The ANZAC Legend and Gallipoli Myth; Dangerous National Narratives

by SC


The ANZAC myth that became indistinguishable from the Gallipoli campaign has become one of the foundations of the Australian identity. The myth romanticised anti- authoritarian larrikin who faced death with a song and a joke, the white male who was willing to give his life for his mates and country. The Gallipoli campaign has become a political tool used by politicians to reinforce a singular understanding of the Australian ethos; Anglo-Saxon and hyper-masculinity. Likewise, the glorification of the campaign and the ANZACs highlight the tension between popular history with a nationalistic agenda and more accurate forms of history which do not neatly fit a preconceived purpose. The changing interpretations of the Gallipoli campaign and the ANZACs involved in the conflict reflected the continuity and change of cultural narratives.

The ANZAC tradition was not always so significant in the Australian psyche, it’s important to acknowledge how the different routes that history could have walked down. In 1973, amongst the surge of anti-militaristic feelings, the Labor government even considered dropping ANZAC day and instead transforming in a day of peace. Only in the recent decades has ANZAC become a day of patriotic celebration, inherently linked with being a ‘good’ Australian.

The last few decades have seen the elevation of Gallipoli and ANZAC day to a national story, both which represent the defining characteristics of Australia and its citizens. The rise in the popularity of the ANZAC legend can be linked to the end of the White Australia Policy, the opening up of the country to immigration threatened to delude the white Australian culture. The white community started to embody the legendary mateship displayed by the diggers who united against a foreign enemy. Even if Australia has slowly embraced multiculturalism, the ANZAC myth has remained inherently white, a distinct line of separation between Anglo-Saxons and other immigrants.

This line of segregation was even extended towards Indigenous soldiers who still fight to get their acknowledgement and respect for participating in this war. However, whilst the narrative of the ANZAC soldiers and the sacrifice at Gallipoli still unquestionably forwards white nationalism, the creation of the ‘Yininmadyemi Thou didst let fall’ sculpture to recognise Indigenous participation reflects a growing trend to widen or question this legendary mythos.

Tony Abbott’s speech on Remembrance Day of 2014 evokes the sense of nationalism and romanticises not only the notion of violence but presents the Gallipoli campaign as self-righteous, ignoring the fact it was supposed to be an invasion of the Ottoman Empire. However most frighteningly is how the ANZAC tradition legitimises the use of violence to combat the alien, the white masculine body charged with the defence of the nation’s borders. This is distinctively reflected in Abbott’s words “Today, we will remember the courage, achievements, pain and loss of all who have served in our name…And we draw strength from their memory.”

The events at Gallipoli and the ANZAC myth are often seen as the baptism of Australia, with the nation maturing and taking their position on the world stage. However, these myths reinforce an insular and exclusive nationhood, with the ANZACs defining ultimately themselves against their allies. The ANZAC’s famous larrikin humour is presented as friendly and charming, whilst in reality their anti-authoritarian mentality often resulted in a lot of troops being ‘Absent Without Leave.’ Their ‘prejudice’ against the British which is also often presented as a positive and a defining characteristic of ANZAC soldiers, which subconsciously reflects modern day Australia’s growing sense of independence from her mother country.

By questioning the ANZAC traditions and the glorification of the Gallipoli campaign, individuals can understand how history is selective, reflecting the dominant culture. They will gain a deeper understanding how facts and statistics may be ignored when they challenge an established notion. For an example, it is popularly accepted that the ANZACs were landed in the wrong location and thus once again let down by their British superiors, however this has been verified as an urban myth by many respected Australian historians. This tale attempts to shift the blame from the Australian and New Zealand soldiers onto another party and instead of acknowledging the failure of the Australian forces to conquer a land which put offense at a severe disadvantage. Furthering the belief that participating in World War I was responsible for establishing the generous and laid-back Australian culture, John Howard famously states the war allowed Australia to tap into “The most admirable aspects of Australia’s national character.” However, this simple and flattering narrative of the ANZACs fails to account for their racist attitudes, frequently calling Egyptians “gyppos” and Indians “niggers”, thus such information is discarded as society no longer accepts blatant racism.

The study of Gallipoli and the ANZAC myth is a fascinating and absorbing topic, when approached from a different angle which contradicts the patriotic story fashioned by politicians and the biased media. The events at Gallipoli and the glorified traits of the ANZACs have left a last impression upon the Australian identity, though with any national history, the simplicity of it can be damaging as it serves to reflect the dominant discourse. Ultimately, popular history which is created for public consumption, with little regard for historical accuracy, can be used to indoctrinate the younger generation for a political agenda. In a modernizing world where people of different ethnicities and cultures are becoming more integrated due to globalisation, it is important to construct an inclusive society that doesn’t marginalise selected portions of society. Australia can start breaking down its racist attitude by first exploring the ANZAC legend, a myth which ultimately defines an Australian.