Anzac Day talk at Crows Nest Uniting Church (Douglas Newton)

Douglas Newton

‘Anzac Day talk at Crows Nest Uniting Church, 26 April 2015, Honest History, 12 May 2015

(Note: this is one of two related speeches)

1. Respect

The Great War was such a sprawling catastrophe that I am sure all people in this church can point to those among their family who were scarred by that conflict – and, perhaps, by other conflicts that have followed. Naturally, all that I have to say today is steeped in respect for those who served.

Indeed, both my grandfathers served in the ‘Australian Imperial Force’ – for that was the fate of the ‘Australian Commonwealth Military Forces’ – and both took the oath of loyalty to the King-Emperor, George V, to ‘resist His Majesty’s enemies’ – for that was the oath. They had unremarkable wars. But as samples of those who enlisted, they serve to highlight some statistics. They were among the more than 300 000 Australians – probably 318 000 – who served overseas.[1]

On my mother’s side, Cecil Alfred Ashcroft enlisted in February 1917. He was aged 23 – thus, like 52 per cent of the AIF, he was between 18 and 24 years of age and like 80 per cent of them he was unmarried.[2] He was from the Protestant Establishment, son of a founder of a big butcher’s firm in Liverpool. He served as a driver – the lowliest rank – in the Australian Army Service Corps in Egypt and Palestine. Suffering from malaria, he spent months in hospital near Cairo, returned to Sydney in May 1919 and was discharged from the AIF as ‘medically unfit’ in July 1919. He was therefore like the ‘four out of five’ of the surviving soldiers of the AIF who were casualties in this war in some way.[3]

On my father’s side, Alfred Joseph Newton enlisted in October 1917, aged 31. He was married with three very young children. One was my father, aged just three months when Lieutenant Alf Newton left Australia. Alf was a dispensing chemist on His Majesty’s Australian Transport Ships to the Middle East and England, taking at least four trips in 1918 and 1919. He was Catholic, like 20 per cent of those who enlisted in the AIF.[4] But, as a Catholic officer he was very unusual, for overwhelmingly the officer class in the AIF was from the Protestant Establishment.[5]

Both my grandfathers survived. They were lucky. The total of Australian war deaths – counting the 550 suicides from 1919 to 1921 and adding in at least 8000 more war-related deaths after 1918 – was probably 72 500.[6]

Camp-Gallipoli-Swag-Kids-05Camp Gallipoli swag $275

2. What Anzac commemorations might be

Is our commemoration of Anzac at risk of descending into a national festival of self-congratulation, where we assure each other that we are a special warrior people, uniquely gallant, blessed with a capacity for special valour, and so on?

Is it at risk of becoming a hot-house for stale figures of speech: ‘birth of our nation’; ‘baptism of fire’; ‘baptism of shrapnel’; ‘crucible of nationhood’; ‘punching above our weight’; ‘a spirit forged in war’; ‘test of our manhood and our soldiers’ mettle’; ‘shaping our national character’; ‘entered on the world stage’; and so on?

In September 1915, Charles Bean, Australia’s war correspondent, while on the Gallipoli peninsula itself, wrote in his personal diary of the danger of history descending into mere flattery. He had observed instances of Australian gallantry and instances of fear and flight. He wanted to write about both. But he confessed in his diary, ‘the probability is that if I were to put it into print tomorrow the tender Australian public, which only tolerates flattery and that in its cheapest form, would howl me out of existence’.[7]

There is the challenge to us. After 100 years, are we capable of looking at the war while shunning flattery?

When the National Commission on the Commemoration of the Anzac Centenary reported in 2011, it argued:

The most bitter disappointment for the original Anzacs was that their war was not, in fact, the “war to end all wars”. The best way we can honour their memory is to focus our thoughts on how we might reduce the risk that future Australians will have to endure what they have endured. (p. 28)

Has that been the tone struck in the official events?

3. What Anzac ‘celebration’ can be

Our local newspapers frequently deploy the words ‘celebration’ and ‘commemoration’ interchangeably. There is a tone of side-drum nationalism in some of the material especially produced for this year.

For example, a week ago the Saturday Daily Telegraph produced a 24-page Anzac special lift-out, filled with a spirit of schoolboy adventure and wonderment in weaponry.[8] These were some of the headlines:










ARmimg_3381-mr_1Prosthetic arm (Museum Victoria)

On the other hand, the centenary has produced more thoughtful contributions. There are scores of valuable exhibitions being staged around Australia for the centenary of the Great War. For example, the ‘Love and Sorrow’ exhibition at the Museum of Melbourne is one of the very best and there are on-line exhibitions such as the ‘One Hundred Stories’ project put together at Monash University.[9] These stress loss and the international disaster of the war.

