The thousands of Australians who enlisted to fight in the First World War did so because they believed that their liberties were under threat. They fought for freedom and democracy.
However, Richard Flanagan, the Tasmanian novelist and essayist, has said that Anzac Day is a ‘dangerous myth’ and a ‘cult’, and that the government should not spend $100 million on the Sir John Monash Centre Australian National Memorial in France.
At the National Press Club this week, Flanagan said that of the 62,000 young Australians who died during the First World War, ‘not one of those deaths…was necessary.’ Their lives, he says, were wasted fighting someone else’s war. It would have been better, he said, if they had all just stayed at home.
But the young men who went to fight certainly didn’t think of it as someone else’s war and they certainly didn’t stay at home. As history has shown us, Australians ‘flew to arms in an instant’. Nearly 417,000 Australians enlisted while a total of 318,00 actually ended up sailing overseas. More than 60,000 were killed and 156,000 were wounded, gassed or taken prisoner. The population of Australia at the time was only four million.
The 318,000 who volunteered were Empire men, loyal and intensely proud of their British heritage. Three out of every ten men who enlisted were born in Britain and significant numbers had kinfolk there.
The Australians who fought in World War I knew what was at stake and they knew that it was worth fighting for.
They knew that the defeat of Great Britain and France by Imperial Germany could carry serious consequences for Australia.
They knew that the values of liberty, inquiry, toleration, religious plurality and economic freedom were under threat. They were fighting to keep the rule of law, that broad set of principles vital to the order and stability of society and which is one of the most effective guards against the wielding of arbitrary power.
They were fighting for the notion of a liberal democracy and the right to vote. Prime Minister Hughes was unequivocal in his contrast of German militarism and Australian democracy. ‘We fight not for material wealth, not for aggrandisement of Empire, but for the right of every nation, small as well as large, to live its own life in its own way. We fight for those free institutions upon which democratic government rests.’
These legal and political rights arrived in the new colony of NSW from Britain in 1788, where the balance between arbitrary power and personal freedoms had already been tried and tested over many centuries.
Australians valued this political inheritance and the precious freedoms went with it. Those who served in Gallipoli faced dangers and privations that they could not have imagined when they enlisted in Australia to defend these freedoms, values and institutions.
Prime Minister Hughes argued that the Australian sacrifice was so great that by ‘our deeds on the field of battle we had earned the right to a voice in framing the terms of peace…This is the price,’ he reflected, ‘Australia paid for freedom and safety. Our heritage, our free institutions of government—all that we hold dear—are handed back into our keeping stained with the blood of sacrifice.’
The Monash Centre is a significant project, and the government should fund the museum to honour the Australians who died on the Western Front. It is not, ‘at heart a centre for forgetting’ as Flanagan would illogically have us believe. The purpose of the Monash Centre is to commemorate the lives of those who paid the ultimate sacrifice for future generations of Australians.