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Australia & New Zealand: The imperialist reality behind ANZAC myth (updated 2015)

Film by John Rainford and Peter Ewer

April 24, 2015 -- Green Left TV/Links International Journal of Socialist Renewal -- As the 100th anniversary of the ANZAC's ill-fated Gallipoli campaign approaches, this timely short film (above) cuts through the myth making, and shows with damning facts how lives were used as fodder as strategic and tactical blunders led to the slaughter of so many.

It reveals the context behind the Gallipoli campaign - a war fought because the world had been cut up into colonies by the major powers who were now battling for the spoils.

The film shows exactly why the terrible ANZAC Cove campaign should never be forgotten — and the crimes of the warmongers responsible never forgiven.

* * *

ANZACs pose in front of the Sphinx while on leave during WWI.

By Phil Shannon

What’s Wrong With Anzac? The Militarisation of Australian History
By Marilyn Lake & Henry Reynolds
UNSW Press, 2010, 183 pages

Green Left Weekly -- On April 25 in Australia, it is not humanly possible to escape the slouch hats, the Dawn Service, the Last Post, the khaki uniforms and the military ceremonies endlessly recycled in the establishment media. The cult of Anzac Day is pervasive, the culture of war unavoidable.

Immensely welcome, then, is What’s Wrong with Anzac? by Marilyn Lake and Henry Reynolds, which takes a dissenting look at the Anzac Day tradition.

The legend is that the landing by the Australian and New Zealand Army Corps at Gallipoli in 1915, despite ending in defeat, was the supreme test of manhood and nationhood, which Australia passed. Anzac Day is remorselessly promoted as Australia’s true national day and celebrated with religious fervour.

The problems with this national creation myth are many, however. Unlike a revolutionary war of independence, the World War I Anzac landing was part of the Dardanelles campaign instigated by British War Minister Winston Churchill, at the request of the autocratic Russian Tsar, to open a new front against Germany.

It was an invasion, undertaken on behalf of the “mother country”, with “death and violence inflicted in an imperial cause”.

The Anzac cause has been yoked to “defending freedom and democracy” but this is “a marketing slogan” aimed at selling subsequent wars of aggression involving Australia — in Korea, Malaya, Vietnam, Iraq and Afghanistan.

Anzac Day is now depoliticised, reduced to a sentimental story of courage, mateship and the sacrifice of innocent young men rather than a horrendous display of “aggression, conformity and obedience to orders and a capacity to kill people”.

A British war correspondent who was at Gallipoli, Ellis Ashmead-Bartlett, celebrated this latter reality, praising the Anzacs’ enthusiasm for bayoneting Turks when their “blood was up”.

The Anzac tradition is an “imperialist, masculine, militarist” one but such dissent is regarded as treason and disrespectful of the Australian soldiers who died and of those serving in current wars.

With such reasoning, winning support for new wars is thus made easier, especially when the slouch hats are in the field. The Anzac-focused proliferation of military histories, commemorative days and war memorials has “naturalised war”, and has helped to silence debate about current and future wars.

Anzac is all about promoting the “importance of war in the life of the nation”, a lesson passed onto our children courtesy of an offensive by recent Australian governments, led by the Department of Veterans’ Affairs with its budget for its schools program. School children are now “immersed in nationalist sentiment” rather than historical understanding.

Nationalism is a key Anzac value, the Australian flag an inseparable accessory. War, say the mythologists, will unite the country. The Prussian militarist and historian, Heinrich von Treitschke, said war united boss and worker across class lines in a common national purpose — war, “with all its sternness and roughness, also weaves a bond of love between men, since here all class distinctions vanish, and the risk of death knits man to man”.

When the worker lays down with the capitalist, there can only be one winner. Anzac Day helps the rich get richer by blurring competing class identities and interests.

For the approved gospel of Anzac to be effective, certain troublesome elements of Anzac history have had to be excised — those Gallipoli veterans, for example, who returned disgusted with war and who refused to attend Anzac ceremonies. Their voice is rarely heard.

The political division over the unpopular first World War is also rarely acknowledged. Wartime conscription was twice rejected by voters and, in the 1920s, Armistice Day became an occasion for well-attended peace rallies. University students protested the Vietnam War in the 1960s using Anzac Day as a springboard and feminists protested rape in war on the holy day.

