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Does Australia have a myth of World War II comparable to that of World War I?













Simpson and the Donkey; 'Weary' Dunlop






‘Two generations of Australians have had it drummed in from rostrum and pulpit that we became a nation on 25 April 1915 or at least during the First World War. (Geoffrey Serle, 1965).[1]


‘Even though we fought in many conflicts where we felt pangs of loyalty to what was then known as the ‘Mother Country’, to Britain and to the Empire, and we fought at Gallipoli with heroism and in Belgium, in Flanders, in France and in other places, this was the first and only time we’ve fought against an enemy to prevent the invasion of Australia, to secure the way of life we had built for ourselves...This was the place where I believe the depth and soul of the Australian nation was confirmed. If it was founded at Gallipoli it was certainly confirmed in the defence of our homeland here.’ (Paul Keating, Speech at Kokoda, 26 April 1992).[2]


Gallipoli was a defeat, and Kokoda was a victory. Gallipoli was fought on the other side of the world, while Kokoda was fought on what was then Australian territory. Yet it is still Gallipoli rather than Kokoda which has caught the Australian popular imagination. In 1981, one of Australia’s leading film directors, Peter Weir, and its best-known playwright, David Williamson, collaborated on a hugely popular film about Australians at war – and it was called Gallipoli.


This echoes what has happened more broadly in relation to how the two world wars have been seen in Australia. This essay will attempt to trace the elements in the differing responses to them.   


The threats to Australia in the World Wars, and the prices paid.


The relative lack of a ‘myth’ surrounding Kokoda and the rest of the New Guinea campaign seems remarkable given that Australians believed they were under threat of invasion by the Japanese in 1942. The Prime Minister, John Curtin, had declared on 16 February that ‘The fall of Singapore opens the Battle for Australia’.[3] The Japanese went on to invade New Guinea, bomb Darwin and other towns in northern Australia, and send midget submarines on a raid into Sydney Harbour; they would also torpedo Allied shipping off the Australian coast through much of the war.


In response to this threat, Australia succeeded at Milne Bay by 6 September in inflicting on the Japanese Army its first defeat of the war, repelling the Japanese on one of the two approach routes to Port Moresby. General Slim, commander of British forces in Burma, would later point out (in an often-quoted remark) that ‘it was Australian soldiers who first broke the spell of the invincibility of the Japanese Army’, giving Allied forces a psychological boost. Meanwhile, by the end of September, the Australians had stopped the Japanese advance along the Kokoda Track within 50 km of Port Moresby.[4]     


It is easy to believe that, if the Japanese had actually attempted to invade Australia, and Australians had successfully expelled them, Australians would have regarded such an achievement as the greatest feat in their history. Yet, paradoxically, it seems that Australia’s success in preventing an invasion (if the Japanese had seriously intended one) in 1942 has meant that World War II has not had the same place in Australia’s mythology as World War I. Robertson comments that ‘Australian servicemen in the Second World War attained the heights of courage, endurance and military skill, but, overall, the demands made on them were less than those who fought at Gallipoli and on the Western Front in the Great War. Casualty rates were much lower, warriors spent much more time out of the front line, and the opportunities for leave in one’s homeland were much greater’.[5]


This echoes the opinion of C.E.W. Bean, the official historian of the Australian contribution to World War I, and the front-line correspondent who edited The Anzac Book from the contributions of men at Gallipoli. He wrote in the Australian armed forces magazine Salt in 1946: ‘Undoubtedly the soldier-writer of World War II has been freer, less conventional and more sophisticated than those of World War I. That does not mean that their work is more interesting.  I turn to the old Anzac Book, our first soldier-literary effort…and still wonder at the old book’s fascination.  Probably it is due to the fact that about everyone on that crowded beach and hillside had been through experiences that could not fail to produce some thought worth putting into prose or verse.’[6] This belief helps to account for the fact that Gallipoli still looms larger than the Western Front in popular memory of the First World War, even though six times as many Australians died in the latter campaign as in the former, and the Australians’ discipline, training and effectiveness were improved markedly in France.[7]          

 Next page | 'The stuff of history'
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[1] Serle, G., ‘The Digger Tradition and Australian Nationalism’, Meanjin 24 (2), 1965, p149.

[2] Keating, P., Major Speeches of the First Year, (Canberra, 1993), p59.                        

[3] Robertson, J., Australia at War 1939-1945 (Melbourne, 1981), p93.

[4] ibid., pp142-143.

[5] ibid., p206.

[6] Bean, C.E.W, ‘Last War’s Editor Makes a Comparison’, Salt, 27 April 1946 (Final issue).

[7] Andrews, E. M., The Anzac Illusion: Anglo-Australian Relations During World War I, (Melbourne, 1993), p3.