On the morning of 16 February 1954, Charles Bean and his wife Effie drove along Canberra’s Anzac Parade towards the Australian War Memorial. As their official car approached the building, crowds of onlookers stood several lines deep on the roadside. Climbing the steps to the memorial, Bean “could see the photographers and broadcasters above the entrance”. Inside, he walked past the solemn rows of “widows, mothers, and children of men who had lost their lives”. Above him, the memorial cloisters were packed with “veterans”.
The significance of this moment was not lost, least of all on Bean. The memorial he had first imagined as a war correspondent on the Western Front in 1916 and that finally came to fruition in 1941 had never before been visited by a reigning British monarch. Now, having arrived half an hour early, he was to lead the Queen and Prince Philip through the memorial and introduce the royal couple to members of its board of management.
Bean was apprehensive. Although he had rehearsed his lines and the appropriate protocol many times before – only when the previous couple had finished shaking hands with the Duke could he introduce the next couple – he was afraid he would embarrass himself.
I had been very anxious about the task of presenting board members – in the fluster I would be likely to stumble or hesitate over the names, ranks, and titles or even forget them.
The waiting seemed interminable. Finally, a luminously pallid Queen, wearing “a primrose frock with a small hat” and her reliably wooden consort, Prince Philip, conspicuously clad in “naval white”, stepped out into Canberra’s glaring late summer light. They extended their hands, Bean wrote,
and we remembered to shake, or rather hold, them lightly as the shaking of hands so many times is apt to bruise them. I did not see Eff make her curtsey as I had to get round to my position, but friends told us that she made it very well.
[Once the proceedings were underway] all trace of nervousness or self-consciousness vanished … partly because [of] the girlish Queen standing beside me with her natural manner so like one or other of our own nieces, and partly because one’s whole attention was concentrated upon making the visit interesting to her. But I noticed that during the presentations, as soon as the lady of each couple had moved on from her to shake hands with the Duke, her little gloved hand came up as quickly as the arm of a railway signal to shake hands with the next board member.
Within a matter of minutes, Bean had gone from nervous colonial to father figure. He realised that the Queen had her own protocol anxieties to manage. Laying the wreath at the stone of remembrance, she asked him tentatively, “How do I lay it? Do we just lay it against the stone?” Nor was she in need of Bean’s tutoring.
Approaching the Anzac galleries, he offered her some basic historical instruction: “I suspect your Majesty knows that to us the landing at Anzac is regarded almost as the Battle of Hastings in England”. “Yes I realise that”, she replied bluntly.
If Bean was sentimental – he described the “grey headed diggers’ waving to the Queen as if they were greeting a pal” – he was also conscious of the immense distance between them. “The Queen always kept a slight reserve between me and herself – broken only by one or two flashes.”
The reserve Bean felt from Her Majesty might equally have been expressed from his side. Although he was not a royalist – throughout his life he had repeatedly refused offers of a knighthood and his loyalty, first and foremost, was to those who had established the “character of Australian men” in the eyes of the world – he had become a player in an episode of a particularly Australian ritual: linking fealty to the monarch with a national legend of death on foreign fields.
‘Flesh of the British’
Although the imperial dimensions of the Anzac legend have largely been forgotten today, the presence of British royalty on Australian soil had long bolstered the foundational connection between Anzac and Empire. Even before Australian soldiers landed at Anzac Cove in 1915, the visit of Prince George, Duke of Cornwall and York (later King George V), and his wife Mary in 1901 had helped cement the bond between blood sacrifice to the Empire and fealty to the Crown.
After opening Australia’s first federal Parliament in Melbourne, the royal couple proceeded to Sydney, where the Duke presented medals to the officers and men of the NSW contingents who had returned from fighting in the Boer War. The Ode of Welcome, composed for the occasion and sung by a choir 4,000-strong, proclaimed that Australia had “fought for the Empire” and “mingled [its] blood with the best”. “We are flesh of the British”, the choir proclaimed in unison, “and bone of the British bone!”
