Review note: Great War miscellany

‘Review note: Great War miscellany’, Honest History, 18 July 2014

This is our third roundup of the embarrassment of riches coming to our attention in the World War I centenary period. It is a bit broader in sweep than our first and second 2014 miscellanea and picks up some older items.

First, Japan-based Australian playwright Roger Pulvers talks to Robyn Williams about Australia’s war obsession and Pulvers’s belief that this leads to Australians glorifying war. There is a transcript and a number of listener comments. In similar vein is Guy Rundle, who argues there is a disconnect between the way we commemorate war, particularly Gallipoli, and what actually happened at both the micro and macro level. Again, there are plenty of reader comments, both pro and con. Other pieces on our site by Rundle can be found by using the ‘Search’ function.

Then, ABC journalist Mark Corcoran considers the origins of World War I in a piece which may be read in conjunction with the ABC’s blockbuster radio program on origins and other aspects. The lack of transcripts for the latter program (ten hours long) is disappointing to anyone using the program as a research source rather than as a leisurely listen. The ten issues examined, however, are beginnings, alleged donkey generals, secondary theatres of war, dissent at home, doctors and nurses, writers, the German angle, religion, the role of colonised nations, and the end of the war and its implications. The contributors include Joan Beaumont, Robert Bollard, Harvey Broadbent, Richard Evans, Paul Ham, Margaret MacMillan, Kerry Neale, Bobbie Oliver, Robin Prior, Christine Spittel, Peter Stanley, Hew Strachan, Mesut Uyar, Jay Winter, and many others.

More concisely, Warwick McFadyen muses about how, when dealing with war, Australians tend to gloss over what lies beneath. (On this, see also Hugh White.) He suggests that ‘the terrible cost of sacrifice is lodged in the collective memory while the cause of that sacrifice is ignored’. Meanwhile, the monetary spin-offs of remembering sacrifice are hinted at in a piece about Albany, Western Australia, which, according to the ABC, ‘is  hoping to cash in on the national obsession with World War One’. Peter Stanley’s scepticism is appended.

New Zealand features strongly in a program about the ill treatment of conscientious objectors during World War I, also a subject often avoided. Much less glossed over this year, at least outside Australia (compare McFadyen and Rundle above) are the causes of the Great War. Simon Heffer provides a comprehensive review of a number of books, which may be compared with RJW Evans’s earlier effort. Heffer probably ranges more broadly.

Almost finally, from Anzacs past there is a leader from the Herald Sun in 2013, which perhaps epitomises mainstream media editorialising on the subject, a 2011 piece from Paul Kelly, giving the ‘muscular’ view of Anzac at the time of the Hawke-Fraser report to the Gillard Government on how Anzac should be commemorated – Kelly is scornful of the proposal for a Peace Studies Centre – and a 2012 debate about Anzac between one of Kelly’s bêtes noires, Marilyn Lake, and the popular writer on war and other subjects, Peter Fitzsimons.

In his reckoning of where Anzac stood in 2011, Kelly said this. It remains a good summary of one view of the Anzac legend or myth.

The re-energising of Anzac has become the central organising principle of Australia’s past and how the nation interprets its future. It is fair to see the struggle over Anzac’s memory as the triumph of the people over the intellectual class.

Historian Manning Clark, in the 1981 fifth volume of his History of Australia, cursed Anzac with damning irony. For Clark, Anzac constituted the loss of the more noble, finer Australia that might have been. “Australia’s day of glory had made her a prisoner of her past,” Clark lamented in the book’s final paragraph. While the stories of heroism would be recounted for generations, the deeper lesson was that the ideals of Australia “had been cast to the winds”.

This has long been the refrain of pacifists, socialists and feminists.

For Clark, Anzac had cast a pessimistic shadow across Australia’s path. Ironically, he penned these words on the cusp of its revival. That revival has been driven by a combination of elements – a more mature Australian nationalism, family ties to the Anzac experience and a de-politicisation of the legend that invests it with a unifying power.

Finally, we provide a link to a site which tries to identify every single monument in Australia, not just monuments to war but to everything. It is the life work of the Watson family and their friends. At the time of writing the total number of monuments stood at 23 004. There might be comparisons to be drawn with Ken Inglis’s book Sacred Places.

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