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ANZAC Day - Remembering a 102-year-old calamity

Monday, 1 May 2017  | Bruce Wearne


A day of remembrance, reflection and self-examination

As you read this on your computer or tablet, let me suggest you first watch BBC docu-drama, 37 Days, before reading on.

It is a thoroughly absorbing film about the tragic roll-out of World War I in the 37 days after the assassination of the Archduke Ferdinand and Duchess Sophie in Sarajevo on 4th August 1914. The film contrasts the views of a senior clerk of Sir Edward Grey (1862-1933) in the London Foreign Office with his opposite number in the Berlin office of Chancellor Theobald von Bethmann-Hollweg (1856-1921).

ANZAC day should be a day of solemn remembrance, serious reflection on the state of our world and self-examination: what are we doing to bring peace and justice to the peoples of the world?

ANZAC day celebrations should certainly not consist of merely a few moments of pious nostalgia to justify our public holiday, a necessary hurdle before we go on to pay our respects to a sporting event marketed to respect the ‘ANZAC spirit’. Otherwise, we pass up an important opportunity to deepen our awareness of who we are and how we stand coram Deo (Micah 6:8)

We should be induced to serious reflection and self-examination when, year-by-year, we are encouraged to participate in public rituals, reflecting on the way our nation’s state-crafting has passed, again and again, through wars and international conflicts. This is particularly so if we, in following Christ Jesus, heed the call to deny ourselves and follow him as one who opens the way to loving our neighbours with public justice. But it is certainly not a day for the beating of any militarist or nationalist drum.

Those fateful days

37 Days is a 3-part BBC docu-drama by Michael Connar that explores the political decision-making that made ANZAC day possible 102 years ago.

In the 3rd part, Sir Edward Grey, the long-serving Foreign Secretary, is in deep conversation with Winston Churchill, First Lord of the Admiralty. The dialogue at 35:50 runs thus:

W.S:    (Looking around at the young adults in the park, depicted in anticipation of what was then unfolding in the councils of European powers.) What would they say if they truly knew what was happening to their world…

E.G:    Tell me Winston. What does it take to lead a democracy into war?

W.S:    I do not know. It has never been done before. We would be the first - in Europe, at any rate.

E.G:    It means seeking the approval of those who are going to die in it, I suppose. Our forebears never had that problem. And we record their names now. Those who fall I mean. It makes it so personal.

I have come back to this above segment, and to what immediately follows of a vital cabinet discussion, a number of times. If we are seeking a helpful conversation to spur an ‘ANZAC reflection’, this may be it.

It is particularly pertinent for us knowing now, as we do, that the strategy of fighting land wars had not really caught up to the technology that had developed for blasting the enemy. And the carnage that resulted reminds us that we are now even further down that calamitous path than our forebears ever were. As background to our national celebration of ANZAC day, 25th April, what do we confront?

A Balkan Crisis.

Europe’s peace and unity under threat.

The rise of militarism.

The massive expenditure on military armaments.

Entire nations put on a war footing.

Nationalistic hubris as a cause of international conflict.

Nationalism as a (perhaps unintended) political consequence of the persistent threat of war.

The film goes on and is enthralling. Alec’s voice-over is the film’s narration from London. In that 3rd episode (36:50), Alec and Muriel are in deep conversation during a brief foreign office lull:

Muriel:          Have you told your parents?

Alec:             I’ve not had the time.

Muriel:          You ought to.

Alec:             I’m their only son, Muriel, they’d be horrified if they knew I was thinking of volunteering.

Muriel:          But they will have to know eventually.

Alec:             Not necessarily. It may still blow over. It may not come to war.

From that briefest of inconsequential exchanges, the producer takes us to 10 Downing Street. In Cabinet discussion, Lord Morley will not support a vote to go to war:

Lord M:         So, we are where we were.

Sir Edward:   Except one power has signalled its intention to break a venerable treaty [Lord M shrugs and smiles]. What was that shrug for? Do these things not matter?

Lord M:         Words on paper composed long ago …

Sir Edward:   Words have to mean something. Otherwise, all that remains is the cannon.

The discussion continues, intensely and trenchantly. Morley will resign when Cabinet votes in favour of standing by France. But, before that vote is taken, we hear Morley’s comment, clearly showing that a massive calamity was anticipated.

