Monday, April 25, 2011

ANZAC Day, national identity & the power of images

Today is ANZAC Day in Australia and New Zealand and in many places around the world where Australians and New Zealanders gather. The day marks the day in 1915 when members of the Australian and New Zealand Army Corps went ashore at Gallipoli in what is now Turkey, but was then part of the Ottoman Empire.

ANZAC Day is a slightly unusual military celebration.

To begin with, it actually celebrates a defeat. The aim  of the Allied invasion was to capture Istanbul, the capital of the Ottoman Empire. The Ottoman Empire  was allied to to the German and Austro-Hungarian Empires. If Istanbul could be captured, then the Ottoman Empire might be forced out of the war.

The Ottoman troops were led by Mustafa Kemal (later known as Atatürk), who would become the founder of modern Turkey. The Allied Forces lacked the numbers to defeat an entrenched well led army and finally were evacuated in secrecy at the end of 1915.  Allied casualties included 21,255 from the UK, an estimated 10,000 from France, 8,709 from Australia, 2,721 from New Zealand, and 1,358 from the Indian E94th_anniversary_Anzac_Day_in_Canakkale_mpire.

Australians and New Zealanders celebrate ANZAC Day as a heroic defeat. To Turkey, it is a heroic victory. This makes for cooperation and shared celebrations that both sides can participate in. It also makes for closer links than you might expect between the three countries. The photo shows Turkish troops carrying the Turkish, New Zealand and Australian flags at an ANZAC Day celebration in Turkey.

As the Wikipedia article draws out, ANZAC Day has undergone many changes since the day was first named in 1916. By the 1960s many, including me, were either opposed to or at least ambivalent about it because we perceived it  as a celebration of militarism, even jingoism. Those opposed to it then really expected it to die as the diggers died. Instead, over the last twenty years it has become institutionalised and gone from strength to strength.

This is partially a reflection of nationalism, something that still makes me uncomfortable, but more a reminder of the sacrifice and horrors of war, a memory of Australians and New Zealanders who have died in so many conflicts beginning in the colonial period. The War Memorials that dot the towns in both countries are still being updated.

Despite the nationalism and the use of ANZAC Day as unifying national symbols, there is no triumphalism in ANZAC Day, no celebration of national military triumphs. This can be difficult for others from different traditions to understand.

In general, the first half of ANZAC Day is remembrance, commemoration. The mood at the dawn services that mark the start of ANZAC Day round the world is somber, restrained. Then after the marches the more larrikin spirit of both countries sets in as the mood changes.

The Australian gambling game two-up symbolises the second phase. Banned until the late 1930s when it was legalised just for and on ANZAC Day, two-up has given Australia such phrases as cockatoo (the person who watched for the police and then squawked a warning) and come in spinner (the spinner was the person who threw the coins). Played by the diggers, it has become a national tradition, although I suspect that more modern Australians know about the game than have actually played it!

ANZAC Day is also unusual because it is a day shared especially between two countries. New Zealanders become concerned that the more self-centred Australians sometimes ignore their role. However, that of itself is part of the complexity of a relationship that really has no direct comparison to national relationships any where else in the world.    

It's a bit like Christmas in some families where the kids fluctuate between harmony and dispute. The back-yard cricket (or rugby or netball or any game you care to name) can get quite vicious. Yet the links continue because neither side can deny the relationship.

Finally, from time I have referred to the blog World War Two Day-By-Day. This has just reached Day 602 April 24, 1941.

On April 24, 1941, the evacuation of the Commonwealth Expeditionary forces from Greece including Australians and New Zealanders in the face of the advancing Germans is getting underway. I wrote a little about this in Arrival in Iraklion, Greece, history & the on-line world and especially An Australian dies in Crete. There I record the words of Australian poet John Manifold who wrote of his friend John Learmonth:

This is not sorrow, this is work: I build
A cairn of words over a silent man,
My friend John Learmonth whom the Germans killed

As John Learmonth was being evacuated from mainland Greece to Crete where he would die, Australian troops were defending Tobruk in the face of Rommel's attacks. I quote from World War Two Day-By-Day:

 At 7 AM, Italian infantry attack the Tobruk defenses at 2 points after an artillery barrage at dawn. Advancing in suicidally close formation, they are broken up by Australian small arms fire from the forward gun pits and British artillery fire from the rear. The attacks are over within an hour (107 Italian POWs captured).

The Australians defending Tobruk became known as the Rats of Tobruk and were celebrated in Charles Chauvel's 1944 film of the same name. The link includes clips from the film.

