Remembrance, Memorialising and Myth-Making: The Legacy of Armistice Day

Image by Kim Dove licensed under CC BY-NC 2.0

The eleventh hour of the eleventh day of the eleventh month strikes a solemn chord. It’s when remembering the fallen and lamenting their loss brings home the futility and waste of war.

There is scarcely a town or village in Australia and New Zealand that doesn’t give prominence to a memorial listing the names of those who served and died in the Great War.

These memorials are local, personal and poignant. They ground sacrifice in the communities that nurtured those who served and died. But war serves more than the strategic purposes of nations. It also serves the domestic purposes of politicians as they memorialise war and sacrifice. Sydney’s Cenotaph, Melbourne’s Shrine of Remembrance and Canberra’s Australian War Memorial provide the larger canvas on which memory can be painted as myth.

It’s a fine line between celebrating heroism and glorifying it, between commemoration and triumphalism.

Whether modest or imposing, these memorials, we’re told, remind us of the price of freedom. In fact, they remind us of the cost of war. That cost far exceeds the death of combatants and the damage to those who survived.

On Remembrance Day, we recall those who, like Major-General ‘Pompey’ Elliot, Captain Hugo Throssell VC and Sister Elsie Grant, died subsequently by their own hand as a result of their psychological trauma. We remember those whose physical injuries denied them the fulfilment that is a citizen’s right.

For those of us, particularly from country Australia, who remember the generation of ‘maiden aunts’ (and, in the Catholic community, the nuns) — those tens of thousands of women who remained unmarried because of the slaughter of 60 thousand men out of a population of not quite 5 million — the cost of war was measured in the destruction of hopes of their parents, siblings and children.

The cost of war was also measured in the loss of confidence and exuberance across the nation. Immediate post-Federation Australia led the world in redefining industrial, political and social rights. When Higgins J. made “the normal needs of the average employee, regarded as a human being living in a civilized community[1]” the cardinal wage setting principle, Australia enshrined human dignity as the touchstone of industrial fairness. But the horror of the Great War transformed the nation’s self-image from one of optimism to one forged in despair.

This perhaps fed the cynicism that has led so many politicians to exploit sacrifice to manipulate public sentiment a cynicism compounded by the irony that most of them have no experience of armed conflict or combat. Their hubris is inversely proportional to their experience of war.

Dr Brendan Nelson, for instance, is prone to sentimentality: “Their ultimate legacy is that a life of value is one spent in the service of others, irrespective of the cost[2]”. It is difficult, however, to imagine that the six thousand Australians remembered on the Menin Gate thought of service to others as they tried to avoid shell bursts or ran into the hail of fire from machine guns. Former Prime Minister Tony Abbott, on the other hand, points to a markedly more nationalist ideal: “The Great War was the crucible in which the Australian identity was first forged[3]”.

But the truth, as Clare Wright has written, is that Gallipoli and the Western Front marked “the death of the nation we were well on the way to becoming”[4]. That was an existential cost.

Sadly, the legacy of the armistice that ended the ‘War to end all Wars’ was not an end to war. Rather, it was a toxic introspection that descended on all the combatant states and their peoples, an introspection that was war’s victory over those who fought it. The armistice also left Australia a “broken nation”, to use Professor Joan Beaumont’s term[5] — divided, sectarian, weary, xenophobic.

Moreover, as Professor James Curran has pointed out[6], the armistice gave the world a treaty that crushed Germany, thereby setting it on the road to retaliation, and denied to Japan a racial equality clause in the League of Nations covenant. So another 40 thousand Australians died to defeat German expansionism and Japanese imperialism.

Far from being forged on the corpses of our combatants, as the myth-makers would have it, Australia’s identity is being forged from our ability to recover, to reconcile and to forgive. That is Armistice Day’s legacy.

Allan Behm is international & security affairs advisor at independent think tank The Australia Institute. @mirandaprorsus

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[2] Dr Brendan Nelson, “From Fromelles to Pozieres — we remember”, National Press Club, 20 July 2016

[3] Tony Abbott, “Exemplary Anzac spirit guides successive generations”, The Sydney Morning Herald, 21 April 2015

[4] Clare Wright, You Daughters of Freedom, p. 466.

[5] Joan Beaumont, Broken Nation: Australians in the Great War.

[6] James Curran, “Not the war to end all wars, but death’s birthing place”, Australian Financial Review, 9 November 2018




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