National myth-making – and a new antidote  

April is the month when national myth-making goes into high gear in Australia and New Zealand. It was on 25 April 1915 that a combined Australian–New Zealand Army Corps (ANZAC) force attempted a landing at Gallipoli on the shores of Turkey, as a section of the armed forces of the British Empire. Their goal was to open a supply route through the Black Sea to Britain’s ally, the despotic czar of Russia. The Anzac forces were defeated by the Turkish defenders with heavy losses. Since that time, the event has been commemorated every year in Australasia on April 25 as Anzac Day, a celebration of both countries’ participation in the imperialist wars of the twentieth century.

New titles celebrating the 'Anzac' story appear each year

New titles celebrating the ‘Anzac’ story appear each year

As the centenary of the Gallipoli events approaches, the frenzy of myth-making reaches a higher pitch every year. A major television drama is planned.

Children's titles feature prominently in the Anzac myth-making

Children’s titles feature prominently in the Anzac myth-making

Schools do their part. I hardly dare step inside a bookshop at this time of year, so oppressive are the extravagant displays of national chauvinism presented: the new titles examining every aspect of New Zealand imperialism’s military history; the ‘forgotten wars,’ the role of women in the wars, the general titles on ‘forging a nation,’ the numerous titles for children, introducing them to the national mythology from an early age.

Rewi Maniapoto, photographed in 1879

Rewi Maniapoto, photographed in 1879

April this year is also the 150th anniversary of an earlier battle, this one on New Zealand soil: the assault on the pa (fortified village) at Orakau in April 1864.  It was the last major engagement in the invasion of the Waikato lands by British and colonial forces. At Orakau a force of 1800 imperial and colonial troops besieged a group of 250 Maori defenders led by Rewi Maniapoto, a leader of the Kingitanga (King movement – a movement to forge the Maori tribes into a single nation). As their ammunition and water supplies ran out on the third day, a group of defenders broke out of the siege, and Rewi escaped unharmed, to the chagrin of the British commander. But eighty Maori men, women and children lost their lives in this battle to defend their ancestral land from the encroaching settlers.

Discussing a proposal that the battle at Orakau be commemorated with a national holiday as is Anzac Day, the New Zealand Herald editorialised on April 5, “It is easier to mark a military experience in which all New Zealanders were on the same side.”

Therein lies the Anzac myth. “All New Zealanders” were not on the same side in the Great War, any more than they were in 1864. The very notion of “all New Zealanders” sharing some kind of common interests, is the heart of the myth.

On the one hand, “all New Zealanders” excluded Maori in 1914. The military leadership of the British Empire was less than enthusiastic about having brown-skinned troops fighting against white soldiers, even if they were fighting for the Empire. Could they be relied on to keep their guns pointed against the enemy? And what would happen if they defeated white troops in combat – what would that say about the myth of white racial superiority, on which so much depended?

At the urging from some Maori leaders, who saw serving in the war as a means for demonstrating their loyalty and thereby proving their right to be treated as equals, the Army Council agreed after some delay to accept a Maori volunteer contingent – but only for garrison duty at first. It was only after further pressure that they were permitted to bear arms.

Te Puea Herangi

Te Puea Herangi

Meanwhile, the tribes hit hardest by the punitive land confiscations imposed on the ‘rebels’ of the 1860s, especially in Taranaki and the Waikato, sent no volunteers at all. When conscription was imposed in 1917, a central leader of the Kingitanga during the war years, Te Puea Herangi, led a campaign of passive resistance against it. “They tell us to fight for king and country,” she said. “Well, that’s all right. We’ve got a king. But we haven’t got a country. That’s been taken off us. Let them give us back our land and then maybe we’ll think about it again.”

On the other hand, nor was the settler community made up of “all New Zealanders.”  By the time of the Great War, a developed capitalist economy existed in New Zealand, with all its class antagonisms. On the eve of the war these opposing forces had engaged in some of the sharpest class battles ever in New Zealand history – before or since. The Waihi gold miners strike in 1912 had brought a new militant leadership of the ‘Red’ Federation of Labour to the fore. Defeated at Waihi, they rose again in the battles on the waterfront in 1913, which approached the proportions of a general strike in Auckland and Wellington.

This class-struggle leadership of the Red Feds were not about to support their bosses in wartime any more than they had in times of peace. These men and women were not pacifists. At Waihi they had defended their union hall arms in hand. What fuelled their opposition to the war was their recognition of the bosses’ predatory war aims. They likened fighting in capitalist wars to strike-breaking.

Robert Semple in 1929. Semple was one of several 'Red' Federation of Labour leaders jailed for sedition in 1916 for their opposition to conscription.

Robert Semple in 1929. Semple was one of several ‘Red’ Federation of Labour leaders jailed for sedition in 1916 for their opposition to conscription.

