A legend with class: labour and Anzac

Labor has long had leaders, such as former prime minister Paul Keating, capable of speaking the language of Anzac. AAP/Alan Porritt

The Gallipoli centenary provides a unique opportunity to reflect on the many wartime legacies – human, political, economic, military – that forged independent nations from former colonies and dominions. The Conversation, in partnership with Griffith Review, is publishing a series of essays exploring the enduring legacies of 20th-century wars.


For the Australian labour movement, Anzac has been more like a first cousin than a close sibling. There is no missing the family connection: the first Australian Imperial Force (AIF) was an overwhelmingly working-class army, with an ethos instantly recognisable as such.

The AIF’s members valued social egalitarianism while accepting the substance of inequality – just like most of the Australian working class in civilian life, who well understood the difference between a boss and a worker. It nurtured a powerful sense of entitlement – reflecting the idea of a living wage, which had begun to make its mark by the time war broke out, as Justice Higgins’ Harvester Judgement in 1907 found wider acceptance.

And, just as in civilian life, AIF members were sometimes prepared to withdraw their labour when they believed their rights were being disregarded, or their dignity insulted.

Like the working class of Australia’s cities and towns, the AIF contained its fair share of crooks, crims and ne’er-do-wells. But alongside them were the steady and the respectable – men who saw the demands that war made on them as a test of their moral character.

As late as 1916, there was little reason to expect that the history of the relationship between the labour movement and Anzac would be other than a comfortable coupling. Labour was certainly active in early Anzac commemoration. The first Anzac Day occurred not on April 25, 1916, as one might reasonably assume, but on October 13, 1915, in Adelaide. It was a rebadging of Labour Day, and was designed to raise funds for wounded soldiers. The Adelaide Advertiser explained:

The workers readily yielded up the identity of their day, and while celebrating the attainment of brightened conditions of labour took their places in a bigger scheme of things.

The South Australian labour newspaper, the Daily Herald, was no less enthusiastic in celebrating:

… a grand united community carnival of practical patriotism.

But such unity would not long endure. Even in 1915, Anzac Day was marred by the street violence of drunken soldiers. And not everyone in the labour movement appreciated the merging of the traditional festival of labour with the nascent culture of war commemoration. Some trade unionists refused to participate because they objected to the hijacking of their day.

Meanwhile, a few imperial patriots, already giving thought to how the anniversary of the Gallipoli landing should be marked, were concerned about the light-hearted spirit of Adelaide’s October Anzac Day, as well as of a number of other fundraising events of the period such as Violet Day and Australia Day.

They wanted a solemn and sacred occasion that would honour the dead, sanctify the cause for which they had given their lives and encourage in others a willingness to serve the Empire. Anzac Day should not be an occasion for fundraising or hedonistic pursuits but, as Brisbane’s Anglican Canon David Garland put it, should become “Australia’s All Souls Day”.

The Queensland Labor premier, TJ Ryan, gave enthusiastic support to the efforts of Garland and his colleagues on Brisbane’s Anzac Day Commemoration Committee to establish Anzac Day as a solemn occasion. He predicted that, to Australians, Gallipoli:

… would always be holy ground … It was the scene of undying deeds of young Australia’s sons and the last resting place of her noble dead.

But by the end of 1916, Ryan was the sole anti-conscriptionist in the country still leading an Australian government. He was rivalled only by his co-religionist, Archbishop Daniel Mannix, in the imperial patriots’ rogues’ gallery.

Labor’s early moves

Labor’s stance on defence up to this time was impressive. Its pre-war refusal to contribute a dreadnought – the great battleship of the day – to the Royal Navy arose from nationalism, not pacifism. Labor wanted Australia to have its own navy. It also wanted a citizen army for home defence.

By 1911, it had agreed with London – although quietly – that in the event of a European war, it would raise an expeditionary force for service overseas, even if men could not be compelled under Australia’s Defence Act to fight in it.

As a party that strongly championed White Australia, Labor was also seen as least likely to be complacent about a threat from Asia. It would be able to balance national assertion with imperial obligation – and the 1914 election, which coincided with the European crisis of July–August, was inevitably a referendum on which party could best be trusted to lead Australia in the dangerous times ahead.

Under its leader Andrew Fisher, and with Billy Hughes already recognised as its most dynamic and defence-minded figure, Labor won the election easily.

