Launch speech for Griffith Review 48: Enduring Legacies at Readings, Carlton
Wednesday, 22 April 2015
I eagerly accepted the invitation to launch the latest issue of the Griffith Review, one of the finest and most consistent publications in the social sciences in Australia, and, with the centenary of Anzac looming, I was particularly impressed by its superb collection of essays on Gallipoli, or on related themes.
Eight essays deal specifically with Gallipoli, Anzac and World War I, but some of the finest deal with events before or after – for example Jim Davidson on the Boer War, John Clarke on the work of Ray Parkin, Barry Hill on Rabindranath Tagore, Tony Bonyhady on Kristallnacht, Clare Wright on ‘Forgetting to Remember’, Jenny Hocking on Flight Lieutenant Navigator Gough Whitlam’s reaction to war service, Joy Damousi on Greek war memories, Paul Ham on US and Australian tensions in the Vietnam conflict, Rosetta Allan on kamikaze pilots, Peter Stanley on the Victoria Cross.
There is a powerful painting by Ben Quilty on the cover.
Going to War
One of the most disturbing elements of Australia’s colonial history, rarely observed and almost never discussed, is the enthusiasm of colonists in the nineteenth century for creating infantry and navies and participating in military adventures overseas.
Australian colonists were first involved in the Maori Wars in New Zealand (1845–46; 1863–64), there were volunteers for both sides in the US Civil War (1861–65) and a contingent from New South Wales went to the Sudan (1885). Then followed the Boer War (1899-1902) and the Boxer Rebellion in China (1900–01), where – Wikipedia informs me – duties included providing members for firing squads.
Were they volunteers or conscripts in this role?
We need to ask: ‘Why the enthusiasm for involvement in war?’
There seems to have been a compelling sense that Australia’s colonists, at the end of the earth, would be forgotten unless they were seen to be involved. ‘Australia will be there.’
It is matched by the enthusiasm shown for the building of forts to protect Australia from invasion at Queenscliffe, Victoria, and Battery Point, near Hobart. They were to ensure that the Russians did not invade. I concede that this objective was successful – the invasion of Turkey, less so.
No doubt, a sense of adventure was a powerful factor – and also the expectation that if we offered support to powerful friends, they would come to our aid if we were in trouble. (This has been a continuing theme in our foreign policy and the rationale for our fighting in Malaya, Korea, Vietnam, Iraq and Afghanistan.)
Every Western intervention in the Middle East in the past century (except for the creation of Israel in 1948, and this is still bitterly contested) has failed and it is wildly optimistic to assume that action against ISIL will be any more successful.
In World War I, the original proponents of an attack on the general area of the Dardanelles were Colonel Maurice Hankey, Secretary of the War Cabinet, and Admiral of the Fleet Lord Fisher, the First Sea Lord.
Winston Churchill soon became convinced, after initially preferring a Baltic intervention, that an attack on Gallipoli would lead to speedy capture of Constantinople (as the West still called it, although the Muslim world called it Istanbul from 1453), causing a domino effect. The Ottoman Empire would collapse, pressure would be taken off Russia, rising nationalism would break up the Habsburg Empire and the war would soon be over.
The major players in the Gallipoli drama were all shaped by their personal history.
They were victims of their own delusions, too.
Abolition of the Ottoman Empire at the end of World War I led to the creation of new states: Turkey, Iraq (whose boundaries were said to said to have been drawn by Churchill), Syria and Lebanon (ruled by France), and Palestine (ruled by Britain).
Attitudes towards World War I, and especially to Gallipoli, are political and highly charged in Australia. In Britain, a major controversy has already erupted over rival interpretations about justifications for the war and UK involvement. Thousands of Australians each year visit Gallipoli for Anzac day – far more than thirty years ago. How many attempt to work out why we were there?
Why we were invading Turkey (or the Ottoman Empire, as it was then called)? Was it in response to some attack on us, or threat to our survival? What issues were in contention between Australia and the Ottoman Empire in 1915? What threat did the Turks represent? None, that I can think of.
It is hard to come up with a convincing justification. That the loss of life was tragic is not in doubt – but visitors recognise the suffering on both sides. Kemal Atatürk paid extraordinary homage to the war dead, both invaders and defenders. Gallipoli plays a central role in the national myths of Turkey and Australia. (Oddly, not for Britain, France or New Zealand, which suffered greater losses.)
