Category Archives: ANZAC

A book launch at Trades Hall

Tonight I went to the Melbourne launch of the The Conscription Conflict and the Great War, edited by Robin Archer, Joy Damousi, Murray Goot and Sean Scalmer.

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And who should be there to launch it than Bill Shorten, the ALP Leader of the Opposition, with a very fine speech. He started by drawing some parallels between Billy Hughes in 1916 with the present day…a new Prime Minister, unable to take his party along with him, who changed his mind on a political stance that twelve months ago he had vehemently attacked and who foisted onto the people an expensive opinion poll in the form of a referendum.  Sound familiar?

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While not at all disputing or undermining the recognition of the sacrifice at the front, he pointed out the international uniqueness of the referendum as a way of resolving the conscription question. In the setting of the oldest operating Trades Hall in the world, he noted that this was the geographic, political and emotional centre of the ‘no’ vote in  a debate that certainly did not exemplify the much-lauded ‘golden age of civility’. To the contrary, it was bitter, vindictive and spiteful and far worse than what passes for debate today.  It was really an excellent speech, (whether he wrote it himself or not) – I wish I’d taken notes- and it was very well-delivered. Excellent. [Update: here’s the speech]

He was followed by Robin Archer, one of the editors.  He emphasized that WWI was not, as has been promoted, a period of consensus.  Far from being ‘the birth of a nation’, there was already existing in Australia a precocious progressive environment. Nor was ‘mateship’ on the front a uniquely Australian phenomenon, even though the referendum was.

Then a couple of songs from the Trade Union choir, including Eric Bogle’s ‘The Band Played Waltzing Matilda’ and ‘I Didn’t Raise My Son to Be a Soldier’.

Out into the twilight we went, stopping to admire the replica banners that adorn Trades Hall at the moment.  There’s a picture here of Trades Hall in 1917 festooned with banners.

And here’s the 2017 version:

And you’ll just have to wait for my review of the book!

‘Victoria at War 1914-1918’ by Michael McKernan

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2014, 221 p.

I always think it’s interesting when a writer returns after many years to something that they had created much, much earlier in their career, and takes up the topic again with the benefit of years of experience, reading, and later research.  This is the case in Michael McKernan’s book Victoria at War which was commissioned by the (then Liberal Party) Victorian Government of Victoria to mark the centenary of the Gallipoli campaign in 2015.  McKernan had written Australians at War over thirty years earlier (which I reviewed here), a book that had been reissued unchanged in 2014 albeit with the author’s own awareness of its inadequacies, but no major rewriting.

However, with this 2014 book, McKernan had the opportunity to revisit his earlier book, within the specific context of Victoria and in the wake of the deluge of World War I research that has been undertaken in recent years, especially leading up to the Gallipoli centenary.  Not only was the scope and purpose of the book different, but he himself as a historian and writer would have been influenced- as have most of us- by the trend of using smaller stories to tell larger ones and the emphasis on emotions.  I finished this book with a deep sense of what a good writer McKernan is; something that did not particularly strike me with the earlier, more utilitarian, book.

McKernan starts this history by reminding us that, at the time war was declared, Melbourne was the capital city of Australia.  The parliament sat  here; the governor lived here and the federal bureaucracy was based here.  This, perhaps combined with early twentieth century ‘liberalism’, may have contributed to  a deeper commitment to the war effort in Victoria than in other states- something McKernan hints out but does not state definitely. Certainly the school effort was strongest here, and Victoria did vote ‘yes’ at the first conscription referendum (alongside Western Australia and Tasmania) although it rejected it by a small majority in the second 1917 referendum.  Melbourne was also the home of Archbishop Mannix, the most prominent anti-conscription voice.

Although Victoria may be more closely settled than other Australian states, with the seat of political power based in  Melbourne, McKernan places much emphasis on small Victorian towns and the impact of enlistment on the emotional and economic life of small country towns.  In particular, he looks at Casterton as a microcosm.  He brings forward the stories of specific families where several sons enlisted, or where older men left several children.  There are urban vignettes as well, but it is probably the country ones that seem most plangent. He notes the role of the local clergy who were charged with delivering the telegrams bearing bad news, and your heart sinks at the thought of families receiving two, three, four such visits.

