‘The Heart of Honest History’ (Honest History Launch, 7 November 2013, Manning Clark House, Canberra), Honest History, 8 November 2013
Thanks Peter [Stanley]. Thanks Sebastian [Clark]. I, too acknowledge the traditional owners of this land [Canberra].
And thanks David [Stephens] and all of those associated with Honest History for inviting me to launch the Honest History website.
At the heart of Honest History is the exploration of all dimensions of Australia’s complex, difficult and at times morally challenging historical narrative beginning, if we are being truly honest, long before colonial settlement.
Honest History is not about presenting an either/or version of things. It is not, as David has pointed out in his newsletter, just about challenging Australia’s Anzac-centric view of itself (although as the centenary comes around there’s certainly plenty of room for that).
It is “Not only – but also.”
So, it is about Anzac and Federation. It is about colonial frontier war and Eureka. It is about Australia’s politics, Labor and conservative. It is about exploration and innovation and so much more. It is about success and failure. It is about the good and the bad – the light and the shade.
I think it’s instructive when we talk about Honest History’s aims that we are not only talking about history that happened a century or centuries or millennia ago. We are talking also about history as it unfolds – about how today’s events are recorded and interpreted in the first drafts.
The Afghanistan War is a good example.
Is there a cultural tendency to judge the success of the Australians there not in negligible strategic or even practical terms, but through the prism of upholding some sort of Anzac tradition of turning up, of fighting hard, of being the best and the hardest and sticking to the task and to one’s mates?
What, we should ask ourselves, have 40 Australian personnel died for? Was it worth it? Can it be justified in strategic terms? If not, then what have we learnt from needless and preventable deaths in all of the conflicts Australia has participated in from Gallipoli and beyond?
All questions that those who write the first drafts should be asking.
OK – when David Stephens did the PR for this event he let it be known that I would be giving a speech based on my books and titled: “Not only Armageddon and Beersheba but also Canberra and Collingwood”.
Thanks for that David. I’m yet to quite work out how to do that speech.
But here goes.
I am not a historian. But all of my non-fiction books have strong historical elements. And to the books I’m drawing on here, the First World War plays a critical role.
When I write a book it is literally and figuratively a journey – through the archives that hold the personal stories and the secrets, through the geography where the stories actually unfold and, as it has turned out, through my own thoughts, preconceptions and assumptions about what I might write.
So I’ll tell you a little about my reasons for writing the books.
Beersheba, with its central event the charge of the Australian 4th Light Horse Brigade at the Turkish trenches on 31 October 1917, was raised in my consciousness when, as a young newspaper reporter, I met an old light horseman – Lionel – and wrote a story about his recollections.
And he recollected colourfully, evocatively, the charge at the Turks that late afternoon in 1917, through the dust and the hail of bullets while the German planes bombed the horsemen. I could smell the cordite and taste the dust. I began researching that book – which turned into a broader look at the operations of the Australians in Palestine and the oral histories surrounding it – with the view that these blokes represented the very best of Australia.
Henry Gullett had described them thus: “Every worn road and grass grown track carried its eager, excited volunteers, some riding singly, some in twos and threes. Squatters and stockmen and shearers, farmers and labourers and prospectors, they paced the same road in that spirit of true democracy, which, as the war went on, became perhaps the most beautiful and valuable of all great qualities that in this war shone out of the Australian soldier . . . For these men were the very flower of their race.”
Who was I to argue with Gullett, who’d learnt at the foot of the master, Charles Bean?
And thanks to my long chats with Lionel this fitted my preconceptions of the light horsemen as rough-hewn but noble, honest country blokes. They were capable of hijinks, I was sure, but they were unambiguously white hats.
My book Armageddon came after Beersheba, and it was really Part 2 of the same journey – from Palestine up through Syria and into Lebanon.
The title comes from Armageddon, a place I had always wanted to go once I discovered that it was not only the Biblical Armageddon but the place from which the Australian General Harry Chauvel had commanded his own Battle of Megidoo against the fleeing Turks in 1918.
Now to “Collingwood – A Love Story”, a story that had special resonance for me as a thoroughly indoctrinated supporter of the Collingwood Football Club, whose maternal ancestors settled in the slums of Johnston Street in the 1870s.
I had grown up with the story of how my grandfather, Bill Bourke, had played for the club, and the story I was going to write was about two mates – contemporaries of his at the Club – Doc and Percy. Doc had been in love with Louie, the girl next door, since they were kids. But when Percy came to the city he stole her. Somehow, according to club legend, Doc got over that, the boys signed up together and they went off and fought together.
