Stephens, David: New Australian War Memorial Director’s children’s war books give some hints to his thinking

David Stephens*

‘New War Memorial Director’s children’s war books give some hints to his thinking’, Honest History, 31 March 2020 updated

The new Director of the Australian War Memorial, Matthew Anderson PSM, commences duty on 14 April. He comes to the Memorial job after a posting as Deputy High Commissioner in London and, before that, he was Ambassador to Afghanistan and, way back, he had an eight-year military career, as a junior officer in the engineers and then as a careers adviser.

l_a_anzac2_jpg-100255-200x300Although former Memorial Director, Brendan Nelson, said he encouraged Mr Anderson to apply for the job, it seems safe to say Mr Anderson will be a different type of chief executive to Dr Nelson. For one thing, he lacks the background in elective politics that Dr Nelson had and the tendency to grandstanding that such a background engenders. (Dr Nelson said of Mr Anderson, ‘He’s a man who wears humility more comfortably than any medals he’s been awarded’.)

Mr Anderson differs also in that he is the author of three military history books for children: A is for ANZAC: An A to Z of Australia and the First World War (30 pages, revised edition, 2010); Don’t Forget Me Cobber: Australia and the First World War (40 pages, revised edition, 2006); K is for Kokoda: An A to Z of Australia and the Second World War (104 pages, 2010). Each book is published by the Anzac Day Commemoration Committee of Queensland (ADCC).

The books have their good points. The language is simple, befitting the audience (primary and early secondary students for the first two, unstated but secondary students for the third). There are some ideas for school (does your school celebrate Anzac Day? ask your teacher to mark Remembrance Day on the calendar; would you swap lunches with an Anzac’s bully beef?) or families (ask your parents to take you to a Dawn Service; make Anzac biscuits). There are lots of illustrations, some familiar, others not so much, particularly in the Second World War book. There is straightforward rendering of the horrors of the front line in both wars and something of war’s lasting effects. We hear about nurses and merchant seamen, sailors and flyers, as well as our boys in khaki. There are bibliographies in two of the books and lists of, and references to, useful websites. (Pages of the ADCC site appear often, unsurprisingly, given the ADCC published the books, although these days there is a wider range of options for further reading, other than the ones listed in these books.)

On the other hand, Mr Anderson’s collected works are very much ‘received view’, ‘service and sacrifice’, traditional Anzac fare. The books repeat myths, like the one about the Anzacs landing in the wrong place at Gallipoli, although they nowhere approach the Anzackery (excessive or misguided promotion of the Anzac legend, often involving maudlin sentiment and jingoism) of the late Colonel Arthur Burke, long-time President of the ADCC, whose florid rhetoric can still be found on the ADCC site.

The books are notable, however, for their lack of context and for what they leave out. (We take the point that the books were published ten and 14 years ago and Mr Anderson might do them differently today.) Here are some examples:

  • the ‘Those heroes that shed their blood’ words usually but carelessly attributed to Mustafa Kemal Ataturk appear over his name in the first book, with no mention of who Ataturk was;
  • glossing over in personal histories, where the bits left out do not fit the heroic Anzac mould (Alec Campbell’s long post-war radical history, why Simpson of donkey fame enlisted under a pseudonym);
  • noting that nearly half a million Australians enlisted in World War I, but ignoring the spectacular decline in enlistments in the last couple of years of the war, and the reasons for that trend;
  • having nothing at all in the first two books about the 1916-17 conscription battles and tensions between Australians of English and Irish descent;
  • having nothing in the A to Z pages of the World War II book about the bombing of Hiroshima, Nagasaki or Tokyo (though the bombing of Darwin and Northern Australia gets a page);
  • in the World War II book, I counted more than 20 entries about battles and campaigns, some of them relatively minor, out of a total of 50 or so A to Z entries, but hardly a word about planning for the post-war world;
  • telling the story of World War II Australians in Bomber Command and flying the Lancaster bomber G for George, without mentioning the German casualties, including tens of thousands of women and children, on the ground beneath.

