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ANZAC:  The Tradition of Heroic Remembrance

On the morning of the 25th of April 1915, troopers of the Australian and New Zealand Army Corps (ANZAC) landed on the hill-topped coves of Gallipoli. The landings, and the disastrous eight months on the peninsula that followed, have been heralded as New Zealand’s ‘baptism of fire’, and attained a mythological status. The Anzacs of Gallipoli, and the public holiday that commemorates them, have become representative of New Zealand’s overseas military history, from the Boer War, to the recent deployment in Iraq.  Gallipoli remains the key imagining of New Zealand’s military past, an origin story of heroism that binds the nation’s imagined community together in remembrance.

The centenary of the Gallipoli landings marks a new era in the practice of World War 1 remembrance. Since the 1997 passing of Alfred Douglas Dibley, the last veteran of Gallipoli, Anzac has entered a realm of cultural imagining. Increasingly detached from the trauma of war, the Anzacs are today an expression of popular masculinity stemming from the nations military traditions. The Digger (slang for an Australian or New Zealand soldier) has become an idealised national character, the ‘honest, practical, number-eight wire mentality’ embedded in the Kiwi consciousness.

On Anzac Day, the nation chooses to remember a masculine hero succeeding on a European stage. The Digger ideal is embodied in New Zealand’s modern pioneer stories, such as the creation of the Hamilton Jet, the dominance of the All Blacks, and the continued virility of the New Zealand farming sector.

The tempo of today’s mainstream Anzac is manifested in the blue-prints of Camp Gallipoli, 2015. The organizers proposed a fairground-style event at Ellerslie Racecourse, with a line-up of acts that embody the hyper-masculine – and commercialized – Anzac. The arena was to be themed as a soldier’s camp, and feature Kiwi band Evermore, as well as rugby legends Steve Price and Graeme Henry acting as Anzac ‘ambassadors’. Camp Gallipoli – which was successfully syndicated in Australia – represents a flashy makeover of the dawn service, as rock and rugby stars play their assumed role as guardians of the ‘spirit of Anzac’.

The expression of Anzac as a spirit has its roots in the earliest commemorations of Gallipoli. During the inter-war years of 1919-1939, politicians, commentators, and religious figures aligned the mythology of Anzac, to a burgeoning nationalism. These influential figures represented monks of the national mythology, in which Anzac was performed in the manner of religious rites. The Anzacs were touted as a model of antipodean masculinity, and the commemorative dawn services were accompanied with displays of young military cadets. The altar of these sacred rituals was the Auckland War Memorial, a site that constituted Anzac as a living memory, an ideal performed in the fields surrounding the Museum. At the entrance to the park, a stone relief depicts men running in the classical nude, a not-so-subtle reminder of the virility expected of New Zealand men. While the Domain’s memorial cenotaph was built for the Anzacs lost, the fields were preserved for the Anzacs to come.

Upon the centenary of Gallipoli, a new clergy presides over the nation’s remembrance. Among these present-day custodians of Anzac is Sir Richard Taylor, Founder of Weta Workshop. Along with his colleague Sir Peter Jackson, Taylor has emerged as a key author of the centenary commemorations in the Capital, leading the development of Te Papa’s four-year exhibition, Gallipoli: The scale of our war. Within the exhibition, Anzac soldiers (as-well as a single grieving nurse) are represented as colossi, larger than life figures belonging to a grand narrative. The exhibition extends upon the tradition of heroic remembrance in New Zealand, with notions of courage under fire engendered as the pertinent memory of war.

Another – more sensitively scaled – tableau of World War 1 was installed in Auckland’s Lorne St. The replica trenches were complete with a cast of beleaguered soldiers, and appeared overnight in the manner of a flash-mob. While the mood was decidedly bleak (as befitting trench warfare), the realism generated a sense of spectacle, a portal opening up within an inner city alley, a vista not of this world. While the moving diorama may have been a useful expression of the ‘soldiers experience’, such displays lack an understanding of the cause and context of war, and instead preference our societies on-going fascination with the macabre detail of warfare. The scene was a wonder of stagecraft and special effects, imparting a cinematic reverie upon passerby’s. The effect is that of glamorisation, with the sheer weight of blood and mud simply adding to war’s boyish appeal. Here, the memory of war is being incarnated as spectacle, a cultural form that’s nearest relative are the war films of Hollywood.

The popularity of ‘realism’ in centenary exhibitions, in particular those developed by Weta Workshop, deceives us into believing that we are witnessing the truth of an event. In fact, the historical context that provides meaning to the war is rarely considered in these popular forms of remembrance.