Percy was killed on the Somme in late 1916. Doc came home, worse for wear after inhaling poisonous gas, married Louie and fathered the son Percy had had with Louie.
And then Canberra – I thought I would be writing the story of the city of Walter and Marion Griffin. After all, this was the city they had built. Having lived here for many years I had never really delved into how the city was built or precisely what its purpose was as a capital for the new Federation.
I hated Canberra long before I moved here, thanks to a childhood visit with my parents. My enduring memory of the place was a chance meeting with the then opposition leader, Gough Whitlam, on the steps of Old Parliament House. My father fawned on him, embarrassingly. My mother kept a wary distance. She loathed him.
After the chance meeting Mum and Dad had a blazing row.
As a child then I had no idea why this happened except that it had something to do with politics. So I blamed the city and I swore off politics.
And then I moved here in 1993 to write about politics.
I sometimes wondered if that meeting with Whitlam had actually happened. And when my elderly parents were visiting me in Canberra in about 2007 – the last time before my father’s death in 2008 – I asked them if we had actually bumped into Whitlam. They confirmed it.
And to my astonishment dad said the very same thing to my mother in 2007 that he’d said to her during their row after encountering Whitlam. He said: “He was a damn grouper. A twister and a bloody wrecker.”
Dad was talking about William Meskill Bourke, her idolized eldest brother and the namesake of his father the Collingwood player. William Bourke, the Federal member for Fawkner, was one of the MPs who, once expelled from the ALP at the behest of Doc Evatt in 1955, went on to join the DLP. Mum quit the Labor Party and campaigned for Bill and for the DLP through the 50s, 60s and 70s.
She even co-opted me as a child to letterbox the DLP’s anti-Labor, anti-Communist fliers. Is it any wonder I swore off politics so early in life?
This was the source of some of mum and dad’s most serious marital tension. He was a Labor man, true and true. His father had been a Labor Mayor in Melbourne in the 30s and he despised the DLP. I remember that Dad banned the DLP pamphlets from our home. Mum had to keep them in her car.
Anyway, I tell you this because it heavily instructed how I had come to associate the very landscape of Canberra with the deep and long-running tensions in my parents’ marriage, most of which could be drawn back to politics.
I brought my preconceptions when I moved here, “temporarily”, for a year or two, twenty years ago. And I continued to view Canberra, incorrectly, for long after I’d moved here, as a faux city that existed only to serve politicians – a place of benign temperament and character that lacked community and soul and culture and life.
Of course I was terribly wrong. But that was all a part of my journey here. It intensified when I began to write the Canberra book.
Another misconception – that this was the city of Walter and Marion Griffin – was quickly dispelled, too. The birth of Canberra, I discovered, was wrapped in intrigue, subterfuge and bureaucratic bastardry that almost killed it in infancy. It was a tragedy for the Chicagoan Griffins.
What a story it is. It was the very first big episode of Australian cultural cringe – one that Jorn Utzon might have found presciently foreboding.
So, the writing of Canberra was a wake up to me in so many ways.
First it made me think about Federation and the miracle it had been – the coming together of those colonies without the cold steel and cordite that had marked nationhood elsewhere.
Too bad that today Federation is seen as a yawn – a Great Big Council of Australian Government meeting about railway gauges and postal services. COAG with beards, as I said the other day.
But the purpose of this city, even though it’s a far cry from that which the Griffins designed, is largely realised – and it illustrates the optimism that had grown around Federation before the war that changed this country’s view of itself and which so nearly scuttled the infant Canberra project.
Here was a vision that the capital could be the manifestation of a dream – an ideal that a beautiful, well-planned and purpose-built city could symbolise the best of what that peaceful, optimistic, ambitious Federation could aspire to. It could be a display home for the country’s anthropology and culture and learning, as well as its decision-makers. It would be Australia’s objective historical memory and its conscience, its vanguard of scientific research and the showcase for its creativity.
It would be the repository, through its institutions, of many of the national records, of every Australian paper and book, that sign-posted Australia’s complex and morally fraught road through nationhood – the good, the bad and the ugly.
Organically the city would evolve to tell the story of Australia’s recent history, not least about the momentous impact of WW1. And so at the end of the Land Axis, instead of Griffin’s elaborate Casino – with its theatre and outdoor restaurants and frivolous beer gardens and pleasure gardens – we would get Australia’s foremost secular shrine, the Australian War Memorial. Thanks to World War One, the national mood shifted to the practical and the sober – to stoic nation building in the shadow of terrible loss and constant remembrance as symbolised by the war memorial rather than the Casino.