Billy Hughes (with walking stick) initiated a Labor Party split over conscription. AWM

In October 1916, Hughes initiated the conscription crisis, which split the Labor Party and destroyed the government. From then on, Labor would rarely appear comfortable with either defence policy or the Anzac legend.

During the Depression, the Scullin Labor government abolished compulsory military service and drastically cut defence expenditure – for reasons of economy, but the decision was consistent with the party’s ethos.

A majority of the Labor Party had opposed conscription for overseas service during the Great War, but its hostility now extended to compulsion more generally. This spilled over into a suspicion of defence spending and a general discomfort with military affairs.

The shock of the Japanese southward thrust a decade later disturbed this state of affairs. Suddenly, in the face of an unprecedented threat to the Australian continent itself, Labor was well placed to exploit its reputation as the party of white nationalism and brawny manhood, and to revive its reputation as a party capable of giving due weight to defence.

Even before Japan attacked Pearl Harbor, Labor showed that it had a leader capable of speaking the language of Anzac when the previously anti-conscriptionist John Curtin spoke at the opening of the Australian War Memorial on November 11, 1941. Curtin said the building:

… gives continuity to the Anzac tradition … It is a tribute which a grateful country pays to those who have served it so steadfastly.

Taking a conservative turn

The labour movement’s apparent alienation from Anzac in the years between 1916 and 1941 has been a salient theme for 20th-century historians. Russel Ward puzzled over it, somewhat indirectly, in his most famous book, The Australian Legend.

In it, Ward identified the pastoral worker in colonial Australia as the main bearer of the values that many liked to think of as Australian – egalitarian, anti-authoritarian, talented at improvisation, loyal to mates. Towards the end of the book, drawing on the writings of Charles Bean, he recognised in the figure of the Anzac a continuation of the values of the noble bushman.

Russel Ward’s seminal work, The Australian Legend. OUP

It was only in a later work, A Nation for a Continent, that Ward fully acknowledged the Anzac image had been appropriated by the conservatives. Other historians of the nationalist left, such as Geoffrey Serle and Noel McLachlan, also grappled in the 1960s and 1970s with how and why a radical legend had taken such a conservative turn after 1916.

The answer to the question of why the bush legend had, via Anzac, taken a conservative turn seemed to hold a key – possibly even the key – to understanding what, from their radical-nationalist perspective, had gone wrong in Australia between the world wars. Ward’s noble bushman seemed to be radical – to the extent that he had a political leaning – his bush mateship providing fertile soil for the pioneers of the new unionism in the 1880s, his nationalism laying the groundwork for the literature of the Bulletin writers in the 1890s.

In short, the collectivism of Ward’s bush proletariat was understood as a progenitor of the wider culture of nationalism, democracy and egalitarianism, of what Albert Metin called Australia’s “socialism without doctrines”. But the Anzac and the digger seemed a pesky conservative Empire loyalist who had somehow pushed Australia off its natural course.

In this reading, the returned men’s collectivism had found an inferior expression in the bonds between members of an exclusive cast defined by their common experience as soldiers of the king – not as men owing a primary allegiance to a working class more disposed to national than to imperial patriotism.

The radical-nationalist reading of the politics of Anzac had merit. In some contexts, returned men were a force for imperial conservatism. But the association of political conservatism with the Great War digger or Anzac should not be taken for granted. There was no particular reason to imagine that a working-class army immersed in the horrors of the Western Front would lean right rather than left when it returned to Australia.

Returned servicemen and the unions

In fact, many leaned left. Returned men were involved in public violence from 1915 and especially in 1919, when so many of them returned to a divided country that was torn by industrial strife and in the grip of a deadly outbreak of Spanish influenza.

At Fremantle in May 1919, conflict on the waterfront led to a bloody clash between strike-breakers, accompanied by the conservative premier Hal Colebatch, and unionists and their supporters – in some instances returned soldiers. Several people were injured and a unionist was killed. Historian Robert Bollard has recently uncovered a rich history of industrial action and radical agitation by returned soldiers in the tense period immediately following the First World War.

The Returned Sailors’ and Soldiers’ Imperial League of Australia (RSSILA) – later the Returned and Services League (RSL) – has sometimes been given the credit or blame for directing the politics of Australia’s returned soldiers away from class struggle of this kind and into more conservative channels.

In 1919, returned soldiers, probably organised by RSSILA officers, were prominent among rioters in Brisbane who responded to a leftist “red flag” rally by attacking members of the local Russian community. And in Victoria in the same year, members of the Essendon RSSILA travelled to the Western District to tar and feather former Labor politician JK McDougall after an anti-war poem he had originally written in opposition to the Boer War was republished, implying that he was referring to the AIF.