In 1973, reflecting the anti-militarist feeling of the time, the Australian Labor Party national conference even discussed a proposal to drop Anzac Day in its current form and replace it with a day of peace (they didn’t, of course, and recently deposed Labor Prime Minister Kevin Rudd intoned that Gallipoli is “part of our national identity” and that he was “absolutely proud of it”).

The heightened levels of Anzac obsession marginalise Australia’s long anti-war tradition and swamp civil and political values of equality and social justice, which have some claim to have been nation-defining, from early women’s suffrage to the welfare state.

Another nation-making event — the dispossession of Aboriginal Australia — is also bulldozed aside by the Anzac myth. Aboriginal blood spilt in the frontier wars is not the right kind to be commemorated.

The historians contributing to the book try to salvage Australia’s other histories from the smothering embrace of the military one. Too much history now ties together the commemoration of the war dead with the writing of history, and merges military history with family history, thus encouraging new generations, remote from the horrors of war, to identify with Australia’s military past and present.

Some Anzac apologists ritually claim to condemn war, say the authors, but the symbols and rhetoric point in the opposite direction — that war is good for you, as a person and a nation. Wilfred Owen, the anti-war poet, called this “the old lie”. Anzac Day is a big part of that old lie.

[This review first appeared in Green Left Weekly, Australia's leading socialist newspaper, on June 26, 2010.]

 

Tale of the neglected ANZAC hero-turned socialist

The Price of Valour: The Triumph & Tragedy of a Gallipoli Hero, Hugo Throssell, VC
John Hamilton
Pan Macmillan, 2012, 393 pages
By Phil Shannon

March 26, 2013 -- Green Left Weekly -- Captain Hugo Throssell, one of nine Australian soldiers to win a Victoria Cross for supreme bravery at Gallipoli in 1915, stunned his home-town audience of patriotic Australians in 1919 with his statement that “the war has made me a socialist”.

The declaration, made on the anniversary of the signing of the Allies' World War I peace treaty with Germany, made headlines. It also made enemies, says John Hamilton in his biography of Throssell.

The civic authorities of the town of Northam in Western Australia listened with increasing disbelief as Northam’s own war hero denounced war for enriching armaments makers, war profiteers and rival national capitalist classes in their competition for territory, markets, resources and profits.

Throssell had been a dashing cavalry officer who, in the first flush of battle, wrote how it was “most glorious” to see a bayonet charge and what a “wonderful thing” it was to see men running through an artillery bombardment. But he became war-weary and disillusioned after seeing his mates killed and after suffering severe mental injury.

With what would now be diagnosed as post-traumatic stress disorder, Throssell’s days were filled with nervousness and headaches due to a head wound. His nights were tortured into sleeplessness by what he had seen at Gallipoli and by the death of his brother who had signed up with Throssell in the belief that war was a thrilling adventure.
Throssell, the privileged son of a conservative state premier, married Katherine Susannah Prichard, the journalist and feminist who went on to fame as a novelist and founder of the Communist Party of Australia.

Prichard’s communism, and her profound love for a handsome, vital, selfless man, helped Throssell make sense of his ghastly war experiences.

Reading Engels may not have been easy — “Hell, girl, what the blazes does this mean?” he would holler — but “usually our political discussions ended in love-making,” wrote Prichard.

Throssell, without becoming a party member, accepted Prichard’s political views as his own.

Australia’s political police put Throssell’s radicalisation down to “his wife’s influence”, or “his mind perhaps having been affected” by the cerebro-spinal meningitis he contracted during the war.

Throssell’s biographer hedges his bets, saying it is possible that the brain injury Throssell received from a botched, war-time sinus operation made him “more vulnerable and easily influenced”.

Socialism, apparently, can only be understood as a psychological disorder, the product of a weakened mind.

Throssell, however, knew his own mind — on the back of his will he wrote “I have never recovered from my 1914-18 experiences”, shortly before committing suicide using his army pistol in 1933.

