The 11th of November will mark the final burst of commemoration of the four-year-long centenary of the Great War of 1914-18.
For some of us, the anniversary has shaped the past decade of our lives (I’ve published a dozen books and given countless papers and talks.) But the centenary hasn’t quite panned out as its progenitors imagined, at least in Australia.
In 2011, a bipartisan committee recommended to the Gillard government that Australia engage in a busy program of commemoration, imagining that the nation would embrace the opportunity to engage with its Anzac heritage to create a “lasting legacy”. Some certainly have, and some old Australian families have made once-in-a-lifetime pilgrimages to graves or memorials in France or Gallipoli.
Whether the centenary’s legacy will last is for the future to decide. But after a flurry in 2015 (when Gallipoli commemorations peaked early and never really recovered) we’ve seen less fuss than was imagined.
Public servants and media outfits produced slick televised ceremonies at Gallipoli and Villers-Bretonneux, but none were as well attended as expected, and some were downright embarrassing.
You might blame a succession of terrorist attacks for keeping Australians away from Turkey and Europe, but it began to look as if not all Australians were interested in commemorating a war no one alive could actually remember.
Publishers were the canaries in the mine, warning early on that the expected battle-fed book bonanza wasn’t happening. While popular writers did well out of fat books on Father’s Day, the overall reaction to the succession of anniversaries was more muted than expected.
Even Sir John Monash, whom boosters claimed had won the war by single-handedly devising new tactics, failed to get the retrospective field marshal’s baton his fans lobbied for, and that despite several books and documentaries making his case.
You might think that as a sceptical observer I took satisfaction in the failure of the Anzac firework to catch fire. I’ve been critical of, for example, the unjustified boosting of Monash and of the failure of institutions like the War Memorial to tell the whole truth about the war (in refusing to accept that Ataturk did not say the famous words attributed to him). Far from it. I’ve devoted decades of my career as an historian, public and academic, to understanding and explaining the Great War.
The mismanagement and manipulation we’ve become accustomed to seeing in the way anniversaries are “managed” distresses me, but it doesn’t diminish my fundamental belief that the Great War is significant in Australia’s and world history.
Why would I devote years of my life to researching and writing about it if I thought it was unimportant?
I need to be clear about this. I don’t have an Anzac in the family – I’m a British migrant (and have been for 52 years), but I don’t even know if I have great-uncles in the war (though my Nana was a munitions worker). I don’t think that Australia played an especially significant part in the war, much less believe that it “punched above its weight”, as the phrase goes. I don’t think that the Australian nation was somehow mystically “born” on the cliffs of Gallipoli.
But that shouldn’t mean that we ignore the anniversary of the day it ended, and there’s a lot to think about.
I do think the war was a tragedy, of course, for Australia and the world, even aside from the suffering and death it imposed.
For Australia, it derailed the confident, progressive, democratic nation that had been the envy of the world, destroying its optimism and killing or demoralising its most promising minds and bodies.
Globally, while the war broke old empires (and wounded those remaining) and created new nations, it unleashed the horrors of the Soviet Union and, through a vindictive “peace” virtually guaranteed a second, even more destructive world conflict. So there’s not a lot to celebrate. But that shouldn’t mean that we ignore the anniversary of the day it ended, and there’s a lot to think about.
Indeed, the Great War remains the top topic on Australian bookshop shelves, and our universities, not least UNSW Canberra, where about a third of our historians and courses connect with the Great War.
Why? Because that war essentially created the world we live in: a world of great powers (but not empires), dominated by global connections; a world in which the United States has been the dominant power; a world in which war became increasingly terrible, and in which civilians suffered as much as soldiers.
That’s nothing to celebrate, but regardless of background, Australians can surely see that the Great War changed their forebears’ lives and made the world we have inherited.
Professor Peter Stanley of UNSW Canberra is one of Australia’s premier historians of the Great War.