ANZAC DAY is nearly upon us again, by jingo. And it is by jingoism that many historians now believe the myths surrounding this most hallowed day have diverted us from the truth. Three recent books argue it is about time this was corrected.
A former army officer and historian for the Department of Veterans Affairs, Graham Wilson, says one of the most persistent myths was of the great independent Aussie bushman instantly transformed into a fabled fighter.
‘‘We were not a disciplined fighting force like the British, or even the New Zealanders, and had an appalling discipline record,’’ he said.
He has analysed the careers of soldiers who joined up and found that between 7 per cent and 25 per cent were from the country.
‘‘In reality, most were urban and probably factory workers who didn’t know one end of a rifle from the other. In terms of fighting skill, the Turks we fought at Gallipoli were much better soldiers and it wasn’t until 1917 that the Australians became an effective fighting force.’’
Mr Wilson, the author of Bully Beef and Balderdash and a former regular army warrant officer, said much of the mythology was created by the official war historian Charles Bean.
He said the Gallipoli campaign was not mainly undertaken by Anzac forces. There were equal numbers of British and French troops, as well as a large contingent from the Indian army.
Marilyn Lake from the history department at La Trobe University, the co-author of What’s Wrong with Anzac?, said it was untrue that Australia’s national identity was formed in Gallipoli in 1915.
‘‘From when we were formed as a nation in 1901, we had already achieved headlines and attention on the world stage by our advanced social democracy, including minimum wages and women’s equality.
Visitors came from around the world to see how these social experiments worked.’’
Professor Lake argued that the Anzac myth had been used to legitimise military actions, particularly in Iraq and Afghanistan.
Another book released this year was edited and contributed to by a University of NSW historian, Craig Stockings, entitled Anzac’s Dirty Dozen. In it the writers attempt to demolish a dozen myths surrounding Australian military history.
Dr Stockings said one of the persistent myths was that Australia became embroiled in other people’s wars by factors outside its control, but this was the reverse of the truth. ‘‘Every war . . . has seen us take a deliberate decision to go to war in support of a powerful ally. It is a kind of premium on an insurance policy hoping that if we do this they will come to our aid if we were to find ourselves under threat.’’