The Mystic of ANZAC: Sacrificial Violence and the Search for Australian Nationhood

Written by: Alexandra McDermott

This weekend saw the marking of Remembrance Day. Many people in various countries will have gathered at war memorials to lay wreaths, paused to pay respect in communal silence or worn a red poppy or bleuet as a gesture of commemoration. The shared trauma of the First World War generated a remarkable phenomenon of memorialization that has proved immensely adaptable, still observed across numerous former combatant nations. The ritual has also expanded to include the dead of ensuing conflicts, thus ensuring its continued relevance. It is, however, a day of contention as well, with arguments that it celebrates militarism, promotes xenophobia or oversimplifies the past. Nevertheless, the day’s international character, as well as the personal element of grief which originally characterised many of the memorials erected, has allowed it to transcend, at least in part, the nationalist sentiment. In Australia and New Zealand, however, the marking of a different anniversary from the same war has proved more potent in generating support than Remembrance Day and is explicitly national in character. Indeed, for many, especially in Australia, it represents the birth of the nation itself: ANZAC Day.

Celebrated annually on 25 April, the day commemorates the first landing of the Australian and New Zealand Army Corps during the Gallipoli Campaign of 1915 at the now-iconic ANZAC Cove, where large numbers of soldiers would remain throughout the ill-fated eight-month campaign. There are many reasons why this event appears an unlikely source for a nation’s foundational myth. In the first place, the landing was part of a larger Allied offensive that included far greater numbers of British and French troops. Australia had no direct stake in the conflict, and their participation was contingent on their status as imperial subjects of the British empire. Furthermore, the campaign was a notable failure. Although there is ongoing debate over the extent to which the campaign was a hard-fought, close-run affair or a military debacle of epic proportions, it was inarguably a defeat that resulted in huge numbers of casualties. Many of these were from illnesses caused by the unsanitary conditions endured during the occupation of the peninsula, which was sustained long after any hope of military breakout had passed. In the end, the most redeeming feature of the entire affair was the efficiency of the evacuation when it finally came. By comparison, the place of Gallipoli in Turkish national memory is far more understandable, especially as the victorious commander of the Ottoman troops was Mustafa Kemal Atatürk, later famous as the first president of the Republic of Turkey.

So why ANZAC? Why would such an unlikely event have become sacralised as the defining moment of Australian nationhood? To be sure, any settler colony faces a particularly challenging historical narrative to work with in establishing its national mythology. In the United States, however, the War of Independence provided the violent rupture with the imperial past suitable for use as an ‘origin’ story for the new nation. Similar tales of violent struggle occurred across much of Latin and South America. Australia and Canada, acquiring their independence slowly through acts of legislation, had to look harder for usable moments of inception. For Australia there were knottier problems than an uninspiring lack of excitement, as it was necessary to circumvent the actual facts of its inception as a modern state: a dumping ground for Britain’s convicts. The conquest of Australia by the Europeans, setting aside the unsavoury characteristics of racism and potential genocide that make it problematic today, was not used in the days of ‘White Australia’ either, as the doctrine of terra nullius had propagated an earlier contradictory myth of an empty continent.

A more promising event, the Eureka Rebellion on the goldfields of Ballarat in 1854, frequently hailed as a watershed moment for Australian democracy, also failed to generate a founding legend, although occasional attempts to refashion it as such continue into the present day. The first difficulty was that the British government had already passed the Australian Constitutions Act 1850, thus setting the colonies of Australia on track to achieving parliamentary democracy a year before gold was discovered. Furthermore, the international and transitory nature of the goldfields did not provide a very secure base for the provision of a distinctly Australian act of identity-making. Consider, for instance, that of the thirteen rebels who were tried for high treason over the uprising, only one was a native-born Australian, with most being recent arrivals from Europe (notably Ireland) and America. Also, the impact was primarily felt in Victoria, and at this stage the separate colonies did not necessarily embrace a shared identity. But by the time of federation in 1901, a culture of shared Australian identity had been shaped, largely through the literary output of figures such as Henry Lawson, Banjo Patterson and Ethel Turner and fiercely promoted by the nationalistic Bulletin magazine, which was epitomized by the romantic ‘bushman’ image of a national type. Australia was then in the unusual position of being, from a legal standpoint, a nation, which also felt itself to be a nation, yet lacked a key component to its national story: a birth.

It is important to note that nationhood in the 19th and early 20th century was tightly linked to violence. Nations were born in war, and, like men, proved themselves in war. Considering the bloody history of nationalism throughout this period, such a conclusion was not without a certain destructive logic. Australia ostensibly had arrived at federation without this necessary rite of passage, for the endemic violence against the indigenous people was discounted. The outbreak of the First World War, then, provided exactly the right type of opportunity. This desire for what the great promotor of ANZAC, war correspondent and later historian C.E.W. Bean, called a ‘ritual blooding’ of the nation explains away some of the awkward facts of Gallipoli as a national myth. The battlefield’s distance from the homeland, the war’s imperial character, the glorification of a failure – none of this mattered. In fact, the importance of the ANZAC landing as Australia’s arrival as a nation on the world stage had been proclaimed before the first wave of troops were put ashore. Both context and result were immaterial.

From this viewpoint, the international placement of the event could be seen as a distinct advantage, as outsider recognition is likewise important to legitimizing national identity, and there were plenty of outsiders at Gallipoli to appreciate the event. ANZAC took place very conspicuously under the eyes of the world, and other actors, notably the British press, seemed equally eager to hail the moment as the arrival of Australia as a full-fledged nation, able to take its place alongside its European counterparts in history. The British correspondent Ellis Ashmead-Bartlett was so effusive in his praise that The ANZAC Book wryly suggested that ‘future historians will teach that Australia was discovered not by Captain Cook, explorer, but by Mr. Ashmead Bartlett, war correspondent’.

The ANZAC Book was itself one of the most remarkable products of the campaign and central to the cementing of the ANZAC legend among the domestic population back home. Complied and edited by Bean from submissions solicited from soldiers whilst they were actually serving at Gallipoli, no book, he boasted, ‘has ever been produced under these conditions before’. There was probably much truth to that claim, and the uniqueness of its origins meant that its veracity was difficult to challenge. Unlike origin myths that are rediscovered and given narrative meaning at a remove of decades or centuries, the story of ANZAC was, at least in part, created by those who were the subject of its mythologizing. Related to this point, ANZAC provides a singular example of an origin myth that does not hark back to a misty and ancestral past but was instead a well-documented modern event whose facts cannot easily be manipulated. On the one hand this has given weight to its impact but has likewise created insoluble problems. Gallipoli cannot be reinterpreted from what it actually was – a violent act of asserting nationhood conducted largely by white men – in order to better suit contemporary Australia’s developing self-identity.

Ultimately, Australia has changed considerably as a nation since the First World War, and the suitability of ANZAC as an origin myth has become highly contested. Nevertheless, until a more viable alternative is created, Australia will likely continue to embrace the ‘ANZAC spirit’as its great national moment.

Featured Imagery: Taken by Alexandra herself, close-up of the bronze relief from the ANZAC Boulder in Battersea Park.


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