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Ashes to Ashes

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On the 60th anniversary of the fall of Singapore, arguably the nadir of Anglo-Australian relations, Richard Wilkinson explores the strange relationship between the two countries in the last century.

In 1992 Australia’s prime minister Paul Keating accused Britain of betraying Australia during the Second World War by sacrificing the so-called Far East to concentrate on Europe. A few months later the British government released documents suggesting that, when Singapore fell in February 1942, Australian troops resorted to rape, drunkenness and desertion. In Australian eyes this was a calculated and contemptible reaction to Keating’s allegations. Comments such as ‘the Australians were known as daffodils, beautiful to look at, but yellow all through’ looked like abuse substituting for argument. Certainly Japanese victories in the six months after Pearl Harbor (December 1941)  placed Australia in dire peril. Were Australians betrayed by the mother-country – or vice versa? Who was responsible for disasters such as the fall of Singapore? If there was betrayal, why did the relationship between mother-country and colony survive?

Australians have always believed that they demonstrated their loyalty to the mother-country by coming to her rescue in the First World War. Despite the absence of Australasian interests, thousands of Australians and New Zealanders volunteered for service in Britain’s hour of need. Their troops established a reputation for ‘gutsiness’ during the Gallipoli campaign of 1915-16 when they maintained a toehold at ‘Anzac Cove’. Subsequently the ‘Diggers’ distinguished themselves on the Western Front. 60,000 Australians died during the war – the highest proportion of any combatant power. All in all Australia had reason to be proud of her boys. Australians believe that their nation came of age during the First World War due to her sacrifices on behalf of the mother-country. They proved themselves worthy of Britain’s gratitude, expunging the convict stain.

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