He also added an appeal that “my wife and child get the usual war pension”. Owing £10,000 with just £10 in the bank, Throssell’s financial disasters during the Great Depression had been exacerbated, writes Hamilton, by his “enemies at work within the government”.

These enemies helped ensure his economic projects were costly failures. Conservatives in the Northam Returned Soldiers and Sailors League also got the government to remove Throssell from his job as soldiers’ representative on the government’s Discharged Soldiers’ Settlement Board.

The Repatriation Department added insult to tragedy by disputing the coroner’s finding that Throssell’s war wounds were the cause of his suicide.

Prichard angrily defended her husband who “believed he would be ensuring a pension to me and my son by his last act. I consider that his 'grateful country' made it impossible for my husband to live. He thought he had to die to provide for his wife and child.”

It was not until 1999 that a “modest memorial the size of a backyard barbecue” was erected to Throssell in Northam by his “grateful country”.

During the depression, Throssell had been forced to try to pawn his Victoria Cross but was offered only 10 shillings for it — the “price of valour” for a war hero who had, as his son Ric said later when donating Throssell’s medal to People for Nuclear Disarmament, “declared his commitment to peace”.

Throssell has not been well served by official history, nor by his biographer. Hamilton's conventional war narrative focuses on Throssell the warrior, not the socialist.

Hamiltion's biography includes a disapproval of Throssell’s decision to choose a patriotic occasion of military celebration to denounce war. “Not the time nor place,” says Hamilton — but what better time or place could there be? It took political courage and Throssell had just as much of that as he had bravery on the battlefield.

The ANZAC role in crushing the 1919 Egypt Revolt

By David Rowlands

Green Left Weekly -- Shortly after the end of World War I, Australian troops bloodily suppressed a popular independence revolution in Egypt. This overlooked episode in Australia’s military history has never prompted much national soul-searching — but it should. The war in which some 60,000 Australians died was supposedly fought for liberal democratic values and the right of peoples to pursue national “self-determination”.

Episodes like the Egyptian revolt suggest that a squalid imperial reality underlay the noble rhetoric, which is why it has been relegated to obscurity.

Speaking in Cairo in December 2010, foreign minister Kevin Rudd glossed over the darker aspects of Australian involvement in Egypt when he summed up the period with the following statement: “During World War 1 … Australian troops were stationed … at the foot of the Pyramids. For the young Australians, who found themselves in an ancient land, on the edge of a city renowned for its style and culture, it was a time to remember.”

Rudd's remarks create the impression that Australian soldiers approached Egypt and the Egyptians with a sense of respect, even reverence. Unfortunately, the reality was very different.

Following the opening of the Suez Canal in 1869, Egypt increasingly fell under British hegemony. By August 1914, when the war began, Europeans controlled more than 90% of the Egyptian economy, despite making up only 2% of the population.

Fearing a recurrence of the nationalist revolts that had shaken Egypt in the early 1880s, Britain diverted tens of thousands of Australian and New Zealand volunteers to Egypt in late 1914.

From the outset, the ANZAC presence in Egypt was about more than military training. They were there to keep a watchful eye on the general population, ready to respond if the “darkies”, “niggers” and “wogs” (as ANZAC diarists conditioned by racist ideology often described Egyptians) got any rebellious ideas.


When the Australians arrived in Egypt, they did so not as sensitive cultural tourists but as a contemptuous force that amounted to an army of occupation.

 

The ANZAC presence was a godsend to British colonial authorities, whose regular regiments were heavily committed on the Western Front.

As is well known, Australians and New Zealanders “played up”, earning a reputation for looting, arson and assault. The riotous behaviour reflected the ANZAC’s racist attitude toward a subjugated population. British and Dominion troops drained resources and created runaway inflation. In addition, more than half a million peasants were conscripted into labour and transport units serving the British war effort. For this vital service they were poorly paid and awarded little recognition.

Middle-class unemployment was also a problem. Thousands of well-educated young people had no future in the system that ensured all key public service appointments were held by British personnel.

Egypt’s incorporation into the rapacious capitalist imperialist system had not benefited the mass of ordinary Egyptians. It is easy to see why they were seeking an alternative by the end of 1918.

