Exploding the ANZAC myth

I had my first metahistorical “wow” moment when I came back to study history at university in 2008. At the time, my interest in history was based on my belief that it was merely a catalog of cool shit that had happened in the past. Boy, was I in for a shock.

On the advice of my lecturers, I decided to read the VUW guide to Writing History Essays. History, I read, was not about capturing some objective truth – it was about coming up with arguments that best fit the available evidence. Thus, the textbooks that had formed the staple of my highschool history career were not an official retelling of ‘what really happened’ – they were merely one person’s attempt at reconstructing what happened. This not only made them conjectural – it made them contestable. Which made me wonder – just what other historical narratives that I had been fed throughout my life were contestable?

Enter History 2.0. A world where critical thinking and geeky enthusiasm provided the means for deconstructing hegemonic historical narratives in order to reach a closer approximation of truth. Or, in layman’s terms, a world where I could take a step back from popular historical beliefs and say “Hey? What’s really going on here?” This, I decided, was where one of the true powers of history lay – exploding historical myths. And what better place to start than with ANZAC Day?



The typical ANZAC narrative goes something like this – on 25 April 1915, several thousand Australian and New Zealand soldiers landed upon the shores of Gallipoli amidst a hail of enemy gunfire. They fought for our freedoms. They fought for democracy. They fought to protect us from the dreaded Germans. And in doing so, many of them paid the ultimate sacrifice. Our Antipodean nations were born from that ‘baptism of fire’ – and so, every year, we commemorate their sacrifice.

Now let me say, first and foremost, that I have no problem with remembering those who have died for their country. The ANZACS really did sacrifice a lot, and commemorating that sacrifice is a fundamentally good thing. But the historian in me leads me to question the story that we are being told. Who were these men who fought and died at Gallipoli? Why did they do it? And, perhaps most importantly, what purpose is the popular conception of ANZAC designed to serve?



In 1935, Ormond Burton published his famous book on the Gallipoli campaign – The Silent Division. His words epitomised the standard image of the ANZAC soldier that we have all come to recognise – young, silent, stalwart, patriotic, and ready to sacrifice for his country. Embedded in this image are other connotations, such as conservative, male, and white. These were humble, everyday men, we are told, who fought and died for ideals which are embedded in our national spirit.

This image of the typical ANZAC presents a fundamental contradiction – how can these soldiers be all of these things and still be everyday men? We claim to celebrate their sacrifice, yet in reducing them to paragons of patriotic virtue we deny them the individuality that made their sacrifices unique. By bowing to this sterotypical image of the ANZAC, we ignore a number of pertinent questions. Who were these men, really? And what drove them to fight a war on the other side of the world?

Firstly, the ANZACS themselves. To start with, they weren’t as young as most people think – the average soldier at Gallipoli was in his mid-to-late twenties. The vasy majority were urban working class, and they were predominantly single. Far from being ‘natural soldiers’ from the bush, what little ‘battle’ experience they had came from factory floor trade union struggles.

Perhaps most importantly, their motivations for enlisting were about as varied as the men themselves. Many joined for a chance to see the world; others joined because it was a steady paycheck. Some even joined to escape the chains of domestic responsibility. Employment in the military was simply seen as another job – one in which they were more than happy to protest against unfair working conditions.

Nor were they the professional soldiers that the ANZAC myth would have us believe. The ANZAC soldiers training in Egypt were renowned for engaging in drinking, violence and debauchery in the streets of Cairo. My own great-grandfather went AWOL for twelve days in Alexandria upon arriving in Egypt. Their early experiences at the front were characterised by their inexperience – it was only in 1917 that they became a renowned fighting force.

The ways in which the ANZACS perceived their opponents also warrants scrutiny. For example, whilst it is true that the majority gifted their enemies with a certain respect, their reasoning calls the ‘patriotic’ label into question. Some thought of the Turks and Germans as fellow soldiers, deserving of honour. For others, it was the shared struggle that united the opposing trenches. Yet for many working-class soldiers, this unity came from a trade union mindset that saw them as fellow workers caught up in an imperialist war. The various temporary truces on the front, with which we are all familiar, were distinctly anti-patriotic, and were condemned as such by their commanding officers.



