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Scientific section > On the importance of the commemoration of the Centenary in Australia

On the importance of the commemoration of the Centenary in Australia

Image locale (image propre et limitée à l'article, invisible en médiathèque)
Statue du parc mémorial australien de Fromelles
© E. Roose

In the collective Australian imagination, Australia was born as a nation on 25 April 1915 on the beaches of Gallipoli during the landing of the ANZAC (Australian and New Zealand Army Corps) in the Dardanelles1. It was not so much the 60,000 years of aboriginal presence or the start of the colonisation by the British in 1788 or even the federation of the States in 1901 which symbolise the founding of the nation state but really the fighting alongside the troops of King George V, as part of the invasion of a distant land – The Ottoman Empire – which was an ally of Germany during the Great War.

Although the scale of this act of foundation, far away from the shores of the motherland, seems incongruous today, it was nevertheless in tune with the ideas that people of the time had of the nation2. Australia was entering the family of nations in which nations were supposed to be born: on the battlefield. It didn’t matter that at the end of the 19th  century Australia was one of the countries with the best living standards (as long as you were white) or that it was a truly progressive democracy for its time, that it had flourished in such a short time, what was important was the baptism of fire3. Cradled in an Edwardian militarism but also very close to the United Kingdom culturally and demographically, the Australia of 1914 expected a lot from this conflict4.  In a way history had already been written, whatever the outcome of the Dardanelles operation, be it victory or defeat (a crushing defeat as it turned out), the military engagement would be a triumph. For the first time, Australians fought side by side, for a common cause in a war in which other countries with noble military traditions took part5. So ever since 1916, the anniversary of Anzac Day is commemorated with great pomp every year on 25 April. Of course it’s nothing like the National Day which is celebrated on 26 January to mark the landing of the first fleet in 1788. Nevertheless Anzac Day now attracts more people than does the National Day and this has been especially the case since the middle of the 1990s6.

From the very start of the conflict, a veritable mythology has been built up around the Australian soldier of the First World War. This benefited first and foremost recruitment policy and war propaganda which was also used by the other warring parties7.  The aim was to present a certain image of the Australian soldier to encourage volunteers to join the army’s ranks but also to encourage the population to support the war effort and to be proud of it. All in all the phenomenon was quite banal, normal, and an instrument among others for achieving final victory. In Europe, the mythology that had been built up around the soldiers of the First World War wasn’t able to survive the shock that was the cataclysm brought about by the fighting. Australia, which was sheltered from the conflict, developed a system of portraying the First World War which was very different and in which war was an epic in which the national character was founded. From this portrayal was created a national image which depicted the Australian soldier as one who was strong, tall, handsome, sun-tanned and better than the other soldiers8. Of course this is completely divorced from reality and the soldiers themselves, who didn’t buy into this naïve depiction sometimes found themselves trapped within this imposed rhetoric when it came to recounting their experience of war9.

Regardless of the widening of the historiographical university field, the abundance of amateur works on military history which are in all the major stores or even in the permanent galleries of the museum of the Australian war continue to convey this image which is quite the opposite of the reality of the fighting10. Even so, in the 1970s, it was announced that Anzac Day would no longer be celebrated11. The veterans from the 1914-18 war were dying off fast and fewer and fewer people were taking part in the marches and parades. Australia had changed ethnically, demographically, socially and culturally and all of this had happened quickly. This is how, since the middle of the 1960s, many Australian governments, both liberal and labour have sought to redefine the Australian identity12.

It no longer made any sense to celebrate the landing of the first Australian army a fifth of which was made up of men born in the United Kingdom with an equally significant proportion of Australians born of British parents during a war which hadn’t lived up to its promises, a war that was supposed to be “the war to end all wars”13. Similarly how would one find a place in this national story for the  “new Australians” of the 1970s, the Greeks, the Italians but also all those men and women  who had come from many different Asian countries?  The nation had taken a new road and had set a course with new priorities towards new cultures. 