Lord M:         … we can flatter ourselves that we are the custodians of international law and that Germany is a nation of brigands but think, think gentlemen of the consequences that would flow from such high-mindedness…. How does an army of several million men defeat another army of several million men with all the metal they have these days at their disposal? None of us knows - not even the generals although they pretend to. If the European nations come to blows tonight or in the next few days, I foresee a calamity lasting years. It will be a war without victors which is the worst war imaginable because the immense expense of blood will in the end be for nothing.

It is riveting viewing. Note what you see in the faces of the actors here in the ten-second sequence after Lord Morley concludes his statement. Ask yourself what they must have thought about playing their part, depicting the deep fear, and how this 37 Days project has influenced their own sense of what happened. The above 100-second segment may well do more to set your consciousness about ANZAC day than anything I could write. Breathe it in and keep in mind the 102 years of seeming endless wars that have followed until today with our own government’s obsession with hyper-militarisation, winding up tension in international relations to who knows what? And then consider Grey’s response, to which he must give a reply:

PM Asquith:  Edward…

Sir Edward:   That’s why I understand the temptation to neutrality. We’re human beings and therefore the temptation is almost irresistible. But our friend here talks as though there would be no calamity if we stood aside and let Belgium’s pleas for help, should they come, fall on deaf ears.

                     Well, what about the political calamity? And what about the moral calamity? What would happen to our good name and who would ever trust us again?

                     We would have sacrificed every friend and every interest simply to preserve ourselves. And what would lie before us when that European war had ended? A scarred continent to be sure with all the human destruction our friend has foretold - not Englishmen, it is true, but our neighbours. And thus too: we would face a continent under the dominion of a solitary power; and that [would be] a military one dedicated to blood and iron. We have an obligation to France, unwritten perhaps. Also to Belgium, very much written. Does that not mean something?

The vote is taken and passed and the Cabinet suffers four resignations. And a concluding comment, in passing, has relevance for our ANZAC day remembrance:

Sir Edward:   Just one thing Prime Minister?

PM Asquith: Yes.

Sir Edward:   Do you not think we ought to consult the Dominion Governments before we issue an ultimatum? The Australians and the Canadians will have their own thoughts on this, I am quite certain.

PM Asquith: There is no constitutional need. They will see it as we see it.

Note that New Zealand had enjoyed self-governing Dominion status from 1907 and was not mentioned. In contrast, the PM’s replies remind us of how Australia’s conduct of its own foreign affairs had not yet reached its later independence that would be recognised with the 1926 Balfour Declaration and the 1931 Statute of Westminster. This brief exchange in the docu-drama reminds us that ANZAC day is very much an historical remembrance of the involvement of the Australian and New Zealand Governments in Britain’s declaration of war.

And at this very point where Australia is involved even without prior consultation with its Government, we recall how Aboriginal Australians fought without having first been accorded citizenship rights in Australia’s Federal Constitution. Half a century would pass before that recognition was granted.

Australia’s political responsibilities

The Australian War Memorial recounts:

Australia’s involvement in the First World War began when Britain and Germany went to war on 4 August 1914, and both Prime Minister Joseph Cook and Opposition Leader Andrew Fisher, who were in the midst of an election campaign, pledged full support for Britain. The outbreak of war was greeted in Australia, as in many other places, with great enthusiasm.

As background to our nation’s ANZAC Day celebration, memorials such as this remind us that we and our political responsibilities are embedded in a history that ties us ‘out here’ to the United Kingdom, Europe and the expansion of 18th and 19th century European Empires.

Because ANZAC day commemorates involvement in a world war, we ‘out here’ are also reminded of our place in this region, of our region’s involvement in that war and of our membership in the community of nations in this part of the earth in which we live. Yes, this region has been (and is still being) colonised by powers outside its bounds. And Australia, in taking on the trusteeship of German New Guinea, participated in the aftermath of that, too.

And so, ANZAC day reminds us of our political responsibility to promote justice among the peoples of the earth. It is we, as citizens, who are responsible for state crafting, even when the dominant parties in our polity are losing themselves in their elitist aspirations and their failure to promote genuine representation of electors. Our involvement in the life of our own nation, of the nations of the world, and of our own region, suburb and street is deeply political, and the call to love our neighbour with public justice goes out on April 25th as much as it does on every other day of the year.

Bruce Wearne is a retired Monash University sociology lecturer. He now spends his time assisting Christian Aid and Development and other students who come across his path while continuing research in the foundations of 20th century sociological theory.


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