I wonder about our commemorations

Keen readers know how it works. You are in a bookshop. You see something you would like to read. You have a quick look at the introduction. Then you buy it, take it home and put it on a shelf in your library.

There it sits until…..

In this case the ‘until’ was the launch of the Defending Country Memorial Project which grew out of David Stephens long-running campaign to ensure the Frontier Wars were represented in the Australian War Memorial.

The book was the third edition of Ken Inglis’ Sacred Places the War Memorial in the Australian Landscape, and it seemed like the exact time to read it.

Early in the book the Frontier Wars ‘absence’ from our history was highlighted when Inglis wrote: “History gave the makers of colonial Australia little cause to commemorate death in war, as William Charles Wentworth, the great native of the first generation, observed wistfully in 1853 when he spoke on the constitution of the self-governing colony of New South Wales.”

A memorial collection of essays about Inglis’ and his work was titled – I Wonder – in honour of a phrase Inglis often used and which normally prompted rethinking about an issue or event on his own or someone else’s behalf – as we need to do about the Frontier Wars.

One striking thing in the early part of the book was the discussion – back in the immediate post-Gallipoli time – as to whether the spending on memorials would better be spent on the welfare of returned soldiers. It’s an issue still relevant today as John Howard embarked on an orgy of commemoration while the number of veteran suicides was increasing.

Our very first war memorial was erected in Tasmania in 1850 in Hobart 20 years after the effective end of the Black Wars where settlers had tried to eliminate Indigenous Tasmanians. Today it would be called ethnic cleansing and/or attempted genocide.

But this memorial was not about that but about honouring the men of the 99th Regiment of Foot who died on service in New Zealand’s Māori Wars. Since then, there have been few wars Australia has not wanted to get involved in and few which were not worthy of a monument in some community somewhere in Australia.

The Boer War was the next to prompt the erection of memorials and not the first to have not ended well. Given the role of Australian horsemen in the campaign many sculptures of men on horses were erected but obelisks which listed the names of the dead were also popular.

But the orgy of commemoration really started after Gallipoli – a war which was fought unbeknownst to the Australian participants – to enable Russians to export wheat so they could pay London bankers back the loans they had extended to the Tsar.

As we all know this commemoration was not only about the bravery of troops in an impossible situation but also seen as a coming of age in which a nation is not a nation until it makes a blood sacrifice.

Since then, we have had many wars to commemorate: Russia (with the British intervention against the Russian Revolution) where the number of VC’s awarded represents the highest per capita rate for Australians troops involved in any of our wars; World War II, Korea, Borneo, Malaya, Vietnam, Iraq, Afghanistan and a few peace-keeping operations as well.

Robert Menzies tried to get us involved in Suez but was thwarted by Eisenhower’s intervention to stop the war before we could send anyone. Indeed, the most notable thing about Australia and Suez was Menzies’ humiliation at the UN when he tried to defend the British.

One common theme was controversy over Indigenous participation in our wars with names omitted from memorials and reluctance to let diggers join the March – and if they were allowed to march – to go the pub afterwards.

The commemoration orgy came to a peak while Howard was Prime Minister and Anzackery proliferated as Howard sought to define our entire history in terms of our wars.

In 1994 the Veterans Affairs Minister, Con Sciacca, helped shift the emphasis from Anzac to other wars through the Australia Remembers campaign and Paul Keating promoted Kokoda as another ‘sacred’ site worthy of commemoration, inspiring a tourist boom along the Kokoda Trail.

Perhaps the most profound impact of Australia Remembers was the revival of local Anzac Day ceremonies. The March and the Dawn ceremony were important and the latter keeps growing but increasingly Anzac Day was seen through a distinctly local lens.

For instance, when the people of Marysville were recovering from the Ash Wednesday fire devastation one of the first big community events was an Anzac Day Parade led by Lt Col Nick Jans – a Vietnam veteran who served with the author.

Anzac Day speeches also changed. When the author was asked to speak at the Port Melbourne 2017 Anzac Day Service the speech talked about “the need to remember that the young men who enlisted were also products of a nation which was among the pioneers of universal suffrage, votes for women and trade union rights. It is this – not military exploits – which define Australia’s coming of age and which make it worth defending.”

“Alec Campbell, the trade unionist who at 100 was the last Australian alive to have served at Gallipoli, is a great example of that. As he said near the end of his life: ‘I wonder if the Prime Minister (John Howard) would give me a State funeral if he knew what I really stood for?’”

Inglis discussed the ongoing tension between commemoration, memorials and ways of memorialising and cited instances of debates about whether utilitarian or symbolic memorials were best.

The difference is exemplified by Australia’s – and possibly the world’s – biggest war memorial. It was created by Sir Gilbert Dyett, who fought at Gallipoli, and was the first RSL President.

This monument to the fallen gave work to the unemployed and left a lasting benefit to Victoria – the Great Ocean Road – which runs more than 240kms between Torquay and Allansford and was built by returned soldiers between 1919 and 1932 and dedicated to soldiers killed during WWI.

Picks, shovels, black powder – in some respects reminiscent of the workers’ wartime experiences – created one of the most remarkable war memorials anywhere in the world.

But reading Ken Inglis’s book – as Australian politicians race to get us involved in any military foray they can while also promoting commemoration of more and more events, people and, groups you have to ‘wonder’ as Inglis suggested – why is it that only one group is left out – the warriors of the Frontier Wars – and when will those long dead veterans of our very first war get their due place in the Australian War Memorial?

Jack Dyett, the author’s friend and Sir Gilbert’s great nephew, reminded the author of the Great Ocean Road story. The author is the secretary of the Defending Country Memorial Project. The author’s firm also provided pro bono assistance to the Australia Remembers campaign.