ABBEY Drury was this year’s sole winner of the Wingham High School year 9 Gallipoli history essay competition with her essay titled “Why is the Gallipoli campaign so important to Australian history?”
Each year, Eric Richardson OAM sponsors the competition and presents the winners, one female and one male, with cheques of $50 each at the school’s Anzac Day ceremony.
Abbey’s essay is reproduced below.
“Why is the Gallipoli campaign so important to Australian history?”
By Abbey Drury
THE story of our nation’s heroes has been told across Australia for decades. This year, as we celebrate the centenary of ANZAC, the battle at Gallipoli, now known as the Gallipoli campaign, remains just as important to the Australian nation as it was 100 years ago.
At dawn on the 25th of April, thousands of Australian and New Zealand troops landed on the shore of Gallipoli, after many months of training, to face their first day of war. But no amount of training could have prepared them for the task that lay ahead. Those first few steps onto land would be the last for hundreds, and for the survivors it was those first few steps through blood and water that introduced them to a world of devastation and brutality.
What was anticipated to be a quick, easy battle turned into a long and savage fight which the ANZACs would have to endure for another eight months, their world being defined by those two walls of the trench, the continuous sound of gunfire and the unbearable smell of rotting corpses that covered the ground. Conditions were as poor as could be imagined and many men not only lost their lives through bullets and shrapnel, but also from diseases that thrived in the trenches. They were eventually evacuated in mid December 1915, leaving behind 8709 Australians who made the ultimate sacrifice for their country.
Although the landing at Gallipoli didn’t meet the desired outcome, it is still classed as one of the most important events in Australian history today.
As a young and newly developed nation, we hadn’t been faced with an opportunity to participate in a world event and show other countries what we were truly capable of. This was Australia’s first opportunity to stand up and prove itself as a nation.
It established us as a nation of people with many commendable qualities. Australians became legendary for our mateship, our integrity, our resourcefulness, fairness, having the ability to keep our humour and spirit during the most difficult times and our willingness to stand up and fight for our country and freedom.
It also established us as a nation of volunteers. Our Australian force, unlike any other nation directly involved, was made up purely of volunteers from all walks of life. This was an ultimate example of our nation’s pride, tenacity and determination.
The Gallipoli campaign is one of the most recognised and important events in Australian history because it raised an insignificant colony into a nation respected by the world.
To an Australian, ANZAC is a household world, a legend. An ordinary group of people who did extraordinary things, whom we honour for giving us the freedom to live, all because they had the will to try and the belief it could be done.
One of the first things you’ll notice in the Australian War Memorial is the boat. Lifeboat Number 5, named when it served the British P&O cruise liner SS Devanha on her voyages to India from 1906 until just after the outbreak of the First World War, rests at the distant end of the memorial’s entrance hall. The only exhibit in that room not behind glass, the boat entices you to cross the polished floor and challenges you to break the no touching rule, as so many do.
Why? It’s just a boat after all—wood, nails, copper flotation tanks, tiller and rope. But it becomes more than merely the sum of its parts and intended purpose when you learn that Lifeboat Number 5 carried the first wave of Australian troops to the shores of Gallipoli on 25 April 1915.
The British destroyer HMS Ribble towed the lifeboat with its initial manifest of thirty Australian troops towards the Gallipoli shoreline in the murky pre-dawn calm. About half-past four they clambered onto that pebbly beach, the opening act of a wholly avoidable tragedy, and directly into the sights of the Turkish gunners, while Lifeboat Number 5 returned to the Ribble, as it would all day, to carry more young men into the maelstrom. The landing and the ensuing eight-month stalemate on Gallipoli were, for the British, a strategically pointless military operation that cost the lives of about 43,000 troops fighting under its imperial banner, including 8141 Australians. It incapacitated thousands more and scarred generations of Australian parents, wives and children who, out of love or duty, endured the veterans’ wounds, their frightful memories, their survivor guilt and their self-loathing.