The ANZAC myth is also hegemmonic in the way it neglects the stories of others whose lives were impacted by war. What about the nurses who displayed courage and resilience under fire? Their service was often denigrated by male officers, who preferred trained male soldiers in place of females.

And how about the home front? As the conflict dragged on, and the newspapers filled with the names of the deceased, the war became increasingly unpopular. Both Australia and New Zealand were riven with social tensions. In Australia, two referenda to enforce conscription failed by a narrow majority, resulting in mass protests. The perceived threat of an Irish fifth column, and the Russian Revolution, added to this turmoil. Prices increased whilst wages remained steady and working conditions fell, leading to strikes and increased unionisation. New Zealand labour leaders argued that if young men could be conscripted, why not the capital reserves of the rich?

And where do conscientious objectors fit into the picture? In New Zealand, where conscription WAS introduced, several thousand men escaped to rural areas to serve out the war as anonymous farm hands. Others were sent to prison for refusing to fight. Fourteen of them were forcibly shipped to the front by the government to be made an example of. They were beaten, abused, and tormented by their fellow soldiers for refusing to fight. A select few were given Field Punishment Number One – being strung to a pole and exposed to the elements for extended periods of time. The societal pressure on men to fight was immense – to fight for the Empire was manly and heroic, to refuse was cowardly and disloyal.



On 10 December 1918, an Arab man snuck into the camp of an ANZAC Mounted Division near the village of Surafend, in Palestine. A New Zealand soldier by the name of Leslie Lowry caught the man trying to steal his pack, and pursued him. As Lowry called for help with the pursuit, the Arab man produced a revolver and shot him in the chest. His fellow soldiers suspected the nearby village of harbouring the thief, despite an official enquiry finding no sign of him.

The following night, around two hundred soldiers took revenge upon the village. The women and children were rounded up, the men were butchered, and the houses were burnt to the ground. Recently discovered evidence suggests that Australian soldiers also took part in the massacre. Apart from a verbal reprimand, the incident was quietly suppressed.

Whilst this incident involved only a small number of ANZACS, the fact is that it still happened. How do we reconcile this with the standard ANZAC myth?



When speaking at today’s Dawn Service in Wellington, Murray McCullay stressed the links between the ANZACS and the kiwis of today. ‘[W]e wish to be worthy of their great sacrifice’, he stated. ‘[L]et us therefore once more dedicate ourselves to the service of the ideals for which they died.’

Implied in his words is a ‘national contract’ of ideals – a legacy set forth by the ANZACS which we must continue to uphold. Yet as we have seen, these ideals are a smokescreen that obscure the true motivations and experiences of the ANZACS. So what purpose do they serve? They promote a sense of patriotism, for one – a socially constructed adhesive to cement our imagined community. They also serve as a link – indeed, a justification – for subsequent conflicts, including Afghanistan and Iraq. ‘[T]he dawn is even now about to pierce the light,’ added McCully at this morning’s ceremony, ‘so let their memory inspire us to work to the coming of the new light into the dark places of the world.’ Our current soldiers are thus similarly reduced to paragons of patriotic virtue, following in the constructed footsteps of their forebears.

The ANZAC myth has also been used to shut down legitimate debate. In 2007, members of Peace Action Wellington were arrested for burning a flag on ANZAC Day as a protest against war. A controversial decision in 2009 by the Victoria University of Wellington Students Association not to lay a wreath at the dawn ceremony made national headlines. One critic called VUWSA ‘retarded’ and argued that ‘their voice should not be heard’. By appropriating the ANZAC myth as part of national culture, those who oppose it can be branded as disloyal and unpatriotic.

The standard ANZAC story is an example of what John Tosh and Sean Lang call a ‘foundation myth’ – ‘a story, usually much-treasured, about the foundation of a group of people’ which presents ‘a simplistic, usually rosy, version of events’. And whilst this foundation myth has its value – chiefly in the commemmoration of sacrifice – we should not lose sight of the real, individual sacrifices made by these men and women.

Those who fought – or refused to fight – did so for many reasons. By focusing on the high-level Anzac tradition, we risk losing these low-level, individual stories. In the end, how can we truly hope to appreciate the sacrifices made by the men and women who have fought and died for New Zealand if their stories are lost within the rosy haze of myth?


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s