The less we forget
Wartime prime minister Billy Hughes was the first to stitch the loss at Gallipoli into this country’s founding myth. His line was simple, and forever remembered: “Australia was born on the shores of Gallipoli.”
The presence of Australian troops in this ill-conceived battle was political in the first instance and politics has clung to it since.
Attendances at Anzac Day marches have waxed and waned in the intervening 100 years. In the 1960s and 1970s, numbers declined. In the 1980s, under Bob Hawke, they swelled. The Peter Weir film Gallipoli claimed some credit for this.
At a dawn service on Anzac Cove in 1990, Hawke said: “Because these hills rang with their voices and ran with their blood, this place Gallipoli is, in one sense, a part of Australia… We have not come in order to dedicate this place – it is already sacred because of the bravery and the bloodshed of the Anzacs.”
Fifteen years later, John Howard stood on the same earth and intoned on the soldiers who “forged a legend whose grip on us grows tighter with each passing year”. He spoke of soldiers who “changed forever the way we saw our world and ourselves” and who “bequeathed Australia a lasting sense of national identity”.
In that quiet dawn, Howard delivered one of the better speeches of his prime ministership. The last Anzacs already dead, he tried to explain his own passion for the soldiers whose failed mission animates a nation.
“History helps us to remember but the spirit of Anzac is greater than a debt to past deeds,” he said. “It lives on in the valour and the sacrifice of young men and women that ennoble Australia in our time, in scrub in the Solomons, in the villages of Timor, in the deserts of Iraq and the coast of Nias. It lives on through a nation’s easy familiarity, through Australians looking out for each other, through courage and compassion in the face of adversity.”
This year, 100 years after a campaign whose only success was its evacuation, a campaign that killed or wounded 26,000 young men, that is now widely regarded as pointless, Tony Abbott used much the same language as Hughes: “The Great War was the crucible in which the Australian identity was first forged. The sacrifices of our forebears have left us an enduring legacy of freedom.”
It might be a concern that so much of the country’s identity is tied to this blighted effort, to ingenuity and bravery forced by more senior incompetence. Perhaps it is more concerning that so little in this myth has changed in the years that stretch between it and us.
Australia’s Aboriginal heritage is, thankfully, now better understood. The country’s non-military achievements are better taught. But Gallipoli lodges, largely uninterrogated, in the frontal lobe of the nation’s development.
If anything, with time, the myth has been made more and more simple. The memory of loss has faded, and in its place romanticism has bloomed. One hundred years after Australia subjected 50,000 troops to pointless conflict, to defence of a distant homeland, in an ill-judged campaign, it might be just as well to remember the foolishness of politics as the bravery of men.
This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on Apr 25, 2015 as "The less we forget". Subscribe here.