WW1 and the battle of the national myth

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For anyone sensitive to the pervasive signs of militarisation, there is no doubt that the centenary invites unwelcome forms of commemoration. Look at the distortions in the documented history of bloodshed in Gallipoli in 1915.

Ben Wadham Vron Ware
2 September 2014

In his novel exploring the experiences of Indian sepoys shipped over to fight on the Western front in 1914, Mulk Raj Anand illuminates the perspectives of non-Europeans from the depths of the trenches. Towards the end of the book, the protagonist, the young Lalu, returns to the frontline with his regiment to face the Germans for a second time.

An airship passing overhead, scatters pieces of paper over the Allies’ lines. Lalu manages to catch some, intent on using them as fuel for the meagre fire that he has managed to light in a biscuit tin – it had snowed during the night. Some of his more curious companions notice the writing ‘in lettering such as the Sahibs of the Salvation Army used in India for their Hindustani bibles’, and want to be told what it says. He reads aloud,  

“The Sheikh-ul-Islam has proclaimed a holy war on the Id festival day at Mecca against the British, the Russians and the French. The Sultan of Turkey has started a war against the same oppressive people, and he has been joined by the King of Afghanistan.” 

When his friends protest that they are all Hindus, Lalu continues:

“Brothers, this is a letter from your well-wishers and friends…Do you realise that in fighting for the English you commit irreligion and may die an inglorious death and may never…”

At that point Lalu is again interrupted by his friends who by now have worked out that this is indeed incendiary material, and that if they are caught discussing the contents they risk court-martial. But the information soon circulates that one of the Muslim soldiers who had crept over to enemy lines had, rather than face execution, told them of his hatred for the Angrezi, as the sepoys called the English. This explained the German strategy of enticing Muslims to change sides in order to take part in this ‘holy war’.

Although Anand’s account is a fictional one, it is partly based on the experiences of his father’s generation. His book, Across the Black Waters, was originally drafted in Barcelona in 1937, and then rewritten in Oxfordshire in 1939. Anand himself was the son of a coppersmith and a soldier, born in Peshawar in 1905 and educated in universities in the Punjab, Cambridge and London. He died in 2004.

This novel underlines the fact that the centenary of the 1914-1918 war provides an opportunity to educate new generations about the global and postcolonial dimensions of that conflict. For example, the historical facts behind this small extract were vividly brought to life in the recent BBC programme, ‘The World’s War: Forgotten Soldiers of Empire’, made by historian and filmmaker David Olusoga. The two-part series not only provided extraordinary evidence of the sheer numbers of military workers who were imported from Africa and Asia into the Western front by European imperial powers. It also offered glimpses of the carnage from the perspectives of those non-European natives caught up in its progress. 

One section documented the Germans’ attempt to foster a global jihad in support of the Ottoman Empire. Olusuga showed photos of the ‘Half Moon Camp’ in Germany where Muslim prisoners of war were re-trained to act as soldiers, spies and ambassadors for the German cause. This included a highly dangerous expedition to Afghanistan to try (unsuccessfully) to convert the King to change sides.

The role of the Chinese Labour Corps which was brought over to support Britain’s military operations was also documented. This aspect of the global labour force is also beginning to attract wider attention, partly through a new campaign to erect a permanent memorial. 

Olusoga’s documentary is significant in that it emphasises that WW1 was a conflict between imperial powers fighting over territory and resources outside Europe’s killing fields. Sites like World War 1 in Africa are now providing a regular flow of documentation of military labour by African troops as well as the views of those commenting on that history today. This article from Kenya is just one example. 

Alongside the proliferating academic histories that acknowledge the global dimensions of WW1, the contributions of community historians (such as Stephen Bourne, Marika Sherwood, Peter Duckers, Peter B. Clarke, Rozina Visram and Peter Fryer, whose book Staying Power celebrates its thirtieth anniversary this year) are finally being recognised for their painstaking documentation of testimonies and perspectives that have been ignored or suppressed. As well as addressing the involvement of colonial troops in different parts of the empire, this body of work also examines the impact of the war on black populations within Europe.

Bourne’s most recent book, Black Poppies, for example, explores the fact that in 1914 Britain was home to at least 10,000 black Britons, many of African and West Indian heritage. The publication of his book – coinciding with the approaching centenary of WW1 – is all the more timely as it simultaneously challenges the idea that black British citizens can still be classified as ‘immigrants’ or relative newcomers.   

It’s also worth highlighting too that London will see a new exhibition opening in September that provides remarkable photographic evidence of the presence of black populations in Britain in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. Entitled Black Chronicles II, the exhibition, organised by Autograph ABP, will show many images that have never been viewed in public before and which bear witness to Britain’s colonial and imperial history. 

It is at last becoming evident that there are countless photographs, films and documents that can be accessed to bring these histories to public attention. But while there are signs that the official museums and archives that house them are finally acknowledging their responsibility in making them accessible, it will take a lot more than this to change public perceptions. In October the newly refurbished Imperial War Museum will host an event organised by Black History Walks (which has been holding such events for the past ten years) that will present “a comprehensive overview of the African/Caribbean presence, contribution and importance in two  'world wars' “. The experience of BHW indicates that, “Despite being on the British school curriculum, most people have no idea that black people played any part in either World War 1 or World War 2”.

The problem remains that these interventions are rarely enough to shift the entrenched modes of presenting national histories in ways that suit governmental objectives.

For anyone sensitive to the pervasive signs of militarisation, there is no doubt that the centenary invites unwelcome forms of commemoration that compound already too-familiar narratives of greatness, suffering or sacrifice on the part of the nation.

