A common joke that has been rehashed involves two senior politicians, a religious figure and a school student on board an aeroplane and the pilot announces it's about to crash. There are only three parachutes and one politician says they can't die and grabs a parachute, the next says they can't, because they're the smartest and they can't either. The religious figure turns to the student and lets them take the last parachute, and the punchline is that the second politician mistook the student's schoolbag for a parachute and jumped with it instead.
So with a week to go until we have to hear what Philip Adams described as "the turgid rhetoric of the Anzac Day Ceremony" it is worthwhile separating how much of it is a fact and how much of it is a myth.
On June 28, 1914, a young Serbian nationalist, Gavrilo Princip, angered by a visit to Sarajevo by the Archduke Franz Ferdinand, on a sensitive day, and whose visit was described as "a studied insult," took matters into his own hands and assassinated the Archduke and his wife, thus precipitating a series of demands from Austro-Hungary upon Serbia. Many Serbians are Russian (or Serbian) Orthodox, and these actions caused Russia to begin mobilising its troops. France, another member of the Triple Entente (involving Britain, France and Russia) also began mobilising and Germany, fearing a bifrontal war, invaded Belgium, which was neutral, as part of the Schlieffen Plan to knock the French out from behind and then be able to attack Russia on the Eastern Front. Requests for Germany to pull out of Belgium came to nought, and a reluctant Britain joined the declaration of war against Germany.
War in Australia was sold as a Contiki tour of Europe would be today, along with depictions of Germany as a gorilla and further dehumanisation. Many young men rushed to enlist, and a number of teenagers put their ages up to do so.
As a dominion of Great Britain and a country that saw itself as a larger Britain in the Southern Hemisphere, Australia had little choice but to be involved in the war, but were Australian troops REALLY fighting for our freedom? Well, no. Yes, Australian troops proved that they could fight, and a British official remarked that they saw themselves, "…not as part and parcel of the English Army, but as Allies beside us." If we bear in mind that the Gallipoli Landing was a monumental cock-up by the British, we can say that Australians fought gallantly in a no-win situation, and Australia did come into its own a bit, and after the war, when German oversea territories were liquidated, in the Pacific, Japan gained territories north of the equator, and Australia south, such as New Guinea (later Papua New Guinea. German New Guinea was the northern half of the Eastern side of New Guinea, British New Guinea the southern side, Queensland annexed New Guinea in 1882, in response to Germany annexing the North. What is known as Irian Jaya, West Irian and to the natives as West Papua, was then Dutch West New Guinea).
Responsibility for the Second World War lies in part with the Allies, for an unjust peace treaty with Germany that saw German domestic territory, such as the Rhineland and the Ruhr, taken away and a huge reparations bill that would have taken until 1988 to pay off. This, along with the Great Depression and fears of communism, not to mention unconditional forced democracy, would be fertile grounds for a totalitarian nationalist dictator to take power. Yes, the aristocracy of Germany believed Hitler wouldn't last six months, but they were wrong.
And let us not forget that the flawed policy of appeasement, despite lack of military readiness on the Allied part, caused the war to be more widespread. Okay, taking back the Ruhr and the Rhineland were fair enough, but once Hitler moved beyond the Sudetenland, in defiance of the Munich Agreement, appeasement continued. We need to also remember that the Holocaust was not completely in occurrence at this point, either.
Yes, the fact that many Jewish people are still alive today, despite the genocide of six million of them, is thanks to the allied troops defeating Nazi Germany and liberating the death camps, so really, troops lost their lives to defeat an evil enemy, and so the Jewish people could have their freedom, but we must not forget that anti-Semitism was not confined to Nazi Germany, there were plenty of people of the Allied side who weren't unhappy with what Hitler was doing, even the English King engaged in an anti-Semitic tirade when the Australian Prime Minister wanted to appoint a Jewish Governor-General in Sir Isaac Isaacs.
In Australia's Near North, Japan was the aggressor, yet the man who went on to become Australia's longest serving Prime Minister agreed, as Attorney-General, to sell 300,000 tons of scrap pig iron to Japan, a name that earned him the moniker Pig Iron Bob. Further Japanese aggression, invading what was then French Indo-China, Burma (now Myanmar), Malaya, Singapore, Indonesia and then New Guinea, was to cause Australia anxiety, despite Churchill's assurances that Singapore was safe. Australia declared war on Japan on the same day as the USA did. This was really the only time that Australia faced the thought of invasion.
The notion, however, that these people "gave their lives for our freedom" is inaccurate, as war was not portrayed as "risk your life for your country, future generations will thank you." And as the line from Eric Bogle's anti-conscription song, "And The Band Played Waltzing Matilda," showed, "I looked at the place where my legs used to be," and, "Nobody cheered, they just stood there and stared," as people were amazed at how war changed people. And governments, despite the words, have been reluctant to compensate people for service. I saw my great-great-uncle's service dossier, and this was a man who had been caught in a gas attack, where a doctor wrote, "Very neurotic man, apparently." And let us not forget that some top brass, who may not have even seen active service, had no compunction about sending people before firing squads!
In the post-Second World War period, Australian foreign policy was dictated by the inaccurate precepts of the Domino Theory, Forward Defence and Monolithic Communism. With China becoming a Communist country in 1949, Australia believed that China was forcing Vietnam to be communist, even though Ho Chi Minh was a member of the French Communist Party and the move to make North Vietnam communist was internal not external. Yes, South Vietnam was a military dictatorship, and the North broke the ceasefire in April, 1975, and Laos and Cambodia are dictatorships, but there, again, they were internal not external.
We should not be remembering those who made the ultimate sacrifice, but those who were ultimately sacrificed due to politicians and top brass military stuff-ups. And let us not forget that Winston Churchill didn't come out and say sorry, even if he did resign. And let's not forget that Churchill, as wartime PM, diverted Australian troops to Rangoon, even though Curtin wanted them in New Guinea.
As the great-great-nephew of a veteran of the First World War, I must accept the reality that he decimated families of Germans and Austrians, who, as All Quiet On The Western Front showed, were probably more reluctant than the Australians and British, to fight. Who can forget the case of the young German who was trying to read his textbooks in the trenches and who really wanted to go back to Germany to complete his exams, yet there he was, a reluctant draftee in a war.
War is a tragic loss of life on both sides, and I believe that as Australia pauses to remember those who died in the war, it is also worthwhile remembering the Christmas Truce of 1914 and the similarity of many of the young men on both sides who were killed. It is also worthy of note that some young men were in battalions with others who they wouldn't normally have spoken to, and fired bullets on others, who, in other circumstances they would have had a beer with.