All history is selective, but these omissions make the books misleading and deceptive.

cobber_new_jpg-100416-200x300These are books mostly about what Australians have done in war, less about what war has done to Australia and Australians, and almost nothing about what war does to other people, non-Australians. But that is how the War Memorial generally plays it also, so Mr Anderson will be on familiar ground. Actually, the Memorial is ahead of Mr Anderson in its treatment of the Holocaust, surely the one indispensable story of World War II, even when the audience is Australian children. By contrast, Mr Anderson’s H entries are for ‘HMAS’ and ‘Home Front’.

Nor is Mr Anderson strong on the really important question: are wars worth it? ‘Q is for Questions’ in the first book, but the questions are of the order of ‘when is ANZAC Day?’, ‘where is Gallipoli’, and ‘who was the man with the donkey?’, rather than anything mildly controversial, like ‘do you think a legless man returning from the war would think it was all worth it?’ There is a page, ‘Coming Home’, in the second book which could provoke questions of this type, but it explicitly avoids the question of how to measure the cost to Australia of World War I. The World War II book has a summary of how the war began and ended, but, in between, the article is mostly an overview of battles.

In 2016, Catriona Pennell and Mark Sheahan wrote about Great War commemoration in Australia and other countries. Their remarks on the impact of commemoration rituals on children are relevant to Mr Anderson’s books and the way he approaches war.

Amid these official celebrations, there appears to be little space for different perspectives on war remembrance in the UK, Australia and New Zealand that go beyond pride and reverence of the armed forces, are inclusive of difference and allow young people to think critically about the significance of World War I. But if we are serious about the memories of the conflict surviving in all their diversity, we need to equip and encourage young people to engage critically as well as emotionally with this cataclysmic event, and with what it might say to us in the 21st century.

And that should apply to the way we encourage children to deal with all wars. Since Anderson wrote, the work of Joan Beaumont and Ross McMullin has added to our ability to tally the costs of the Great War, while John Edwards’ work on Curtin and Stuart Macintyre’s on post-war reconstruction – thinking about which began pretty much at Day One of the war – could broaden teachers’ perspectives of our wars. Books like these help us get at those awkward ‘was it worth it?’ 0r ‘what was it all for?’ questions that Mr Anderson avoids, but which would have been in the minds of the men and women fighting.

Even a primary school teacher could work some of this recent research into lessons built around Mr Anderson’s books. His bibliographies have plenty of  ‘grown-up’ war references, though they are heavily weighted towards the conventional – Patsy Adam-Smith (but not Bill Gammage), Les Carlyon, Peter FitzSimons, the Official Histories, stories from the War Memorial’s Wartime publication, and those copious cross-references to the ADCC site – and away from the questioning. Even Year 7 students could deal with an extra layer of Simpson and his donkey, drawing upon Peter Cochrane’s book (first published 1992) about how the Simpson mythology grew. And no-one should leave a course about the Great War without an evidence-based antidote to the Ataturk words furphy.

6kokodaIf Mr Anderson’s books are meant for classroom use – and there is, on the ADCC blurb for at least the first book, a reference to alignment with the Australian Curriculum: History and English – teachers and even students will need to go further afield. (There have been revisions to the curriculum since Mr Anderson wrote. More since.)

Without boasting, the references on the Honest History site, including the Alternative Guide to the Australian War Memorial, provide a good start for wider reading. Look under ‘Australia’s war history‘ and its sub-headings for a start. Then, the posts under ‘Teaching History‘ should be of particular interest to teachers wanting to know about the practice as well as the content of history. There is also this material prepared by Medical Association for Prevention of War for the History Teachers’ Association of Victoria: ‘After Armistice: The Long and Short-term Effects of World War I’. (The above material includes some information about the influenza pandemic of 1918-19, not covered by Mr Anderson but of interest in 2020. More on that pandemic.)

What then of the Memorial’s future under Mr Anderson? The current Chair of the Memorial Council, Kerry Stokes, turns 80 years-old this year and his term expires in August. If Mr Stokes moves on, there is an obvious successor already on the Council, and that is Tony Abbott, former Prime Minister. If Mr Abbott does indeed move into Mr Stokes’ chair, the Abbott-Anderson interactions could be interesting to observe; we may still see grandstanding, but not necessarily from the Director. Meanwhile, we wish Mr Anderson well. It is not an easy time to be taking over.

* David Stephens is editor of the Honest History website and co-editor of The Honest History Book (2017).

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