It hadn’t really occurred to me that battalions were broadly geographically based, most particularly the 14th Battalion.  He follows Victorian volunteers to the army camps surrounding Melbourne, most particularly Broadmeadows, and across to the theatre of war. His book does trace the progress, or lack thereof, of the Victorian battalions, but most particularly in regard to how the news was received back home.

He places much emphasis on the role of the Red Cross, which was organized through Government House, and for some reason I found this description of ‘comforts’ brought me to the verge of tears:

How a man living in the barbaric conditions of the dugouts of Anzac responded when he received a parcel from one of these groups can only be imagined.  His normal food was hardtack biscuits, bully beef and tea- when there was water available.  Imagine opening a parcel from the Red Cross or the Australian Comforts Fund, to find clean, hand-knitted socks, a couple of lice-free, for the moment anyway, pairs of underpants, a fruitcake, possibly some tobacco or cigarettes, some dried fruit and ‘sweeties’, and writing paper for a letter to the folks at home.  The love and commitment that was poured into these parcels would have provided, to even the hardest lag on the Gallipoli battlefield, the whiff of home and of peacetime civilities, the gentler ways of life. (p. 121)

This is a beautifully presented book.  The idea of a coffee-table WWI book seems a bit glib, but the beautiful layout of the book and the large, crystal clear photographs that adorn nearly every page are a form of tribute in themselves.   The end of each chapter is marked by a khaki-coloured,stand-alone reflection on an individual or a specific theme.  Most of all, this book is marked by its respect for individuals, some of whom we have encountered several times in various places throughout McKernan’s narrative.  Their sacrifice is noted with humility and a sense of shared humanity, but not ‘celebrated’ with chest-beating or overt sentimentality.  It is a mature, thoughtful, appropriate response.

 

‘Australians at Home: World War I’ by Michael McKernan

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2014 (original 1980), 224 p.

No, I haven’t come over all ANZAC-y now that the Gallipoli commemorations are over.  I’ve taken over a column in the newsletter of my local Heidelberg Historical Society, which looks at Heidelberg 100 years ago, using the local newspaper. Of course, a hundred years ago in 1916, the newspaper was full of homefront war news and I found myself wondering how typical it was- hence reading this book.

This book was originally published in 1980 under the title The Australian People and the Great War.  In the preface to this new 2014 edition, McKernan, who was a doctoral researcher at the Australian War Memorial when he wrote the original book (rather than its Deputy Director as he was later to become), explains how he was distracted from his official research on Australian churches in the Great War by the newspapers and School Papers in the AWM’s collection.   It seems odd, given the deluge of ANZACery in the last few years, that he was writing in a scarcely-furrowed field. He writes that at least one publisher at the time had shown some interest in the war by publishing Patsy Adam-Smith’s The Anzacs in 1978 but that

Few others were at all interested and I was thought, by academic colleagues, to be a bit strange for working on a war topic. How times have changed! (p. v)

That’s for sure!  But given thirty-six years and the tsunami of publication that has taken place since then, this book stacks up pretty well. McKernan can see its shortcomings:

Many things are missing from this book, but such was the state of my historical understanding then. And the state of the profession, I might add. Today, most obviously, I would seek to include the story of Indigenous Australians on the homefront, as I have done for more recent books. I should also have written about Australian nurses in my chapter on Australian soldiers.  I might also have looked more closely at unemployment and the downturn in the economy that the war caused.  I apologize to those who look to find these important themes, but such were my limitations then. (p. VI)

As he goes on to say, there have been many books since devoted to what he dealt with in a chapter in this book. I think of Janet Butler’s Kitty’s War on nurses (my review here); Rosalie Triolo on Our Schools and the War; Bart Ziino’s A Distant Grief on war graves; Marina Larssen’s Shattered Anzacs (my review here) on injured returned soldiers, as a start.  But as a book “for the broad Australian community” this is a very good broad-brush treatment, well bolstered by identified sources.  McKernan doesn’t need to apologize too much.