However there is a revisionist view, long after the event, that Gallipoli may have had some value.
In Engineers of Victory: The Problem Solvers Who Turned the Tide in the Second World War (Random House, 2013), Paul Kennedy records that Gallipoli was studied carefully before the 1944 Normandy landings as a case study of how not to mount an invasion. Winston Churchill was heavily involved in both operations. (James Brown’s essay, ‘Anzac instincts’ (p. 279) refers to the role of Colonel, later General, George Patton in his devastating review, in the 1930s, of the Gallipoli debacle.)
I have always resisted the dangerous belief, revived by John Howard and currently promoted by Team Australia, that Gallipoli is Australia’s great creation myth – White Australia’s, that is – and that the Anzac tragedy brought us together as a nation.
Christopher Pugsley points out that while New Zealand suffered more losses per capita than Australia on Gallipoli, the rhetoric has been quite different: nobody says that Gallipoli made New Zealand.
Gallipoli: the unmaking of a nation?
World War I knocked the stuffing out of Australia. There was a sense that we were isolated, on our own, not able to cope without great and powerful friends.
Australia was a far more vital, optimistic and creative place in the twenty years before 1915 than in the two decades following.
Major reforms in 1895–1915 included Federation, votes for women, and setting up federal institutions, establishing the High Court and the Commonwealth Bank, the arbitration system and the ‘Harvester judgment’, old age and invalidity pensions, the world’s first Labor national government, Australian stamps and currency, exploring Antarctica, transcontinental railway, choosing Canberra as the national capital, and developments in science and education. There was a strong sense of independence and recognition of Australia as being a social laboratory.
Between 1913 and 1935, there was a long dip – both economic and psychological – in Australia. (Our gross domestic product per capita only returned to the 1913 level in 1938.) We became more defensive, anxious – more dependent on the British connection, derivative and divided on sectarian lines. There was a failure of nerve. The progressive movement was crushed. Families were deformed by death, wounds, psychological impairment.
Apart from the establishment of CSIRO and the ABC, the inauguration of Canberra and setting up the Commonwealth Grants Commission, it is hard to point to major reforms in that period of 1915–35. The argument that Gallipoli was central to establishing a modern, confident, innovative Australia is demonstrably false. Australia deferred adoption of the Statute of Westminster (1931), which provided for Constitutional sovereignty, for fear of weakening the British connection.
The reaction to the visit of the Prince of Wales, later King Edward VIII, to Australia in 1920 could only be described as hysterical. (His letters to his then mistress indicated that he hated it.) In the same year, General Sir William Birdwood, the British officer who commended the ANZAC Corps, was honoured in the Australian Parliament – a distinction never given to Sir John Monash.
Tim Fischer, formerly Deputy Prime Minister, has been working assiduously to secure the posthumous promotion of Sir John Monash to Field Marshal.
Tim thought that Australia had only had one Field Marshal – Sir Thomas Blamey, promoted on his deathbed in 1951. I pointed out with my characteristic tact that there had been three – Blamey, Lord Birdwood in 1925 and – you may be surprised to learn – the Duke of Edinburgh, a promotion not granted by Tony Abbott (as you might have thought) but by Sir Robert Menzies, who did but see him passing by in 1963.
The government of Stanley Melbourne Bruce, which made Birdwood a Field Marshal in the Australian Forces in 1925, refused to promote Monash from Lieutenant General to General.
Over-emphasis on Gallipoli has led to a failure to grasp the significance of Australia’s success story on the Western Front in 1918 – as Ross McMullin argues – in which John Monash played a central role. (Field Marshal Montgomery thought he was the most successful general of World War I.)
In my UNESCO period in Paris, I accompanied our ambassador to three annual commemorative services for Australians fighting on the Western Front, and we made our way to Villers-Bretonneux.
And when they were held? 25 April, naturally.
Alan Bond hailed his win in the 1983 America’s Cup as being ‘the greatest Australian victory since Gallipoli’. Many Australians may come to feel the same way.
I congratulate Julianne Schultz and Peter Cochrane for their exemplary editorial work and their choice of authors. I have picked up very few slips. One factor struck me: I have never seen a book which uses the word ‘occluded’ so much (to stop up, hinder, obstruct).
I know that Jim Davidson is keen on the word, but I hope it will not prove infectious.