One brand of courage notably absent in Te Papa’s Gallipoli: The scale of our war is that of pacifist Archibald Baxter (father of poet James K. Baxter). A Christian-Socialist born in Dunedin, Archibald Baxter decried the war upon its outbreak in 1914, a courageous position amidst a backdrop of Imperial fervor. With the implementation of compulsory conscription in 1916, Baxter was imprisoned and submitted to forced labour for his refusal to bear-arms. In an attempt to break his resolve, Baxter was sent to the Western Front and subjected to a barrage of torment and abuse (including Field Punishment No. 1, known to soldiers as the ‘crucifixion’). Still, Baxter refused to accept the prescribed duties of a soldier, upholding his pacifist principles until the end of the war. Through his defiance, Baxter is surely part of the story of Anzac, and his courage deserving of the pride today extended to combatants. An 18-foot monolith of Baxter tied to a post would have complicated the meaning of wartime heroics in Weta Workshop’s centenary display.

In preferencing the tradition of heroic remembrance, alternative conceptions of World War 1 are nullified. While the Second World War has been understandably historised through a sense of moral clarity, the First World War typifies conflict at its most senseless, futile and arrogant. Lest we forget why New Zealanders participated in the invasion of the Ottoman Empire. As a ‘Britain of the South Seas’, New Zealand was enacting the will of its colonial masters, accepting Britain’s grievances – flimsy as they were – as her own. The war triggered by the assassination of an Austrian Prince, engenders little of the moral clarity through which nations prefer to remember their wars. Indeed, World War 1 is distinct as a conflict without coherent meaning, and its root-causes continue to be a matter of heated historical debate.

While Gallipoli should be a parable for the futility of war, it has been routinely evoked in the service of new ones. Ironically for a military defeat, Gallipoli is used to bolster a culture of military confidence, and as a means to rally the nation toward new deployment. Speaking at an Anzac ceremony in 1951, Prime Minister Sydney Holland highlighted the necessity of ‘Anzac ideals’ in the face of foreign aggressors (this time on the Korean Peninsula). More recently, amidst the backdrop of rapid advances of the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria, Prime Minister John Key and Kevin Rudd discussed a coordinated response to the Islamic militancy. The leaders openly considered the prospect of an ‘Anzac badged unit’, a military deployment that would “pay fair tribute to the services and sacrifice of New Zealand and Australian forces in Gallipoli in 1915”. While the countries eventually committed to separate deployments in Iraq, Tony Abbot has revived the sentiment of a tribute expedition, praising the “splendid sons of Anzac” currently being deployed to Iraq. Abbot’s use of the Anzac mythology is manipulative and expected behavior from a warmonger. The Prime Minister’s suggestion of a ‘fitting tribute’ to Gallipoli sentimentalises yet another military intervention in the Middle East. Leaders such as these are the products of heroic remembrance, a culture that continues to manifest itself in a willingness to go to war.

Remembrance is a practice that is only loosely obligated to the histories they commemorate. The cultural forms surrounding Anzac are expressions of a popular historiography, and represent societies concern for the present. In its earliest incarnations, Anzac was conceived as a remedy for ailing masculinity, and as an origin story for a burgeoning nationalism. In our own society, the mythology born on Gallipoli have serviced the rhetoric of new military deployments, a disturbing twist in a story that began with the deaths of 2779 New Zealanders.


There is certainly nothing glamorous about waking up at 5.00 on a Saturday morning. Marching across Grafton Bridge toward the Auckland War Memorial with the rest of the late brigade, I tried to observe the scene and gather some anecdotal evidence. One woman was dressed in a man’s Gallipoli garb, a lovely anachronism barely visible in the pre-dawn. It’s a nice feeling to walk in the dark with total strangers; that’s one thing that nationhood can do for people. One family walked past me in matching camo-patterned Warriors jerseys and made me think of Steve Price, a nice validation of my thesis of hyper-masculinity.

Among the thousands on the hill leading up to the Cenotaph, I heard speeches extolling the usual rhetoric of “a baptism of fire”, the “birth of the nation”, and a “fight for democracy and freedom”. I winced as a young student from Rangitoto College promised to “commit to the ideals for which they died”. Imperialism, militarism, and jingoism, are not ideologies I hope to see embedded in the North Shore College. 

Gathered around me were a lot of people wearing medals, handy-downs from a relative who was no longer around to wear them. Apparently, I’m an Anzac Grinch in every respect, because the gesture didn’t sit well with me. Though on my way home, a woman strolled past in a black velvet trench coat, her red hair whisking the brass of the medals on her chess. She looked glamorous, never-mind the folly. 35365-nz-warriors-mens-camo-training-singlet-2000 Emil Dryburgh

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