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Anzac myths beyond the Alan Bond test

  • 24 April 2014

At some point, the Anzac story that Australians celebrate each 25 April passed out of history and even beyond legend to become myth.

Myths, almost by definition, do not have a fixed beginning. But in this case there is a convenient, if arbitrary, marker of the change in the national consciousness. In 1983, when his yacht Australia II won the America's Cup, Alan Bond hailed the feat as the greatest Australian victory since Gallipoli.

Bond was obviously hazy about the details of the Dardanelles campaign in 1915. And I am not suggesting that serious historians no longer write about that campaign in accordance with the canons of scholarly research — of course they do.

Nor do I deny that mythmaking began early in the story — indeed, from its very beginning, when Keith Murdoch, father of Rupert, and other war correspondents began filing despatches that distinguished the supposedly bronzed, fit, insouciant and occasionally insubordinate Aussie Diggers from the pale, undernourished and allegedly pusillanimous British Tommies alongside whom they fought.

What Bond's ludicrous misspeaking does indicate, however, is that at least by the 1980s the mythmakers' interpretation of the significance of Gallipoli was dominant in the popular consciousness. Anzac had passed into myth not only because a disastrous defeat had somehow been re-imagined as a glorious victory, but because the heroic strivings of the Diggers had become the benchmark for all other forms of national endeavour.

Does 25 April 1915 really mark the birth of a nation, as so many young people, who march each year wearing their grandfathers' medals, apparently believe? By the bizarre Bond test of what's worth including in the national story, it does.

There is no doubt that Anzac Day has a much stronger emotional resonance for Australians than the official national day, which commemorates the anniversary of British settlement on 26 January 1788. The celebration of Australia Day, like that of Anzac Day, has also been marked by increased popular participation in recent years, despite the inherent conflict in what the anniversary is capable of symbolising: one person's 'settlement' may be another's invasion and dispossession.

But Australia Day has never had, and does not seem likely to attain, the solemn quality that Anzac Day has always had, and which leads many to regard the latter as the 'real' national day.

There is a third option, of course, though it arouses neither the reverential awe associated with Anzac Day nor the conflicted emotions of Australia Day. Indeed,