I know all that. Still, I find the boat irresistible; to brush fingers against a gunwale that an Australian soldier clung to, fretting, on the way into battle a world away, nearly a century ago, is to connect with an episode that has uniquely, though perhaps inexplicably, shaped Australia’s identity. Most Australians probably don’t ask why. That just seems to prompt more questions and opens other frontiers of debate that end in questions, too: would we cling to Gallipoli as we do if the imperial forces had won rather than snuck out at night, defeated? Is Gallipoli so revered here because it was the first large-scale violent loss of life for white Australia? Would we feel the same if those who directed the invasion of Ottoman Turkey had been Australian?
Anzac Day has become a moment of proud national celebration and commemoration for reasons that we may never truly articulate. We also have Australia Day, though many are torn about celebrating our colonial forefathers’ arrival because it began the eradication of the first inhabitants. And Remembrance Day, while marked across the Commonwealth each 11 November, seems not quite uniquely Australian enough.
The French have their Bastille, the Americans their Civil War. Yes, we have Eureka. But that’s not quite the same. We are left, therefore, with an inescapable truth: our nation was conceived not in blood, cordite, cannon shot and cold steel, but rather after a century of frontier pioneering and civil planning that culminated in Federation in January 1901. It’s not as heady and tumultuous as a civil war, which is probably why there’s no federation day.
As Marilyn Lake provocatively argues, Aboriginal activism and dispossession made it increasingly difficult to persevere with Australia Day as our day of national celebration in the same way that decolonisation and multiculturalism led to the repudiation of the ‘White Australia’ ideal. ‘Thus a vacuum opened up at the heart of the national story. There was a longing for a proud national history, which would be duly met by the revivification of the myth of Anzac.’
I think she’s right. And that is why so many influential Australians—politicians, journalists, academics and historians—now insist that the nation was born at Anzac Cove. I’ve never understood that; I’ll take birth at Federation. But I disagree with the subsequent proposition, put by Lake and fellow historian Henry Reynolds, that young Australians have somehow been coerced into viewing the genesis of their nation in military terms. If that is what governments have tried to do—as Lake and Reynolds contend—then they have probably failed. The young know something about Federation. But Gallipoli is just more alluring because of its mournful narrative of sacrifice overseas. The young Australians who go there on Anzac Day might be ticking another box on a bucket list that includes Oktoberfest and Pamplona. But once there it is human loss, not military glory, that moves them. Jet travel notwithstanding, they empathise with the restless young who—challenged by their country’s potent isolation ninety-five years ago—hastily signed up to chase ill-fated adventure. Federation’s Founding Fathers don’t stand a chance!
After his yacht Australia 2 won the America’s Cup in 1983, Alan Bond famously declared: ‘We had our backs to the wall there and we won that one.’ Bond was talking about Gallipoli. The Australians at Gallipoli on Anzac Day probably know more than Bond about what happened there, thanks, I think, largely to a steady resurgence in public awareness that began with Peter Weir’s 1981 movie Gallipoli. But almost from the moment Lifeboat Number 5 touched Gallipoli’s shore, Australia developed a yearning for a narrative—no matter its truth—about its troops who fought and died there.
Federated Australia was just fifteen when it first commemorated Anzac Day, a year after the action it marked, as a reminder of those buried afield and of the practical obligation (pitifully unmet) to care for those who returned. It was a no-nonsense affair for decades: diggers, united by unspeakable experience, marched, reminisced, played two-up, got pissed then hung up uniforms and did their best to forget for another year.
Since the Second World War, Anzac Day’s focus has evolved to focus national memory on all Australians who served and died in any conflict. But in the late 1980s, seven decades after the first Anzac Day, our political leaders suddenly became mindful of the flimsiness of the mortal thread that held Gallipoli to modern Australian fabric. The political allure of commemoration was a strong inducement to turn Anzac Day, as the last Gallipoli veterans passed, into a national celebration of a later, much different Australia that somehow encapsulated their ‘spirit’. The Australian War Memorial articulates this evolution succinctly:
ANZAC Day goes beyond the anniversary of the landing on Gallipoli in 1915. It is the day we remember all Australians who served and died in all wars, conflicts, and peacekeeping operations. The spirit of ANZAC, with its human qualities of courage, mateship, and sacrifice, continues to have meaning and relevance for our sense of national identity.