To a degree this film is propaganda, myth making. Yet the courage at Tobruk stopped the Germans in their tracks. Rommel could not overcome.

Sixty five years later, any Australian regardless of background would instantly recognise the symbols. I quote from curator Paul Byrnes' notes on one clip of the film:

On an armoured patrol into the desert, men of the Australian 9th Division run into an Italian patrol. Peter Linton (Peter Finch) is wounded in the first skirmish. Bluey Donkin (Grant Taylor) and Milo Trent (Chips Rafferty) break off alone into the sand hills, picking off the enemy until both are wounded. As Milo tries to help Bluey, his own head wound makes him unconscious. Bluey tries to keep him awake until their comrades arrive in an armoured vehicle.

This is the film’s first real encounter in the desert and Chauvel emphasises the immediacy and very personal nature of the fighting, as well as the comradeship of the Australian soldiers. They are characterised as ferocious and individualistic fighters, able to function on their own, like guerrillas, but devoted to each other’s care once the enemy is defeated.

The style of this sequence is almost like a newsreel. The narration, written by Maxwell Dunn, is redundant in terms of information, but it gives the audience a sense of direct communication, as if being addressed by a friend in a letter from the front. Audiences were used to narration on newsreels; they were the only source of moving images about the war in an age before television news. Chauvel made use of real newsreel footage in the film, but also newsreel techniques. After the war, this kind of simulated naturalism would be given a name and a great deal of recognition in Europe, as neorealism.

Images are important. To a degree, we are what we believe we are. ANZAC Day reinforces the perceptions of Australians and New Zealanders about themselves. It is, like it or not, a central unifying element in two societies undergoing fundamental change.

The power of ANZAC lies not in its official promotion, its institutionalisation, but in the fact that people in both countries still identify with the underlying messages.   


Australia's ABC went from the Sydney ANZAC March to the Dawn Service at Gallopoli. From there, after a break, the cameras will move to the Dawn Service at  Villers-Bretonneux in France.

According to Wikipedia (link above), on 24 April 1918, Villers-Bretonneux was the site of the world's first battle between two tank forces: three British Mark IVs against three German A7Vs. The Germans took the town, but that night and the next day it was recaptured by 4th and 5th Division of the AIF (Australian Imperial Force) at a cost of over twelve hundred Australian lives.

In 1919 at the unveiling of a plaque to the Australians, the town's mayor spoke of the Australian role. Here he said in part:

Soldiers of Australia, whose brothers lie here in French soil, be assured that your memory will always be kept alive, and that the burial places of your dead will always be respected and cared for...

The school in Villers-Bretonneux was rebuilt using donations from school children of Victoria, (many of whom had relatives perish in the town's liberation), and above every blackboard is the inscription "N'oublions jamais l'Australie" (Never forget Australia).

As I watched the Sydney mVietnamese refugees 1979[4]arch I thought just how thin the ranks were becoming. I also thought that the march showed just how diverse Australia had become. As I watched former soldiers in the ARVN (South Vietnamese Army) march under the old South Vietnamese flag, I thought of the decision by Australian PM Malcolm Fraser to throw open the country's doors to Vietnamese refugees.

At the time some 50,000 per month were fleeing Vietnam with many drowning at sea, other clogging  refugee camps. In the end, Australia took something like 200,000. Yes, 200,000. That's a huge intake.    

   The photo shows Vietnamese refugees arriving for resettlement.

I had to leave the televising of the Gallipoli Dawn service for a period. When I came back, the cameras were focused on the Turkish flag with singing in Turkish. It took me a moment to work out what was going on. It was the Turkish national anthem.

This may not sound significant, but think about it for a moment. Here you have the crescent flag of an admittedly secular country but one with a dominant Muslim population being broadcast on Australian national television as an integral part of one of Australia's most important national celebrations. See what I mean?     


WWII at 70 said...

Thanks for the kind link and quote from my blog (WWII day by day). I am glad if you are finding it interesting and grateful to you for passing along the information.

Cheers, Rory

Jim Belshaw said...

How nice to hear from you, Rory. I first heard about it from the Canadian historian Christopher Moore - I dropped in and became addicted.

There have been several times when I have been tempted to do stories. Your coverage of North Africa coincided with the start of the troubles in Libya. Then you wrote about Iraq and the sending of troops from India.

While it must be an enormous amount of work, the daily coverage brings out the complexities and breadth of that war at an indidual level in a wonderful way. You continue to write and I will continue to promote!


nina boik said...

very good read

Jim Belshaw said...

Thank you, Nina.