Recent research on the RSSILA’s early history suggests that its political impact should not be reduced to a survey of these kinds of incidents. The league’s first president, William Bolton, was an unquestionably partisan figure who had been elected to the federal parliament as a Nationalist senator in 1917.

Bolton aroused fury among his colleagues in the RSSILA after issuing a statement in May 1919, in the midst of widespread industrial action, that “in order to protect our league from the obvious intrigue of disloyal extremists under cover of industrial strife”, it was necessary:

… for all members to strongly abstain from active participation in any industrial dispute.

There was widespread dismay within the organisation over this statement, issued without consultation and, equally seriously, without any apparent understanding of “the awkward position of returned soldiers in time of industrial trouble”. Accused of being unable to devote sufficient time to the organisation he had been involved in founding, it was not long before Bolton was replaced by a very different figure.

Gilbert Dyett led the RSSILA for 27 years. AWM

Gilbert Dyett had been badly wounded at Gallipoli and returned to Australia as an advocate of voluntary recruitment, but an opponent of conscription. He was a Catholic, secretary to the Victorian Trotting and Racing Association, and a close associate of the controversial entrepreneur, John Wren.

Dyett was also an astute negotiator. Historian Martin Crotty suggests that his success in gaining concessions for returned soldiers from then-prime minister Billy Hughes in 1919 probably helped to keep the RSSILA in one piece.

Eschewing the kind of “law and order” campaign in which his predecessor had tried to entangle the organisation, Dyett emphasised the RSSILA’s role as lobbyist. He valued his access to government, for which he thought his own critics among returned soldiers gave him too little credit.

None of this should be taken as indicating that the RSSILA was therefore politically irrelevant beyond its particular concern with returned soldiers’ interests. Plenty of scope remained within state branches and local sub-branches for conservative politicking. But the divisions within the RSSILA about the issue of political neutrality should guard against hasty conclusions concerning its role in shaping the broader political allegiances of returned soldiers.

During the 1920s, the organisation struggled to gain members. In 1919, it probably had between 100,000 and 120,000 members, a figure that declined rapidly and markedly thereafter, dipping to 25,000 members in 1923, before beginning a slow climb that saw numbers reach around 80,000 by the late 1930s.

From the Depression to the Hawke era

There is a complicated story involving the Anzac legend and the left between the 1920s and the 1960s which historians have barely begun to untangle. During the Depression, there appears to have been a reinvigorated effort on the part of the mainstream labour movement to engage with the Great War’s legacy, to articulate a progressive Labor nationalism in which Anzac had a part to play.

It seemed natural enough to identify the suffering of the working class during the Depression with the earlier battles abroad, especially as many of those suffering in the 1930s were returned men. The fight for a more just economic system in the face of a crumbling capitalist system was an extension of the sacrifices made by the Anzacs for the sake of a better world.

But further to the left, activists, speakers and publications associated with the Communist Party (and even, on occasion, with more moderate elements in the labour movement) criticised the “imperial boasting and military boosting” of April 25.

Such criticisms – the preserve of a small minority from the 1920s to the 1950s – became part of mainstream public discourse during the 1960s, especially among the young. The Vietnam War is usually associated with the eclipse of Anzac in the 1960s. Its resurgence in the 1980s is seen as dependent, to some extent, on the bitterness and division engendered by that war giving way to a growing sympathy for the young Australian men whose lives were blighted by their participation in it.

Certainly, the 1980s and early 1990s have recently been recognised as a crucial period in the resurgence of Anzac. It was an era that might be seen as beginning in 1981 with the Peter Weir film Gallipoli and ending with Paul Keating’s 1993 eulogy for the “unknown soldier” at the Australian War Memorial in Canberra.

The trailer for Peter Weir’s 1981 film Gallipoli.

It is ironic that this reinvention and revival occurred during a period of Labor Party dominance. But both Bob Hawke and Keating – Labor’s two prime ministers of the period – would each, in different ways, seek to align the Anzac legend with his sense of national identity.

Hawke came to office in 1983 evoking Curtin’s wartime legend. He was fond of comparing the economic challenges Australia faced to the problems Curtin encountered in 1942. He engaged with Gallipoli and the First World War more gradually, drawn by circumstance and a highly developed political instinct.