In every nation there is a competition between two cultures: one that normalises and valorises war, fatalistically accepts war, and looks to national validation in war; and another culture that laments every war as a return to medievalism, that finds warfare irredeemably repellent, that strives for international diplomatic solutions, and seeks national validation in its creation of a high quality of life for all – a culture that ensures that, if war is ever chosen, it is chosen by democratic means, as a very last resort, absolutely in self-defence. On balance, which culture is being encouraged by our centenary?

4. Plain packaging for Anzac

Few seem to ask, if Anzac is ‘fundamental to who we are’ and if war ‘defined our nation’ and if it ‘forged our national character’, why then did so many of those closest to the experience refuse all invitations to speak of it – forever? Could it be that such bombast repelled them?

If the Great War made us an independent nation, why did Australia fail to ratify the Statute of Westminster (1931), which offered us full nationhood, for a full decade after the offer was made, not until 1942? Why did we struggle to achieve consensus on the appointment of our first Australian Governor-General (Sir Isaac Isaacs) in 1930 and then revert to an English aristocrat (Lord Gowrie) in 1936? Could the truth be that the Great War did not ‘validate’ our nation but rather stalled the Australian project?

We are hearing a lot about the Anzac Spirit: mateship; democracy; egalitarianism; commitment to the common good. No surprise when we remember that an overwhelming majority of the original Anzacs were working class and probably 40 per cent were trade unionists, for whom solidarity was a religion.[10] The late Tom Uren, survivor of the Burma-Thai railway, summarised it this way: ‘In our camp the strong looked after the weak; the young looked after the old; the fit looked after the sick. We collectivized a great proportion of our income.’[11]

If then the Anzac spirit fires mateship – an indissoluble commitment to help one another – and a ferocious commitment to democracy and to egalitarianism, an instinctive resistance to privilege and hierarchy, and a belief in the pooling of resources against common dangers, then we might ask why some people with no commitment to these radical ideas claim a special affinity with Anzac?

PearceH16978Senator George Pearce, Minister for Defence 1914-21, Acting PM 1916 (Australian War Memorial H16978)

In the aftermath of Anzac Day, you may well feel that what we require is plain-packaging for Anzac, in order to understand the soldiers’ silences. Here are some blunt truths:

  • The estimates of total numbers of people killed in the Great War vary widely, depending on where you draw the line, in time and geography, and whether you count the civil wars that exploded in the aftermath of the war, in Eastern Europe, Turkey and the Middle East. A common total is 17.8 million people.[12]
  • The roll of battle-deaths in the Gallipoli campaign reads[13]:
  • Turkey: 86 700;
  • Britain: 26 054;
  • France: 9787;
  • Australia: 8709;
  • New Zealand: 2721;
  • India: 1682.
  • As Marina Larsson, author of Shattered Anzacs, estimates: for every ten Australian soldiers sent abroad, two were killed outright and three returned with pensionable disabilities. Thus, about 90 000 were disabled and by 1939 there were still 77 000 men from the AIF living with a war disability, with an average of three dying per day of war-related injuries.[14]
  • We should keep our contribution to the Great War in perspective. A division in the army is roughly 20 000 men. In 1914, we sent one division, the 1st Australian Division, and we topped up the ‘New Zealand and Australian Division’, both thrown into the conflict at Gallipoli. For the sake of perspective, let us recall that in August 1914 the European powers mobilised:
    • Germany: 96 divisions (and eventually 251 divisions were raised);
    • Austria-Hungary: 48;
    • Russia: 114;
    • France: 82;
    • Britain: six (and eventually 75 divisions were raised);
  • Australia sent initially one division (and eventually five divisions were raised and maintained across the course of the war).[15]
  • Atrocities then occurred on every front: atrocities deriving from the everyday industrialised pulverising of men by artillery, the killing of prisoners, the U-boat war, the starvation blockade; atrocities such as the killing of civilians in Ireland and Belgium in the West, and of Armenians in the Ottoman Empire; and atrocities on the part of our Tsarist Russian ally, the ‘pogroms’ – the deportations, hostage-taking, and wholesale robbery of Jewish communities – behind Russian lines in Galicia.[16] As Arthur Wheen, the Australian translator of Erich Maria Remarque’s All Quiet on the Western Front, put it, we British imagine we were ‘saints at war’, but the reality was ‘the bestiality was wherever the war was’.[17]

VersaillesART16770Signing the Peace Treaty, Versailles, 1919 (Australian War Memorial ART16770/Joseph Finnimore)

