There’s a poignant moment in Robert Redford’s movie Three Days of The Condor when two CIA types reminisce. Old man Wabash (played by John Houseman) and ambitious mid-ranker Higgins (Cliff Robertson) share stories of their early days in the spy game. Higgins was recruited in Korea; Wabash says, I go even further back than that. Ten years after the Great War, as we used to call it. Then, bitterly, he adds: Before we knew enough to number them.
One hundred years ago last August, the leading European powers embarked upon a war that many thought would would be short. The troops, they said, would be home before Christmas. Some would have known that that optimism was unjustified. But none could have imagined the horror to come. Trench warfare saw men sacrificed en masse for a few yards of mud and wire. Military and civilian casualties totaled sixteen million, with another twenty million wounded, before peace came in 1918. And in the concluding of the First World War, the seeds of the Second World War were planted. It was a truly global conflict with theatres of battle far beyond Europe: Africa, Asia, and the Pacific.
In 2015 Australia will mark the centenary of the ANZAC landings at Gallipoli, but preliminary commemorations have already begun. Albany, on the south coast of Western Australia, was the departure point for thousands of ANZACs in the final months of 1914. In November this year Albany swelled with visitors, including Prime Minister Tony Abbott, who came to honour the first ANZAC fleet.
(Image found at The Sacred Cave)
Moving in single file on the first of November 1914 forty troop carriers bore thirty thousand men out of King George Sound. A convoy of about half a dozen ships escorted the carriers. Among these vessels was the Japanese battlecruiser Ibuki. Japan was with the Allies in WW1. More precisely, Japan was opposed to the Germans. Germany held island territories in the Pacific which Japan was anxious to claim as its own.
The fathers of the soldiers who fought our Diggers in Malaya and Burma watched over ANZACs on their sea voyage to Egypt. History is messy that way.
The popular image of the ANZAC – tall, broad-shouldered and white – is itself a simplification of a more complex reality. Aboriginal men joined up to fight for Australia in World War 1, as they had done in the Boer War and did again in later wars. The graves of four Aboriginal Diggers have been identified among the dead at Gallipoli.
Aboriginals were certainly not treated as equal to whites in those days. Those who survived the war found no substantial change when in their situation they returned home. White ANZACS were appalled that the men who had fought beside them in the trenches were still unable to buy a drink in a pub.
And at a time when Asians wanting to enter the country were confronted by the Dictation Test, more than 200 Chinese Australians signed up to fight. Caleb Shang fought with distinction in Europe and was awarded both the DCM and Bar, and the Military Medal.
The Chinese Museum in Melbourne is hosting an exhibition on the Chinese ANZACs – originally scheduled to end just before Christmas, it’s now been extended to July 2015. The Aboriginal Diggers now have a memorial plaque on the walking trail up Mount Ainslie, behind the Australian War Memorial.
Elsewhere in Canberra, the Australian-American Memorial was given a thorough restoration.
At the rededication of the monument in October Defence Department Secretary* Dennis Richardson offered a polite lesson on the fragility of history. The monument stands in the grounds of the Defence offices, but none of the staff Richardson questioned knew its story.
“You arrive in this institution, this organisation, you’ve got this big foreign symbol in the middle of the organisation and you don’t have the curiosity to wander across and find out what it’s about.”
In a speech on Boxing Day of 1941 Prime Minister John Curtin said Without any inhibitions of any kind, I make it clear that Australia looks to America, free of any pangs as to our traditional links or kinship with the United Kingdom. With those words the alliance that spans the Pacific was born. And in the early 1950s grateful Australians raised £63,000 to put the eagle atop his 73m tall peak.
Speaking at the ceremony that marked the completion of the $1.2m restoration, US Ambassador John Barry said that the memorial had a special significance for him. His uncle and namesake died fighting in the Pacific.
The ambassador praised the bonds between the United States and Australia.
In times of war and of peace we have turned to each other… We have worked and we have fought side by side. Our alliance is the cornerstone of peace and security in the Pacific and it has been so for 70 years.
We are allies because we share the common foundational values of liberty, justice, democracy and a respect for human freedom and dignity.
I’d raise a beer to that.
Finally… you might be thinking that that eagle looks kind of small way up there. Here he is a little closer to the ground.
*’Secretary’ in Australian political-speak does not denote the status of government minister as it does in the US.