Following the armistice, the Wafd [Delegation] party was formed by the Egyptian nationalist politician Pasha Zaghul. Its adopted flag was a Sunni crescent and Coptic cross set on a green background, symbolising the peaceful unity of Egypt’s Muslims and Christians. Wafd leaders demanded the right to negotiate for independence with the British government in London.

The British responded to the Wafd movement by arresting Zaghul on March 8, 1919. He was swiftly deported, an injustice that galvanised the entire country into taking direct action.

All classes took to the streets and squares in protest, shouting Wafdist slogans. There were many notable acts of resistance, such as on March 16, when hundreds of women marched together against the British occupation. This marked the entry of Egyptian feminist activists into politics.

With large crowds of strikers and protesters defying British roadblocks in Cairo, Alexandria and other centres, Australian and New Zealand mounted troops (who constituted the bulk of available forces) were ordered to take decisive action.

Protesters massacred

On March 17, a small detachment opened fire on a 1000-strong crowd at Minet El Qamh. According to the article Keeping the Peace — Egypt 1919 by Canberra-based historian Dr. Michael Tyquin: “Thirty-nine locals were killed and 25 wounded, while 40 men drowned trying to escape across an adjoining canal. The Australians sustained one casualty.”

Another attack took place on March 27, when an Australian patrol encountered demonstrating Egyptians tearing up a railway line at Zagazig. “While under no immediate threat to themselves”, Tyquin noted, “the troopers immediately opened fire, killing 30 as the crowd fled.”

In a secret brief distributed to British and Australian officers on April 1, 1919, the motivation behind the heavy-handed police operation was disclosed. Britain would never withdraw, because “it could not see another power gaining Egypt and incidentally the Suez Canal”.

What the British authorities meant by the phrase “another power” is fairly clear: the Egyptian people themselves.

By the summer of 1919, about 800 Egyptians had been killed in clashes with Allied (mainly Australian) troops and twice that number had been wounded. In total, the Australians sustained 20 casualties, including at least one death.

The independence movement had been crushed, though ongoing popular resistance forced the British to grant a measure of independence to Egypt in 1922. The British kept control over the canal, however, and continued to dictate Egyptian policy through a proxy ruler.

Australia has played a key role in suppressing the legitimate democratic aspirations of the Egyptian people. This reactionary policy was reflected in the Wafd massacres of 1919 and, in more recent times, by successive governments’ support of the dictatorial and corrupt Mubarak regime.

If the Labor government of Prime Minister Julia Gillard really wants to employ “creative middle-power diplomacy” and foster Egyptian democracy in the wake of the 2011 uprising, it should face up to past crimes committed in the so-called national interest.

[This article first appeared in Green Left Weekly, Australia's leading socialist newspaper on April 18, 2011.]

 

ANZACs vs Bolsheviks

By Phil Shannon

ANZACS in Arkhangel: The Untold Story of Australia and the Invasion of Russia 1918-19
By Michael Challinger
Hardie Grant Books, 2010, 285 pages

Green Left Weekly -- “The remedy for Bolshevism is bullets”, was the blunt message of the editorial in Britain’s establishment newspaper, The Times, in 1919 as military forces from 16 capitalist countries invaded Russia after the 1917 revolution. Among the invaders were about 150 Australian soldiers, as recounted in Michael Challinger’s history of the Australian role in the invasion.

Nine Australian soldiers were part of a British secret mission (Elope Force) in 1918 whose apparent aim of countering a German foothold in the northern Russian port city of Arkhangel was soon dispensed in favour of the real purpose — to train and organise the counter-revolutionary Russian Army of the north and link up with the other White Russian armies to overthrow the Bolshevik socialist government.

The British-led invaders seized the city, running it as a military dictatorship under a puppet local government. By 1919, reinforcements of 15,000 foreign troops had joined the war against the Sixth Red Army.

Troubling notes were struck from the start, however. One American wrote of the scene on Arkhangel’s main wharf as the invasion force sailed in that “people simply went wild with joy”.

But, as Challinger notes, “what escaped his notice was that the welcoming crowds were exclusively middle class and that there wasn’t a working man among them”. The “working masses were at best apathetic and at worst, hostile”.