In his opening chapter, ‘The War in Australia’ he points out that the war had an immediate effect on the local economy through a rapid increase in prices and a sudden increase in unemployment, with many men placed on reduced hours. He emphasizes the different experience of middle-class and working-class families at home during the war, and announces his intention to concentrate on ‘ordinary people’, drawing on School Papers, parish records, Red Cross reports of local charitable activity, letters, and local papers as a way of tapping into this class-based diversity of experience.

Chapter 3 ‘Seedplots of Empire Loyalty: The Schools at War’ noted the gendered responses expected of children: that the girls would knit and the boys would play manly sports.  Victorian schools, under the influence of Frank Tate, were particularly active in fundraising.  The practice of saluting the flag daily began in late 1917 in Victoria.  Honour boards, particularly in private schools, were a form of pressure to enlist, and he notes that the Greater Public Schools were especially strong on conscription.

In Chapter 4 he examines the role of Australian women in war, and in particular the class basis of Red Cross activity. This is something that I’m noting locally in the Heidelberg district, where the very middle-class Ivanhoe Red Cross quickly outstripped the more working and lower middle-class Heidelberg and Fairfield. Because it was voluntary, unpaid work did not affect women’s status as it did in the United Kingdom, and it ebbed away quickly without trace when the war came to an end, thus confirming rather than challenging the place of women in society.

‘Muddied Oafs’ and ‘Flannel Fools’, Chapter 5, looks at sport and war. Many sports competitions halted for the duration, although class perceptions come in here too. There was strong criticism of working class ‘slackers’ who continued to play rugby and football, but the continuation of  horse-racing, a middle-class sport, was justified on the grounds that it improved the breed of the horse (and thus assisted the war effort). However, despite the heavy use of sporting analogy in promoting enlistment, sport was not a fixation amongst working-class people, and playing footy on the weekend was not the cause of the indifference to enlistment that the middle-class complained of.

Chapter 6 seemed a little out of place in this book which has the home front as its emphasis. ‘From Hero to Criminal: the AIF in Britain 1915-19’ looks at the behaviour of Australian troops in England during the war.  England was culturally familiar as ‘home’ through a steady diet of childhood literature, and the first Anzac Day march was held in April 1916 in London (not Australia)- the only march to honour a specific body of troops held like this during the war (and a cause of some resentment among the British troops who were at Gallipoli too). The march was only just one factor in the increasing wariness between British and Australian soldiers. There were misdemeanors committed in garrison towns by Australian soldiers. Those soldiers in turn were disgusted by the class distinctions and poverty they saw in Britain and the sight of women working.

The seventh chapter ‘Manufacturing the War: ‘Enemy Subjects’ in Australia’ examines the enlargement of the term ‘enemy subject’ to encompass any Australian natural-born subject whose father or grandfather was a subject of a country at war with the King. Many people had wildly exaggerated perceptions of the direct German threat to Australia. This chapter deals particularly with anti-German feeling, and here perhaps we do see the datedness of the book because it could easily have been extended to include peace activists and unionists who also came to be seen as enemy subjects.

Chapter 8 ‘The Other Australia? War in the Country’ questions the idea that country and urban Australia had separate interests. He points out that country regions felt that they had contributed to the manliness of Australian soldiers, but this is not borne out in the figures.  There was slightly higher enlistment from rural areas, but as he points out, in a face-to-face society like a country town, the pressure to enlist would be stronger. In many ways, war unified country and town, with the realization that despite all the bluster, city workers were not ‘soft’.  The referendum on conscription coincided with the first sittings of the exemption courts which highlighted how few men could claim exemption from enlistment and the severity of conscription, which may have contributed to the defeat of the referendum.