But nevertheless, there is no doubt, even today, that the commemoration of the centenary of the First World War will be an event of utmost importance for the Australia of the 21st  century. As the world has changed, a twitchiness in respect of identity has settled on and stuck to the legend of the Anzacs, a sacred cow and integral part of the electoral success of the former, conservative and  patriotic – some would say nationalist, Prime Minister – John Howard, who was three times re-elected between 1996 and 200714  and who was opposed, from start to finish, to the definition  of the national identity proposed by his predecessor, Paul Keating, the labour Prime Minister from 1991 to 1996. Keating had set out his vision in what he called the The Big Picture15. For him, what mattered was to recognise the wrongdoings of the white colonisation, to bring Australia closer to its economic partners in the Asia-Pacific region and above all to steer it towards becoming a Republic16. As for the Anzacs, for Keating, the true heroes were those soldiers of the second Australian army, which had fought during the Second World War to protect Australian land and not those from a European war who had been placed under British command. This vision of history sat well with his political and republican program. It was in this context of the Australian history wars that Howard turned ever more to the legend of the Anzacs to bring out the best once more in the Australian past which was supposed to be glorious and no longer  laden with guilt17.  What was more, the death of the last Anzac, Alec Campbell, in May 2002, and the ensuing stirring of the nation’s emotions, were a catalyst for a popular enthusiasm for the First World War, an endless source of interest for genealogical research and the publication of numerous books about the Great War.

As soon as he was Prime Minister, Howard would be forever making speeches about the Anzacs, using them to promote the war in Iraq, visiting Gallipoli or Villers-Bretonneux and above all making sure that this version of history was taught to the youth18. After the 1930s the Anzacs were never to be as important as they were in the middle of the 1990s for providing a certain (re)definition of the national identity to the point that, it is difficult to see how the new labour government in office since 2007 (Rudd then Gillard), could suggest any other interpretation of the Australian identity without being denigrated.
So, in order to prepare the centenary celebrations, the Gillard government simply ordered a survey of public opinion in an effort to live up as far as possible to the expectations of Australians, expectations which had been fashioned during the time that Howard was in power. According to the daily national newspaper The Age, the report ordered by the Ministry for Veterans’ Affairs cost in the region of $370 000 (around 290,000 euros)19. For the centenary, the Gillard government announced an initial budget of 83.5 million dollars (around 65 million euros)20. To get an idea of just how much money this represented, it’s worth noting that the population of Australia is about three times less than that of France. So it really was a quite a significant sum. This budget is to be divided up among ten or so flagship projects. One of the most important is the Government’s Anzac Centenary Local Grants Program which has been granted a budget of $100,000 (around 80,000 euros) for each of the country’s 150 electoral constituencies21. The aim is to organise the commemorative projects at local level to encourage the public’s participation and enthusiasm. And this does not include the large sums that the Australian government has already spent in the Somme and in Picardy. A budget of ten million had already been voted in 2010 for building an Australian remembrance route and several millions have been spent on the refurbishment of the Monsieur Letaille museum in Bullecourt. Finally, another museum, at Fromelles, is scheduled to open to the public in the summer of 201322.


1 Martin Crotty, “25 April 1915: Australians troops land at Gallipoli: trial, trauma and the “birth of the Nation”, Turning Points in Australian History, Sydney, University of NSW Press, 2009, p.113. Note that the Australian soldiers in the Great War were commonly called Anzacs or Diggers.`

2 On the question of the extraterritorial nature of the Australian national  “places of remembrance” please see: Elizabeth Rechniewsky,  “When Australia invents and reinvents a tradition. The example of the Gallipoli landings (April 1915)” , Twentieth century. Historical review, 101, January-March 2009, pp. 123-132.

3 The Oxford companion to Australian history, South Melbourne, Vic, Oxford University Press, 2001. Please refer to the entry Democracy and ‘Economic history and also Gold rush.

4 Henry Reynolds, “Are Nations really made at war?”, Marilyn Lake, What's wrong with ANZAC?: the militarisation of Australian history, Sydney: University of NSW Press, 2010, p. 41 and passim.