Many Australian soldiers on Gallipoli were responsible for extraordinary acts of courage. Nine of them won the Victoria Cross, the highest Commonwealth award for gallantry, for actions marked by a selflessness—an utter disregard of death—that defies normal human reaction to fear. The nine—among them labourers and farmers, a newspaper manager, a butcher, a travelling salesman and a businessman—were, before deployment, all considered relatively ordinary men. Extreme circumstance gave rise to their extraordinary valour. And then, just as Lifeboat Number 5 resumed its former peacetime function after the war, Australia’s VC heroes (and 262,500 other Australian returned servicemen, including 156,000 who had been wounded, gassed or imprisoned) were expected to resume their lives in the society they had left.
Many struggled. Just how dreadfully or in what number has never formally become part of the Anzac narrative we’ve embraced. Victoria Cross winners from Albert Jacka (who, as the first Australian to win a VC at Gallipoli, was awarded £500 and a gold watch by the notorious Melbourne businessman John Wren) to Mark Donaldson (the most recent recipient of the cross, for gallantry in Afghanistan) have insisted they were just ordinary blokes. Perhaps, then, it is the capacity of ordinary men to do extraordinary things in extreme circumstance—to fight harder, to march longer, to dig deeper, to care for wounded mates no matter the personal imposition—that our politicians are referring to when they talk of ‘the Anzac spirit’. They are noble human traits, for sure, worthy of celebration and ripe for adaptation into sporting metaphor. But they are not uniquely Australian traits.
Throughout the First World War the Australians marvelled at the fearlessness of the Scottish, Welsh and ‘Tommy’ infantry. Australian Gallipoli veterans, meanwhile, who went on to fight the same Turks in Palestine from early 1916, were in awe at the meagre rations endured by ‘Jacko’, and admired his courage and cohesion when trapped and outnumbered.
The Anzacs returned having endured terrible experiences that would shadow their souls for life. Former Australian Defence Force chief and Vietnam veteran Major General Peter Cosgrove suggests it was their postwar stoicism as much, perhaps, as the hardships experienced at Gallipoli that accounts for our Anzac reverence. ‘Part of our reverence for them is that somehow they endured …’ he said.
The emergence of an Anzac caricature of a tough, fearless, egalitarian digger certainly belied the more prosaic, unpleasant truth. That deification of the Aussie digger—from Anzac to Afghanistan—denies our soldiers a rounded human complexion with its capacity to accommodate courage and cowardice, compassion and cruelty, stoicism and vulnerability.
A deep corridor that leads from Lifeboat Number 5 towards the centre of the war memorial is lined with back-lit images of the young men and women who have served Australia—and the British Empire—during the past 112 years. I had walked this corridor many times on the way to the memorial’s research centre, my mind skipping over the words—Bushveldt Carbineers, Boer War, Gallipoli, the Light Horse, Kokoda, Korea, the SAS, Vietnam—that the images connoted. But I had never stopped and studied the pictures closely until an acquaintance who is a memorial guide urged me to. She pointed to a photograph of a line of First World War volunteers. They are dressed in their best clothes. Almost without exception they pose with swagger and stare squarely into the lens, some cracking smiles. Some exude the laconic confidence and steely physical arrogance of elite Australian sportsmen. ‘These men’, she explained, ‘are the successful applicants. They are the strongest and the fittest. They look like they’re off to play footy.’
The corridor leads to the Hall of Valour, with its permanent display of Australian VC winners. The display includes sixty of the small medallions—each hand-crafted by Hancocks of London and fashioned from the brass of Russian guns captured during the Siege of Sevastapol. There are pictures of the men who won them above their award citations and a few paragraphs about their lives.