‘The Grey Years’ looks at the initial euphoria at the end of the war, but the creeping sadness of the influenza epidemic and the return of so many wounded and damaged soldiers. The celebration of the armistice on 8th November on the basis of a rumour was premature, and they had to celebrate all over again a few days later. A public holiday was called, but there was confusion over whether it was to be on Tuesday or Wednesday, so in effect, there was little work between Friday 8th November and Thursday 14 November. Three faultlines were to break open in society: i) the returned men  ii) the so called ‘patriotic classes’ and iii) the rest.  ANZAC day had a fitful start. In 1921 the Federal Government declared 25 April a public holiday, but state governments did not follow their lead. In 1925 the Victorian government made ANZAC Day a public holiday, but insisted that all shops, hotels, racecourses and theatres be closed lest it be degraded by secular pleasures. The other states joined in by 1928 and the first dawn service was held that year.

I enjoyed this book. It is generously endowed with many black-and-white pictures that take up often 1/2 the page, and I liked the vignettes of individuals and their families that are woven through the text.  It is narrated in a gentle, accessible tone, but well-supported in the footnotes.  It thoroughly stands up to republication more than thirty years after it first appeared.

 

 

‘War Pictures: Australians at the Cinema 1914-1918’

If you have another sixty-three minutes to fill in (after seeing the School Days exhibition), there’s another interesting free feature on show until 26 July 2015 down at ACMI in Fed Square.   It’s called War Pictures: Australians at the Cinema 1914-1910 and it aims to replicate the experience of cinema-goers during World War I.  Presented on a continuous loop, it is a chronological collection of snippets of advertisements, newsreels, shorts and both Australian and international films  that screened at the neighbourhood cinema in suburbs and small towns throughout Australia during WWI.  There are links to some of the film clips shown on the NFSA blog.

It’s very dark in the cinema, so you need to grope your way to the folding chairs- it’s a pity that they couldn’t source some authentic cinema chairs that have that distinct ‘cinema-y’ smell and solidity.  However, there’s a satisfying undercurrent of whispers and comments that helps provide a frisson of authenticity. The loop starts from 1914 with a notice to ladies to remove their hats (the early 20th century version of asking you to turn off your mobile, I suppose) and a rather embarrassed rendition of God Save the King (the same treatment as Advance Australia Fair today).

The majority of film clips come from 1915 and 1916 with a smattering of advertisements, many rough animations, for a “Warner’s Rustproof Corset”, “Hoadley’s Barrackville Cocoa”  and “Indasia Soap” (an interesting advertising concept given the White Australia Policy being promoted at the time).

There are several newsreels showing the Front, extracts from which we’ve seen many times.  There’s a power, however, in seeing them in a more extended form and learning that, for example, a frequently used series of images showed British soldiers, just half an hour before battle.  I wonder if people went, hoping to catch a glimpse of ‘their’ boy? Did the families of those men mown down less than an hour later see this film? Oh, the tragedy.  Again and again, there’s the silent gaze of the troops into the camera, men watching it, us watching them.  In what ended up being an unintentionally WWI-heavy day, we left the ACMI to head up to Cinema Nova to watch Testament of Youth, and there was that same steady gaze replicated for a twenty-first century movie.

The cinema was used by the government as a medium by which it could broadcast (literally) its own message, and so there are government-sponsored films and propaganda advertisements. Slides that divide the years depicted explain that cinema audiences responded with increasing cynicism and even hostility to the more heavy-handed government propaganda.  There’s a segment (silent of course) of Billy Hughes addressing an unseen crowd supporting the ‘Yes’ vote in the first referendum, with quotations from his speech interspersed between the visual clips of him speaking.

It’s on until 26th July 2015.

‘A Camera on Gallipoli & Recollections’ Hatch Gallery until 30 May 2015

Hatch Gallery, 14 Ivanhoe Pde Ivanhoe Tues-Sat 10.00 a.m -5.00 p.m, until 30 May 2015. Free entry

An inordinate number of your taxpayer dollars have been directed towards the commemoration of Gallipoli and there have been many enticements to community groups to participate at a local level in the centenary. Banyule City Council put up its hand and its display will be open until 30 May- so only a couple more weeks to view it.

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The HATCH Gallery is a fairly new venture located in a small hall behind the iconic Heidelberg Town Hall in (perversely) Ivanhoe. It is on two levels, as is this exhibition. The ground floor features a travelling exhibition mounted through the Australian War Memorial of the photographs of Sir Charles Ryan, while upstairs is a more localized display of artefacts and stories of local men who enlisted.