5. Why Anzac? – Why Gallipoli?

Why were we at Gallipoli at all? Was it really a moment of national awakening – as the $395 million being spent on the centenary here in Australia is seeking to persuade us? Or was it a moment of our willing imperial subservience? Was it truly a triumph of the national spirit or a triumph of the colonial instinct? We must recognise that Gallipoli followed from our leaders’ impulsive and reckless offer of an expeditionary force of 20 000 men to Britain, for any objective, to any destination, under British command, on Monday, 3 August 1914 (Monday morning London time) – some 40 hours before Britain had even decided upon war at all.[18]

The cable from Melbourne to London read:

Further prepared to despatch [an] expeditionary force of 20,000 men, of any suggested composition, to any destination desired by the Home Government [London]. Force to be at complete disposal of the Home Government. Cost of despatch and maintenance would be borne by this Government.[19]

The men who enlisted in the AIF in August-October 1914 all expected to go to Britain for training and then on to fight to save France and liberate Belgium. After leaving Albany, they were just getting their sea-legs in the first week of November 1914 when the war exploded into the Middle East, as Britain and France loyally followed Russia into war against Turkey. And so the AIF was stopped in Egypt – which had just been annexed outright by Britain, along with Cyprus. The men of the AIF were diverted, first to stop any uprising in restless Egypt, and then on to Gallipoli.

The real question about Australia’s Gallipoli is not ‘how did we fight?’ – but rather ‘why did we fight’, and ‘what did we fight for?’

The campaign arose essentially from British efforts to keep Russia in the war, after the drubbing she endured in East Prussia and Russian Poland in 1914, by winning, for the Tsarist despotism of Nicholas II, its most cherished war aim: Constantinople and the Straits. The deals vital to the Gallipoli campaign were done in negotiations in London in early 1915, spurred on by George V and Tsar Nicholas of Russia.

Eventually, two diplomatic deals were struck which were absolutely vital to the campaign: the secret Straits Agreement of 8-12 March 1915, guaranteeing the spoils of the campaign to Russia; the secret Treaty of London, signed the day after Anzac Day, 26 April 1915. The first treaty bribed Russia to stay in the war, with the promise of Constantinople and the Straits; the second bribed Italy to enter the war, with the promise of a share in the partition of the Ottoman Empire.[20] Hovering in the background were the rival corporate interests, Royal Dutch Shell, Anglo-Persian Oil and Standard Oil, looking for the reopening of the Straits, a British and French partition of the Middle East, and a market share in fuelling the war.[21]

Was this diplomacy important to the Gallipoli campaign? It drove the operation. Admiral Fisher, who had to cooperate with Churchill in planning the campaign, was very pessimistic about the chances. As he wrote to Admiral Jellicoe on 27 February 1915: ‘It is all Foreign Office business and pressure from Russia and France. We are their facile dupes.’[22] And who was to profit from the battle if the Australians had triumphed and made it to Constantinople? As Sir Edward Grey, British Foreign Secretary, told George Buchanan, Britain’s Ambassador in St Petersburg, on 11 March 1915: ‘Tell the Russians “The direct fruits of these operations will, if the war is successful, be gathered entirely by Russia”’.[23]

Winston_Churchill_by_William_Orpen,_1916,Winston Churchill 1916 (Wikimedia Commons/Sir William Orpen)

We should not lose sight of the ongoing purposes of battle, on the Western Front and in the Middle East – that is, the imperial deals underpinning the battle, and prolonging the war, after Gallipoli:

  • the Sykes-Picot Agreement, May 1916, under which Britain and France agreed upon carving up the whole of the Middle East, from Palestine to Iraq;
  • the Paris economic resolutions, June 1916, under which plans were made for a post-war economic boycott to destroy German commerce;
  • the Bucharest Convention, August 1916, under which Romania was bribed into the war with a promise of a great slice of Hungary;
  • the Franco-Russian Agreements, February 1917, under which France turned a blind eye to Russian annexations in Eastern Europe and Russia a blind eye to French plans to take the Rhineland;
  • the St Jean de Maurienne Agreements, April 1917, complementing Sykes-Picot, under which Italy gained a share in the carving up of the Ottoman Empire; and
  • many other deals on the former German colonies, involving France and Japan.[24]

Not all we did in that war was blessed with moral clarity. Indeed, Australians were still fighting into a fourth year of war in 1918 because of this escalation of war aims, almost all of it secret from the people doing the fighting.

