The ANZAC Legend: 100 Years On
A Reflection by Thomas McCorquodale
In just a few months, it will have been 100 years since Australia committed itself to fighting in World War One; a war which, due to its catastrophic impact on soldiers, nurses and civilians alike, has since been labelled the ‘Great War’ and the ‘war to end all wars’. Until this point in time, no other event in human history had such a profound impact with such lasting consequences. Globally, 10 million people died with a further 20 million casualties. With the entrance of Australia in an international conflict emerged the ANZAC legend; the ideals of bravery, mateship, resilience and strength which, with its origins on the shores of Gallipoli and the trenches of the Western Front, has since become an integral part of our national identity and is revered to this day with as much significance as back in 1915.
When war broke out amongst global superpowers, there was an unrelenting enthusiasm felt by much of Australia to get involved to stand behind Great Britain; the Mother Country. This positive energy to enter the war is best observed in the words of then Prime Minister Andrew Fisher, who proclaimed:
“Australia will stand behind our Mother Country to help and defend her to our last man and our last shilling.”
-Acting Prime Minister Andrew Fisher, August 1914
Many saw this as an opportunity for Australia to define itself as a nation in its own right and proclaim its strength. Within days of Britain declaring war on Germany in 1914, there were 40,000 volunteers, and by the close of the year over 52,000 Australian men had volunteered to serve in the Australian Imperial Force, alongside hundreds of female nurses. It was seen as an exciting opportunity for an adventure; an unforgettable experience.
There was a lot of animosity shown towards the men that didn’t enlist. There was a sense that they were cowards, that they were shirkers, that they were avoiding their duty. There was a strong sense that if you abided by the virtues of mateship, then you went to war. Conscientious objectors or those that refused for any reason otherwise were made to feel guilty about their decision.
Thousands of young men, eager and full of hope, departed their old lives on ships bound for the other side of the world. Mateships were formed and memories were made as the Australians joined forces with troops from neighbouring New Zealand.
The tables turned forever on the morning of 25th April 1915; a day in which tragedy has forever resonated in our national identity.
“Nobody thought about what was going to happen. Every man was as hard as nails and trained to the hour and every man was cock sure of himself and frightened of nothing with legs on it.”
-Diary of Sergeant Archie Barwick, soldier of the First Battalion, before landing at ANZAC Cove
The Gallipoli Campaign eventuated to be a spectacular defat and a gruesome massacre. After a miscalculated landing location, hundreds of ANZAC troops bombarded the shorelines of Gallipoli before dawn, only to be met with unpassable cliffs lined at the peaks with endless waves of Turkish troops. By nightfall on the first day, a mere 900 metres had been advanced at the cost of 2000 casualties. After months of little progress, a campaign to capture Lone Pine as a diversion of Turkish troops was undertaken. Whilst successful, it was a sacrifice in the form of a staggering number of casualties from both sides. After only eight months of fighting, it was deemed that the ANZACs and British had almost no chance of defeating Turkish troops on the Gallipoli Peninsula, and an evacuation was ordered. This failed campaign eventuated with the ANZACs suffering 10,000 deaths and a further 26,000 casualties. It inflicted scars which are still felt by us as a nation to this day.
“We felt like cowards, sneaking away in the dead of night with bags around our feet so as to muffle the sound. Thousands of brave men were killed and good colonial blood was simply poured out for nothing except the name, which should make every Australian feel proud of his country, and a name which will never die. For never, I should think, did men fight more bravely.”
-Diary of Major General Harold “Pompey” Elliot, Senior Officer and Boer War veteran, after evacuation of Gallipoli Peninsula, December 1915
The subsequent battles on the Western Front between France and Germany ended up being no different. ANZAC solders had a celebrated reputation for their reckless independence, which meant they were often called upon to lead attacks. The Battle of the Somme (1916) and the fighting in Flanders Fields (1917) were perhaps the bloodiest battles fought by Australian troops in WW1. By the end of the WW1, it is said that Australians experienced…
…44,000 deaths and a further 184,000 casualties…
…for every 10 soldiers that went to battle, on averaged 2 died, 5 were wounded and only 3 returned home unharmed…
…an estimated 1 in 6 of the entire Australian population felt bereavement in their families as a result of the war…
Never in the history of our nation had more blood been shed than in the Great War.
“Here was war; real war. Brought home to our very eyes. In the maimed and limping legs, in the bandaged arms and hands, in the scar upon another’s cheek, we saw war. Across the faces of these men, with lines upon them that were not there when they left us a few short months ago, was written the word ‘war’. In those eyes, which had looked on things that are beyond our ken, there was the strange, dazed stare of war.”
-Anonymous, newspaper article c. 1916 on injured soldiers brought home from Gallipoli
“So they gathered the crippled, the wounded,
The maimed, and they shipped us back home to Australia.
The legless, the armless, the blind, the insane,
Those proud wounded heroes of Sulva,
And as our shipped pulled into Circular Quay,
I looked at the place where me legs used to be.