Hugo Vivian Hope Throssell—a recruiter’s dream—is among them. The son of a former Western Australian premier, Throssell was a champion boxer and field athlete who captained the Aussie Rules team at Prince Alfred College in Adelaide. Throssell and his elder brother Frank ‘Ric’, both accomplished horsemen, joined the Western Australian–drawn 10th Light Horse Regiment at the outbreak of war in 1914. Throssell won his VC for ‘conspicuous bravery and devotion to duty’ at the strategic Turkish stronghold Kaiakij Aghala—‘Hill 60’—at Gallipoli on 29 and 30 August 1915.
Just a few weeks earlier his regiment, along with the Victorian 8th Light Horse, had fought in the Battle of the Nek, an appalling episode that became the dramatic crescendo of Weir’s Gallipoli, in which the regiments were cut down in rows as they clambered over the top and, armed only with unloaded rifles and bayonets, charged hopelessly across open ground at the Turkish machineguns. Throssell lived because he was commanded to return after running a few metres. He lost eighty-one regimental colleagues at the Nek, which remains, ironically, an evocative Australian metaphor for the folly of British command at Gallipoli. Ironically, because while British command and strategy on Gallipoli were deeply flawed, it was an Australian, Major General John Antill, who gave the order to ‘press on’ at the Nek after the ill-fated second wave.
With his serious wounds from the Battle of Hill 60 compounded by meningitis, Throssell was evacuated to hospital in England where he met his future wife, the novelist and Bolshevik Katharine Susannah Prichard. In love and traumatised by Gallipoli, he returned briefly to Australia and toured as a celebrity VC hero. Publicly he participated in the recruiting campaign, privately he harboured deep anxiety about encouraging more young men to volunteer for an imperial war whose horrors were being glossed over.
He redeployed to Palestine where the remnants of his regiment were once more fighting the Turks. In late April 1917 Throssell was seriously injured in the Second Battle of Gaza, an affair so badly botched it cost the English commander of the Egyptian Expeditionary Force, General Sir Archibald Murray, his job. The light horsemen attacked Gaza from the east. But they became trapped, dismounted, in open ground—easy targets for Turkish snipers. Ric, the older brother Hugo idolised, died. Hugo, badly injured, scoured the battlefield for Ric in vain. By the time Throssell formed part of the guard of honour for the new commander, General Sir Edmund Allenby, at Jerusalem’s Jaffa Gate in late 1917, he was opposed to war.
Throssell, in and out of military hospitals throughout 1918, had his file marked ‘NYD’—not yet diagnosed. He returned to Australia in late 1918 and married Prichard. Emboldened perhaps by their coupling, he soon declared at a victory parade that war had made him a pacifist and a socialist. This earned him the condemnation of his family and the military establishment, both of which endlessly blamed Prichard—but never the war—and ostracised him mercilessly. He made lousy business decisions in the Great Depression. He felt impotent as a provider, an outsider. Convinced he could better care for his wife and son if he left them a war service pension, he shot himself in November 1933.
His son Ric, born in 1922, later wrote My Father’s Son. It remains the saddest memoir I have read. It opens with Ric holding his father’s VC medal. ‘The tangled purple ribbon … speaks of my father’s courage and his defeat by life,’ he wrote. ‘I deliberately put aside the truth. It was not possible that a man I loved so much could have wanted to die. He couldn’t have. He could do anything. He couldn’t have wanted to leave me by myself.’
They buried Throssell with full military honours, granting him a respect in death they denied him in life.
Meanwhile another Western Australian, Martin O’Meara, a member of the 16th Infantry Battalion, won his VC at Pozières, France, in August 1915, having shown ‘an utter contempt of danger’. O’Meara returned to Western Australia in 1918, had a nervous breakdown and lived thereafter in psychiatric institutions. He died at fifty in Claremont Mental Hospital.
Albert Jacka VC struggled with ill-health after discharge in 1920. He established a business, partly on the back of Wren’s investment. The business failed in 1931 partly because Wren withdrew his support in the face of new import tariffs. Jacka became a travelling salesman and died at thirty-nine in 1932.
