Winter is setting in here in Brisbane. There is a cold wind blowing and the temperature is down to around 12C. Almost as warm as an Irish summer, but my old bones make me feel it is cold here.
We have just gone through the centenary of the Anzacs tragedy at Gallipoli. Thankfully, I managed to avoid most of the TV coverage. There is something terribly obscene about politicians taking advantage of a disaster caused by politicians.
I am old enough to recall clearly the 50th anniversary of WW1 and how that time was marked by very strong pacifist sentiment and hostility towards the generals. All that has faded now and thousands and thousands turned out at the ceremonies and marches – to do what I wonder?
By and large, the creation of Gallipoli as a sacred event has been very successful. I think though that Badiou would regard that manoeuvre as an evil in the sense that it forces the viewpoint that what merely appears to be an event is a true event.
The Achilles Heel critique of the Gallipoli as an event, would point out that it has no universal quality. It is addressed solely to Australians (with New Zealanders tossed in as an afterthought). Nor does Gallipoli as an event bring in the new. Rather it reinforces the status quo, the willingness of Australian governments to send troops to support Imperial adventures. The fact that Australian soldiers were taking part in the invasion of another country is conveniently swept under the carpet.
Likewise the contemporary narrative which is carved in stone on the War Memorial here in Brisbane receives now no attention. Yet, to the ages it says that the soldiers died “For King, God and Empire”. There is a truth, then, in that narrative which defies the celebration of Gallipoli as an event.
Finally, I am old enough to recall sometime in 1947 or 48 (I would have been five or six years old) a party in my home, a gathering of the veterans of WW1. My father had fought at the Somme and was wounded there all at the age of 15. I recall now the men, all ex-soldiers, sitting around and drinking. It must have been Remembrance Day. One of the men, a Mr Johnson, a Protestant who lived in a Catholic Street but who was totally welcomed by the Catholic veterans, began to cry. He had been at Gallipoli, someone must have explained to me. For I knew somehow that for the men there his experience was a special exercise in horror. I still recall now and it still brings tears to my eyes all these long years later, the other men including my father attempting to comfort him. But he was beyond comfort and could only keep repeating “Fuck Churchill”, Fuck Churchill”.
I did not know then who Churchill was. I know now and he was one of the political class for whom men like Mr Johnson were mere pawns to be moved around the Imperial board in search of what Churchill called “glittering prizes”.
So I do my own little act of remembrance every time the politicians strut out to celebrate the Event which gave rise to the “birth” of Australia. I recall Mr Johnson. And I also call to mind the one story my mother told me of my father’s war time experiences, for he never spoke about the war. She said that he once told her that the officers would fill the soldiers up with rum before an attack, and then stand behind them and beat them with canes to make them go over the top.
Finally, finally, a note of sadness creeps in. On the 50th anniversary in 1964 it was fashionable to quote Sassoon and Owen’s and others’ poetry about the war, and my teaching practice lessons were full of their work.
Again I recall a lesson where I taught the following Robert Graves’ poem to some 15 year olds (What was I thinking about?)
To you who’d read my songs of War
And only hear of blood and fame,
I’ll say (you’ve heard it said before)
”War’s Hell!” and if you doubt the same,
Today I found in Mametz Wood
A certain cure for lust of blood:
Where, propped against a shattered trunk,
In a great mess of things unclean,
Sat a dead Boche; he scowled and stunk
With clothes and face a sodden green,
Big-bellied, spectacled, crop-haired,
Dribbling black blood from nose and beard.
A good friend who was on teaching practice with me, pointed out that my lessons were full of the kind of horror that would bring nightmares to adolescents. I can only say in my defense, I meant well and the glorification of war is much worse. In any case, all that pacifism has, alas, been all drowned in the tide of jingoism.
Gary MacLennan originally from Omagh, has been an educator based in Brisbane for the past four decades. He presently works in education with isolated aboriginal communities.