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History and 'Betrayal': The Anzac Controversy

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Alistair Thompson uncovers a hidden controversy about myth making and Gallipoli

New Zealand soldiers encampment at Anzac Cove in 1915When Australian Prime Minister Paul Keating claimed that Churchill 'betrayed' Australia by abandoning it to the enemy during the Second World War, Britain's tabloid press erupted with indignation. The recent controversy reminds us that during both world wars Australian soldiers and politicians bucked against being subject to the whim of an imperial command whose interests did not always coincide with their own.

Though these tensions were often concealed by wartime censorship and post-war official histories, they have resurfaced in an increasingly nationalistic Australian popular culture. In the early 1980s, Peter Weir's popular film Gallipoli convinced many Australian viewers that British officers were responsible for the unnecessary sacrifice of the West Australian Light Horsemen. Television series about Australians on the Western Front have made the same impression. Significantly, Alan Bleasdale's series The Monocled Mutineer outraged Britain's conservative press and politicians, but in Australia its depiction of Australians as ringleaders of mutiny against British military brutality was generally well received. Fiftieth anniversaries have now shifted attention to the Second World War, for which Keating was able to draw upon David Day's history of Churchill's Great Betrayal , and the influential 1989 mini-series The Last Bastion.

My own research has uncovered a much earlier dispute over the memory of Australia's most sacred military endeavour, the landing of the ANZAC (Australian and New Zealand Army Corps) force at Gallipoli on April 25th, 1915. In 1927 a disagreement between British and Australian historians about the landing flared into public acrimony, and was promptly suppressed and forgotten. The events of 1927 help to explain the continuing sensitivity about British-Australian military relations, and why Keating's remarks have generated such strong feelings at opposite ends of the world.

In 1926 the Historical Section which was responsible for Britain's official war history sent copies of Cecil Aspinall's draft chapters about the Gallipoli landing to Australia for comments. As a British staff officer during the war, Aspinall had helped to plan the Anzac landing. According to his draft, the initial Australian landing at Anzac Cove was relatively easy and successful, but in the afternoon confusion among the Australian forces prevented a co-ordinated attack which 'could scarcely have failed' to win the day. Furthermore, towards the end of' the afternoon the 'severe strain to young and untried troops in their first day of battle' was beginning to tell. 'For many the breaking point had now been passed, and numbers of unwounded men were filtering back to the beach' in an 'endless stream' so that 'the gullies in the rear were choked with stragglers and men who had lost their way'.

For Australian readers these claims were heresy. In Australia's own official history of the Anzac landing, published in 1921, Charles Bean had explained that although some men of 'weaker fibre' retreated into the gullies, most stood firm because 'to be the sort of man who would give way when his mates were trusting in his firmness... that was the prospect which these men could not face... life was not worth living unless they could be true to their idea of Australian manhood'. The presence of 'stragglers' was all but forgotten in this eulogy of Australian masculinity.

Bean now circulated Aspinall's draft to ex-AIF commanders, one of whom feared that the manuscript would persuade civilian readers that 'most of the leaders were inept, daunted men, and that a large proportion of the glory of Anzac is mere propaganda'. After collating the responses, Bean wrote to the Australian Department of Defence that the history would 'if printed as it stands undoubtedly cause an outcry in Australia'. The government instructed the governor general to send a cable to the British secretary of state urging amendment of the offending passages.

Bean also wrote to Aspinall, tactfully asserting that the draft underestimated the effects of the difficult terrain at Gallipoli, and over-stated the extent of straggling by too easily accepting the accounts of British staff officers who were prejudiced against the Australians. He explained that most of the men behind the lines and on the beach were being kept in reserve and in work parties, or were soldiers who had been cut off from their units and returned to the beach for fresh orders. Thus the so-called 'stragglers' were not the 'shirkers' implied by the British history. Aspinall replied that his own evidence suggested otherwise – one British officer had recalled stopping hundreds of unwounded Australians from leaving the firing line – and he refused to make any substantial amendments.

At this point the story leaked to the press, and drew headlines throughout Australia and in the capitals of the empire. 'VILEST LIBEL OF THE WAR’ protested the Sydney Daily Guardian . The London Daily Express claimed that according to the history the ill-trained and badly led Australians had herded on the beach at Gallipoli while an 'adventurous few' fought on the heights. Australian politicians and ex-servicemen were outraged, and ex-wartime Prime Minister Hughes retorted that Australians would not 'listen patiently to talk about standing shoulder to shoulder with men who slander them in this fashion'.

Yet Bean and senior government figures now became concerned that the controversy would prompt the War Office to restrict Australian access to British war records and historical drafts. Bean wrote apologetic letters to the British historians and accused the press of being 'grossly unfair'. Another reason he was more upset about the public controversy than the alleged libel was that by this time he knew that the War Office was holding up publication of Aspinall's history. Brigadier James Edmonds, director of the British Historical Section, had decided that the history was 'rather too frank' and that 'a number of nasty adjectives' would have to come out. Edmonds had no love for the Australians – he shared the regular soldier's contempt for colonial citizen soldiers – but in this case the accuracy of historical reputations was of less concern than the maintenance of imperial goodwill. He told London journalists that the 'canard' may have been started by 'Bolshevik propagandists'. 'We are the only obstacle to Russia upsetting everything', he said. 'It would be a good score for them if they could create ill-feeling between the Mother Country and Dominion'. Backing Edmonds was the immensely powerful Committee for Imperial Defence (CID), which controlled both the Historical Section and MI5, and saw each as a potent weapon in the arsenal of internal and external security. Aspinall was instructed to amend the draft accordingly.