Keith Payne’s VC, won for saving forty of his men after a battle in the Central Highlands of Vietnam, is also in the Hall of Valour. His post-military story is not. When Payne won the award his commanding officer presciently said: ‘Well, you have a cross to bear. Bear it well.’ The cross was too heavy. The media focused on Payne’s heroism. It was a mask for his turmoil:
there was a lot of anguish coming out. When things didn’t go right, I would get angry, and having ‘brainos’, as we used to call them. And, at the same time, I was starting to want relief, and I was getting relief from the booze. And I was starting to drink really heavily, and at the same time I was getting angry at home. There was something wrong.
Sadly, the First World War veterans privately endured their ‘NYD’ conditions … and then failed to acknowledge the same afflictions in their sons after the Second World War.
The veterans of both world wars, represented by the politically influential Returned Services League, shunned the Vietnam vets as medical experts began acknowledging NYD was actually PTSD—post traumatic stress disorder. Recently I had a long conversation with an esteemed former senior official of the league. The former warrior, himself wounded in battle, said to me, sotto voce, in a roomful of Vietnam vets: ‘I don’t believe in PTSD. I just don’t think it exists. We were all fine.’
But they weren’t.
A few years ago while researching a story for the Bulletin I visited a very bleak place called Ward 17 at Melbourne’s Heidelberg Repatriation Hospital. In the words of a friend who advocates the rights of Australian military veterans, Ward 17 is where ‘the worst of the worst, the severe head-cases, the suicidal and the dangerous’ often end up. Here I met men who were aged from their twenties to their eighties, who had fought in perhaps every conflict and peacekeeping operation involving Australians since the First World War.
Some men shuffled, with lifeless eyes, around the linoleum corridors in their slippers. Others sat staring at daytime television. One middle-aged man, framed by an open door, sat on the edge of his bed rocking autistically, fingering a small piece of fabric. He’d drop the fabric and wail some profane curse, until an attendant came, retrieved his treasure and calmed him. Then he’d do it again.
The men of Ward 17 were scarred by their military experiences. Many were involved in quasi-legal battles with federal agencies for compensation. Time and again the Australian Defence Force has failed to support its members, deliberately stalling in cases where injured personnel pursue civil claims—sometimes over decades—in the hope they’ll become weary of fighting or die in the process. Despite the best intentions of several recent Defence and Veterans Affairs ministers, military justice in Australia remains an oxymoron. Military compensation is administered under a mishmash of schemes, currently under review, that often presents a Kafkaesque maze for mentally ill claimants trying to link their incapacity with specific traumas. I recall a staff member at Ward 17 saying to me: ‘How’s this for an Anzac myth? This is the story nobody wants to know.’
Anecdote and research suggest high rates of depression and suicide among our veterans. Their anguish is frequently exacerbated by an inflexible and sometimes seemingly uncaring defence bureaucracy that operates on a fundamental principle that because war will always injure and kill, precedents in compensation are best avoided.
For some like Michael Heffernan suicide was an escape and a public statement. At odds with bureaucracy over his entitlements, the 62-year-old Vietnam vet and trauma sufferer entered the Melbourne head office of the Department of Veterans Affairs on 27 July 2006. He sat for fifteen minutes before producing a gun and killing himself. One of Heffernan’s mates assured me he ‘just got sick of being abused by the system’.
As always, Heffernan’s case was complex and multidimensional. He was a difficult, prickly customer. The trauma his suicide imparted to the public servants and government clients who witnessed it, shouldn’t be understated. Perhaps because of the media policy not to report suicides, Heffernan’s death and the circumstances surrounding it rated barely a public mention. But it was on the minds if not the lips of many Vietnam veterans who came to Parliament House in Canberra, to commemorate the fortieth anniversary of the Battle of Long Tan a few weeks later.
Suicide and mental illness carry no stigma among Vietnam veterans, such is their tacit understanding of the onerous moral weight of wartime experience that soldiers carry in civilian life. The trauma of war doesn’t discriminate. Heroes such as Payne, Throssell and O’Meara suffer in equal measure to ordinary grunts or troopers.