Sir Charles Snodgrass Ryan (1853-1926) was a scion of many early Port Phillip pioneers.  His father was Charles Ryan, who along with Peter Snodgrass were part of the ‘Gallant Five’ who helped  capture the Plenty Valley Bushrangers. His maternal grandfather was Joseph Cotton; his uncle, Albert Le Soeuf was the pioneer director of Melbourne Zoo and his sister was the artist Mrs Ellis Rowan.  After starting medicine at the University of Melbourne, he finally qualified through the University of Edinburgh.  While touring Europe and undertaking postgraduate qualifications, he saw an advertisement for medical officers to work for the Turkish government. He  worked in a medical capacity with the Turkish armies in the Turko-Serbian war of 1876 and the Russo-Turkish campaign of 1877-78. He would have only been quite young, and this serves as a reminder to us that the Balkans and Ottoman regions were heavily contested long before World War I.  On return to Australia he was appointed an honorary surgeon at the Royal Melbourne Hospital where, among other patients, he had the care of Ned Kelly to ensure that he faced trial after the Glenrowan siege.  When WWI broke out, he volunteered for the position of Assistant Director of the AIF Medical Service, aged sixty. He took with him his camera and the black and white images in this display are the result.

Perhaps because of his administrative and hence logistic role, many of these photographs show the supplies stacked along the small beach at Anzac Cove. It hadn’t particularly occurred to me that the task of supplying the troops continued during the months that the troops were there. He took photographs of the men in the trenches and swimming at Anzac Cove- it was certainly no Bondi Beach. In many of the photographs, men were sleeping in the trenches in broad daylight. This reminded me of the comment that Peter Cundall made at the ANZAC Eve commemoration I attended that soldiers often slept because of both physical and emotional exhaustion. One of the photographs depicts Lt Col Robert ‘Dad’ Owen, who had fought in the Sudan in 1885 with the NSW contingent and now led the 3rd Battalion at Gallipoli. His son fought in the same battalion and died in Belgium in 1917.

On 24 May 1915 after particularly heavy fighting, the corpses were piling up, rapidly putrifying in the sun. A truce was called and, against orders, Ryan took him camera with him to photograph the bodies. There is a story that he was challenged by Turkish officers who saw his Turkish medals from his youth, but they were mollified and then intrigued when Ryan conversed with them in Turkish (I assume), regaling them with stories of the war that their fathers and grandfathers had fought.

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Source: Australian War Memorial site

These truce photographs are disturbing a hundred years later, and would have been even more so at the time, had they become public. In fact, I don’t think that I’ve often seen so many photographs of dead bodies and there is certainly none of the nationalistic ra-ra that makes me uncomfortable about much Anzac commemoration.  You can read historian Frank Bongiorno’s speech in opening this travelling exhibition in Canberra in 2014 here.

Upstairs there is a small theaterette that has a rolling, silent loop of photographic images of the war (although I must confess to feeling somewhat sated by the display downstairs). Another room contains artefacts donated by local families whose grandfathers and great-grandfathers fought during the war with biographical panels alongside.

This is a well-laid out exhibition that combines the national with the very local. It hasn’t really received a great deal of publicity, and given that it closes soon, you’ll need to visit soon to catch it.

‘Coming Home’ Exhibition Bundoora Homestead

There’s a fantastic exhibition on display at Bundoora Homestead called “Coming Home” that commemorates the use of the homestead as a convalescent farm and repatriation mental hospital between 1920 and 1993.  Even though it’s ostensibly an exhibition about the use of a house,  it’s a sad and very human exhibition. There are none of the brass bands and official ceremonies that we saw last week at Albany , but this exhibition is an act of commemoration nonetheless.

As I’ve written about previously, (here and here) Bundoora Homestead was built in 1899 by the Smith racing family as their residence and stud farm. In 1920, immediately in the wake of WWI the Commonwealth government negotiated the purchase of Bundoora Park estate as a convalescent farm for returned soldiers from the WWI front.  As Marina Larsson wrote in her book, Shattered Anzacs (review), the families of returned servicemen with mental illness were keen that their loved ones not been seen as ordinary ‘lunatics’, but housed and treated in repatriation facilities in recognition of their war service. Bundoora Repatriation Mental Hospital was sited across the road from Mont Park as a separate, soldiers-only hospital that could draw on the facilities of the civilian asylum nearby.

