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).
‘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).
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’.
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.
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’.
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.’
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
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'The stuff of history'
Robertson, J., Australia at
War 1939-1945 (Melbourne, 1981), p93.
Andrews, E. M., The Anzac
Illusion: Anglo-Australian Relations During World War I, (Melbourne, 1993),