Upon completion of the Gallipoli history, Aspinall's appointment was terminated 'through force of circumstances'. Perhaps believing that evidence supporting his original account of the Anzac landing would he shredded if it remained at the Historical Section, he removed a key file containing first-hand accounts by British veterans of the landing. Almost by chance, I recently discovered this file in the Isle of Wight County Record Office, hidden at the bottom of a box of unrelated Aspinall family papers. One scrawled and undated memo revealed Aspinall's feelings about the controversial chapter:

This chapter was a difficult one to write because the truth about the Australians has never yet been told and in its absence a myth has sprung up that the Anzac troops did magnificently against amazing odds... The draft, except in one quarter, met with entire approval. Sir Ian Hamilton, Sir W. Birdwood, General Sinclair McLagan (who commanded the Covering Force), the War Office, the Admiralty, the New Zealand Govt & War Office, all saw it & approved it without comment, and even General Edmonds himself pronounced it as 'excellent'. Col. Daniel [of the Foreign Office] also approved it. The one exception was the Australian Govt, who asked to have various amendments made. Some of these amendments were fair, others were at the expense of historical accuracy; but in the new draft every word that was objected to by the Australians has been expunged...

Aspinall was too loyal or gentlemanly to make these claims in public. When his amended history was published in 1929 it was favourably reviewed in both Britain and Australia. The controversy of 1927 was forgotten and the Anzac reputation remained unsullied and inviolable.

What was at stake in the Anzac controversy of 1927, and what lessons can we learn for today? At one level it can be read simply as a determined Australian effort to ensure that the British history got its facts right about Gallipoli. It is equally revealing about personal and national investments in particular versions of the past. For example, Charles Bean's account relied upon the memories of senior Australian officers who recalled that they had only found a few real shirkers on the beach at Anzac. Yet few soldiers would have admitted to a senior officer that they had run away. Most would have claimed that they had returned for a good reason, and perhaps subsequently believed the claim for the sake of their own self-respect. Australian officers at Anzac Cove may have preferred to accept this more favourable explanation, especially as it reflected upon their own abilities and the reputation of the Australian force. By contrast, British officers at the Anzac landing, such as those who later wrote to Aspinall, were less concerned about the Australian reputation and more likely to see Australian behaviour in a negative light.

Post-war experiences widened the gap between Australian and British accounts of the Anzac landing. All of the men whose views on Anzac straggling were sought by Bean in 1927 had lived in Australia for the decade after the war, and imbibed the pride and certainty of the Anzac legend. By contrast, Aspinall's British correspondents had had less exposure to the Australian national legend. Major Wallis, a British regular soldier who had served as a captain in the Australian 2nd Brigade, thus recalled for Aspinall that April 25th, was a 'tragic day' of 'chaos'; this was not the language usually associated with Anzac Day in Australia.

In fact, military records and personal accounts of the Anzac landing show that there were some debilitating errors of planning and command, that there was great confusion among both staff and soldiers, and that by the afternoon the men at the front, confused, exhausted and exposed to enemy shrapnel and counter-attacks, were suffering terrible stress. It is not surprising that while some soldiers held the line, other unwounded men withdrew from the front. Each of these men may have been motivated by some or all of a variety of reasons: to help a wounded mate, to find his unit or receive fresh orders and supplies, to avoid capture or certain death, or from fear. To say this is not 'disrespectful' or 'libellous'; it simply recognises the complexity of war and soldiering, and of the Anzac experience.

The problem with nationalist histories which generalise about positive national achievements and character is that they smooth out these contradictions. In his histories Charles Bean did not ignore or deny aberrant behaviour – such as straggling – but defined it as insignificant, unmanly and un-Australian. By comparison, Cecil Aspinall could perceive straggling from outside the Australian national viewpoint, though his perception may well have been influenced by a desire to shift blame away from the staff who planned the landing.

The historical controversy of 1927 also reflected tensions within the imperial relationship between the wars. British authorities were sometimes reluctant to highlight praise of Dominion forces in their war histories, especially if it reflected badly on British soldiers and commanders, or implicitly favoured Dominion over British interests. At both popular and diplomatic levels Australians (like the Canadians) were angered by British condescension and understatement, and asserted Australian achievements and superiority. Yet when historical disputes generated public controversy and threatened the imperial relationship, senior politicians and historians in both countries sought to contain the damage and play down disagreement, and to reassert the mutual military advantages of the imperial alliance.

This pattern of tension, dissent and official reassertion has been repeated in Australian imperial relationships with both Britain and America throughout the century. Most Australian politicians have been anxious not to offend their imperial benefactors and defenders. Paul Keating has broken that pattern, and his comments about history and betrayal may well appeal to the independent-minded Australian popular memory represented by recent film and television. British popular memory of twentieth-century warfare from Gallipoli to the Gulf is still dominated by belief in the nation's role as imperial benefactor and bastion of freedom. The responses of the British tabloids to Keating's remarks suggest that they are less than willing to come to terms with the troubled history of empire, let alone with the loss of empire.

  • Alistair Thomson 's book about Australian memories of the 1914-18 war will be published by Oxford University Press this year. For detailed references about the 1927 controversy see his working paper for the Australian Studies Centre, London, 'Shirkers and Stragglers: an Anzac Imperial Controversy'.


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