‘Anzac, Vimy Ridge, Monash and the education of children’, Honest History E-newsletter No. 5, September 2013
Towards the end of the 20th century there was an increase in claims that battles fought in World War I defined national identity in Australia and Canada. These claims sounded similar, despite the differences in history between the two countries.
Into the beginning of the 21st century this narrative is becoming louder, more orchestrated and nearly identical in content. These claims presuppose that there was no significant national identity in either country prior to the World War I battles; accordingly, they militarise national history at the expense of political, social and civil developments in each society.
On 25 April 2012, the then Australian Prime Minister, Julia Gillard, gave a speech at a Gallipoli commemoration ceremony in Turkey. She claimed that the Gallipoli landings were ‘our first act of nationhood in the eyes of a watching world, an act authored not by statesmen or diplomats, but by simple soldiers. The Anzacs. The boys of Federation who became the men of Gallipoli.’ (1) The Prime Minister then quoted the words of Charles Bean that it was at Anzac that ‘the consciousness of Australian nationhood was born’. She added: ‘The laws and institutions of our nation were laid down in 1901. But here, in 1915, its spirit and ethos were sealed.’
In 2007, the Canadian Prime Minister, Stephen Harper, gave a speech at the anniversary of Canada’s iconic World War I battle at Vimy Ridge, France, in April, 1917. ‘Every nation’, he said, ‘has a creation story. The First World War and the battle of Vimy Ridge are central to the story of Canada.’ (2) The Prime Minister agreed with Brigadier-General AE Ross, a witness to the battle, who said after the war, ‘Canada from the Atlantic to the Pacific on parade, I felt that I was witnessing the birth of a nation’. (Canada had been a dominion, equivalent to the Australian colonies federating, since 1867.)
On a battlefield where 3598 Canadians died, Prime Minister Harper also said that ‘there may be no place on earth that makes us feel more Canadian’. In similar vein, Australian Prime Minister, John Howard, said in 2004 of Gallipoli (8141 deaths, according to the Australian War Memorial), ‘You feel as an Australian it’s as much a part of Australia as the land on which your home is built’. (3)
While the rhetoric decades later was the same in Australia and Canada, the original events were very different. The Gallipoli campaign was a nine month disaster; Vimy Ridge was a successful three day battle which dislodged the Germans from a very strategic ridge. The Anzacs did not undergo rigorous amphibious training to prepare for their assault and did not know their individual place in the campaign; the Canadians rehearsed tirelessly for months and even Sergeants and Corporals were shown exactly where they fitted into the overall plan.
Prime ministerial rhetoric in both countries has been reflected at many levels, for example, in education programs. All Australian States and Territories in Australia now have Anzac student awards in some form; the winners travel on a chaperoned tour of the battlefields of Europe. One winning essay says, ‘The ANZAC’s gave my generation freedom and the choice, to do whatever we want to do with our lives. No longer is there a set plan for men and women in society. Women are welcomed at universities to increase their chances of securing high paid jobs, rather than childbearing and homemaking.’ This winner wiped from history the pre-World War I struggle for universal suffrage and equality in Australia.
In Canada, the comparable children’s tour is conducted through the Beaverbrook Vimy Prize. The entries are kept confidential. (4) In 2007, 3600 Canadian school children made the pilgrimage to the site in France and wore replica uniforms labelled with the names of fallen soldiers. Many Canadian students spend their gap year as tour guides at the Vimy battlefield.