For a geographically isolated federation such as Australia, blooding in battle was the ultimate proof of the right to belong to a global British community. The script for Gallipoli was written decades before the event came to pass. And, when the war finally ended in 1918 with the loss of more than 60,000 Australian lives, the Anzac legend was quickly embedded in the fabric of Australia’s commemorative culture through a succession of royal visits.
Edward, Prince of Wales (“the Digger Prince”) arrived to a dumbstruck Australian audience in 1920. He spoke at Parliament House in Melbourne, reassuring his admirers that Australia had finally
won her spurs in the great ordeal of battle [and] taken her place in the councils of nations.
Everywhere His Royal Highness travelled, returned men were prominently choreographed in public events. Reviewing 10,000 returned soldiers at Sydney’s Centennial Park, the Prince was aware that among the crowd of onlookers were men who had fought in the Crimean War, the Indian Mutiny, the Sudan and the Boer War. Each commemoration flushed out the survivors from previous wars and implied that national communion could only truly occur through sacrifice on the battlefield.
Journalists described Diggers, who remembered the Prince fraternising with the Australian Imperial Force on the Western Front, shouting out as he moved through Sydney’s streets, “How’s this to the Somme?”
A handful of crippled veterans reportedly waved their crutches in feverish adulation. Throughout the carnival of the Prince’s visit, in public speeches and press reports, the erection of a militarist national mythology mattered far more than learning from the folly of war. If the nation was “born” in battle, implicitly it could only be reborn through participation in future conflicts; the democratic achievements of Australia before the war constantly gave way to sagas of blood sacrifice.
‘All for King and Empire’
According to the speeches of visiting royals in the early 20th century, the foundation of the new Commonwealth’s democracy was not to be found in the history of Federation but in the egalitarian ritual of the Anzac Day parade.
During the 1927 royal tour, Prince Albert, Duke of York (later King George VI) and his wife Elizabeth (later the Queen Mother) presided over the Anzac Day ceremony in Melbourne, which was widely described as the high point of their visit. Nearly 30,000 ex-servicemen “fell in” to march through the city’s streets, with tram conductors marching alongside judges.
As one observer remarked, the march was “a vindication of democracy”. After Sir John Monash implored the crowd to “Keep Anzac Day sacred”, the Duke “made one of the most emotional speeches of the tour”. “They gave their all for their King and Empire”, he declared, “let us [emulate their example] and hand down to the children who come after us those traditions of loyalty, fortitude, and devotion to duty”.
Little more than two weeks later, speaking after opening Parliament House in Canberra, Albert devoted scant time to the men and women who had forged Federation, preferring instead to beseech Australians to listen “to the voices of the noble army of the dead” and “march in step with them towards the … ideals for which they died”. Departing the country from Fremantle, he returned to this well-worn theme in his farewell message:
That loyalty to the British ideals for which Throne and Empire stand found its highest expression in the commemoration of Anzac Day.
To contemplate these words in the early 21st century is to be reminded of the dramatic change that has occurred in the meaning and significance of Anzac Day in recent years, one that has seen 25 April transformed from the highest expression of loyalty to the British Empire to a more inward-looking, nation-defining myth that reveals the country’s “sense of self” and occupies an “eternal place in the Australian soul”.
Throughout World War II and well into the late 20th century, the Anzac legend remained tethered to the Empire through the reigning monarch’s Anzac Day message, which harped on imperial unity in the face of totalitarian aggression and stressed the longevity of the imperial connection and the depth of common feeling in the new British Commonwealth.
As the term “Anzac” was gradually extended to include those who fought in all our wars, Australian politicians, newspaper editors, and military and community leaders echoed the reigning monarch’s sentiments on Anzac Day, extolling the “indestructible strength of an Empire” and the “military prowess” of Australia’s “muscular grim-faced veterans”, who had been prepared to die for “this offshoot of Britain in the South Seas”.
