ANZACs: 'Lions led by donkeys'

See also "Australia & New Zealand: The imperialist reality behind ANZAC myth".
Read more on World War I.

By John Rainford

October 25, 2013 -- Green Left Weekly, posted at Links International Journal of Socialist Renewal on April 25, 2014 -- With political advantage from a national celebration of the centenary of World War I in mind, the Julia Gillard government last year allocated an initial $83.5 million towards the “ANZAC Centenary”.

Through a local grants program, up to $125,000 is available for each federal MP to fund suitable projects in their electorates. But unfortunately for Labor, the project is now headed by Tony Abbott, who has appointed himself head of the Centenary. Stand by for a broadside of jingoism and a celebration of empire.

Unlike World War II, a conflict that arose from the march of fascism, the origins of WWI are more difficult to explain. Why did the assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand of Austria and his wife Sophie by nineteen-year-old Gavril Princip in Sarajevo on June 28, 1914 lead to war?

Austria-Hungary suspected that the Serbian government was involved in the murders, but there was no proof of this at the time. No proof has been found since. Yet on July 28, 1914, Austria-Hungary declared war on Serbia. Two days later, Tsarist Russia began its general mobilisation to assert its self-proclaimed status as “patron and protector” of Serbia and the Slav states.

The Austria-Hungary declaration was far from a real war. As the British historian AJP Taylor has pointed out, it was a diplomatic move, albeit a particularly violent one.

Russia’s decision to mobilise was an answer to this bellicose diplomacy — a diplomatic threat that lacked serious intent. It did not want a war, much less plan for it.

Austria-Hungary had taken a belligerent approach to Serbia only after receiving the approval of imperial Germany, as well as its promise of support. Germany, in turn, had a ready-made plan for dealing with armed conflict in Europe that rested on a quick defeat of France before turning its attention eastwards.

Germany gave Russia 12 hours to demobilise on July 31. When they refused, Germany declared war on Russia the following day. Two days later Germany declared war on France and put into action the other part of the Schlieffin plan — to encircle the French armies by passage through Belgium.

This brought the British empire into the war. The Australian prime minister, Joseph Cook, knew what was necessary in this time of need: “Our duty is quite clear — to gird up our loins and remember that we are Britons.”

The Labor opposition leader, Andrew Fisher, had earlier said that Australians would defend Britain “to our last man and our last shilling".

And so it began, “the unexpected climax to the railway age.” The war on the Western Front, which stretched from the Swiss border to the North Sea, would be a long and bloody affair fought mostly across trenches. On the Eastern Front it eventually led to the Russian revolution.

German General Erich Freidrich Ludendorff called the British soldiers “lions led by donkeys”. As Taylor reminds us, this description was not confined to the British, or to soldiers.

He argued “all the peoples were in the same boat. The war was beyond the capacity of generals and statesmen alike. Clemenceau (French prime minister) said: 'war is too serious a matter to be left to generals.' Experience also shows that it was too serious a matter to be left to statesmen.”

One example of how the war was beyond the capacity of generals occurred in 1915. On March 10 that year, General Sir John French, Commander of the British Expeditionary Forces in France, staged an attack on German defensive positions at Neuve Chapelle, chiefly to mollify the French, who were concerned that a “sideshow” in the Dardanelles (at a place called Gallipoli) was diverting troops from France.

The Germans were taken by surprise, principally because the British, being short of shells, couldn’t proceed with the usual bombardment. For the first and only time in the war, British infantry broke the German line.

Perhaps they were more surprised than the Germans: their reluctance to advance until reinforcements arrived gave German troops time to plug the gap. With exemplary timing, the British then attacked. They withdrew three days later, their only achievement being unnecessary loss of life.

Not being one to accept defeat easily, the redoubtable Sir John complained with ferocious audacity that it was shortage of shells that led to his failure. Not to be upbraided without riposte, the Asquith government in turn laid the blame at the feet of lazy and overpaid workers in the munitions factories who, it was said, spent their time in alehouses rather than manufacturing munitions. The obvious solution, which was duly implemented, was to restrict the opening hours of pubs and impose an afternoon closing time.

At the end of 1915 Sir John French was recalled. Asquith lost the prime ministership the following year and his parliamentary seat in 1918, but afternoon closing of English pubs remained in place until near the end of the 20th century.

That bizarre Australian institution, the closing of pubs at six o‘clock, also came from an incident in WWI. In 1916, soldiers at the training camps in Casula and Liverpool in western Sydney went on strike over an extra one-and-a-half hours daily training and walked out of camp. They broke into hotels in the city and in the drunken revelry that followed military pickets shot seven soldiers, killing one of them.

The federal government banned alcohol in military camps and several states imposed six o’clock closing. The early closing of pubs was supposed to be a temporary measure, but it lasted until 1955 in NSW and 1967 in South Australia.

Centenary celebrations are unlikely to inform us of facts like these.