Despite the views of some commentators, the idea that Australia already possessed a proud democratic identity when World War I started is not an example of the black arm-banded left rewriting history. General Monash himself wrote that Australians had a strong national identity prior to the war and, given the strong link between war commemoration and the education of children in today’s Australia, it is interesting to note that Monash also thought the education system of the day was an important contributor to the quality of the troops he led. He attributed any uniqueness of the Australian soldier to ‘[t]he democratic institutions under which he was reared, the advanced system of education by which he was trained – teaching him to think for himself and to apply what he had been taught to practical ends’. (5)
It is a constant and clear theme in the literature that pre-World War I Australian governments went to great lengths to achieve high education standards and to ensure they were available to as many children as possible. (6) The state provided free transport to school and subsidised the cost of a tutor if the home was too far from a school. A high level of civic pride was shown by the fact that state schools and books were free and that the curriculum was designed to be ‘alive and interesting’. (7)
The result of this educational framework was said to be that, ‘[n]aturally, Australian children get to like school’. (8) Monash also wrote that the Australian soldier had a high sense of teamwork ‘learnt from the sporting field, in his industrial organisations and in his political activities’. (9) The positive correlation in citizens between sporting prowess and soldering is always highlighted. (On the other hand, the fact that Monash thought that he commanded better soldiers because they were politically active or unionised in civilian life is never mentioned.)
The battles at Gallipoli and Vimy Ridge were starkly different in many ways; however, they are commemorated similarly in Australia and Canada. Both Canada and Australia have used their respective battles as a basis to forge their identity as a nation, and neither battlefield success (or lack of it) nor other strategic detail appear to have impacted on the way the battles have been interpreted.
National myths can be beneficial to a nation. They can foster unity, define social values and construct a sense of identity. Yet the blind veneration of the soldier, coexisting in rituals in secular yet holy ground, suggest an appeal towards emotions over reason. This could create a self-fulfilling prophecy by improving the overall quality of Australian and Canadian soldiers, as modern day volunteers would want to enhance and uphold the legend, or, in the event that conscription were to be reintroduced in Australia and Canada, the mythology of Anzac and Vimy could be a useful psychological primer for recruits.
Myths can suggest which values citizens of a society should and should not adhere to. But values can grow from other sources, too. Since World War I there have been unprecedented advances in all the disciplines of science, from physics to sociology. These are the disciplines in which the children of today should be educated. Human, gender, indigenous and minority rights have progressed rapidly also and one would hope they benefit all children and youths equally.
It is surely possible that another event can be found to symbolise the birth of a nation in both Australia and Canada, one that does not involve fighting a war, now associated with futility, nearly a century ago. National narratives are powerful forces and it could be beneficial to create one which is based on enlightenment and not destruction, one that encourages the children of today to look forward to a humane and productive future, rather than backward to imagined glories on the battlefield.
* Chris Watters joined the army at 17 and served in the Signals Corps in electronic warfare and the Special Air Service. He is a veteran of East Timor and Afghanistan and consulted for several years in Iraq. He has a Bachelor of Psychology, a Masters in International Studies (Melbourne) and is now doing a Ph. D. at La Trobe. He also spent a year prospecting for gold.
(1) The Hon. Julia Gillard MP, Speech: Lone Pine ceremony, Gallipoli, 25 April 2012, https://pmtranscripts.dpmc.gov.au/browse.php?did=18533 , accessed 5 September 2013.
(2) ‘Prime Minister Stephen Harper commemorates the 90th anniversary of the Battle of Vimy Ridge: 9 April 2007, Vimy, France’, https://www.pm.gc.ca/eng/media.asp?id=1619 , accessed 5 September 2013.
(3) ‘A place we should not call our own’, (editorial) Age (Melbourne), 3 January 2004, https://www.theage.com.au/articles/2004/01/02/1072908904857.html , accessed 5 September 2013; ‘Gallipoli’, https://www.awm.gov.au/encyclopedia/gallipoli/ , accessed 5 September 2013.
(4) In late 2012 I unsuccessfully requested copies of any of the entries many times, with no success.
(5) John Monash, The Australian Victories in France in 1918, Hutchinson, London, 1920, p. 290.
(6) Frank Fox, Peeps at Many Lands: Australia, Adam & Charles Black, London, 1911, p. 75.
(7) Ibid., p. 81.
(9) Monash, p. 293.