What a story. My wife now calls me a Canberra obsessive. But I do find it endlessly compelling as I move around and read the stories of Australia’s development in the natural and built landscape.
And now to Collingwood the book, through which I discovered that friendship – like all human transaction – is far more complex than myth allows. Here’s what actually happened: Doc and Percy fell out massively when Percy knocked up Louie, no doubt behind Doc’s back, while the two were in basic training at Broadmeadows. Doc transferred out of Percy’s unit but still managed to act as best man at the shotgun wedding.
They played in the 1915 VFL Grand Final together, losing to Carlton. Percy and Doc, the star followers, tired in the final quarter. And here was one story with mythical status that I am pleased to say is actually true. On the morning of the big match the drill sergeant at Broadmeadows sent the two boys on a 10 mile route march with full packs. They arrived at the MCG totally spent.
And Guess what – the drill sergeant was a Carlton supporter. The bastard.
It’s true – there was a reconciliation: the blokes did meet up on the Somme and Doc said he’d look after Percy’s kid if Percy happened to die. Percy did die. Doc came home and married Louie. But he could never treat the boy – a constant reminder of how his best mate had cuckolded him – quite as his own. It was always tense, difficult.
Doc did play a few more seasons and helped win a premiership – improbably, really, according to the Club, given he was so badly knocked about by the poison gas. Well, there’s no mention of the gas in his service records – just a lingering problem with VD for which he had his pay docked and rank adjusted downward.
Inevitably I delved into the family story of my grandfather, the Collingwood player. The club had no record of him ever having played a senior game, although he was a handy member of the Seconds – known then as Collingwood Trades, and even though the club wrote to my grandmother after Bill’s premature death to acknowledge his great service. Who knows? But the club archives bitterly disappointed me I’ve got to say.
Bill actually followed the Collingwood Captain Charlie Pannam to Richmond, where he became the leading goal kicker in 1908 and 1909. There is no doubt he was a great player – perhaps just not for the club that all of his children, grandchildren and now my kids, have been indoctrinated to follow. Such is the power of myth.
And that is something that I know preoccupies Honest History.
When I was researching Collingwood I travelled to the Somme, in winter, to check out where Doc and Percy had fought.
I found myself in an extraordinary situation – helping to recover the body of an Australian World War One soldier from the mud of Mouquet Farm at Pozieres. He was one of the 6,800 Australians who’d died there in mid-1916, and one of the 18,000 or so who were missing or unable to be identified at death on the western front.
To cut a long story short, we carried the remains out of the newly dug drainage trench where our guide had found them so that they would not be reburied when the bulldozer resumed its work. We placed them in a hessian sack until representatives the War Graves Commission could take possession of them.
It seemed like the right thing to do. Who knew – he might, with the help of DNA, have his identity returned and in so doing close a century-old uncertainty for his descendants. At the very least he would be re-buried in one of the hundreds of Commonwealth War cemeteries across the old battlefields under a headstone marked “Known Unto God”.
So I was shocked by the vitriol directed at me by military aficionados and interested others, who said I should have left this “digger” who had made the ultimate “sacrifice” to “rest” where he had “fallen” and that I should be ashamed for “disturbing his eternal slumber”.
It was the first time I had been truly struck by how thoroughly the rhetoric around Anzac had been permeated with ecclesiasticism.
Did they die horribly or did they just fall? Are they resting in eternal slumber – or just buried?
In his superb book Sacred Places Ken Inglis eloquently points out that euphemisms about imperial soldiers’ deaths are written on the earliest monuments for The Fallen.
“ . . . soldiers of the Queen did not stagger or sink or topple or have bits blown off, but fell, to become not quite simply the dead but the fallen, who cleanly, heroically, sacrificially gave their lives in war. People raised on such high diction were not prepared for squalid actualities.”
Trying to tell the real story – that death in war is terrible and horrible; that war confronts men with complex moral obstacles; that otherwise good men are capable of terrible cruelty in war; that venereal disease was ridiculously prevalent among the diggers, many of whom brought it home to wives and girlfriends along with mental illness, opium addiction, alcoholism and terrible domestic violence; that desertion and cowardice in the lines were common among Australians – is too often viewed as unnecessary and distasteful – a blight on the good name of the digger.
And now for the flag. Countless are the prominent Australians – political leaders, journalists, writers, heads of institutions and, yes, historians – who connote the Australian Flag in relation to the World War One veterans. How many times have you heard: “They fought and they died under the Australian flag? – even “for the flag”?