Pining for the presence of royal flesh and blood on Australian soil, state and federal governments occasionally invented the atmosphere of a royal tour in order to buttress the imperial theatre of Anzac Day. In 1948, when the British actor Sir Laurence Olivier visited Australia, he was astonished to find that he had taken on “a quasi Royal role”. (His wife Vivien Leigh, Scarlett O’Hara in Gone with the Wind, took the part of consort.)
Olivier’s many appearances in kingly Shakespearean roles had seduced Australian officials into thinking he was blessed with the royal touch. Delivering speeches on official occasions, Olivier even took the salute at the Anzac Day march in Canberra and read Charles Bean’s Anzac Requiem (composed in 1944) at the War Memorial’s dawn service.
The text Olivier read so eloquently that day referred specifically to the New Zealand, Indian and British divisions who had fought with the Australians at Anzac Cove, as well as at the more recent battles in the Middle East, North Africa, Malaya and Papua New Guinea, in which Australians had died with Americans and “loving friends in our Mother Country”. Bean’s text highlighted the contribution of Australia’s “women’s services” and concluded by remembering the
peaceful millions in prostrated Europe, in defiant Greece, Russia and China … [and] every man, woman and child who, in those crucial hours, died so that the lights of freedom and humanity might continue to shine.
Bean’s requiem was at once Australian, imperial and remarkably internationalist. In 2015, when a version of Bean’s words was circulated by government authorities as part of a kit sent to schools in preparation for the Anzac centenary, they were suggested for use as “an introduction to an Anzac ceremony”. By now, however, Bean’s original text had been adapted.
Aside from New Zealand, there was no mention of the contribution of any other nation’s armed forces. Gone was specific mention of the Indians at Anzac Cove, our “loyal friends among the people of New Guinea”, and the American contribution during World War II. Russia and China politely disappeared. The British were nowhere to be found. All other nations were reduced to our “staunch friends and allies”.
The war dead were now imagined exclusively as Australian. What was originally Bean’s powerful attempt to place Australia’s military contributions in their full international context had by 2015 become a patriotic hymn.
The long moment of Empire’s vanishing
The point in the late 20th century at which the imperial foundations of the Anzac legend were dismantled is difficult to isolate because the process was slow and incremental. But reading the Queen’s official speeches since her first visit in 1954 (a task which requires considerable perseverance) at least makes it possible to observe the long moment of the Empire’s vanishing.
When Queen Elizabeth II stepped ashore at Farm Cove in February 1954 it was clear that she saw her own family’s connection with Australia primarily through the prism of the country’s shared sacrifice in two world wars. The need to mesh the Anzac legend with loyalty to Britain was felt not only on Australia’s side but from the monarch’s perspective as well.
Opening the new forecourt at Melbourne’s Shrine of Remembrance, Elizabeth reminded her audience of her family’s connection with the memorial.
My grandfather, King George the Fifth, wrote these words in the King’s book which is now in the Shrine: ‘Let their names be forever held in proud remembrance’. My uncle, the Duke of Gloucester, dedicated the shrine itself on Armistice Day.
Time and again, she stressed that the bond between her and her Australian people– the loyalty that was “not a mere form of words” – was given its most powerful expression through the “grievous ordeal” of two world wars.
Visiting Australia four years later, the Queen Mother reinforced her daughter’s sentiments by insisting that “Australia first impressed the world at Anzac”. The monarchical connection and the Anzac legend walked hand in hand.
As the Queen remarked during her visit in 1963, “every ex-serviceman knows that when there is serious work to be done, Diggers stick together in a common loyalty”. Australians, it seemed, could only find their true identity by becoming Anzacs in civilian dress.
While the Queen’s Anzac Day message appeared on the front page of many newspapers throughout the 50th anniversary of Gallipoli in 1965, by the 1970s this practice had declined. Throughout that decade and into the 1980s, the Queen continued to depict the Anzacs as “the first to fight for freedom against tyranny and oppression”, although, increasingly, the emphasis was on “courage”, “duty” and “values”, which were now shorn of their earlier imperial baggage.