The exhibition focuses on individual men, most particularly Wilfred Collinson and Harry ‘Lofty’ Cannon,  who spent decades of their lives at Bundoora.

Wilfred Collinson was a British migrant, who arrived in Australian in 1914. He hadn’t been here long, working as a farm labourer with a friend that he’d met on the ship over, before the two lads volunteered and were returned to Europe to fight in WWI.  He had a long war, and was gassed four times.  On his return to Australia he and his friend, Eric Brymer, boarded in South Melbourne, and Wilfred soon married the girl next door and embarked on a family life.  His children grew up with a father affected by “nerves” who became increasingly delusional, and eventually he was committed to Bundoora in the 1930s.  As Larsson points out, families often had to battle the government for pensions and recognition that illnesses and injuries were war-based, and Wilfred Collinson’s wife is a case in point. His friend Eric Brymer, who was the only person who could testify to what Wilfred had been like before the war, wrote a letter in support of his wife’s application on her husband’s behalf.  Then followed another thirty-five years, and two generations, as his wife and daughter, then daughter and his granddaughter, went out to visit ‘Dad’ at Bundoora.  He died there in 1972. His war, in effect, was never over.  (You can see the video of his daughter and granddaughter on the exhibition site here.  The video is also running at the exhibition).

Harry ‘Lofty’ Cannon was a medical orderly with the 2/9 Field Ambulance and Changi POW.  We’ve all heard about Weary Dunlop, but I’d not heard of Lofty Cannon. He was a tall man- 6 foot six- but it was a shrunken life that he returned to after WWII. He’d married just six days before leaving for the front, he fought in the Malay campaign and was captured as a prisoner of war in 1942. While he was at Changi he met Ronald Searle, an English prisoner-of-war, who later credited Lofty with saving his life, nursing him through beri-beri and malaria. Lofty wasn’t in much better shape, with ulcers, malaria and dysentery and the after-effects of beatings from the Japanese guards. He was hospitalized at the Repat. in Heidelberg in 1946 on his return to Australia, where he received ECT and insulin coma therapy.  By 1947 he and his wife were living on a soldier-settlement farm near Swan Hill but by 1960 his wife and adopted son returned to Melbourne and Lofty went to Bundoora.  From Bundoora he wrote letters to his wartime friend, Ronald Searle in England, by now a noted artist and illustrator, probably best known for his  St Trinian’s illustrations.  Much of the display shows Searle’s sketches that he made of Changi, several featuring Lofty.  These are in the possession of the State Library of Victoria, and you can see them online if you search slv.vic.gov.au for “Cannon, Harry (Lofty)”. He died in 1980 at Bundoora.  Rachael Buchanan wrote a terrific essay about him in Griffith Review 2007 freely available here.

Bundoora Homestead is beautifully restored and such a peaceful place today that it’s hard to believe that so much sadness seeped through its walls and the  now-demolished wards that once surrounded it.

The exhibition runs until 7 December at Bundoora Homestead Art Centre, 7-27 Snake Gully Drive Bundoora, Wed-Friday 11.00-4.00 p.m and Sat and Sun 12.00-5 p.m.

Website: http://www.bundoorahomestead.com/

ANZAC Peace Coalition Forum: From Invasion to Federation

Last Monday 20 October I attended a panel forum presented by the ANZAC Peace Coalition Forum, the first of four that will be conducted over the next year. This first one dealt with the era from Invasion to Federation; the next one planned for March 2015 will look at Federation to 1920; another in August will cover  1920s-60 and in October from the 1960s into the future.  Judging from the first session, the series has certainly got off to a good start.

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Given the time span delineated in this first forum, I expected Henry Reynolds to speak on the frontier wars between settlers and indigenous people, but he didn’t.  Instead, he spoke on the work he is currently undertaking on the Boer War (1899-1902), which coincided with Federation.  His presentation focussed on the Federation celebrations held in Sydney during the first weeks of  January 1901.