Their Russian allies also posed trouble behind their own lines with a mutiny of the troops of the First Arkhangel Regiment, who, infected by the Bolshevist spirit, were protesting against saluting and officers wearing epaulettes and demanding bigger rations. The British executed 13 mutiny leaders.

Morale within the occupiers’ own ranks eroded as the occupation continued past the WWI Armistice. With the war against Germany over, writes Challinger, all sense of purpose evaporated. Bolshevik propaganda appealed to the foreign soldiers not to shoot fellow workers and not to break strikes against the occupation. This resonated in particular with the US soldiers, many of whom were conscripted factory workers. A high number of US soldiers used self-inflicted wounds as their ticket home.

Military endeavour also waned among the French troops who refused to go to the front.One hundred and sixty demoralised French colonial troops had to be taken into military custody. Among the British, the 13th Yorkshires refused to relieve front-line troops and demanded that censorship be lifted so that people back in Britain could know what was really happening in the war.

With the Russian soldiers’ readiness to mutiny and go over to the Bolsheviks en masse, it quickly became clear to the foreign soldiers, says Challinger, that they were fighting a lost cause.

None of this was in the script of Winston Churchill (Britain’s secretary of state for war). A rabid anti-communist, his solution was more troops.

A foreign office report obliged by spreading faked stories of Bolshevik atrocities (murder, torture, conversion of churches into brothels and other “wildly hysterical propaganda”).

War-weariness, however, meant that the new troops had to be deceived into volunteering on the pretext of securing a withdrawal of the besieged troops in Russia who, it was said, would be driven into the sea and massacred. (“There was never a word of truth in it”, as one English major confided to his diary).

Recruitment was so sluggish that the British Army also had to scour the 70,000 Australian soldiers still in Britain. They scraped up little more than a hundred, most joining from economic motives (they would receive double what the ordinary soldier was paid, and more than any civilian job would pay) along with the late enlisters who had not seen action and still retained a rosy view of war as glorious adventure.

This “relief force” launched a renewed offensive into the heart of Akhangel province in support of the Russian counter-revolutionary armies. Bombs, bullets, bayonets and poison gas (Churchill’s favourite), slaughtered Bolsheviks, Red Army soldiers, Russian mutineers and prisoners of war with brutal efficiency.

It was all to no avail, however. The Red Army under Leon Trotsky (a leader of military “genius”, acknowledges Challinger) defeated all the counter-revolutionary and imperialist armies. Despite Challinger’s formulaic prejudices against the Bolsheviks (“brutal”, “ruthless”, the “enemy”), he does recognise that the Bolsheviks, who offered a “new social order”, won because they had “the acquiescence, if not support, of most of the population” including that of Arkhangel, which was liberated by the Red Army in 1920.

The adventure left 327 British, 244 US, 2 Australian and countless Russian soldiers dead.

Domestic anti-war opposition in Britain also greatly assisted this outcome. The union movement refused to load ships bound for Russia and even some Royal Navy crews refused to sail.

In Australia, the government was forced to lie about any Australian involvement, knowing, as Challinger notes, that the bulk of Australian working people either supported the Bolsheviks, were interested in the socialist experiment or simply believed the Russians should be left alone to decide how to govern their own country.

As Sergeant John Kelly, a member of the early Elope Force, put it: “None of us had any heart for the Russian campaign … We had no right to be there. Had I known beforehand what the aim and nature of the mission was, I for one, would never have volunteered for the job.”

Challinger’s book has some valuable insights. However, his primary aim is to enrol the soldiers who fought the Bolsheviks into the ANZAC tradition.

His conventional military history is “simply about the Diggers”. Inadvertently, though, there is enough in Challenger’s book to show Australian involvement in war crimes, atrocities and routine slaughter and occupation in defence of capitalism.

With the whole episode wrapped in lies from the start, the Australian anti-Bolshevik war indeed fits snugly into the militarist, imperialist ANZAC tradition.

[This review first appeared in Green Left Weekly, Australia's leading socialist newspaper, on May 8, 2010.]

