Thursday, April 24, 2014

The ANZAC Legend

ANZAC Day – the Legend
This last couple of years I have been studying a Bachelor of Arts/Education at University, and one of the subjects studied was Myths, Legends and History. It was a history subject and I absolutely loved it. We looked in depth at the Trojan War and the Arthurian Legends, but also touched on more modern legends: Robin Hood, Ned Kelly, Jesse James and, believe it or not, the ANZAC legend.

Now what were they inferring by calling ANZAC a legend. By definition a legend is something that has historical basis, but that has been enlarged and exaggerated. Perhaps this idea triggers a defensive response in you. I admit that I certainly had my defensive hackles raised when they began to look at this subject with insinuations that perhaps ANZAC is a figment of somebody’s imagination, but as we went along, I began to see what they were saying.
One hundred years ago, the diggers were just members of the British defence forces. They were commanded by the British and served on behalf of the British interests. They were young men and women who were a half a world away from their own homes and families. Today it is a common ideal that the original ANZACS (Australian and New Zealand Army Corps for our Northern Hemisphere readers) were heroes who fought for our freedom. The ideals of larrikinism, mateship, and irreverence seemed to have emerged as synonymous with Aussie (can’t speak for the Kiwi’s). These ideals, even if we don’t actively engage in irreverent acts of larrikinism, we almost certainly would laugh about it with some sense of cultural pride. But for all this, is that what Gallipoli was all about?

My grandfather was a Sergeant Major with the AIF during the Second World War, and on his return trip home he was put in charge of a prison ship. These were not prisoners of war; they were Aussie soldiers who were on criminal charges, including murder. The following is an excerpt from his diary:

“Well this is nice kettle of fish. I’ve been made a ships patrol and that means policeman and believe me she’s a great ship to be anything on. She’s got prisoners S.N.L.R. (Service no longer required) A.B.C. class men of whom a lot are just thugs and wasters. I’m afraid we are going to have a lot of trouble on board before we get home but still so long as I get home that’s all that worries me.”

From other excerpts in his diary he used other words to describe these Aussie soldiers including “Swine”. He was not impressed, and according to his diary they were violent and troublesome. This image of Aussie soldiers is in conflict with the legendary ANZAC hero. Our youngsters today are hearing about heroes. I bet in a number of cases the word hero is an accurate reflection. But it obviously wasn’t always the case. The lads who enthusiastically signed up for the First World War probably didn’t have any concept of what it was they were signing up for. They were feeling patriotic and up for an adventure, but when they were deathly ill with dysentery, or their feet were rotting with disease from being forever damp; when they were in fear for their life and fled from a call to charge and were subsequently convicted of cowardice; when they got involved with women in various foreign places and caught STDs or left fatherless babies behind. These men were human like the rest of us, but they answered a call to service. It is good to honour the sacrifice of those who died. It is good to honour the mental, emotional and physical price that returned veterans have had to pay, but it is also good to remember that these men and women were human and vulnerable to the weaknesses of character that is common to us all.

As we commemorate ANZAC day tomorrow, April 25th, the day that marks the ill-fated Gallipoli landing, let us honour the service both past and present of those in the armed forces, but let us keep in perspective that they were ordinary young men and women and that war was not then, and is not now, a glorious pursuit, but a terrible conflict of states that requires the blood of those who engage, whether voluntarily or by force.

Re-reading this puts in sharp relief what the subject was saying by ANZAC legend. We want to think of our heroes as above reproach, full of courage and honour, self-sacrificing and willing to die for the sake of others. I know that there were ANZAC heroes who did and do fit that description, but the thing that we can focus on now is that there is a hero who fits this description every time. Of course I’m referring to our Saviour, Jesus Christ, whose story of life, death and resurrection - also a story full of horror - yields to us everlasting hope.

Meredith Resce
Author of 'Mellington Hall' and 'Cora Villa'


  1. Thank you Meredith for sharing your thoughts from your studies and clearly from your heart.
    That diary must have been VERY interesting.
    I often wonder, when looking through museums with our diggers memorabilia in it, what the owners were like and what they went through.
    'We will remember them'and what they did, but as you say, our most faithful hero is Jesus.

  2. Hi Meredith,
    That is a very thought-provoking post, worth reading slowly and pondering. It's good to reflect that those diggers were both larrikins and heroes, and perhaps the fact that they were basically just young men (like the ones in my household) caught in a particular time of history, makes their heroism more evident.
    I guess you'll be getting up early to celebrate the Dawn Service tomorrow.

  3. Thanks for those thoughts. How wonderful to have your grandfather's diary. That makes it so much more real than just reading about it in history books. My grandmother's foster brother died at Gallipoli. Apparently he had a diary, but the family doesn't have it. Would love to have been able to read it. I like your reflections on what it means to be a hero too. Remembering that heroes still have flaws is also a good lesson for our writing. I've read some books where the hero is just too perfect. Those flaws make them real. Thanks for sharing.

  4. Yesterday I had a very similar conversation with a colleague. The same query of 'what is heroic/a hero' was played against the desire to remain respectful to those who sacrificed their lives, yet probably didn't grasp what they were actually signing up for in the first instance. Another thought that was raised was the lack of conversation regarding human sacrifice, war and what the actual gains were (or more so, were not). Perhaps out of respect we are reluctant to unpack such long held perspectives of war and heroism, but it's definitely food for thought. Thanks for sharing these insights.

  5. Thanks, Meredith, for giving this perspective on the whole topic. I remember being challenged in my whole thinking about the soldiers at Gallipoli in a different way when I was learning Turkish from a very patriotic Turkish lady living in Auburn here in Sydney a few years ago. She helped me see a whole different side to the Gallipoli campaign by telling me about the huge number of young Turks who were killed there and teaching me these sad, sad songs sung by their families as they grieved for them. Yes, war is a terrible thing, whichever way you look at it.

  6. Great post Meredith. It certainly enlightened me. Totally agree that war is not the glorifed thing it's often portrayed to be. Loved the way you ended - yes, we have hope that in this messy world of forgotten heroes and glorified wars - we have the real HERO who gave His all for us. Thanks for showing us the right perspective to it all!

  7. Great post. I wonder what happened to those prisoners when they got back?

  8. Great post. I wonder what happened to those prisoners when they got back?

  9. Thanks, Meredith, for this insightful post. I have a copy of the diary of my husband's great uncle who was at Gallipoli. It makes fascinating reading.
    I have noticed the 'Anzac Legend' growing and changing over the years to where it seems, for some, to be almost a substitute religion. So, it's great how you draw our thoughts back to the perfect sacrifice of Jesus.