But this was rarely acknowledged in public after the First World War, when the injured—especially the shell-shocked—were largely left to fend for themselves. They endured through the 1920s, when thousands were sent to Canberra to build the sewers, public buildings, hotels and the interim parliament that from 1927 would form the basis of the new capital.
After the mud, dust, flies and dysentery of Gallipoli, the Somme and Palestine, the veterans lived sometimes three to a canvas tent in low-lying areas of Canberra at Eastlake, Westlake and Causeway. While winter was not quite as muddy as on the European front or summer as baking and fly-blown as those under blinding Palestinian skies, life at the camps was appalling and ugly. Hundreds of shell-shocked single men lived in conditions that must have been eerily resonant of those they endured on the front lines where their traumas began. The camps, secreted in a wide natural gully that would later form Lake Burley Griffin, were out of earshot and sight of those up at Parliament and the new Hotel Canberra (today’s Hyatt) where the politicians stayed. The married men’s camps were strictly segregated from those of the single veterans; children and women were warned not to venture in. Those who lived there were ostracised and mixed—if at all—largely with the local Aborigines. King O’Malley, an American who posed as a Canadian and a social architect of the new capital, ensured the place grew up around prohibition. His success was, apparently, very limited.
The workers got their grog from Queanbeyan. The camps at night were notoriously unsafe. Quite a number of Great War veterans died in drunken fights there. The first bottle-oh into the camps retrieved 170,000 dozen empties. By May 1927, when next to nobody turned up to watch the Duke and Duchess of York open federal Parliament (an event dramatically marred when an Air Force plane fatally crashed during an aerobatic display over the new Parliament, and so over-catered that hundreds of pies had to be buried), 4200 men were engaged on the building works. Most were said to be veterans.
Within months many were sacked as the Great Depression reached Australia and building around Canberra stalled. Many veterans went back to the cities where they became vagrants, door-knocking for odd jobs. Others roamed the countryside looking for work. All signs of their presence in Canberra were swallowed when the lake eventually flooded in 1964, cleansing the maturing capital of its ugly genesis. But the truth remains that the war-weary and battle-scarred largely built Canberra, the seat of governments that continue to shun injured service personnel.
I have no problem if Australians want to commemorate 25 April as their national day or define the Australian character on the ‘Anzac spirit’—providing they take the good with the bad and the ugly. The journalist and First World War historian CEW Bean did more, perhaps, than anyone of his generation to mythologise the Anzacs. None the less, the last words of his epic history were: ‘What these men did nothing can alter now, the good and the bad, the greatness and the smallness of their story.’
I had been warned: ‘If you mess with the Anzac myth, you’ll get electrocuted,’ a friend cautioned me, before the publication of my book Beersheba. He was referring to my focus at the end of the book on the massacre of a Palestinian Arab village in December 1918 by Australian and New Zealand troops. The incident appalled me—just as it had the British commander, Allenby. The more I dug through the archives the more I realised the massacre—a reprisal for a Bedouin’s murder of a New Zealand trooper—had also deeply shamed those involved.
I found a recording of one of the Australians involved, Trooper Ted O’Brien. A few years before his death O’Brien spoke to an amateur historian, Doug Wyatt, about war: ‘You know, you do things you wouldn’t normally do … war, it’s, you know, there’s no beg your pardons about that. If you can get a fella dirtier, you get him … war is a shocking thing, Doug, no doubt about that. No doubt. I never want to talk about it. I’ve had some dirty scrapes with that. It’s shocking just what men will do.’
O’Brien went on to recount in detail how the Australians and New Zealanders had surrounded the Arab village, Surafend, before killing some of the men there. The incident was not properly aired at the time and there is strong evidence—presented in my book—that it was later covered up. To his credit, Bean insisted that the chronicler of the Palestine campaign, Henry Gullett, include the episode, albeit perfunctorily, in his official account.
I was braced for a cultural backlash that didn’t come. Instead, radio talk-show hosts asked me why it was that we Australians had never really known about this dark stain on the Anzac character. Meanwhile, the descendants of other light horsemen who were involved in—or knew about—the crime, contacted me with previously unpublished accounts of what had happened and stories about how the episode had haunted their grandfathers and fathers.