And thanked Christ there was nobody waiting for me,
To grieve, to mourn, and to pity.”
-‘And The Band Played Waltzing Matilda’, fourth verse lyrics © Eric Bogle 1971
The enthusiasm to enlist for fighting in the AIF had long since perished just months after fighting in Gallipoli commenced and news of the many casualties and deaths reached home. Australia soon became a divided nation, with a line drawn between those that advocated conscription and those against it. Despite two ‘no’ referendums, Australia was in political turmoil whilst at the same time their relatives and mates were on the front line.
In such a dark chapter of our nation’s history, there was however a glimmer of light amongst the horrors of war. This was in the notion of the ANZAC Legend. It’s an idea with great depth and there are many ways of defining it. Some say it’s about teamwork, others about resilience, mateship, courage or strength. These are all endlessly true, however deep down the most important part of the ANZAC Legend was making the best of the worst situation. It’s what kept alive the spirits of our thousands of troops throughout the horrors of war. There’s one aspect which I believe defines the ANZAC Legend better than anything else. And it’s not about a personal characteristic or abstract idea.
… It’s about the people.
People such as the soldiers of Gallipoli, no matter what side they were aligned to. Because at the end of the day, the soldiers had nothing against each other on a personal level. Rather, they were forced against each other by their respective higher powers. In fact, the war wasn’t even between Turkey and Australia, they were just proxies to the conflict between Britain and Germany (or the Triple Entente and Tripe Alliance). And the soldiers from both sides in Gallipoli, both in the trenches and on the front line knew this, because the man that stood on the other side of ‘no-man’s land’ was always someone’s brother, son, father, uncle, partner and mate.
“A story’s grown up that Australians and Turks respected each other. And that’s true to an extent. Both sides, after the fighting in August, appear to be quite content to sit down respectfully and look at each other. If they had a common language the boys would be quite good friends with the Turks. They accepted that the enemy on the other side was another man, another human experiencing hunger, and thirst and flies just like them, but you need to keep that in perspective. They didn’t hate them Turks, but were very prepared to kill them.”
-Diary of Major General Harold “Pompey” Elliot, Senior Officer, weeks after the August Offensive
People such as Captain Alfred Shout, solder of the 1st Battalion and recipient of the Victoria Cross for his gallantry and bravery in the Gallipoli campaign.
“Lieutenant Shout was a hero. Wounded himself several times, he kept picking up wounded men and carrying them out of the firing line. I saw him carry fully a dozen men away. Then another bullet struck him in the arm, and it fell useless by his side. Still, he would not go to the rear. “I am here with you boys to the finish”, was the only reply he would make… A little later Lieutenant Shout was wounded again, and fell down. It was cruel to see him. He struggled and struggled until he got to his feet, refusing all entreaties to go to the rear. Then he staggered and fell and tried to rise again. At last some men seized him and carried him away, still protesting,”
-Soldier of the 1st Battalion on Shout’s action at Walker’s Ridge, 27th April 1915
And indeed all of the people who’ve ever fought with Australia in WW1 or any subsequent wars to this day, or who have been impacted without being on the battlefield. This includes all soldiers, nurses and civilians because war reaches far beyond the firing line. This can resonate on a personal level for many people living in present Australia, myself included. My grandfather’s older brother, Wally R McCorquodale is a WW2 veteran who was stationed in Papua New Guinea from 1943, in the ‘B’ Troop of the 223rd Light Fleet. A few months after arrival, he was admitted to hospital for illness. He was extremely fond of the nurses and the effort they put in, as written in an extract below from a letter dated on the 15th of April 1943.
“But while I was in hospital Mum they looked after me like a king. See those UAD’s [nurses] are great girls. They never complain and the boys would do anything for them. I reckon they all should have the VC [Victoria Cross] the way they look after us. They work day and night and if there are any girls that are doing their bit it’s the UAD’s.”
-Mr. W. R. McCorquodale, ‘B’ Troop 223rd Fleet Light, 15.4.43 letter to Wagga Wagga Pg. 2
It just goes to show that the efforts of the nurses is as significant as those of the soldiers, and all people that ever contributed to or were affected by any of Australia’s wartime efforts exemplify and indeed form part of the ANZAC Legend.
In April next year it will have been exactly 100 years since ANZAC troops landed at Gallipoli and the ANZAC Legend was born. Inevitably, those that lived and breathed through this period in our history are falling in numbers. The last surviving Australian WW1 veteran, John Campbell Ross, passed away in 2009. As time passes by, these events which have formed a significant part of national identity are fading from living memory to history. It is because of this that commemorating their sacrifices is just as important today as it ever was before. On the 25th of April next year, the ANZAC Legend will have been alive for 100 years, and provided that the traditions to which it is commemorated are retained in our culture, it should live on for many more.
-Thomas McCorquodale, October 2014