Armistice Day: three non-mainstream media posts for the centenary, plus Paul Kelly on familiar territory

The Conversation almost counts as mainstream media these days, but its offerings are often far from run of the mill. Flinders University historian, Romain Fathi, has a concise and excellent piece on the Armistice to add to his earlier explainer about the war as a whole. This time, Fathi reminds us that localised conflicts, like those in Northern Russia and the Middle East, continued long after 11 November 1918 and even June 1919, which saw the Treaty of Versailles. He then traces the history of Armistice (later Remembrance) Day. (At the foot of Fathi’s article are links to other Armistice-Remembrance related pieces, including Margaret Hutchison’s article on how Australian war artists reinforced a narrow view of Australian war experience.)

Down in Gippsland, our regular contributor, Phil Cashen (Shire at War), looks at how the Armistice came to the Shire of Alberton. Even the premature celebrations were lively: ‘One dog hoisted a miniature Union Jack whenever he raised his tail’. When the real news finally came through ‘the meeting appropriately sang the National Anthem and God Save Our Splendid Men … A big crowd assembled outside the “Standard” office, where the news was posted, and song and cheers broke the stillness of the night’. Cashen concludes his detailed report as follows:

All the speech making associated with the immediate local celebrations of the Armistice described the victory in terms of the Empire’s unconquered greatness and the associated triumph of its religion, Protestantism. Essentially, this was a perspective that looked back, to the world of pre-August 1914. All declared that the War had been won by the right side, with the right history, the right religion and the right values. Therefore, according to this logic, order would now be restored. The past could become again the present. Unfortunately, the world, the Empire and Australia itself had changed far too much for that to happen.

Armistice Day in Townsville (SLQ)

(For earlier reports from Alberton, see our now concluded ‘Divided sunburnt country’ series.)

In Melbourne, the Heidelberg Historical Society (secretary Janine Rizzetti) again reminds us that the Armistice did not occur without prior warning and false alarms. The Shire of Heidelberg had been gearing up since mid October.

In the days immediately preceding what we now know as Armistice Day, peace celebrations had already begun even though it was not yet official. Melbourne Town Hall was filled to overflowing at a great meeting on 6th November, attended by the Acting Prime Minister, where the crowd rejoiced “with song, speech, laughter and hearts over the collapse of the enemy alliance and the dawn of peace”.

Finally, the residents knew the Armistice had really happened when the King’s portrait appeared on the screen at the Fairfield Theatre.

This seemed to just touch the right spot, and the people responded to their feelings of enthusiasm by rounds of applause. Pictures of prominent leaders in the navy and military, Lloyd George, President Wilson etc. followed, succeeded by patriotic pictures, such as the unfurling of the Union Jack fluttering in the air, John Bull and Uncle Sam shaking hands etc. [More pictures, excitement, singing and shouting followed until] the singing of the Doxology and National Anthem and God Bless Our Splendid Men brought the meeting to a close.

Back in the Armistice centenary mainstream, the venerable Paul Kelly’s piece in The Australian could in large part have been produced for the 75th or 90th or 95th anniversaries. Like many MSM pieces for Anzac, Remembrance Day (or Christmas, Easter, and Cup Day) – or a Brendan Nelson speech – it has the feel of being written on autopilot, repeating familiar tropes like national rebirth, ‘They shall grow not old’, ‘sacrifice’, and not ‘the war to end wars’, and referencing the usual witnesses like Charles Bean, Simon Fraser, Alec Raws, and Wilfred Owen. (The article does, however, include some useful material on a defeated Germany.)

These themes touch receptors in many, perhaps most, of us – that is why they are repeated so often. The present author, a stern critic of Anzackery, the jingoistic and sentimental ‘bastard child’ of the Anzac legend, cannot read the final letters of a dead great-uncle (Gallipoli 1915) or uncle (Malaya 1943) without becoming what Dr Nelson would call ’emotional’ – in other words, teary. That is how we are wired. The point is to get beyond the tears and ask important questions like ‘why were they fighting?’ and ‘was it worth it?’

The Anzackers and the commemoration industry avoid these questions. They also trifle with evidence or do not care about it. Kelly repeated the furphy about the ‘Those heroes …’ words allegedly said or written by Mustafa Kemal Ataturk in 1934. There is no strong evidence that these words ever came from Ataturk – and strong evidence that they came about much later and from other people, among them an Australian Anzac in 1977-78. We sent Paul Kelly last year a copy of The Honest History Book, which includes a chapter on ‘the Ataturk words’. We never heard whether he received the book, let alone read it. He should.

David Stephens

11 November 2018

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