The labour movement led a mass campaign against military conscription, using the slogan ‘Conscription of wealth before conscription of men.’ Let the capitalists sacrifice their personal fortunes to the war effort before they demand that workers sacrifice their lives. (This, they knew, the capitalists would never do – in fact, many of those whose businesses were based on supplying the imperial army with food and clothing increased their wealth during the war years).

A similar situation prevailed on the other side of the Tasman Sea. As in New Zealand, there had been some stormy uprisings of the working class in Australia in the pre-war years, including a general strike in Brisbane in 1912. But unlike New Zealand, where the struggles ebbed after 1913, in Australia they continued to mount throughout the war years and beyond.

In The Shadow of Gallipoli, by Robert Bollard

In The Shadow of Gallipoli, by Robert Bollard

The story of the Australian labour movement during and after the Great War is told in a very timely and useful book by Australian labour historian Robert Bollard, In the Shadow of Gallipoli, published a year ago.

Living standards of workers in Australia had been the highest in the world before the Great War – reflected in the fact that the Anzac troops were paid almost double what the British troops received. But in Australia the war triggered a sharp economic decline. By 1917 wartime inflation had eroded real wages by 30% in comparison to 1914 levels.

Unrest began at the Broken Hill mine – scene of many a labour dispute in the past – in the closing months of 1915, with a fight for a 44-hour week. This mine produced most of the lead used for ammunition by the Allied armies. When the Broken Hill miners won their demand for the 44-hour week, the floodgates opened. Bakers, joiners, meatworkers, shearers, and tramway drivers and others took strike actions throughout 1916, many winning their demands. Coalminers struck for higher wages and an eight-hour day in 1916. Solidarity actions spread rapidly when workers at the railway workshops in New South Wales took action, and reached a peak in the autumn of 1917, with 100,000 workers on strike throughout New South Wales and beyond.

The government and bosses threw everything they had at the strikers. Newspaper editorials denounced them as ‘agents of the enemy.’ Frame-up criminal cases were launched against union militants. Laws restricting freedom of speech were enacted. Armies of ‘volunteers’ were recruited from rural areas and from the urban middle class to take the place of strikers. The union leadership, as frightened as the bosses themselves by this sudden outpouring of militancy, called the strikes off, leaving many strikers permanently replaced by scabs, even on the waterfront and in the coal mines.

Anti-conscription poster produced by IWW, 1916

Anti-conscription poster produced by IWW, 1916

By late 1915 the war had stalemated on the Western Front, the initial flurry of patriotism was exhausted; the supply of volunteers depleted. In the name of ‘equality of sacrifice’, moves to introduce compulsory military service were taken by the Labor Party Prime Minister, William Hughes. He announced a referendum to introduce military conscription to be held in October 1916, confident that conscription would be popularly supported. Early attempts to hold anti-conscription meetings and marches were suppressed, their meetings often violently broken up by soldiers and patriotic gangs, their voices silenced by censorship and denial of access to meeting halls. But the working class Hughes faced was becoming more confident, after the 1916 round of strikes. By October it was the pro-conscription meetings that were being broken up and their speakers shouted down. When the vote was taken, 52% voted against conscription.

If in New Zealand the people least interested in taking up arms for the Empire were the Maori dispossessed by that empire, in Australia that distinction fell to another oppressed people: the Irish. The migration of Irish people – and their political traditions – to Australia began early in the history of European settlement: some 40,000 Irish convicts were transported to the Australian penal colonies beginning in the 1790s. Many of these had been convicted for their participation in rebellions against British rule. Fenian prisoners were still being transported up to the 1860s, arriving along with many Irish displaced by the mid-century potato famines. At the time of the Great War, about one-quarter to one-third of the Australian population was of Irish descent.

Belfast mural depicting the Easter Rising of 1916

Belfast mural depicting the Easter Rising of 1916

And in the middle of the war came the Easter Rising of 1916, the armed uprising in Dublin against British rule, doomed to go down to bloody defeat, yet heroic and inspiring in its aims. The savagery of its repression by the British only intensified the longings of the people of Ireland, and the Irish diaspora worldwide, to get the boot of the empire off their necks. Irish opposition to conscription was a key element in the defeat of the referendum in Australia. A second referendum on conscription was held a year later; this time a larger majority opposed conscription.

Less than a year after the Easter rising came another world-shaking event: the Russian revolution. The old ally of the British empire, the czar of Russia, was overthrown by a popular revolt. The Great War, which had become a blood-soaked stalemate in which none of the warring alliances was strong enough to defeat the other, was being decisively brought to an end by the direct intervention of the working class.

The ‘war to end all wars’ had been nothing but a vicious lie from the imperialist recruiters, but now that had changed. A revolutionary war to overthrow capitalism, and with it the causes of the predatory wars, was a real, tangible possibility. The Great War finally ended when the German soldiers followed the Russian example and mutinied against the kaiser and his generals.

