24 April 2015

On the eve of the 100-year commemoration of Gallipoli it is timely to reflect on why this anniversary of Anzac Day is of such national significance.

Answers may emerge from the narrative engendered by Anzac Day, a narrative which has been drawn into focus around key milestones, such as the 50th anniversary in 1965 or the 75th in 1990.

Professor Alistair Thomson from the School of Philosophical, Historical and International Studies at Monash University, has studied this narrative; and has recorded the stories of ANZAC veterans in his research on Australia’s oral history.

“The public remembrance of Anzac Day has waxed and waned,” said Professor Thomson.

“When I first attended the dawn service in Melbourne in the early 1980s, it was a small affair with several hundred participants in a simple ceremony focused on the reading of the Ode and the bugler’s Last Post and Reveille. Now tens of thousands pack the shrine. “

Each new anniversary generates a new interpretation of what Anzac Day means, as seen through the particular lens associated with that moment in time.

Importantly, the 100-year anniversary is the first significant milestone to pass in the ‘post-memory’ era of Gallipoli’s history.

“In the beginning the service was primarily a commemoration for the bereaved, the wives and children and friends of those who died in the war,” Professor Thomson said.

“The body of their loved one was on the other side of the world, there could be no funeral, so there was a public commemoration. And not surprisingly, like at a funeral, this event would focus on the positive, on the nobility of sacrifice for the cause of the nation.

“But over time, and as those with memories of the event have passed away, the commemoration has been driven by new powerful agencies to craft the collective public memory.”

Government bodies like the Department of Veteran Affairs have played an increasing role, as have the interpretations of researchers and the authors of popular history.

“The Anzac story has been placed in a commercial context, whether it is selling biscuits or beer.

“Artistic creations such as the 1981 film Gallipoli by Peter Weir have been important in framing the story for new audiences and entrenching national ideals."  

Professor Thomson conducted interviews with three Anzacs in the 1980s, just when a renewed public interest in the Anzac story was given birth through a fresh national narrative, linking it in the words of Bob Hawke to 'the very character of the nation'.

Professor Thomson’s book Anzac Memories: Living with the Legend has recently been published in a new edition, following the release of new documents from the National Archives.

As every new twist in the narrative emerges, it has challenged the individual stories that remain at the centre of the national collective memory.

“It’s complicated,” explains Professor Thomson.

“There has been an emerging set of narratives over time, and people relate differently to each of these. For instance for some veterans, a proud public narrative gave them a story to live with, but others felt so emasculated or damaged by the war that they couldn’t connect with that story. That was damaging.

“If your own experience is not representative in the national narrative then you close down.

“The narrative has changed over time and some veterans began to talk about their own stories later in life. The emerging national Anzac story had a constant interplay right throughout their lives.

“If we are to respect these people then we need the full history—post war as well as war, home-front as well as war-front.”

In recent work funded by an ARC Linkage Projects grant (LP100200270), Professor Thomson has recorded hundreds of oral histories of ordinary Australians. The project was designed to strengthen Australia’s social and economic fabric by explaining the experience, memory and significance of the past for different Australian generations and has generated a publicly accessible archive which is online and still growing.

“We interviewed 50 people born in each decade from the 1930s through to the 1980s, and the interviews followed lots of themes not just war.

“We wanted to get a diverse sample so we did 300 life history interviews. Interestingly, young men—who feature so heavily in the oral history of war veterans—were harder to reach for this project, but once we got them talking they were fantastic.

“The interviews average four hours each. We explored exceptional topics, they are extraordinarily rich interviews. For instance, we found that mental health was implicated in so many people’s lives in such complex and subtle ways. You can get a sense of how it fits into people’s life courses in these interviews.”

By creating a permanent archive that will be freely accessible to researchers and the public in the future, Professor Thomson is ensuring that our national narrative has its roots in a diverse sample of voices.

For more information please contact Professor Alistair Thomson.



Image: Fred Farrall (c. 1916), the year before he displayed the first symptoms of 'shell shock'. Fred sent this picture as a postcard from France to his aunt in Australia: ‘Dear Auntie, this is a dinkum War Service photo & pretty rough of course, but still a little like Fred’. 
Image credit: Fred Farrall, c. 1916. Also published in Anzac Memories: Living with the Legend