My column in this week's Chronicle is on World War I, and how we interpret history when the survivors have passed on.
Guardians of War Stories, The Chronicle, 3 June 2014
In his 1917 book The Mate, Will Dyson wrote of how at age twenty, ‘friendship is not the tepid give and take of years of discretion, [but] a thing intense and unquestioning’. Those who lose a mate in war ‘will live with the memory of heroic friendships cut off at the height of their boyish splendour’.
World War I (1914–1918) cut off more heroic friendships than any conflict in which Australia has been engaged. 400,000 Australian men enlisted, and more than 60,000 died. World War I killed nearly one in 40 Australian men, and the size of the real economy shrunk by one-tenth.
In a speech some years ago, Peter Weir said that he first conceived his film Gallipoli when he heard of the events of 7 August 1915. On that day, the Anzacs were due to attack across ‘the Nek’, an area about the size of two tennis courts. The attack was to begin at 4.30am, preceded by an artillery bombardment. But there was a mistake in the timing of the watches, and the shelling stopped at 4.23am.
By the time the first line of 150 men rose over the parapet, the Turkish troops were back manning their machine guns. Watchers heard the guns roar, and the men were annihilated in half a minute. Shortly afterwards, the second line met the same fate. The third line included Gresley and Wilfred Harper, West Australian brothers who became the lead characters in Peter Weir's film. As war historian Charles Bean wrote, Wilfred ‘was last seen running forward like a schoolboy in a foot race’.
Stories like these could once be told first-hand by those who fought at Gallipoli. But with the 2009 death of John Ross (aged 110), Australia lost its last living link to World War I. So the centenary offers today’s Australians an opportunity to renew the Anzac stories, with the direct observers now gone.
Over the past few months, I’ve been working with a local committee of experts to allocate Anzac Centenary Local Grants on the northside of Canberra. The aim of the program is to provide all Australians the opportunity to better understand the history and impact of World War I. I have been struck by the creativity and ingenuity of those who submitted grants, and the only disappointment for my committee was that we were unable to support all of the applications.
The Centenary of Anzac is a unique opportunity not just to talk about the battles of World War I, but also its impact on the home front. In addition, it provides the chance for deeper conversations about the cost of war. Reading the autobiographies of returned soldiers who served in Iraq and Afghanistan reminds me that some themes stay constant across soldiers’ stories: the camaraderie of a unit, bravery in battle, survivors’ guilt after losing a friend, and the hidden wounds combat can inflict.
Each generation retells its national legends from different angles and with a fresh focus. The centenary commemorations will provide us with a chance not just to talk about war, but about mateship, hardship, bravery and loss. With the last of the Anzac diggers gone, we are the guardians of their story.
Andrew Leigh is the federal member for Fraser, and his website is www.andrewleigh.com.