Australia had a great deal to celebrate. Along with New Zealand, it had the highest per capita income and better distributed housing and education than anywhere else in the world. It had strong institutions, a burgeoning labour movement that was represented at the political level, and a constitution adopted by referendum twice. It was one of the most advanced democracies in the world.  And yet, it was as if they (we?) didn’t know how to celebrate political achievements.

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Instead, the celebration was trumped by the military.  The Australian colonial troopers were engaged in the Boer War, the newspapers were full of military news, and when the returned soldiers marched in the Federation parades, it became a celebration of military might rather than political achievement.  The mother country had sent out a large contingent of  grandly decked-out imperial troops in what Reynolds suggests was a deliberate statement.  There was an emphasis on the glamour of war, empire and aristocracy, and the largest cheers were for Lord Hopetoun, the Governor-General.  Even then, there was the anxious pride that we be seen to be ‘punching above our weight’- an ongoing trope of insecurity that we’ve heard voiced again recently.  The newly federated Australia gambled on the permanent continuation of the empire, but it was an empire in decline.  We were a nation defined by race and culture rather than continent.  The sad reality is that India was always more important than Australia.

Reynolds was followed by Anna Clark from UTS who has been working for several years on the process of history-making, particularly in schools. Her interest is “historical inheritance”: not just what we produce, but what we consume.  History is to the nation, she says, as memory is to the individual.  The histories we create are inherently selective, speaking to the concerns of the current generation.

She spoke of her own family history, which she had understood to be that of an honorable pioneering family.  It was only when she realized that a massacre of an aboriginal woman and children on the O’Connell plains occured on her family’s property, that she came to question this family ‘truth’. Five men were charged for the massacre, and all were acquitted. This was her family.

Forgetting and the deliberate withholding of history is never benign, even though it may driven by motives of ‘protecting’ the family.  Especially in light of the recent recommendations about curriculum that call for “imparting historical knowledge and understanding central to the discipline instead of expecting children to be historiographers”, there is a danger that we will forget that histories are always constructed, subjective and incomplete.

Then, Tony Moore from Monash spoke about his recent publication ‘Death or Liberty’ (review to follow when I finish reading it!), which will form the basis of an ABC documentary next year.

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The European historian George Rude estimated that there were 3000 political prisoners sent out to the Australian colonies, and Moore’s work examines these discontents of Empire who are often revered in their source countries but largely unknown here in Australia.  He emphasized the transnational radical scene of which they were a part, with an emphasis on the Scottish martyrs, which is appropriate given that the forum was being held in the Melbourne Unitarian Church (Thomas Fyshe Palmer, one of the martyrs, was a Unitarian minister).  Some of these political prisoners returned home, published and even became public or political figures in their home countries which had earlier sent them to the 19 century equivalent of Guantanamo Bay.  Some chose to stay in Australia.  The post-federation national focus has blinded us to the internationalism of these political figures.

Finally Clare Land spoke about solidarity between aboriginal and non-aboriginal people in the indigenous struggle in pre-Federation Victoria.  She focussed on two people: Ann Bon, a critic and then member of the Board for the Protection of Aborigines, and John Green, the manager at Coranderrk mission at Healesville.  She questioned what it meant (and means today) to be an ally of the Aboriginal people of south-eastern Australia.  Always it is about land, but also constitutional reform (the referendum then, the Recognize campaign today).

The question-and-answer session that closed the evening was interesting. It is a sobering thought that Australia will be spending $325 million on the commemoration of the centenary of Gallipoli.  That’s two hundred times what the UK is spending and twenty times the expenditure of New Zealand on the same event.   Henry Reynolds left us with the observation that perhaps the ease of returning Australian troops to Iraq today has been made easier by this well-funded, twenty-year campaign to glorify war. (Again, I urge you to read his recent article ‘Militarism Marches On’ available here).  This ANZAC Peace Coalition Forum, and the ones to follow, is just one step in countering this expensive, swaggering campaign.