There was also a rush of angry and threatening correspondence from those who alleged I’d fabricated the crime. One man sent me a lengthy missive arguing that I should be prosecuted for treason. It was written in a copperplate hand on the reverse of a photograph that depicted the correspondent—a man in his late fifties—astride a chestnut gelding and dressed as a light horseman, complete with .303 rifle and bayonet. He signed off with the advice: ‘You really should get out more.’ Yes, I thought, we really do believe that which we choose to believe.
The story of Private John Simpson Kirkpatrick, who was with the first wave of Australians to land on Gallipoli’s shore from Lifeboat Number 5, illustrates this. ‘Simpson’, we know, soon found a donkey with which to carry the injured to safety, and in so doing, perhaps, became the nucleus of early Anzac legend. Even his death less than three weeks after landing could not deter a propaganda machine so eager to perpetuate stories that the work of Simpson and his donkey, Murphy, continued for months.
On 7 July 1917 the Sydney Mail carried a beautifully composed photograph of Australian troops jumping from the landing craft—one of which resembles Lifeboat Number 5—onto the shore. The caption reads: The official accounts of the landing of the first force told us that, in their eagerness to charge the Turks, some of the Australians leaped into the water before the boats reached the beach. But the photograph by Phillip Schuler was taken on the Greek island of Lemnos, and depicted a practice landing by Australian troops ahead of the Gallipoli invasion.
The historian Neil McDonald recently mused that the burial of the Australian soldiers recovered from a mass grave in Fromelles, France, ‘sanitises what was always a brutal and bloody business’. Are the ‘reverent re-interments’ and ‘beautifully-designed memorials’ the best way to honour our war dead? he asked.
The full story of Fromelles was covered up at the time and only part of the story was included in the Official History. This made First World War diggers very bitter. We had to wait until the early 1990s to read a complete history of the Kokoda battles and there are still unresolved mysteries about our involvement in the Vietnam War.
War, of course, will always breed mystery and bad deeds along with valour and myth. Perhaps that is why there is still, it is said, a restless conscience among some Australian Second World War veterans of the Pacific.
I have a family connection to the Pacific War. When I first travelled to Papua New Guinea in 1990 to cover the Bougainville war, I was fascinated with the remnants of battle—rusting hardware and bunkers—that littered the islands. I was also intrigued when I met a former prime minister of Papua New Guinea who told me, apocryphally—or so I chose to believe, then—that the Pacific Islands were still alive with oral histories about the way some Australians had ‘understandably’ mistreated the Japanese at the end of the war. My enquiries back home went nowhere, and I let it go.
After the publication of Beersheba I received an anonymous letter that included nothing but a page reference in a scholarly book by David Bergamini. Bergamini wrote:
Before Japan’s surrender, Allied troops killed thousands of Japanese soldiers who, with little trouble and risk, might have been taken prisoner. In a few isolated areas of reconquest, the killings continued after the surrender. One of the largest butcheries took place under the aegis of Australian commanders in British North Borneo. There, 6000 Japanese soldiers who had surrendered were told to stack their arms at Pensiangan and march 150 miles to Beaufort for internment. The previous year these same troops had wiped out many native villages on the Borneo coast suspected of having traffic with US submarines. Now, therefore, vengeful surviving tribesmen were turned loose on the disarmed Japanese columns to enjoy a headhunt in which all but a few hundred of the 6000 Japanese perished.
I think whoever wrote me the anonymous letter was making a point—obvious perhaps, but pertinent still—that war will always produce episodes that sit starkly at odds with the official story, the myth and the legend.
The clues to the deeper, more complex and always more interesting stories are there to found in our public institutions, not least the Australian War Memorial—where the truth is always alluded to, if not quite spelt out. Just next to the Hall of Valour, behind a floor to ceiling window, is the beautiful Shellal Mosaic. This Byzantine artefact was found on the eve of the Second Battle of Gaza in a sixth-century church at Shellal, a strategic Palestinian oasis occupied by the Australians.
