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ANZAC book reviews

24 April 2010 3,669 views No Comment

Timed to coincide with the 95th anniversary of the Gallipoli campaign, this third edition of THE ANZAC BOOK features a reproduction of the original manuscript first published in 1916, as well as a very fine foreword by the distinguished military historian, Les Carlyon.

Superbly illustrated, it also contains intriguing and highly moving material originally excluded by the original editor, the official war correspondent Charles Bean, but carefully and lovingly preserved in the collections of the Australian War Memorial in Canberra.

A fascinating feature of this edition is a thoughtful introduction by Ashley Ekins, head of the military history section of the Australian War Memorial, who explores and explains the items left out by Bean.

One example is a fine satirical drawing by Lance Corporal H. Watson depicting the German emperor, Kaiser Wilhelm 11, caught precariously on the bayonet of a casual pipe-smoking Anzac soldier. Why this was omitted is unclear. Another offering rejected for publication in 1916 were two sketches by an unidentified cartoonist – most likely Private David Barker of 5th Field Ambulance , presenting possible alternatives for Christmas in Gallipoli. The top sketch is an optimistic “What we hope for, while the bottom sketch, “What we’ll probably get, captures the awful reality of life in the trenches.

The material in THE ANZAC BOOK, as Carlyon points out, was “conceived, written and sketched and painted in holes in the ground while the fighting was still going on. This is what makes this book unique. Indeed, many contributors painted “with iodine brushes and “scribbled on scraps of paper with red and blue pencils while Gallipoli was experiencing the worst blizzards and snowstorms in 40 years. In the main, though, most contributions accepted for publication reflected relatively high morale and national pride, though often tinted and tinged with laconic irony.

In a slightly different way, ‘An Eyewitness Account of Gallipoli’ provides a compelling, yet understated, account of what it was like fighting in Egypt and at Anzac Cove in 1915.

This collection of black and white drawings and notes by Signaller Ellis Silas of the 16th Battalion is so powerful precisely because everything he sketched and recorded he had seen and experienced first hand. Indeed, there is some truth in the assertion made by the book’s extremely helpful editor, John Laffin, that Ellis Silas was the
Anzac artist. Writing about his powerful series of illustrations of what it was like fighting in April 1915, Silas wrote, “It is not with any desire for morbid sensationalism that I introduce the dead in every drawing. They were part of our daily life; they were part of the character of the Peninsula , at least of Anzac.

In stark contrast to these two often matter-of-fact and sometimes good-humoured treatments of Australian and New Zealand soldiers at Gallipoli, the essential thesis of the contemporary WHAT’S WRONG WITH ANZAC? is that, in the past two decades, we have witnessed a relentless, and unfortunate, militarisation of our history. This has especially occurred since April 25, 1990 – the 75th anniversary of the Anzac’s landing , when Bob Hawke became the first Australian prime minister to preside over the Dawn Service at Anzac Cove.

Five Australian historians , Joy Damousi, Carina Donaldson, Marilyn Lake, Mark McKenna and Henry Reynolds , have written this book because they are deeply concerned about the flagrant promotion of Anzac Day as the Australian national day and about many disturbing aspects of what they term “the Anzac resurgence. All five authors write because they “want to do justice to Australia’s long anti-war tradition and because they want to “reclaim our national civil and political traditions of democratic equality and social justice in whose name we now ask our soldiers to fight.

While much of the writing is dull, and rather worthy, the stand-out chapter is by Mark McKenna, whose biography of Manning Clark is to be published this year. In his attempt to explain how Anzac Day has in effect become Australia’s national day, McKenna argues that, rather than focussing on an Imperial organised carnage against the Turks, we “see the Anzacs as we need to see them: an army of innocent, brave young men who were willing to sacrifice their lives so that we might ‘live in freedom’. He also points out that in 2010, “our image of the Anzacs is a far cry from the hundreds of Gallipoli veterans who ‘played two-up in the main streets of Sydney’, ‘danced, sang war-time songs, staged mock marches and directed traffic’ on Anzac Day, 1938. Australians have mostly forgotten all those soldiers who “suffered mental breakdown, died prematurely, or committed suicide, those “overcome by the fear of death, who could not bring themselves to fight and deserted, or those who came back home to find themselves unwanted and unemployed. These men saw little, if anything, to celebrate in Anzac Day.

Yet in 2009, mourning those who died in the Victorian bushfires, another Labor prime minister, Kevin Rudd, compared the fire-fighters who stood at ‘the gates of hell’, to the Anzacs in their ‘slouch hats.’ As McKenna poignantly puts it, it is as if “any story of courage and loss must now be placed in ‘the Anzac tradition’ before national mourning can truly occur. At the same time, he argues that January 26, Australia Day, can no longer resonate as a truly national day because for our indigenous peoples it is a day of mourning, Invasion Day.

Although McKenna does not mention it, one of the most perceptive commentaries about the changes to Anzac Day was provided by no other than Manning Clark. As Lake highlights in a useful essay, Clark persuasively argued that our founding ideals of ‘equality of opportunity without servility, mediocrity, or greyness of spirit’ had recently been “cast to the winds.

The turn to Anzac Day as our ‘day of glory’, Clark wrote in volume 5 of his ‘History of Australia’ had made our nation a “prisoner of her past, rather than an architect of a new future. The reshaped story of Anzac heroism, he rightly predicted, would be told in Australia “for generations to come.

Published in The Sydney Morning Herald, 24 April, 2010:

THE ANZAC BOOK, UNSW Press, 240pp, $49.95

AN EYEWITNESS ACCOUNT OF GALLIPOLI By Signaller Ellis Silas, edited by John Laffin, Rosenberg Books, 90pp, $24.95

WHAT’S WRONG WITH ANZAC? By Marilyn Lake and Henry Reynolds, New South Books, 192pp, $29.95

Professor Ross Fitzgerald has written 32 books, most recently the co-authored UNDER THE INFLUENCE: A HISTORY OF ALCOHOL IN AUSTRALIA and his memoir MY NAME IS ROSS: AN ALCOHOLIC’S JOURNEY.