Thursday, April 27, 2006

Anzac Day and the "culture wars"

If only it was that easy to win a war!

Gerard Henderson in the Sydney Morning Herald on Anzac Day claimed a victory of sorts in what he calls the "culture wars". He based this on the interest expressed by young Australians in the "facts" of World War I, and argues this means they reject the view that those who died did so in vain fighting someone else's war.

This is simply wrong on so many levels it is not funny. At the most basic, the interest in the young in memory and war graves is about understanding the agony. The baby boomers among us can tell you a different story - we grew up with a generation of parents who took the process of remembering war seriously, but never talked about it. It was really quite hard to associate oneself with these very internal and unstated memories.

This feature that returned servicemen didn't share their stories is something people are only beginning to realise - I think everyone thought it was only their father, or their grandfather, who didn't talk about the war.

It has taken having a half a century between the last war that had mass involvement and today for that sense of wonderment to return.

But the interest in the experience cannot be used to conclude anything about the interpretation that should be placed on the involvement. As I'm fond of doing myself, people arguing against something create for themselves a "strawman" argument to critique. The strawman that Henderson attacks is this;

From the 1950s to the 1980s, the public commemoration of Australia's involvement in World War I was usually associated with the theme that those who had fallen at the Dardanelles or on the Western Front had died in vain fighting other people's wars. This was the predominant view in history texts (Bill Gammage's The Broken Years), plays (Alan Seymour's The One Day of the Year) and films (Peter Weir's Gallipoli) as well as in much journalism.

But let's break this down into its component bits. Firstly, did the Australian (and New Zealand) volunteers understand what they were volunteering for? Certainly not, the view being universally that this would be a short lark - after all war like this had never been seen before (except in New Zealand, strangely, where trench warfare was invented).

Secondly, was there a great purpose to the war? Almost certainly not. There was no great crash of idealogies involved - heck the protagonists were cousins. There had been in defence of empires an escalating arms race that ultimately spilt into war.

Thirdly, was it important to Australia that Britain won? This is probably a most useful debating point. Yes, Germany had ambitions on parts of the British empire. Yes it could have been possible that Australia would have become part of a German Empire. But what would have been different? It was a protestant, capitalist state with developing democratic institutions and effective rule of law. It was economically more advanced than Britain, with Germany joining the US in leading in fields like electrical goods and chemicals - the so called second Industrial Revolution.

Did the young men suffer, bleed and die? Yes. Did they think it was for a good cause? Yes.

The real tragedy of WWI, however, was not that war itself. It was that the settlement of that war led to the preconditions for the war that had to be fought, and had to be won. The war that was against an ideology first and foremost, but also a maniac.

In his suggestion that the values of the diggers are admired Henderson briefly includes a discussion on the story of Simpson and his donkey. He notes the criticisms that have been made, that Simpson was really English who had jumped ship in Australia, that he was a left-winger and refused to fire a shot. But says Henderson;

The fact is that, whatever his background and whatever his views, the values which Simpson demonstrated at Gallipoli are much admired - from the bottom up.

He might be interested to hear a story I've been told. At a dinner at the War Memorial in Canberra to mark the 75th anniversary of Gallipoli one of the diggers was asked what he thought of Simpson. "We shot him" was the brief reply. His version of the story was that Simpson wandering around kept identifying Australian troop positions to the Turks, and since he wouldn't stop they shot him. According to my source at the dinner War Memorial staff said they had researched this and there is evidence that Simpson was shot by Australian troops, but who wants to destroy a hero?

The real message is that history is different to an interest in facts. And as for this being a "culture war" - it seems to me that everyone else gets it that culture, like language, evolves, and hence there never has been, nor can be, a single "unifying" culture.

By the way - my grandfather Henry Leopold Spratt (who added the Havyatt when he migrated to Australia in 1928) fought at Gallipoli and was part of the New Zealand force that took Chunuk Bair.


Anonymous said...

Opps David - try HARRY Leopold Spratt Havyatt.


Jonothon Martin (Harry's 2nd family's #1 Grandson)

David Havyatt said...

Harry/Henry Leopold Spratt Havyatt - but always known as "Dick". I chose to call him Henry here because that is the name he is given in a book called "Bloody Gallipoli" which details the NZ involvement. I do have a copy of his war record somewhere which I think also uses Henry. I have never sighted a birth certificate to be able determine the truth of the matter.

David Havyatt said...

A very late comment on this post. I know my grandfather was Harry but at the time of the post had been misled by reading in an "official" source that he was Henry. "Bloody Gallipoli" actually has it right as Harry but it lifts that directly from the official history of the Wellington Mounted Rifles. His service record itself is clearly written as Harry, but the military have filed it under Henry. And unfortunately "Henry" is how it appears on the Auckland cenotaph database/.

susiehavyatt said...

I think their confusion comes as there was both a Harry and Henry Spratt enlisted - Henry Spratt from Sufford KIA in 1917.

David Havyatt said...

The official history can be found at