The mosaic, says the war memorial, was ‘one of the more distinctive of the many items brought back to Australia during the First World War’. Brought back? It was, more correctly, souvenired with terrific excitement by the Australian commanders, including Sir Harry Chauvel and the legendary Sir Granville Ryrie, who were all aware of its cultural and monetary value. It is our answer to the Elgin Marbles. But to whom could we possible return it now? Palestine, as it was, has ceased to exist and Shellal is now in Israel and just a stone’s throw—or more precisely a rocket round—away from ancient Gaza.
Despite its poor execution, the Second Battle of Gaza marked a strategic turning point for the light horse in Palestine. The next stop would be victory at Beersheba, thanks to the glorious, death-defying Australian horse charge. Recounting the part played by the regiment of his father, Hugo Throssell VC, in the charge of Beersheba, Ric Throssell wrote:
The Australian horsemen emerged from the night on the outskirts of Beersheba at first light after riding for thirty miles through the night. At dusk the 10th Light Horse charged the Turkish defences. They swept down on the Turks in open lines at full gallop with bayonets drawn, under salvos of shrapnel and high explosive shells.
Hugo Throsell was already a hero. Yet his son, Ric, seemed compelled to implicitly place him at the centre of what would become the most evocative, glorious and celebrated Light Horse action of the Great War. But surely Ric would have known his father’s regiment wasn’t in the Charge of Beersheba. Only the 12th and 4th Australian Light Horse regiments participated.
We should take the Anzacs for what they were, not what we want them to be. Not least, in the words of Neil McDonald, because ‘above all survivors believe their fallen comrades are entitled to the truth’. We all deserve nothing less.
- For Lifeboat Number 5, SS Devanha, see http://cas.awm.gov.au/item/RELAWM04994. Back to article
- Marilyn Lake and Henry Reynolds with Mark McKenna and Joy Damousi, What’s Wrong with Anzac? The Militarisation of Australian History, New South, Sydney, 2010, p. 20. Back to article
- Les Carlyon, Australian War Memorial Remembrance Day speech, 11 November 2004, http://www.awm.gov.au/events/talks/oration2004.asp Back to article
- See http://www.awm.gov.au/commemoration/anzac/. Back to article
- Peter Cosgrove on Q&A, ABC Television, 26 April 2010. Back to article
- Ric Throssell, My Father’s Son, William Heinemann Australia, Melbourne, 1989, pp. 3 and 4 Back to article
- Robert Macklin, Jacka VC—Australian Hero, Allen & Unwin, Sydney, 2006, p. 252. Back to article
- Keith Payne VC, Talking Heads, ABC Television, 12 April 2010, http://www.abc.net.au/tv/talkingheads/txt/s2864868.htm. Back to article
- Sergeant Phillip Cook, Canberra policeman, quoted, from the Argus, 26 March 1938, in Anne Gugler, The Builders of Canberra 1909–1929, CPN Publications, Canberra, 1994 Back to article
- CEW Bean, Official History of Australia in the War of 1914–1918, vol. VI—The Australian Imperial Force in France during the Allied Offensive 1918, 1st edn (1942), p. 1096. Back to article
- Paul Daley, Beersheba—A Journey through Australia’s Forgotten War, Melbourne University Press, Melbourne, 2009. Back to article
- Interview with Trooper Ted O’Brien, Douglas Wyatt, 1988, held by the Australian war Memorial, AWM S00681. Back to article
- Henry Gullett, Official History of Australia in the War of 1914–1918, vol. VII, Sinai and Palestine, 1923, p. 787. Back to article
- Neil McDonald, ‘Best intentions can dishonor diggers’, Sydney Morning Herald, 5 February 2010, p. 19. Back to article
- David Bergamini, Japan’s Imperial Conspiracy, Heinemann, London, 1971, p. 1047. Back to article
- Throssell, My Father’s Son, p. 80. Back to article
- McDonald, ‘Best intentions’. Back to article