Perhaps that’s just one reason why so many young Australians drape themselves in the flag when they visit Anzac Cove every 25 April.
But why don’t they wear the Union Jack? Because that is the flag that the Australians fought and died under as part of the 1st Australian Imperial Force. Australians did not fight under the Australian flag as the national flag until the Malayan Emergency of the mid-1950s. The blue ensign as it was known, was flown at times by Australian forces but it was a subordinate symbol, with the Union Jack having precedence.
Just on the issue of confronting myths, I’ll take you full circle to Armageddon and Beersheba.
First, I think we need to acknowledge the remarkable and unique things that the Australians did do. Things that expert historians know – like Beersheba and like entering Damascus ahead of TE Lawrence of Arabia – but of which many Australians are unaware.
But we also need to confront the truths, some of them ugly, such as the massacres committed by Australian troops in Palestine and later Egypt.
I was shocked to learn about the Australian involvement in the Surafend massacre of 1918 when Australian Light Horsemen participated in a premeditated revenge killing on an Arab village and a nearby Bedouin camp. To his credit Gullett included mention of it in his history of the Australians in the Middle East. After I included it in Beersheba and Armageddon I received countless poisonous, threatening emails and letters by those who said I’d fabricated the story, even though the archival proof is, as many of you are aware, irrefutable.
The truth can be uncomfortable. But it is also always more compelling than the myth.
Which brings me back to Honest History’s objectives.
I think as the centenary nears you are going to have your work cut out for you.
And I think, as Paul Keating might say, you can be assured that you’ll be making many “high quality enemies”.
It is a courageous venture that you’re embarking on and its timing certainly coincides with a re-manning of the cultural barricades.
Already we have seen the vindictive pursuit and subsequent resignation of the council chair of one of our national institutions for no reason beyond his distant political affiliation. The National Museum of Australia, meanwhile, remains the target of those who believe it reflects too much of the terrible violence against Australian indigenes on the colonial frontier.
And the war memorial is at its most political for years in the lead-up to the centenary – quarantined from the cuts that are imposed on other institutions and spending $32 million on the 1st World War Galleries alone, while its new director refuses to countenance depicting Frontier War in its colonial galleries. Ask the next director, he said recently at the National Press Club when asked about Frontier Conflict.
All the while Tony Abbott has said he wants an Arlington-style National War cemetery in Australia. Never mind that the pressing need is for a National Keeping Place for many of the 750 indigenous Australians – victims of frontier violence, grave robbing and post mortem experimentation – whose bodies are held in the National Museum’s warehouse at Mitchell. This is an astounding, shocking story that says so much about Australia’s dark, unacknowledged past . . .
Christopher Pyne, meanwhile, says he wants more Anzac and less “black armband” in the National Curriculum.
I personally believe that a terrible wound lingers unhealed at the heart of Australian nationhood and history – one that will never heal until the unadorned stories of the grotesque violence against Aborigines at European settlement becomes part of our cultural mainstream. School students should be taught more – not less – about it. It is not a matter of either Frontier violence OR Anzac, but both, surely?
“Anzackery” – thank you for that fantastic term Stuart McIntyre – is everywhere. I’m doing my very best to get Anzackery into the lexicon. Look out.
So there’s plenty for Honest History to do. But then the quality of the minds associated with Honest History is incredible. There are too many to name, but I would urge those writers, historians and journalists – the first draft historians – to use the Honest History website as a resource.
It is a fabulous resource and it is there not to create trouble or to run counter-arguments for the mere sake of it, but to provoke thought, to cultivate alternative views and most of all to help establish the truth, as the industry built around Anzac mythology prepares for its payday.
Finally, before I launch the site, a post-script on the old light horseman who captivated me so much as a young journalist that I wanted one day to write a book about the charge of Beersheba.
“We had to charge two miles over open ground to get to the Turks. It was an exhilarating feeling . . . the big charge happened at seven in the morning on a bright sunny spring morning,” I quoted him in the newspaper as saying back in 1987.
And then when I researched the book I realised that the charge happened at dusk in autumn. And also that Lionel was in the 8th Light Horse Regiment. Only the 4th and 12th took part in the actual charge.
He was an old man. I think he had told the story so many times that he’d become a part of it.
I like to tell this story against myself to illustrate how easy it is to believe the stories that we wish to believe. It took me more than 20 years to ask the next question and to figure out the reality.
So, with that I’d like to launch the Honest History website and congratulate everyone involved with it.
I’m very pleased to support it.