Or that cocaine was administered to combatants in France during WWI, including to Australian troops, who were also given cocaine at Gallipoli. The extent to which it was used will probably remain unknown. What is known, though, is that by 1919 some returned soldiers were demanding cocaine from chemists without a prescription, contrary to the regulations then in place concerning the sale of the drug. And more importantly for them, no doubt, they were being given it.

Its use among soldiers in Sydney had been evident some years earlier. Cocaine use by allied troops, predominantly Canadians, in London in 1916 was largely responsible for its stricter control by regulation in Britain that year.

It’s also unlikely that there will be much emphasis on an understanding of the carnage of WWI that comes from war poems such as Wilfred Owens' Anthem For Doomed Youth: “What passing bells for these who die as cattle? … Not in the hands of boys but in their eyes/ Shall shine the holy glimmers of goodbyes.”

Abbott will no doubt use the ANZAC Centenary to project deference to empire that was contested at the time.

It’s important that the left reflect on its opposition to the war. Conscription, the blood price of empire, failed twice in referenda. This is our history. We should proclaim it as we did 100 years ago and not leave it to the heirs of Billy Hughes whose xenophobic behaviour at Versailles set us on the long road to Changi.

From GLW issue 986

Memory and the anti-politics of ANZAC

By Jeff Sparrow

April 26, 2012 -- Green Left Weekly, republished from Overland magazine. ANZAC Day celebrates forgetting.

Its revival, the transformation of a ceremony nearly extinct in the 1980s into today’s turbocharged festival, coincides with the excision from national consciousness of the most important aspects of the Great War.

In their book What’s Wrong With ANZAC?, Marilyn Lake and Henry Reynolds document the funding that the Department of Veterans’ Affairs pours into resources promoting ANZAC Day. Yet despite such educational campaigns, how many Australians can answer the simple question: what was the war about?

Conservatives, and most liberals, tell us that ANZAC Day stands above politics. That’s true, in a fashion. But the event’s not apolitical so much as anti-political.

Where Carl von Clausewitz defined war as the continuation of politics by other means, ANZAC celebrates the battlefield as a realm entirely removed from political life. The Great War spurred an unprecedented degree of social polarisation in Australia, and yet the obsessive retelling of the Gallipoli landing never corresponds to any equivalent interest in, say, the populace’s remarkable rejection of conscription in two ballots in 1916 and 1917.

The Bush/Blair/Howard War on Terror rendered that period more relevant than ever, since obvious parallels can be drawn between the hysterical patriotism of the “Freedom Fries” days and the jingoism during which most Australian cities renamed their streets (if you live in Victoria Street, there’s a pretty good chance it was once called Wilhelm Road), while the state-sanctioned suspicion of Arabs and Muslims after 9/11 corresponds to the widespread persecution of Irish and Catholics in the wake of the Easter Uprising, and the unparalleled freedom granted to security agencies echoes Billy Hughes’ promotion of the open-ended War Precautions Act.

Yet ANZAC Day functions not to celebrate but to prevent that kind of history. It lauds bravery yet allows no room for what Bismarck called “civil courage”, a trait that many non-combatants showed in abundance when, against all the newspapers, politicians and mainstream political parties, they opposed the slaughter in Europe.

Again, in these endless discussions about the young men of that time, how often does anyone point out that Australians saw one of the very first anti-war protests anywhere in the world, when the Industrial Workers of the World (IWW) called a rally on the Domain the weekend the conflict broke out?

Everything that the IWW predicted about the war came to pass, just as everything that the official jingoes said proved entirely wrong. But amidst all the ANZAC headshaking about the horrors of Gallipoli, there’s no room to mention those who tried to stop the killing taking place.

The anti-politics of ANZAC Day not only diminishes the experiences of the millions of Australians who did not fight, it renders entirely monochromatic the experiences of the soldiers themselves.

We can tell, for instance, the story of the Christmas truce of 1914 but only because a certain version of the story supports ANZAC’s presentation of war as a time out of time, an experience in a realm where normal rules did not apply.

The perversity of men shaking hands and wishing each other luck before obediently ducking back into the trenches to commence hostilities supports ANZAC’s general depiction of combat as a social anomaly, a mysterious business entirely disconnected from what Archbishop Mannix called “a sordid trade war”.

That’s why there’s much less emphasis on the context of those unofficial armistices, which were, initially, made possible because so many ordinary Germans had been working in Britain and felt no particular animosity to the men in the opposite trenches, and which were systematically broken up by authorities terrified that if the soldiers fraternised it would be impossible to make them fight.

Indeed, even if you only focus on combat (rather than the widespread mutinies that later took place), it’s possible to tell the story of the Great War in terms of measures by officers to force their men to kill.

In his fascinating book Trench Warfare, Tony Ashworth documents the regularity in which ordinary soldiers on both sides adopted what he calls the “live and let live” policy, allowing unofficial truces punctuated by ritualistic exchanges of gunfire at certain times and certain places, exchanges specifically designed not to kill anyone and thus avoid retribution.