5 In reality, in the last months of the Boer war, it was under the banner of the federal state that Australians fought. The First World War is however considered as the first truly national war. Robert L. Wallace, The Australians at the Boer War, Canberra, Australian War Memorial, 1976, p.3.

6 Kenneth Stanley Inglis and Jan Brazier, Sacred places: war memorials in the Australian landscape, 3rd ed., Carlton, Vic.: Melbourne University Publishing, 2008, p. 547 and passim.

7 John F. Williams, ANZACS, the media and the Great War, Kensington, N.S.W, UNSW Press, 1999, p.  59.

8 The canon par excellence being the Official History of Australia in the War of 1914-1918 by the official historian C. E. W. Bean.

9 Other studies worth consulting include:  Dale James Blair, Dinkum diggers: an Australian battalion at war, Carlton, Vic., Melbourne University Press, 2001.  Also, Thomson Alistair,  “A past you can live with : digger memories and the Anzac Legend” , Anzac : Meaning, Memory and Myth, London ; Alan Seymour & Richard Nile (eds), University of London, Sir Robert Menzies Centre for Australian Studies, 1991), pp. 21-31.

10 Romain Fathi, Museum displays of the fighting corps 14-18: The Australian War Memorial of Canberra seen through the Péronne Museum of the Great War, Paris, L'Harmattan, 2013, 210p.

11 Jenny Macleod, “The Fall and Rise of Anzac Day: 1965 and 1990 Compared”, War & Society, volume 20, number 1, pp. 149-168.

12 This is what the study by Curran is all about: James Curran and Stuart Ward, The unknown nation: Australia after empire, Carlton, Vic., Melbourne University Press, 2010.

13 For these figures, please refer to Elizabeth Greenhalgh, “Australians broke the Hindenburg line”  Craig Stockings, Zombie myths of Australian military history, Sydney, University of New South Wales Press, 2010, p.71. Also: Joan Beaumont, Australia's war, 1914-18, St. Leonards, N.S.W, Allen & Unwin, 1995, p.7.

14 James Jupp,  “immigration and multiculturalism” , Howard's second and third governments: Australian Commonwealth administration 1998-2004, Sydney, NSW Press, 2005, pp.173-188. See also: Chapter 6, James Curran, The power of speech: Australian Prime Ministers defining the national image, Carlton, Vic., Melbourne University Press, 2004, pp. 316-356.

15 Details of the program are given in: Advancing Australia: the speeches of Paul Keating, Prime Minister, Sydney, N.S.W, Big Picture Publications, 1995.

16 The Head of State of Australia is Queen Elizabeth II. In her absence, she is represented by a Governor General whom she appoints upon recommendation from the Prime Minister, himself elected by the people.

17 A solid reference work on this subject is: The history wars, Carlton, Vic, Melbourne University Press, 2004.

18 Marilyn Lake, “How do schoolchildren learn about the spirit of Anzac?”, What's wrong with ANZAC? : the militarisation of Australian history, 1st ed., Sydney, University of New South Wales Press, 2010, pp. 135-167. Also see: M. McDonald, ""Lest We Forget": The Politics of Memory and Australian Military Intervention," International Political Sociology 4, no. 3, 2010, pp. 287-302.

19“Anzac Day ‘just a party for drunk yobbos’ – Aussie attitude study”, The Age, March 26 2012.

20 Media Release. “Prime Minister Assessing The Centenary of Anzac”, April 24 2012. Ministry of Veterans Affairs: http://minister.dva.gov.au/media_releases/2012/apr/jointcentenary.htm consulted on 10 March 2013.

21 Media Release. “Anzac Centenary Local Grants Program. Guidelines”, May 31 2013, Official Australian Website of the centenary commission: http://www.anzaccentenary.gov.au/grants.htm consulted on 10 March 2013.

22 Voir: http://nord-pas-de-calais.france3.fr/info/musee-de-fromelles--ouverture-en-juillet-2013-75618870.html