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What does Anzac Day have to do with God?

Sunday, 26 April 2015  | Jon Clarke


I doubt if there can be many Australians who are not aware that this year is the centenary of the landing by the Australian and New Zealand Army Corps on the Dardanelles.  If they were not, thanks to a $140 million campaign from the highest levels in the Australian government and massive support from broadcast and print media and a wide range of cultural institutions and popular entertainment, they certainly are now.   Even churches are getting in on the act: as an example, this Sunday my church will have three ANZAC-themed services. In the midst of this, we should perhaps be asking, ‘What has ANZAC day got to with God, or (perhaps, more accurately) with Christian witness and engagement with Australian Society?’

This is a complex question because ANZAC Day is a complex event.  It is not simply an occasion to remember those who served and died in war—we have November 11 as a very appropriate occasion for that.   It is also a celebration of ‘all things Australian’, like ‘mateship’, ‘courage’, ‘sacrifice’ (never mind that these virtues can be found on all sides of a war as well as outside it).  This is not a new addition; it has been there from the almost beginning: a feature of B. J. Patterson’s poetry and Charles Bean’s news coverage and later histories.  

Implicit in much of the mythology has been the alleged superiority of the Australian soldiers and the inferiority of the enemy or even those of allies (the role of New Zealand is all too often marginalised in Australian discussion of ANZAC, and the British belittled, even though they did the bulk of the fighting and dying). Concurrent with this has been a tendency to lay the blame for failings almost everywhere but with the Australians, despite the fact that in WWI the Australian army was poorly trained and led, and experienced much higher rates of desertion, VD, imprisonment and general criminality than other forces in the British Empire.  As some more reflective historians have commented, the ANZAC myth has clouded not only public understanding but also professional military assessment of Australian participation and performance in WWI and subsequent wars.

At the popular level, ANZAC Day has become an occasional for crass commercialisation and exploitation like VB’s “Lift a Glass” campaign (now in its sixth year).  While Woolworth’s unauthorised “Fresh in our memories” unpopular marketing campaign ground to a halt, there are many other attempts to cash in by modern day camp followers. Also questionable and contrary to the supposed ethos of remembering military sacrifice is the trend of also every community group wanting to gain from association with the event.

What should Christians do in this ANZAC ‘season’?  This is an individual choice. Clearly for some it will be an emotional time, remembering the suffering and loss of comrades or family members. These people need our support as individuals and as communities of faith. For chaplains in the military, it may will an opportunity in their official duties to remind people of the consequences that all members of the armed forces face in the event of military action and therefore a time to reflect on their own position.  But there is also a need, perhaps a necessity, for churches to stand up against what can become a national cult, a national idol, and boozy celebration of “Australianness” (whatever that might be) and an exclusion of those who might not fit that image.  This needs to be done sensitively, given the strong reactions such a stand will arouse.  But it also needs to be done honestly, exploring what it is we should be remembering on ANZAC Day: what is our national identity? And when (if at all) this should be celebrated? There needs to be greater integrity in understanding out history.  Most especially, what voice should Christians have in these questions of history, identity, recognition and of commemoration?

What’s my family doing on ANZAC Day?  Some will be taking part, some will not, a microcosm of the diversity of opinions and feelings in this area, and an opportunity to be gracious to those who have a different position.


No discussion of ANZAC can be made without a broader understanding of WWI and later conflicts.  The literature is vast, the following books are just a few of the titles that I have found helpful.

World War 1 in many ways defined the 20th century.  Australia’s role was small, contributing less than 3% of the manpower on the Western Front.  The mythology is great—much of it is complete nonsense. John Terraine’s The Smoke and the Fire: Myth and Anti-myth of War 1861-1945 (1980) deals with many of these, and places WWI in the context of the two wars to which it can be best compared—The American Civil War and WWII. Terraine tackles many of the myths head on and shows their pernicious influence.

Gary Sheffield’s Forgotten Victory: The First World War - Myths and Realities (2002) covers similar ground to Terraine, but includes the results of more recent responses. Gordon Corrigan’s book Mud, Blood and Poppycock (2003) gives the robust view of the professional soldier and provides great insight into the day to day life of a soldier on the western front in the British Army.

Two relevant books on the myths of Australians at war are Anzac's Long Shadow: The Cost of Our National Obsession by another former soldier James Brown (published in 2014). Brown describes how poorly the ANZAC myth serves the national interest, from clouding historical and professional analysis, to short changing the needs of veterans, and amount of profiteering by business. Zombie Myths of Australian Military History, edited by Craig Stockings (2010) explores a range of myths from the supposed lack of aboriginal resistance to Breaker Morant (“Murderer as martyr”), Gallipoli, the non-existent “Battle for Australia”, and east Timor.

There is relatively little accessible material on the responses by Australian Christians to WWI.  Robert Linder’s The Long Tragedy is an exception. While it does not avoid some of the mythology (buying into such old chestnuts as the “Lost Generation” and “Futility”), it nonetheless covers the diverse reactions of Evangelical Christians in Australia during the period, from support to opposition, from the experience of those who went as soldiers and chaplains, to those who stayed behind and also the post-war consequences.  It may be significant that it has required an American to write such an analysis.


Jon Clarke is a Canberra resident with a long standing interest in military and naval history.  He and his family are regular members of a church in the Tuggeranong Valley. He is the ACT contact person for ISCAST.



Tru Stanners
April 27, 2015, 5:07PM
My grandfather fought in WW1 but in Africa - he died when I was young and hardly talked about the war even to his own children. I adored him! He went to one reunion of 11th Light Horse on Anzac Day and never went again. He didn't drink alcohol - he was the odd one out but that wasn't why he never went again. I think it was sheer disappointment that this was the way that these men remembered their fallen comrades - in an alcoholic stupor. ANZAC Day seems to be about Gallipoli - a day riddled with bad judgement calls and futile deaths - what were these lives sacrificed for? Why does that make for a good legend? I don't understand it at all. Those that lost their lives in France and North African seem to have been totally forgotten.

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