Anzac, Elizabeth asserted in 1970,
denotes valour in Europe and Africa, in the jungles and mountains and paddy fields of Asia.
Gradually, imperial themes became less prominent in her portrayal of Anzac at the same time as they disappeared more generally from her public addresses in Australia. As the idea of Australia as a British society slowly collapsed, the monarchical connection needed to find a new rhetoric of attachment and allegiance if it was to survive.
Similarly, the Anzac legend, threatened as it was by the politics of the new social movements and the critique of an emerging generation with little direct experience of war, needed distance from traditional themes of imperial loyalty if it was to endure. Speaking in the Commonwealth Parliament in 1986, the Queen acknowledged this change herself:
Whenever I am here … I see a growing sense of identity and a fierce pride in being Australian. So it is right that the Australia Act has severed the last of the constitutional links between Australia and Britain … [A]nachronistic constitutional arrangements have disappeared – but the friendship between two nations has been strengthened and will endure.
Only one more anachronism remained to be removed. New themes had begun to emerge in the Queen’s speeches – multiculturalism and immigration, Indigenous Australians and rural life – which for the most part blended seamlessly with old verities such as material progress to articulate a more contemporary conception of the monarchical bond.
By the bicentenary of British settlement in 1988, the Queen’s Anzac Day address, delivered in Hobart, prefigured many of the sentiments that would characterise the reinvention of the Anzac legend in the 1990s and beyond:
[We should always remember] the debt we owe to the men and women who served their country in order that Australia could remain free from tyranny and oppression. They fought to preserve the things they valued most, their families, their future and their ideas of freedom, justice and fair play … Anzac Day does not seek to commemorate any material values. The costs of war cannot be counted in monetary terms alone. Nor does Anzac Day extol victories, or boast of conquests. Rather, it shines a light on the greatness of the human spirit … [E]ach Anzac Day when the Last Post sounds … it is a call of awakening and re-dedication, to remind us of the standards for which we should all strive when we are called upon to do our duty.
The specifics of imperial campaigns were omitted. No distinction was made between one war and the next. Laced in thinly veiled allusions to Christian teachings on love and redemption, the assumption of the Anzac legend into even more unearthly realms was almost complete.
Over the next two decades, remembering war would increasingly become an exercise in spiritual nourishment. Bow the head. Be moved. Feel more Australian. And, touched by “the Anzac spirit”, walk on into the blinding light of the next war.
Post-imperial Australia’s national day
After a decade of fierce and largely unresolved debate over the dispossession of Indigenous Australians (in the lead-up to the bicentenary of settlement), the growing sense of pride “in being Australian” that the Queen identified in 1986 had by the early 1990s turned to less problematic and more distant soil: Anzac Cove.
The shedding of imperial baggage from the Anzac legend was given added force by Paul Keating’s Unknown Australian Soldier speech in 1993. (“He is all of them. And he is one of us … [R]eal nobility and grandeur belong not to empires and nations but to the people on whom they, in the last resort, always depend.”)
Keating’s successor John Howard’s decade-long crusade (1996–2007) to establish Anzac as the nation’s core foundational narrative was also driven by the emergence of the Indigenous history and politics that had so effectively undermined the myth of peaceful British settlement from 1788. The Empire, now tainted and inglorious, disappeared from Anzac at the same time as it was politely withdrawn from the rhetoric of national belonging more generally.
The history of invasion and dispossession that had gnawed at the heart of the bicentenary celebrations and would later haunt the centenary of Federation in 2001 could not threaten the Anzacs. Unlike the illegitimate history of settlement or British constitution-making on Australian soil, stories of the Anzacs’ courage and sacrifice could give birth to an unblemished, exclusively Australian nation.
Whether the all-pervasive nature of the new, Empire-free Anzac legend in contemporary Australia will have any bearing on the future prospect of an Australian republic is difficult to tell. The 2015 centenary of Anzac may well prove to be the legend’s apogee. A culture saturated in Anzac mythology can only exist for so long before people recoil from its suffocating piety and begin to question the endless parade of speeches and media features that claim to pass for history.