In Ashworth’s argument, the official tactics adopted by commanders were attempts to break down these proto-political refusals, to force the men into contact each other and thus ensure that they would fight.

In other words, even in the most extreme circumstances, the Great War was a social conflict, shaped by internal contradictions. That’s why, if the origins of the war are now never discussed, there’s an equally determined silence about how the slaughter ended, with revolution in Russia and Germany, and near insurrections in many other countries.

At the same time, one of the curious consequences of the anti-politics of ANZAC is that the celebrations embrace the literature of disenchantment that emerged from the war, albeit with a distinctive twist. The war is now told, not in the bloodless narratives of contemporary Empire propagandists, but as a compendium of tropes taken from Sassoon and Owen and Remarque and Barbusse.

Every schoolkid knows about shell shock and bodies hanging on barbed wire and rats feasting on corpses and the rest of it, yet these details, which in the original texts contrasted what had been promised with what war delivered, are now used to bolster the presentation of combat as an experience entirely divorced from normal social relations.

As William James noted, the “possibility of violent death [is] the soul of all romance”, which is why showing war’s horrors does not, in itself, foster antiwar sentiment, since “the horrors make the fascination. War is the strong life; it is life in extremis”.

It’s a central part of ANZAC’s anti-politics: the hellishness of war separates it from ordinary life, transforming Clausewitz’s “politics by other means” into a transcendental experience at which civilians can only marvel.

Whereas for the writers of the twenties and the thirties, the Great War disappointed by representing, in concentrated form, the violent banality of industrial society, today the very bloodiness of the conflict is used to highlight the contrast with our own day-to-day life.

The narrative therefore shifts from social critique (why did we allow these atrocities to happen?) to a veneration of sacrifice, the nature of which is largely irrelevant.

The Gallipoli pilgrimage provides the obvious example. The attendees at the dawn service do not ask themselves why Australians died invading a country thousands of miles away. No, that particular issue is rendered inherently irrelevant, since the backpackers go there not to think about history but to marvel at the height of the cliffs and the sharpness of the rocks, and to feel an awe at people their own age experiencing horrors that they couldn’t imagine.

The question arising from the pilgrimage is thus not “why did it happen?” (a query that leads not only into history but into politics) but rather “what did it feel like?”, an aestheticisation of the past that’s explicitly anti-political.

Or, rather, it’s anti-political, in one sense. In another, it’s entirely compatible with the trend toward militarisation in the wake of 9/11, not simply because it fits entirely with the new consensus that there’s something inherently underhand in debating the politics of war (recall how long the Afghan conflict had been running before Parliament convened a formal discussion) but because the question “what did it feel like?” always implies a follow-up: “I wonder what it would be like.”

Senator Scott Ludlam’s fascinating diary from his visit to Afghanistan illustrates how this plays out in recruits. Speaking of the soldiers he meets, he writes:

All the same, there’s an eagerness to prove themselves. The further forward you get, the happier crew are to be there and the less interested in being pulled back into safety. Having spent years training, most of them really, really want to be in theatre.

This is a great battle lab for us.


I’d do this whether you paid me or not.

If its horrors make war a transcendental experience, the contrast with the banality of late capitalist life make combat a perpetual source of fascination, in precisely the way James describes.

What are the consequences of this recognition of ANZAC as an anti-politics?

Most obviously, it implies a certain futility about debating its meaning, even through posts like this.

Because ANZAC’s not an argument so much as an aesthetic event, it’s largely impervious to critique. Everyone knows the newspaper formula: you devote most of your space to praising the diggers and republishing various twenty-first century versions of the “old lie” — and then you give half a column to someone to ponder what it all means.

The ritualistic debates about the nature of ANZAC are, to a large extent, part of ANZAC, a means for keeping the commemoration in the centre of Australian life.

Which is not to suggest that critiques should not be mounted, nor that it’s not important to foster genuine historical debate about the Great War, but simply to suggest that the terrain will not shift substantially without the re-emergence of anti-war movement that offers a different way of thinking about conflicts.

If you look back at the shifting attitudes to ANZAC, that’s the real correlation. The near collapse of the celebrations in the 1980s stemmed from the rise of the anti-nuclear movement.

Contrary to conservative revisionism, peace activism has never involved an indifference to the plight of soldiers themselves. We’re often told that anti-war activists spat at conscripts returning from Vietnam. What we don’t hear is that huge numbers of the soldiers themselves supported the movement, both once they returned and, sometimes, while they were actually in theatre.

In terms of the memory of the Great War, many of the most interesting studies of what was done to the troops have come from writers influenced by the peace movement, precisely because they’re more likely to eschew the top-down approach of reactionary historians.

Some 35 million people died in the First World War. It is an extraordinary statistic. In the face of such overwhelming suffering, such tremendous devastation, the only decent commemoration entails ensuring that nothing comparable ever happens again.

From GLW issue 920