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Remembering Anzac Day: how Australia grieved in the early years

Today marks the 100th anniversary of the start of the Gallipoli campaign of the First World War, which took the lives of over 10,000 members of Australian and New Zealand Army Corps. A momentous event in both nations’ histories, it is marked every year as Anzac Day. We take a look at how Australians began commemorating Anzac Day in the first few years with the following extract from the forthcoming The Centenary History of Australia and the Great War Series – Volume 4: The War at Home, by John Connor, Peter Stanley, and Peter Yule. (Please note: This is an excerpt from a manuscript. This book is currently being edited and proofread; the final product may differ.)

‘Anzac’ (soon transmuting from acronym to word) came to sum up the Australian desire to reflect on what the war had meant. What was the first Anzac Day? At least four explanations exist of the origins of the idea of Anzac, the most enduring legacy of Australia’s Great War. Gareth Knapman has shown that Adelaide held an ‘Anzac day’ on 15 October 1915, a renaming of the traditional eight-hours festival. Eric Andrews dubbed the seemingly ‘spontaneous’ ceremonies held in Cairo and London on 25 April 1916 ‘a propaganda triumph’.

Early in 1916 the Bulletin urged the government to ‘take out patent rights for the name “Anzac”’. Unless it did, the name would be used by ‘every quack and dead-beat from Port Darwin to Stewart Island, foreseeing Anzac tearooms, potatoes and pills’. After the war, it hoped, Australians would ‘hold its name only in our songs and traditions’. By 1917 Anzac Day had become established as a major fund-raising day. Sydney’s George Street became ‘a live antbed’ with all of those trying to get into the free concert in the Town Hall, with 3000 people—twice its capacity—trying to get in. At the ecumenical service earlier that day the wife of the Governor-General, Lady Helen Munro Ferguson, dressed in mourning garb as ‘a tribute to the dead of Gallipoli’ and a reminder that Anzac Day at first had no connotation beyond the Dardanelles.

On the first anniversary of the invasion of Gallipoli the Bulletin’s Red Page ran the products of a competition for ‘The Anzac Sonnet’. Although the judges found many ‘fatally flawed by technical errors’ (such gaffes as rhyming ‘saw’ with ‘war’), they demonstrated that at the time the identification of Gallipoli with, as Bill Gammage later put it, ‘nationhood, brotherhood and sacrifice’ had already begun. The journalist Guy Innes, despite the solecism of using the awkward ‘withnesseth’, wrote of the Anzacs being ‘baptised by fire’ who ‘made fair Australia’s honour with their dying breath’. The winner of the competition, Bartlett Adamson, expressed the essence of Anzac:

And Anzac now is an enchanted shore;
A tragic splendour, and a holy name;
A deed eternity will still acclaim;
A loss that crowns the victories of yore …

In 1915 enough babies to fill a crèche were christened ‘Anzac’, although the Protection of Anzac regulations curtailed that, and prevented bereaved mothers naming houses after the place where their sons died. ‘Mother of One’ objected that ‘we’ve got into the way of calling the little pet “Anzay” [sic]’ and, wondering whether to use his second name, ‘Pozières’, concluded: ‘I tell you what, I wish the old war had never started!’8 No doubt it was a sentiment widely shared.

To whom did the war now belong? A century on, the rhetoric of official commemoration would assert that ‘all Australians’ shared in the pain and the pride. The contemporary record suggests that just as the experience and sacrifices of war were unevenly distributed, so its memory was felt more in some than others. Anzac Day—the ‘Diggers’ day’—developed through the advocacy of returned soldiers’ organisations, and through the energy of several influential figures, notably Canon David Garland, whose formula of light Christian symbolism found a ready acceptance among those with most cause to want to recall the sacrifices and comradeship of wartime. In a deeply sectarian society Catholics long remained largely excluded from civic rituals, but Anzac comradeship extended beyond the liturgical, most characteristically expressed in the great Anzac Day marches that became the norm in communities throughout the nation by the late 1920s. In the capital cities huge, mostly silent crowds—80,000 in Sydney in 1928—watched columns of returned men—perhaps 15,000 of them—marching to reunions and commemorative gatherings. By 1930, aided by the introduction of the microphone and the wireless, the ‘dawn service’ had become established as the uniform commencement to a morning of solemn remembrance, albeit one typically shared in the privacy of a living room.

First World War: landing troops on mine sweeper. Photograph collection of Lieutenant Colonel G.J.S. Archer, RAMC. 9, album of photographs of No. 40 Field Ambulance at Gallipoli during the First World War. 1915.  Wellcome Library, London. Wellcome Images. CC BY 4.0 via Wikimedia Commons.
First World War: landing troops on mine sweeper. Photograph collection of Lieutenant Colonel G.J.S. Archer, RAMC. 9, album of photographs of No. 40 Field Ambulance at Gallipoli during the First World War. 1915. Wellcome Library, London. Wellcome Images. CC BY 4.0 via Wikimedia Commons.

Although, as we have seen, the war intruded into homes and communities, the dead lay in graves and (for about a third of them on battlefields) far away. Almost no Australian parents were granted the opportunity to mourn at their dead son’s graveside, ‘a crucial condition of wartime loss’ for Australians, Bart Ziino judges. (The exceptions were those who died lingering and often painful deaths in hospitals at home or who died post-war.) Comrades, brothers, chaplains, units and ultimately the war graves authorities went to considerable trouble to send to families depictions and descriptions of, as a booklet put it, Where the Australians Rest. This brought a measure of consolation; perhaps as much as they expected.