In 1984, Hawke responded to a proposal from the Gallipoli Legion of Anzacs by announcing that his government would ask its Turkish counterpart to rename the beach on which the Australians landed on April 25, 1915, as Anzac Cove – a change which occurred in 1985.

But it was the 1990 pilgrimage to Gallipoli that truly gave Hawke an opportunity to put his mark on the legend. In his memoirs, Hawke places his account of the pilgrimage out of chronological sequence, at the end of a chapter on the Gulf War of 1990–91, as if one were comprehensible in light of the other:

As I looked back nearly a year later, Gallipoli and the Gulf merged in a swell of pride for my country and its people.

Hawke was more successful than any other Labor leader, except Curtin, in identifying the Labor Party with “pride for my country”. But the juxtaposition of the two events – the Gallipoli commemoration and the Gulf War – anticipates the ways Anzac would later be used to legitimise the Howard government’s highly contested commitment to the Iraq War.

Fifty-two men, aged between 93 and 104, accompanied Hawke and opposition leader John Hewson on the 1990 trip. Intriguingly, Labor speechwriter Graham Freudenberg, who wrote Hawke’s addresses for the commemoration, thought Hawke’s bicentennial speeches of a couple of years before “had failed to resonate”. Freudenberg saw Gallipoli as an opportunity for Hawke to:

… break the conservative monopoly on the interpretation of Australian military history.

This background, recently explored by Carolyn Holbrook, might lend some support to historian Mark McKenna’s theory that a reinvented Anzac Day emerged in the 1990s out of the failure of the 1988 Bicentenary as an exercise in enacting national unity as a result of Aboriginal dissent. Anzac Day, McKenna argues, emerged “as a less complicated and less divisive alternative” to Australia Day.

Hawke’s two key addresses at Gallipoli on April 25, 1990 – at the Dawn Service and later in the morning at Lone Pine – were well-received. The speech at the Dawn Service borrowed – to put it politely – from Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address. An agnostic prime minister declared the beach:

.. sacred because of the bravery and the bloodshed of the Anzacs.

Later in the morning, Hawke declared that Anzac’s “meaning can endure only as long as each new generation of Australians finds the will to reinterpret it”. But what he saw in the story of Anzac was:

… recognition of the special meaning of Australian mateship.

More recent times

As prime minister, Keating elevated war commemoration to at least equal heights as Hawke. But, as is well known, he sought to shift the focus from Gallipoli to Kokoda – from a war fought far from home in defence of an empire to one fought on the doorstep in defence of a nation.

However, Keating’s eulogy to the unknown soldier required reflection on the First World War’s meaning. With historian Don Watson as his speechwriter, Keating delivered a widely admired speech in which he declared the man being reinterred was “all of them” and “one of us”.

The message was egalitarian, democratic, nationalist and, in the context of Keating’s broader concerns and rhetorical armoury of the early 1990s, subtly republican. But, above all, the speech elevated ordinary men and women to war heroes – delivering:

… the lesson … that they were not ordinary.

Keating’s ‘unknown solider’ eulogy.

These two streams of rhetoric have arguably been critical in shaping the language of modern Anzac commemoration. There was Hawke’s story of sacrifice and mateship, and Keating’s of the heroic and history-making status of the common man and woman. In each case, the personal was seen to transcend the cause for which the war was fought.

John Howard has been given great credit for his skill in crafting a persuasive political language. Yet, with respect to the Anzac legend, he did not depart significantly from the scripts set down by the two Labor prime ministers who preceded him.

This shared rhetoric of war commemoration should alert us to one of Anzac’s most significant and neglected aspects: that it has functioned since 1916 as a site of social consensus and shared values more than of contestation or disagreement.

However, Anzac is never just about mateship and democracy. It is also always about war and nationhood.

As the political and diplomatic contexts of the First World War became increasingly lost to public memory, the new post-1990 Anzac “consensus” has been forged around amorphous civic values so widely shared that anyone inclined to question them runs close to disqualifying themselves from Australian public culture – or, if you belong to a suspect ethnic or religious group, from the national community entirely.

The defence of Anzac Day commemoration – as common in the 1920s as today – turns on some fairly familiar arguments. It does not glorify war; it does not cultivate hatred; it is about honouring and remembering, not celebrating. Yet a sense of sacred nationhood created through the blood sacrifice of young men remains at its core today, as in 1916.

Is this not to glorify war?


You can read a longer version of this article and others from the Griffith Review’s latest edition on the enduring legacies of war here.

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