6. Lessons from the Great War and Gallipoli

When it was all over in 1919, and Germany turned the corner and established a liberal-socialist republic, the victors would not negotiate; democracy in Germany was not consolidated; there was no self-determination for colonial peoples; the empires of Britain and France were hugely enlarged; and the great fantasy balloon was inflated, that Germany could pay everyone’s war debts – every last dustman in Berlin and his grandchildren – so there need be no wealth taxes among the victors. The great internationalist project, the new League of Nations, was hobbled by the Treaty of Versailles. Sadly, Australia took a leading role in resisting the ‘racial equality clause’ at Paris in 1919, poisoning our relations with Japan.

What then might we learn about war, if we were genuinely commemorating the centenary of this great international cataclysm, the Great War, this scar on our civilisation, rather than inciting a nationalist Anzac centenary? What are the lessons of the Great War and Gallipoli for Australians?

  • That competition for Empire and commercial supremacy can land us all in a bloodbath.
  • That a world with weak international institutions and laws, with all nations armed to the teeth, and all jealously guarding their rights to take unilateral or preemptive action, is a hellishly dangerous world.
  • That great corporate vested interests, in empire and war, can cloak those interests in the garb of the national interest.
  • That sordid causes can be smuggled into noble causes once wars are under way – for this vast imperial war was indeed a vultures’ frenzy.
  • That the political inner executive can triumph over parliament and people when the ‘war powers’ are unreformed, when there is no requirement to appeal to parliament before forces are deployed abroad – which is the situation in Australia still today.
  • That in wartime the passing generation is always tempted to betray the interests of the rising generation – and to place the chief burdens of war upon that generation.
  • That those who choose to sacrifice the young then create a cult of the fallen – and praise the young, whom they have sacrificed, for their self-sacrifice.
  • That in war, almost always, nations are at their worst. Fearing the enemy at the gate, they search frantically for the enemy within.
  • That slavish loyalty to alliances can mean slavish loyalty to the misjudgments of others.

7. Peace and reconciliation

We know the difficulties Christians face in reconciling the instinct of self-defence in every people, with the realities of barbarous warfare, the capacity to kill on a grand scale, and the dubious causes that can be squeezed into the ‘just war’.

We know also how people of faith have reached out in the past, comforting the bereaved. And we know the many brave Christians who have done much more, challenging the unjust social structures and anarchic international structures that feed international rivalry and war, and seeking international reconciliation, and stronger international institutions and laws that always preference diplomacy before dynamite.

We know how easy it is for the established churches to be ‘captured’ by the Establishment, and to be cajoled into vindicating the business of Empire and war, twisting notions of sacrifice and atonement to underwrite the nationalist project. There is a fine example of this within a short walk from here. The 42-foot high North Sydney Cenotaph, costing £6,000, opened by the Governor-General in October 1926, bears upon it an inscription in large letters: ‘GREATER LOVE HATH NO MAN THAN THIS – THAT HE GIVE HIS LIFE FOR THE LIFE OF HIS COUNTRY’.

northsydneycenotaphNorth Sydney Cenotaph c. 1930 (Eventbrite/Sam Hood)

Some people in North Sydney winced at this. The Sydney Morning Herald noted at the time that the inscription ‘has caused a good deal of comment’. The Herald offered an excuse: it was merely ‘an adaptation of a well-known Biblical quotation’. It was, of course, a deliberate misquotation of the famous gospel verse from John 15:13: ‘Greater love hath no man than this – that a man lay down his life for his friends.’[25] Upon that verse the nationalist idea was overlaid – just as a great bronze long-sword is overlaid upon the ‘Cross of Sacrifice’ designed by Sir Reginald Blomfield in 1918, the monumental cross which looms over so many of the cemeteries laid out by the Imperial War Graves Commission after the war.

So, let us honour the Anzacs, past, present and future, in life – through great caution in our military commitments – and not simply with a cult of the fallen, a cult of death.

As we reflect on the centenary of Gallipoli, let us ask hard questions: should the Centenary be used to boost our tradition of expeditionary warfare, far from Australia’s shores, and thus subtly to vindicate contemporary commitments to war? Should we be spending up big on what may descend into a mere nationalist jamboree, if at the same time we are neglecting the health needs, and especially the mental health, of returning veterans today?

Let me finish with a poem chosen by my wife Julie’s mother, Ethel Mulder, who remembers it from the Second World War. She lost her brother, Harold, a flyer, to friendly fire over Scotland in 1940, and she can recite the lines still. As the World War II poet put it, the key lesson for those who survive is this:

Do not despair

For Johnny-head-in-air;

He sleeps as sound

As Johnny underground.

Fetch out no shroud

For Johnny-in-the-cloud;

And keep your tears

For him in after years.