 

Matt McCarten: ANZAC story a sordid tale of world domination and death

By Matt McCarten

April 29, 2007 -- NZ Herald -- When I was a kid at primary school in the 1960s, the whole school would get called out on Anzac Day and lined up to hear old geezers talking about Gallipoli. It seemed like we stood wilting for hours in the hot sun hearing how "our boys" died for King and Country. I remember thinking uncharitably that when all the old soldiers died of old age we wouldn't have to keep doing this every year. The best part was hearing the bugle which signalled the parade was over and we could troop back to class.

Now, all the Great War veterans are indeed dead but it seems Anzac ceremonies have only got stronger. A lot has been made about the younger generations "taking the torch" from their great-grandparents and taking a day out to remember their sacrifice. Some right-wing politicians have got so swept up in this reverence that they are suggesting we should make Anzac Day our national day.

I suppose the myth of Waitangi Day - celebrating the signing of a treaty between Maori and the British proclaiming partnership and equality for all - doesn't wash as well as it used to. So, having another day to celebrate our nationhood is rather attractive.

But the Anzac Day story is just another myth that makes us feel warm inside. The truth behind Anzac Day is dirty and sordid.

The New Zealand ruling establishment last century couldn't wait to snap to attention to support Imperial Britain. In 1900, in New Zealand's first imperialist adventure, they sent their sons off to South Africa to kill the Boers who were fighting an independence war against Britain. New Zealand troops were part of the invading army which set up concentration camps that caused the deaths of thousands of women and children. When the call came again from Mother England to fight the Germans, we couldn't volunteer our sons fast enough.

Ordinary New Zealanders who declined to slaughter other human beings on behalf of European feudal rulers were imprisoned. Some were even shipped off to war anyway.

The combining of Australian and New Zealand soldiers into the same army corps was a decision made in England. Anzacs were sent to the French trenches to replace the hundreds of thousands of young Europeans already slaughtered there. But on the way there, the British Generals let the colonials in on their true destination - Gallipoli.

Trench warfare in France and Belgium is what most of the world remembers about World War I. The purpose of the war was which European countries would win global domination. The war was fought to get control of the collapsing Ottoman Empire; an empire including most of what we call the Middle East. Why? Because that's where the oil was. It seems nothing much has changed in 100 years. Western meddling in the Middle East has a long and tragic history.

So the British sent the Anzacs, with hundreds of thousands of other allied armies, to invade Turkey. Of course, as we know, it was a complete disaster, and "Little Johnnie Turk" kicked our butt hard. Eventually our soldiers slunk off to France where the incompetent members of the British ruling class continued to send them to pointless deaths. In fact, New Zealanders were among the top casualties per head of population.

When our politicians lay claim to the sacrifice and bravery of our soldiers on Anzac Day, let's not forget most of these men didn't have much choice. New Zealand troops were a conscripted army and our then government allowed British firing squads to execute New Zealanders who wouldn't fight. Many members of the first Labour Cabinet in 1935 actively opposed this war and went to jail for it. Several prominent Maori leaders were also imprisoned because they actively campaigned to stop Maori being conscripted. Much of the bravery shown was by people who refused to join this insanity and suffered mightily for it. It's a reflection of the real mood of New Zealanders when, after the war, they elected these war opponents to Government.

Even the folklore of Gallipoli of Kiwi and Aussie mateship didn't become part of the agreed story until after the war. After all, our political masters needed New Zealanders to think something good had come out of Gallipoli and to feel better about allowing stupid Brits to get us killed invading someone else's country.

In the end, our sacrifice helped our colonial masters come out of the war reasonably well. Britain and France divided the Middle East up between them into specially designed new colonies. New puppet rulers were then imposed on the local inhabitants once they had signed oil deals with the victors. Almost all the current mess between rival communities in the Middle East can be tracked back to this point. The sad thing is, Britain and the US are making the same mistakes that were made 100 years ago.

Don't get me wrong though. Remembering the fallen in pointless wars is a good thing. I recommend a good dose of Wilfred Owens' poems to really honour the dead and the fruitlessness of war rather than scripted platitudes of politicians we get on Anzac Day.

If we really take the Anzac message seriously we should be campaigning to get Western troops, including ours, out of the Middle East now. Ninety years ago we supported an invasion of the Middle East for oil. We still are.

Lest we forget? Get real; we never got the story correct first time.

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