The taking of Lone Pine by Fred Leist.

The taking of Lone Pine by Fred Leist. Wikimedia Commons/Public domain.In this second article in our series on the problems and possibilities of challenging dominant accounts of the Great War, particularly from postcolonial perspectives, Up in Arms addresses the vexed cultural politics of commemoration in Australia. Here Ben Wadham suggests that the techniques of camouflage and decoy are being used to mystify and distort the documented history of bloodshed in Gallipoli in 1915.


The camouflage of Anzac mythology

by Ben Wadham

Australia is building toward the 2015 centenary commemoration of Gallipoli, a battle where many Australian men lost their lives as an outcome of the flawed strategy of British command. For some Australians it is deemed the moment that forged a nation. For others, it’s a tragedy whose importance is exaggerated through mawkish nationalism.

Anzac Day (25 April) reveals the tropes of nation building and a projection of the Australian national character based on the ideal of mateship, duty, honour and sacrifice. It is an occasion that is heavily contested within Australia’s culture wars, and is deployed in the school history curriculum as a way of exciting nationalist fervour.


Amy Hamilton, with permission from Camouflage, unmasking militarism.This year was no exception. On April 23, the current Education Minister, Christopher Pyne, restated the idea that the nation’s founding moment was created by the Anzacs at Gallipoli:

I have absolutely no doubt that the experiences of the First World War, as exemplified by the campaign in Gallipoli, bound the Australian nation together like no other event in the first fifteen years of federation.

The coalition government is intent on separating Anzac from the less glorious events in our history, events remembered through NAIDOC week, or National Sorry Day. According to Pyne, the Australian national character – the straight white larrikin male personified by the Digger – is ‘downplayed’ by association with these other forms of commemoration. How can you build a nation on past blemishes? 

Rebirth of a nation

Not all politicians subscribe to this simplified version of national origins, however. Former Prime Minister Paul Keating is just one prominent Australian to offer an entirely different reading:

Dragged into service by the imperial government in an ill-conceived and poorly executed campaign, we were cut to ribbons and dispatched – and none of it in the defence of Australia … we still go on as though the nation was born again or even was redeemed there … This is utter and complete nonsense.

To paraphrase Roland Barthes, the Anzac mythology ‘represents a conjuring trick, it turns reality outside, emptying it of its history, filling it with nature’. A national narrative that places Gallipoli as the founding moment of Australian nationalism acts as a form of camouflage – rendering “the ill conceived and poorly executed campaign” invisible and recasting the incompetence of British command as an expression of the national character: mateship, sacrifice and duty.

The Anzac mythology also hides the national division over World War 1. The bloodbath of Gallipoli and other campaigns were evident by 1916 and 1917, contributing to the anti-war movement and the failure of Prime Minister Billy Hughes’ referenda on conscription. Leaders of the anti-war movement, including many women, were heckled and pelted with stones by returned soldiers and supporters of the war efforts for their attempts at resistance.

As historian Marilyn Lake has pointed out:

‘Anzac was a celebration of race and manhood’ that excluded many of those who were not white and male. Aboriginal men were legally barred from enlistment, although many enlisted anyway and were denied repatriation benefits.

Lake is critical of subsequent attempts to include women in the Anzac legend in their capacity as nurses, servicewomen, Land Army girls, or grieving mothers and widows. Acknowledging these roles, she argues, should not prevent recognition that the myth ‘seeks to locate our national identity in the masculine domain of military warfare’.

In camouflage terms the Anzac mythology mystifies the national imaginary. During the First World War dazzle camouflage marked the steel skin of Navy ships with stark geometric shapes so that their passage on the horizon was distorted and their target diminished. The dazzle of the Anzac distorts the history of Australia on the horizon of the mind’s eye.

The militarism that underpins this notion of rebirth is characterised by dark and light. Stories of gallantry, honour and sacrifice provide a veneer over an institution of state-authorised violence.

Diggers and larrikins

The Australian Defence Force is a hallowed institution. It is invariably represented as an employer of the best that Australia has to offer, engaging in global security and protecting the nation and its people from the threats that lurk in dark, uncivilised spaces across the globe. On numerous occasions the Australian public have seen that the military cannot be critiqued, and neither can the Anzac. To do so is treasonous.

The military provides neo-conservative Australia with an ideological trope that glorifies and distorts “… as in one of the trick rooms where water appears to run uphill and little children look taller than their parents”. Education Minister Christopher Pyne and other neo-conservative supporters assess Gallipoli and all things military as part of the natural order.

Their camouflage naturalises the national narrative from a vantage point where masculinity, whiteness and hegemony seem to line up in “a perfect chain of echoic meaning”.

It is a vantage point that stands in direct conflict with the recent reform of the Australian Defence Force itself.

On the same day that Minister Pyne exhorted all Australians to believe that Gallipoli was a valiant battle against the Turks, the Chief of Army Lieutenant General David Morrison, was waging his own battle against the iconography of the Australian military as straight, white, male and rapacious. He stated that the image of  “ … a roughhewn country lad, invariably white, a larrikin who fights best with a hangover and who never salutes officers” was hurting the institution by limiting its attempts to diversify and modernise.

It is a paradox that leaves the coalition looking exposed, much like the diggers that approached Arni Burnu in pinnances under the light of the moon. Tropes of sacrifice, duty and honour that mark the birth of a nation are like camouflage that seeks to hide the truth from the viewer. But in this case, even the Australian Defence Force is able to admit that it is a ruse.

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