Better by far

For Johnny-the-bright-star,

To keep your head,

And see his children fed.[26]


[1] David Noonan, Those We Forget: Recounting Australian Casualties of the First World War (Melbourne, 2014), p. 116.

[2] Marina Larsson, Shattered Anzacs: Living with the Scars of War (Sydney, 2009), p. 31.

[3] Noonan, Those We Forget, p. 194.

[4] Robert Bollard, ‘Economic conscription and Irish discontent: the possible resolution of a conundrum’, in Phillip Deery and Julie Kimber, ed., Fighting Against War: Peace Activism in the Twentieth Century (Melbourne, 2015), p. 141.

[5] LL Robson, ‘The origin and character of the First A. I. F., 1914-1918: some statistical evidence’, Historical Studies, 15, 61 (October, 1973), p. 749.

[6] Noonan, Those We Forget, pp. 122, 195-6.

[7] CEW Bean, entry for 26 September 1915, in ‘Official History, 1914-18 War: records of C. E. W. Bean, official historian papers’, AWM38 3DRL 606/17/1 (Australian War Memorial).

[8] ‘Anzac. 100 Years’ – special lift-out magazine with Sydney’s Daily Telegraph, Saturday, 18 April 2015.

[9] See and

[10] Robson, ‘Origin and character’, p. 738; Peter Stanley, Bad Characters: Sex, Crime, Mutiny, Murder and the Australian Imperial Force (Millers Point, 2009), ‘Part Two, 1915, Novices’, and Frank Bongiorno, Rae Frances and Bruce Scates, ed. Labour and the Great War (Sydney, 2014), ‘Preface: Labour History at War’, p. 3.

[11] Tom Uren, address to the South Coast Branch of Union Aid Abroad, .

[12] Ruth Leger Sivard, World Military and Social Expenditures 1987/88 (Washington, 1987), 29-31, quoted in John Mueller, ‘Changing attitudes towards war: the impact of the First World War’, British Journal of Political Science, 21, 1 (1991), pp. 1-28.

[13] Australian War Memorial, First World War gallery. For different figures, and a total of Allied casualties of 390 000, see Robin Prior, Gallipoli: the End of the Myth (Sydney, 2009), p. 242.

[14] Larsson, Shattered Anzacs, pp. 18-19.

[15] Norman Stone, The Eastern Front, 1914-1917 (London, 1998), p. 40; Richard F. Hamilton and Holger H. Herwig, ed., War Planning 1914 (Cambridge, 2010), pp. 34, 39, 147, 232, and 234, and Holger Herwig, The Marne, 1914 (New York, 2009) p. 61.

[16] Alexander Prusin, ‘The Russian military and the Jews in Galicia, 1914-15, in Eric Lohr and Marshall Poe, eds., The Military and Society in Russia, 1450-1917 (Boston, 2002), pp. 525-544.

[17] Arthur Wheen to Miss Lewers, 18 April 1929, in Tanya Crothers. ed., We Talked of Other Things: The Life and Letters of Arthur Wheen, 1897-1971 (Woollahra, 2012), p. 185.

[18] Douglas Newton, Hell-bent: Australia’s Leap into the Great War (Melbourne: Scribe, 2014), Ch. 15, ‘Australia jumps the gun’.

[19] Munro Ferguson to Lewis Harcourt, Colonial Secretary, 3 August 1914, quoted in Newton, Hell-bent, p. 13.

[20] Both treaties are reproduced in F. Seymour Cocks, The Secret Treaties and Understandings (London, 1918).

[21] Gregory Patrick Nowell, Mercantile States and the World Oil Cartel, 1900-1939 (Ithaca, 1994), Ch. 3, ‘The Great War and the struggle for commercial advantage’.

[22] Fisher to Jellicoe, 27 February 1915, quoted in Nicholas Lambert, Planning Armageddon (Cambridge, Mass., 2012), p. 320.

[23] Grey to Buchanan, 11 March 1915, quoted in CJ Lowe, ‘Britain and Italian intervention, 1914-1915’, Historical Journal, 12, 3 (1969), p. 544.

[24] On the escalation of British and Entente war aims, see David Stevenson, The First World War and International Politics (Oxford, 1988), VH Rothwell, British War Aims and Peace Diplomacy, 1914-1918 (Oxford, 1971), William Roger Louis, Great Britain and Germany’s Lost Colonies, 1914-1919 (Oxford, 1967).

[25] ‘War Memorial: North Sydney Cenotaph’, Sydney Morning Herald, 2 June 1926.

[26] ‘For Johnny’ 
by John Pudney.



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