The battle over Anzac Day

Submitted by AWL on 21 April, 2015 - 5:02 Author: Tom O’Lincoln

25 April 2015 will be the 100th anniversary of the landings by British, French, Australian, and New Zealand troops at Gallipoli, in Turkey, in an unsuccessful effort to seize Constantinople (now Istanbul) during World War One.

More than any other imperialist sally, this one has become a nationalist legend. This article by Tom O’Lincoln, abridged with thanks from the Australian socialist newspaper Red Flag, recounts the history.

From 1916, 25 April was officially named Anzac Day. Australian troops marched in London, and a sports day was held in the Australian camp in Egypt. In the Sydney march, vehicles carried wounded soldiers from Gallipoli attended by nurses.

It sounded benign and reeked of evil. “For the remaining years of the war”, writes the Australian War Memorial, “Anzac Day was used as an occasion for patriotic rallies and recruiting campaigns”. In other words, to gather cannon fodder.

The Australian Labor Party [ALP] should have opposed this trend; after all, it claimed the mantle of anti-war party. Yet its political line contained deep contradictions, vacillating between defence and “anti-militarism”. Nationalism replaced much of its initial socialism.

“The Labor Party is synonymous with ‘Australian’”, said the Tocsin in Melbourne. Based on this jingoistic stance, most Laborites could drift into an uneasy but persistent relationship with the key Anzac organisation, the RSL [Returned Servicemen’s League].

Because the latter had up to 150,000 members at the end of the war, around 80 percent of them workers, Labor and the unions couldn’t afford to ignore it, especially with some veterans returning from the war with their former industrial loyalties weakened.

Complaints in the 20s that Anzac Day had been “hijacked” by the conservatives were futile. Labor had helped the process.

Not that there was no opposition.

Australian forces were dramatically affected by mass soldiers’ revolts across Europe in 1918. The troops held meetings, then found ways to disrupt parades. More than 100 were punished. But none launched measures comparable to the Fremantle and Townsville riots of 1919.

The Communist paper Workers’ Weekly argued for workers to oppose the commemoration by attending May Day and other workers’ celebrations instead. It published a letter from a “Class-Conscious Digger” in 1928, who declared:

“April 25 has become a day of imperial boasting and military boosting … On Anzac Day, capitalists, politicians and priests will don their silk hats and decorations and come out and chant about Anzac in order to build up a new military tradition in Australia, to get ready new Anzacs for recruiting, to prepare young Australia for another bloody massacre.”

There was resistance to the Anzac nonsense even in the right wing atmosphere of the 1950s. Provoked by an RSL campaign against the Communist Party, student journalist Geoffrey Havers attacked the “yearly pageant of national necrophilia” and attracted surprisingly little complaint. Alan Seymour followed with his 1958 anti-Anzac play, The One Day of the Year.

During the Vietnam War, protesters managed to paint P-E-A-C-E across the front of the Melbourne shrine. In the war’s aftermath, a significant minority began to consider the offensive foolishness of telling the world that the Anzacs fought for “freedom” when the Gallipoli fiasco was obviously an indefensible invasion of Turkey.

On 26 January 1988, Australia’s “Celebration of a Nation”, marking two centuries of white Australia, ended in a debacle. Demonstrations by Indigenous people and their supporters finally branded Australia Day with its fitting and enduring title: Invasion Day. Chastened white patriots had to beat a retreat, and their thinking focused now on turning Anzac Day into the preeminent day of nationalist celebration.

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