I would like to start with a quick recap of ‘Anzac’. When Australia committed to support Britain’s imperial foreign policies in WWI because of our past colonial ties to it, we raised and sent a volunteer army in support.
Britain incorporated it into the 75,000 strong Mediterranean Expeditionary Force. It consisted of forces from Ireland, India, France and Britain. But nearly half of this Mediterranean Force was made up of Australians and New Zealanders; they being the Australian Imperial Force and the New Zealand Expeditionary Force.
Their code name was ANZAC – not a secret code – it was an abbreviation for this newly created Australian and New Zealand Army Corps. And that is the origin of Anzac in a nutshell.
Not all Australians who fought in WWI were Anzacs. Most soldiers and units – the infantry divisions – that fought on the Western Front in Europe were not Anzacs.
I invite you to think about the Anzacs – their legend and Anzac Day – from two viewpoints. They are both equally valid, but opposing. One supports a conservative military history that defends war as in the interests of national security and defence. The opposing position argues for a military heritage that has a deeper understanding of the effects of war on individuals and their families. Anzac Day weighs in on this second side.
Making Australia a safer place
I will quote, in part, from a letter to the editor in the Sydney Morning Herald of 18 April ’22. It points to the dynamics of these two opposing views: ‘Australian governments instigated and justified Australian military involvement in Vietnam, Afghanistan and Iraq on the grounds of national security. None of the wars made Australia, or the world a better or safer place’.
Today the Western world is experiencing a social and cultural change. Australia is part of this change. Our distrust of politicians is escalating. We are losing faith in our governing institutions. We are more suspicious and questioning as to why our government commits our youth to overseas wars.
Liberal Senator, Jim Morlan, is on the public record as stating that when a recruit joins the Australian Defence Force he/she signs a ‘death contract’ to die for the Australian Government. The more we learn about the high politics of war and the trauma and sacrifice it brings to the individual, the more important Anzac Day becomes to us.
The original Anzac soldiers, and the legend created around them, are best remembered by their heroic service during the infamous Gallipoli Peninsula Campaign in 1915. This was a blunder on an horrific scale. Against the advice of the navy’s admirals, Winston Churchill dreamed of capturing the Turkish Dardanelles so as to control the Black Sea. It was to be a naval operation. But the British Navy quickly lost three of its capital war ships and had to withdraw from battle.
Churchill tried to retrieve the situation and sent in his Mediterranean Expeditionary Force, including the Anzacs. The whole campaign was a crushing defeat for the Allies.
Of the 50,000 Anzacs who fought there, over 26,000 were killed or wounded. Less than half remained. Of those, we do not know how many were mentally destroyed or latter suicided. We just don’t know.
But we do know how many of our veterans are suiciding today. Our federal government claims it doesn’t know why. Public pressure has forced the government to establish a Royal Commission into Defence and Veteran Suicides and Attempted Suicides. It is now in progress and still taking submissions from the public.
Our veteran suicide rates are disturbing. Male veterans have a 24 per cent higher suicide rate than the national average. Those who were involuntary discharged medically are 300 per cent more likely to suicide than their peer group. Our veterans are facing a serious problem. We need to know why.
Anzac Day deservedly remains powerful in the Australian psyche. Gallipoli is the legend of this Remembrance. In 1915 our Anzac soldiers persevered for eight months in the face of adversity, fear, horror, despair and death. This is why we honour them. It was from their suffering and endurance that the Anzac spirit was born. But there is a darker side to this Gallipoli story.
Submission to the Royal Commission
I will share a small part of my draft submission to the Royal Commission into Veteran Suicides:
‘Gallipoli at the Nek, makes for an interesting study in what constitutes military suicide. Anzac soldiers were ordered to make four waves of bayonet charges against entrenched Turkish machine guns and rifles. They were forbidden from having a bullet loaded in their rifles. The Turkish commander pleaded with his Australian counterpart to stop this madness but was ignored.
‘The hundreds of Anzacs that lay dead and wounded in front of their opponents could not have been more masculine Australians. They were from an era when men were resilient, self-sufficient and individualistic. The generals gave them an irrational order to suicide, and they did. Their situation was not desperate, the order was atrociously incompetent, and there was no Australian culture of “The Warrior” at the time. They should have lived and not have been ordered to suicide for God, or King of Australia. There is a big difference between sacrificing soldiers for the “common good” and the mental deficiency of unwarranted slaughter of one’s own soldiers.’
The legendary light horsemen
My grandfather was one of the legendary light horsemen of the First Light Horse Brigade. He was an Anzac. He came home a sick and broken man. I know the trauma and heartbreak this inflicted on his wife and children.
Hence the Anzac legend needs to be looked at from two different positions. From the conservative government side that argues that war is necessary when in the ‘national interest’ and from the other side where the reality of sacrifice, suffering and trauma is inflicted upon individuals and their families as payment for these wars.
We are here [at the Royal Commission] to acknowledge these realities.
Reflect upon the Anzac spirit
Anzac Day pays homage to those who died or suffered in the service of their country during past wars and conflicts over the past 107 years. To date, over 100,000 Australian service personnel have been killed in these wars, and three times as many wounded. Anzac Day is a day to contemplate upon this for both the living and the dead who served in our armed forces. Anzac Day is a both a veterans’ day, and a day to reflect upon the Anzac spirit.
Our Anzac Day, for veterans, is separate from our Remembrance Day – though on both days we honour and remember our fallen soldiers. Anzac Day is uniquely Australian and New Zealander. Traditionally it is symbolic of the day our Anzac soldiers landed in their rowing boats at Gallipoli. The broader view is this date was the first time the Anzacs were put into battle in WWI. Prior to this they were in Egypt guarding the Suez Canal and other duties.
Today and tomorrow
I’ll conclude by saying that Anzac Day is not just about the past. It is about today and tomorrow. Don’t think our government won’t commit us to war and conflicts tomorrow.
Our defence personnel are meant to provide us with freedom from external violence. But they cannot give us freedom from the high lies of politics that push us into wars in other lands.
It is our responsibility to oppose these lies, if we care at all. And by doing so we honour the legacy of our Anzacs. I’ll leave you with the question, can we continue to live with the conservative traditional military adage, ‘Ours is not to reason why, ours is but to do or die’. I don’t believe we can. We must act to stop our soldiers being sent to fight in unjust wars based on political lies. We must ensure they are only put in harm’s way in just wars.
• Major Allan Warren, Vietnam Veteran gave this speech at the Anzac Day ceremony, Copacabana Beach in 2022.