Australia in the War of 1914-1918, of which he wrote six of the twelve volumes and edited them all. He turned down each offer stating that ‘In Australia the interest of the nation would be best served by the elimination of social distinctions.’ It is ironic that the left-wing historians determined to diminish the Anzac tradition either ignore or discount the work of an author with such an egalitarian streak.
But such irony is hardly surprising, Bendle notes, and Anzacs and its Enemies is full of them. Bendle puts the assault on the Anzac tradition into context with the end of the Great War, the rise of the Soviet Union. The view of the ‘left’ then— under instruction from Moscow— was to argue that the Great War was a battle between two capitalist, imperialist forces. This was consistent with Lenin’s 1917 essay Imperialism, the Highest Stage of Capitalism.
Bendle quite aptly demonstrate the ever shifting position of the left’s view toward the Anzac, especially in the post 1917 era.
The October Revolution had unleashed a world-wide movement promoting communism, and did so in the form of their idea of the ‘Socialist Man’. In Australia, various left-wing groups—busy positioning themselves as the champions of the proletariat—faced genuine competition in the emerging Anzac spirit and the genuine bonds of friendship formed by the soldiers at the front.
The initial goal of these groups was to preserve the Anzac tradition and then transform it into a component of the Marxist-Leninist identity. They failed spectacularly. And soon after, these same groups began to promote the Anzac tradition as a conservative ploy to mislead the workers. Bendle pinpoints this moment as the one when the left turned against the Anzac, and have been discrediting the Anzac tradition ever since.
Since 1960, the left’s view of the Great War has remained consistently nihilistic—essentially, it was one series of mistakes after another, it was meaningless. Likewise, the view of the Anzac soldier itself has changed to fit this nihilistic view.
While there is usually some acknowledgement of the Anzac’s bravery, nonetheless the Anzacs were—with respect to the First World War—slaughtered, betrayed by the British, betrayed by their Australian leaders, their elders, the men were ‘sacrificed en masse’. And this is best epitomised by the Dardanelles campaign—Gallipoli.
In his 2009 book, Gallipoli: The End of the Myth, the historian Robin Prior argued that the Gallipoli campaign ‘was fought in vain. It did not shorten the war by a single day, nor in reality did it ever offer that prospect.’ It’s easy to look back in hindsight and make such assertions, Bendle rightly points out, especially given that a different kind of speculation—what would have happened if they had won—clearly outlines the strategic importance of the campaign at Gallipoli. Namely, to free up a sea route to Constantinople that would allow supplies to flow to England’s ally, Russia. And with the war on the Western Front going badly for the Allies, a successful campaign at the Dardanelles would have allowed Britain and her allies to establish a southern front against their enemies.
By December 1915 the Gallipoli campaign was over. Nearly 9000 Anzac troops were dead, with some 17,000 wounded. It was a shattering loss.
That the Gallipoli campaign failed—and failed with such losses—is tragic. But does that invalidate the attempt? Life itself, as in war, is never straightforward, and success is never guaranteed. None of this takes away from the glaring errors made in the campaign— starting in part with bad intelligence regarding the troop strength of the Ottoman Empire—errors that resulted in thousands dead. But this is all the more reason to honour the courage and bravery of those men who, in terrible conditions, nonetheless refused to give up and would not let each other down. This is the mateship which forms the heart of the Anzac tradition and is dismissed by most of its critics. Indeed one of the major criticisms levelled at the Anzac tradition is that it is itself a social construction ‘bent on commemoration, veneration, and capturing the essence of idealised “Australian” virtues.’
According to some academics, these ‘values’ embodied in the Anzac tradition either never existed, don’t apply, are exclusive, sexist, or are the minority experience and don’t reflect the true character of Australians. Bendle cites Peter Stanley who maintains that the Anzac ‘brand’ ‘unfairly favours “old Anglo- Celtic families who [have] direct connections with those who served in and lived through the Great War”.’
But the loyalty and mateship so epitomised by the Anzacs is an idea that transcends cultures and isn’t limited to those of a certain criteria— it is an idea that can be embraced by anyone. This is also part of the objection some critics rally to—that loyalty and mateship aren’t distinctly Australian. Certainly other men in battle responded to the stresses of war in similar bonds of loyalty to each other. But as with individuals, so with cultures, they expressed their loyalty and affection in ways that were distinctly cultural. It was this that Bean recognised as distinctly Australian. And so the legend of the Anzac was born.
Other historians go further and claim that the Anzac legend itself is nothing more than ‘the resurgence in the memory of war in both popular culture and official commemoration [is not] an organic and spontaneous occurrence [but] has been carefully orchestrated by federal governments [and implemented] by government agencies.’ Bendle quite elegantly points out that the Anzac commemoration is a response from government to the public’s desire for such a ceremony.
To some left-leaning historians, any expression of sentiment to the Anzac is emotional and therefore misguided.
But then the Anzac Day and the Dawn Service are not the first of Australia’s celebratory anniversaries to have been subjected to this kind of assault. Writing in the IPA Review in 1985, Ken Baker outlined that the Australian Bicentennial Authority —specifically created to plan the commemorations—attempted to use the Bicentennial as an opportunity to ‘relegate to the margins of history or even ignore altogether, many of the very things that most Australians would view as central to the unity and identity of the nation’, including the national flag and the Anzac tradition.
In 1988, Baker made the following point as editor for the IPA Review:
A people’s sense of their own history can unify them or it can divide and demoralize them. The new Australian historian rejects the notion of a national interest (nothing overrides the divisions of class, sex and race); he rejects the existence of an Australian culture (which, in the singular, is seen as an expression of an Anglocentric ideology of cultural imperialism).
Revisionist attempts to rewrite history do nothing to help current and future generations understand the past. If Bendle’s book demonstrates anything, it is that it is far too simplistic to break the past down and view it through the modern ‘isms’ that have exploded onto the stage since the end of the Great War. History cannot be viewed and judged through the singular lens of feminism, racism, post-modernism, post-colonialism, or environmentalism—or any other ‘ism’ for that matter—as it fractures and distorts the way we look at our history, and even potentially the way we regard ourselves as a nation. This is the essence of Bendle’s book as he attempts to confront the centurylong attack on the Anzac tradition.
It’s hardly surprising that attempts to discredit the Anzac tradition have instead resulted in a resurgence of commemoration to it. Both the Anzac Day parade and the Dawn Service are seeing record crowds of attendance. With all the confusion wrought by the deconstruction of our history and the assault on our national identity, the simple promise, ‘lest we forget’, has never before been more poignant or necessary.