But at one profound level, Anzac’s grip on affective expressions of Australian identity speaks directly of the challenges facing Australian republicans today. As Australians once found mystery and spiritual communion through their allegiance to the British monarch – a depth of attachment that was almost beyond human expression – they find similar virtues in Anzac today: something sacred, immaterial and gloriously irrational that binds them as a people and transports them beyond the everyday like no other national myth can.
For the majority of Australia’s history, it was only the birth, visit, marriage or death of a British monarch that witnessed similar outpourings of national emotion. When news of Edward VII’s death reached Sydney in 1910, reports in the city’s press described thousands of people united in their grief:
Looking down and outwards from the top of one of the highest towers in the city, everywhere were limp and melancholy half-masted flags … The people everywhere seemed quieter, and … there appeared to be a tendency to cluster into groups. There was only one thing talked of. And there were no differences of opinion … Everyone was speaking of the dead King, and everyone was speaking solemnly, regretfully, and appreciatively.
In Sydney, the Stock Exchange closed and the news of the King’s death was written on the blackboard; men filed past silently, taking their hats off. On the street, many people wore black ties, shop windows were draped in strips of black cashmere and, on the day of the King’s funeral, it appeared that the entire nation was in mourning.
The commemoration of Anzac today evinces similar moments of mass emotional resonance – the evocation of the sacred, the silent parades and the communion of millions through shared devotion to one national creed. As Brendan Nelson, director of the Australian War Memorial, told the National Press Club in September 2013,
the Australian War Memorial, in my view, represents the soul of our nation. Almost two million Australian men and women who’ve worn the uniform of our three services over 100 years, and 102,700 names on the bronze role [sic] of honour.
The “Anzac spirit” has effectively replaced Britishness as Australia’s defining myth of civic attachment. It also represents the people’s deepest expression of belonging to the nation. Ironically, the myth that began in blood sacrifice to the British Empire has become post-imperial Australia’s national day.
While members of the British royal family still troop through the Australian War Memorial, their visits captured in framed photographs – Prince Harry in uniform submitting cheerfully to “selfies” with teenage girls – and on Facebook, Flickr and Instagram, they are treated as celebrities rather than royalty.
A new sense of self?
Since the modern Australian republican movement began in 1991, the argument for a republic has been predominantly couched in terms of severance and minimal change – the removal of constitutional monarchy (the last “anachronism”) – and its replacement with an Australian head of state (“one of us”).
Among the political class there is widespread consensus that the republic is a “second-order issue”. The nation waits in vain for a political leader to champion the cause in the way Labor Prime Minister Paul Keating did in the early 1990s.
Although a recent surge in the membership of the Australian Republican Movement is encouraging, a popular movement remains elusive. In simple terms, the republic does not cut deeply. It does not “move” or “connect” with a large enough number of people to force politicians to act. Instead, it waits in suspended animation for the Queen to die.
The questions raised for republicans by the recent rise of the Anzac legend are fundamental: can popular attachment to the idea of an Australian republic come from severance from the monarchy alone? Can a fully independent and republican Australia – a new “sense of self” – emerge merely from the collapse of old loyalties? Or does the promise of a republic ask something more from us as citizens?
Where is the republic’s moral, civic and political compass? What does it have to say about the promise of a new settlement with Indigenous Australians? What of our attachment to the land and to one another? What new civic and national ideals will guide its implementation? And how is it possible to see the republic’s promise of a shift in national consciousness when the arguments for its coming are targeted so narrowly?
If Republic Day is ever to rival Anzac Day, Australians will need to discover a new way of speaking about the prospect of change, one that finds the courage to imagine that national dignity and constitutional renewal will come not from the removal of monarchy alone but from within.
This is an edited version of an essay published in The Honest History Book (New South Publishing) edited by David Stephens and Alison Broinowski.