Pat Jalland, the premier authority on Australian ways of dying, concedes that the surprisingly limited evidence of how families actually coped with soldiers’ deaths leaves us largely ignorant of all but the more extreme cases. One is Garry Roberts, whose enormous memorial scrapbooks in the State Library of Victoria testify to his obsessive search for certainty about his son Frank’s death. Another is John Cooper, who, traumatised by his experience as a stretcher-bearer at Pozières, was so violent towards his family that they bured him in 1935 in an unmarked grave. Jalland is surely right in observing that ‘large numbers of parents and widows may have remained in a state of chronic grief’. But she shares with the premier scholar of war memorials in Australia, Ken Inglis, a scepticism over the consolatory value of the public war memorials largely constructed in the years after the war, too late to serve as ‘sites of healing meditation’. At the same time, the stereotype of the elderly bereaved mother laying a wreath at a municipal war memorial remains a compelling image.

It was, a writer in the Lone Hand thought, ‘not possible to find even a single individual in the Commonwealth who was not an acquaintance at least of someone who died a hero’s death’. (The easy recourse to describing war dead as ‘heroes’, long in abeyance, enjoyed a renaissance in popular use a century on, an expression of the politicisation of more recent wars through which we see the Great War.) Even at the time, however, ‘in the magnitude of a country’s bereavement there is something which leads to almost callous indifference’; that is, ultimately bereavement was a personal and a family matter. Efforts both determined and sensitive have been made to penetrate the privacy of grief, yet ultimately what has been most studied is that which was most visible: the extraordinary phenomenon of war memorials. This is not to say that memorials do not reveal a complex pattern of personal and public grief, mourning and memory, but they do not disclose the full emotional impact of the war; that is, perhaps, gone beyond recall. Although the difficulties of learning the secrets of a private people’s hearts have so far made it almost impossible to discern the real effects of the war, hints suggest that the war, and the psychic disruption it brought, made real inroads into the certainties prevailing in 1914. As Jill Roe found, the Theosophical Society of Australia doubled its membership by 1919, to more than 2300. Conversely, as the 1933 census disclosed, ‘the Christian churches had lost their hold on as many as 20 percent of the population’. Some might have embraced the consolations of Christianity in wartime, but for others the travails of loss and trauma eroded their faith.

As Ken Inglis has shown in his masterly study of ‘war memorials in the Australian landscape’, the commemoration of war barely impinged upon Australian consciousness in 1914. From 1915 memorials began to appear, disturbingly unfinished in lists of names and date ranges. War memorials of many kinds became a part of life. (If asked to unveil an honour board, a woman asked the Sydney Mail’s ‘Housewife’ whether it was necessary to say anything. ‘Not if she is nervous’, was the reply.) Memorials naturally reflected the communities that erected them. Bill Stegemann thought that they expressed a mixture of ‘grief and pride’. (Or indeed unease—Koroit’s Methodists began an honour roll in 1916 but, reflecting its ambivalence in wartime, the town as a whole took until 1928 to erect a memorial.)

Unveiling the Murgon War Memorial on Anzac Day, 1920 Returned servicemen and a marching band form a procession along Lamb Street for the unveiling of the War Memorial on Anzac Day, 1920. John Oxley Library, State Library of Queensland. Public domain Wikimedia Commons.
Returned servicemen and a marching band form a procession along Lamb Street for the unveiling of the Murgon War Memorial on Anzac Day, 1920. John Oxley Library, State Library of Queensland. Public domain via Wikimedia Commons.

Disputes occurred over the position, size, cost and especially the design of memorials. Wagga’s archway proceeded only after a law suit; Goulburn’s rocky hillside site was among thirty-seven designs considered and succeeded only through the advocacy of Mary Gilmore, but even then controversy dogged the venture for longer than the war had lasted. Sectarianism almost scuppered the unique memorial at Berridale, a township on the Monaro, which erected a marble wayside crucifix of the kind the AIF had encountered in France and Belgium. Although the cross was proposed by the town’s Anglican minister, the state government’s advisory board considered it ‘too overtly Roman Catholic’. After ‘intense difficulty and frequent agitation’, as the RSL newspaper Reveille reported, it was accepted, most townsfolk accepting that the figure of the crucified Christ was a fitting symbol. The 600 people who attended the unveiling in November 1922 applauded references to the memorial’s originality, a curious blend of solemn remembrance and local boosting. The great debate concerned the form such memorials should take. Neville Howse, VC, spoke for those who favoured useful memorials: ‘no cold stone or brass for me; gather a big lumping sum … and expend it later in assisting the education of the loved ones of those who have made the great sacrifice’.

Knowing of the widespread desire to erect statues, the New South Wales Public Monuments Advisory Board advised that gateways, obelisks, arches or gardens would be preferable to a poorly executed statue. In fact, most memorials do not conform to the archetypal digger-on-a-pillar. A vogue for ‘Trees as Memorials’ arose. The movement for living memorials was most strongly taken up in Victoria, yet one of the first memorial trees was planted in Annandale in Sydney to commemorate Harry Jiffkins, the suburb’s first dead ‘hero’, who died on 6 May 1915. In 1916 the local council planted a tree that, commentators thought, would become known as the ‘Jiffkins Tree’, at which ‘children of future generations will be told the story of why Harry Jiffkins fought, and the splendid cause in which he died’. An elaborate service was held in the street in May 1918 but, sadly, the tree no longer exists, nor is Harry remembered locally.

A version of this article originally appeared on the Oxford Australia blog.

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