Anzac Day, Solemn Commemorations and the Destructive Futility of Imperial Wars

1st Battalion troops waiting for relief at Lone Pine, Gallipoli, Turkey, August 8, 1915. Photo: Australian War Memorial

By Rupen Savoulian

Another Anzac Day has passed in Australia. There were the established dawn services, commemorations, sporting events piggybacking on the Anzac tradition – nothing unusual. I have mixed emotions and reflections about Anzac Day; in fact, Anzac Day eve, April 24, is the day Armenians worldwide commemorate (if that is the correct word) the start of the 1915 Armenian genocide.

I frequently return to the incisive article by Hans-Lukas Kieser, published in The Conversation in 2015. Entitled “Join the dots between Gallipoli and the Armenian genocide”, the author examines the adoption of a ‘total war’ concept in spring 1915 by the Turkish governing body, the Committee of Union and Progress (CUP).

By that stage, the Ottoman Turkish empire was crumbling, facing invasion by multiple enemy powers. The Armenians, along with Assyrians and other Christian minorities, were regarded as the internal disloyal element in the emerging Turkish Republic.

The CUP authorities took the decision to wipe out the established Ottoman Armenian community, and over the course of 1915 and 1916 between one and one and a half million Armenians were killed. Forced marches, exiled to remote concentration camps, starved, frozen, expelled from their homes – the Armenians experienced the first genocidal total war of the twentieth century. The new Turkish Republic was being built amidst an ethnically cleansed Anatolian peninsula.

As for the Gallipoli campaign, we all know the basic facts. Conceived by Winston Churchill, at that time the First Lord of the Admiralty, the Gallipoli landings were intended to weaken the Ottoman Turkish empire, thus defeating a major ally of Imperial Germany. That plan did not work.

The Australian and New Zealander troops, unaware of global politics or the character of the Ottoman Empire, were used as canon fodder in that ill-fated campaign. We are all aware of the deaths of the Anzac soldiers, but we should also remember that 10,000 French troops died in the Gallipoli campaign as well. French authorities, aware that the Gallipoli adventure did not turn into a large ‘front of the Orient’, have been content to forget about that particular episode of their nation’s military history.

It is one thing to commemorate the war dead; it is quite another to turn Anzac Day into a civic religion. As Binoy Kampmark wrote, the Anzac Day has become transformed into a sacral element of a specific militarist tradition. Aussie mateship, sacrifice, fighting for freedom – these are component parts of an Anzac secular religion. These have become sledgehammers with which to slam anyone who questions the motivations of the politicians who send troops into overseas battles.

Since the Howard years, Anzac Day has become not just an occasion for silent reflection. It has been incorporated into the activities of arms manufacturers to promote the sale of modern weapons. Paul Daley, writing in the Guardian last year, notes that an expanded Australian War Memorial featuring military hardware and exhibits of modern military conflicts flies in the face of solemn remembrance and quiet reflection.

Promoting stories of blokey heroism in today’s conflicts – such as the controversial role of Australian SAS troops in Afghanistan – is a perverse inversion of Anzac Day as a time of honouring those who never returned. And what of the returned veterans – traumatised, suffering from PTSD, debilitated by physical and psychological illnesses? First Nations veterans were basically ignored once they returned from conflict. They had to wage an unceasing battle in peacetime for equal recognition.

The stories of First Nations veterans are gradually coming into the light. Initially barred from enlisting by racist legislation, the Australian authorities relaxed these racially discriminatory criteria by 1917, largely because the British empire needed reinforcements. When Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander veterans returned home, they faced racism and discrimination. This year, at multiple Anzac Day ceremonies, the contributions of First Nations veterans was recognised.

Aaron Smith, writing in the Guardian, notes an important issue – the growing unofficial acknowledgment of the frontier wars. The numerous and horrific massacres of indigenous people waged by the English colonial authorities – an early example of genocidal warfare – has achieved a prominent place in our national conversation, but still lacks official recognition. It is the frontier wars that are the true foundation of the Australian nation, not service in a futile and destructive campaign for imperial British military objectives.

Should Anzac Day include a recognition of the frontier wars? If that is to occur, then we need to expand the conversation about the Anzacs to move beyond slouch hats, beer-drinking and two-up. Colonial era conflicts involved physical and cultural dispossession, trauma, marginalisation and resistance by the indigenous. The frontier wars have more than their fair share of commonalities with the 1915 genocide of the Armenians.

Let us be cautious regarding politicians who gloss over the horrific suffering of war, and promote myths of sacrifice and ‘true blue’ mateship. As Binoy Kampmark notes, Anzac Day is deployed as a parade of historical amnesia, rather than a full reckoning with the war makers, whose decisions lead to criminal blunders and horrific outcomes.

This article first appeared at

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