(Australia was not so distant from the Russian revolution as one might assume. The territory of Russia extended eastwards to Vladivostok on the Western Pacific, and some Russian workers escaping from Siberian exile chose this route, crossing from Vladivostok to Japan and then to Australia. In the decade before the Great War there had grown in Brisbane a small community of Russian political exiles. One of them was Fedor Anreyevich Sergeyev, who used the alias Artem Samsurov. Artem returned to Russia after the February 1917 revolution, and served on the Bolshevik Central Committee during the October revolution. His story has been told in fictionalised form in “The People’s Train,” by Thomas Kenneally).

Revolutionary mobilisations of workers shook many countries in Europe in the aftermath of the war. Strike waves spread over Britain and the United States. The class struggle was still rising in Australia. Demobilised soldiers, experienced in armed combat, witness to the horrifying brutalities of capitalist Europe, stirred up by the Russian revolution, arrived back home – to find their jobs being done by scabs. Men who had witnessed the horrors of the Western Front were not about to stand in line meekly behind scabs. On the waterfront in Fremantle in Western Australia, a mobilisation of workers, supported by returned soldiers, defied the bayonet-carrying police and drove the scabs off the wharves. A strike by seafarers, supported by waterside workers achieved the same in Melbourne, and the scab bureau was abolished, and a blow was dealt to the arbitration system.  Broken Hill miners launched a fight for a 30-hour week, as a health measure to combat the appalling rates of lung disease they suffered.

Rightist gangs were also organised from among the returned soldiers. In Brisbane the Russian community was the target of a riot by 8000 soldiers, in which the Russian Association building was destroyed. The following day the crowd returned, this time focusing particularly on the Russian Jews, and attacking their synagogue in South Brisbane. The Russian Jews defended their homes and synagogue with shotguns and dynamite.

It was not until late 1920 that this wave of labour militancy subsided, under the effects of a deepening recession.

All of this rich history is concealed by the national mythology of Gallipoli. Yet the covering up of working class history is only a by-product of this exercise in myth-making; the main target is political thinking.

As Bollard comments, “Myths are not simply a mechanism for interpreting and for deliberately obscuring the past. They are also a mechanism for interpreting and for deliberately obscuring the present.”

In the Shadow of Gallipoli is a powerful antidote to those myths.



7 responses to “National myth-making – and a new antidote  

  1. Thanks for the positive review James. A few points of minor correction are in order, however. Neither alter the general thrust of your argument, indeed they enhance it.

    You state that the “goal [of the landing at Gallipoli] was to open a supply route through the Black Sea to Britain’s ally, the despotic czar of Russia” and this is true. However two other imperatives were at work.

    One was revealed when the victorious Bolsheviks published the secret treaties they discovered in the vaults of the Czarist state. One treaty, signed by Britain, France and Russia a month before the landing at Gallipoli, promised Constantinople to the Czar in the event of victory.

    The other was the fact that the British Navy, engaged as it was in an arms race with the Germans, had been forced before the war to shift from coal (which was plentiful in Britain) to oil which they would have to import from the Middle East. Sothe ANZACS were fighting to secure Mesopotamian oil for the British Navy and to deliver the inhabitants of Constantinople/Instanbul into the tender mercy of the Czar and the Okhrana.

    Also the 30% cut in wages was between 1914 and 1919 – not between 1914 and 1917.

    • Thanks for those points, Robert – they add a lot to the whole picture. I had read about the goal of ‘taking’ Constantinople as a further objective of the Gallipoli landing, but didn’t include it in my post because I wasn’t sure where that information came from. That is really interesting – that it only came to light with the publication of the secret treaties by the Bolsheviks. Can you tell me where to find more information on that aspect? Is there any comment on it in Lenin’s Collected Works, for instance?
      Their drive to secure access to Middle East oil was ultimately successful, of course, despite the failure at Gallipoli.

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  4. Excellent post, James.

    You might be interested in this, re Gallipoli, from a couple of years ago:

    In relation to Samoa and what New Zealand did there:

    In terms of the Easter Rebellion in Ireland, folks might be interested in my blog The Irish Revolution. It includes all the chapters from my old Masters thesis which was about Irish republicanism c1900-1927 and contains a lot of material on the Rising, including looking at the strategy pursued by James Connolly in ensuring that there was a Rising. The blog is at:


  5. In terms of New Zealand, Stevan Eldred-Grigg’s ‘The Great Wrong War: New Zealand society and WWI’ is a must, There are some things in it to disagree a bit with, but it’s essential reading. Interestingly, a friend of mine in Dunedin mentioned to me how last year aorund Anzac Day it was removed from the library’s display section of books about Anzac stuff.
    For a sort of review of the contents of the Eldred-Grigg book, see:
    Btw, the piece on Gallipoli I mentioned above has had several thousand hits, so there is a reasonably significant number of people out there who want to read alternative narratives about WWI. Plus the hits always go up when high school projects are due, so the bourgeoisie isn’t getting all its own way with brainwashing school kids!


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