History is strange and can be more fog than clear light. From 1853 to 1856 the British and the French empires, allied with the Ottoman empire (not simply Turkey), fought the Crimean War against the Russian empire of Tsar Nicholas. Crimea and Ukraine have been in the wars again, one hundred and seventy years on.
Matthew Arnold’s great poem “Dover Beach” is from the early 1850s, but was not published until 1867. It is not “about the Crimean War” nor is it simply about the ancient Peloponnesian War it references. Arnold’s poem is about his present time and any present; and the “we” of the third-last line includes us in its scope:
Ah, love, let us be true
To one another! for the world, which seems
To lie before us like a land of dreams,
So various, so beautiful, so new,
Hath really neither joy, nor love, nor light,
Nor certitude, nor peace, nor help for pain;
And we are here as on a darkling plain
Swept with confused alarms of struggle and flight,
Where ignorant armies clash by night.
Forty years before the Crimean War, the British and German entities (Prussia) were allies with Russia and other European nations in conflict with Napoleonic France. By 1914 and the First World War, the alliances had changed again, with Prussia and Turkey, both former allies, now the foe, and France, an enemy so often in the 1700s and 1800s, now an ally with Britain, as it would be mostly in the Second World War.
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The changing and re-changing of alliances gives one sense to Arnold’s line, “Where ignorant armies clash by night”. Friends and allies of one decade reverse roles in another, and then reverse them again.
In the mid-1850s, Sydney University was founded in the context of that Crimean War in which 800,000 died—80 per cent of them from cholera. Crimea witnessed an increasingly industrial war machine—the literal machine—rifles with a thousand-yard range, fifty-gram bullets that smashed bones, bigger high-explosive mortars and field guns, steamships immune to wind, and railways built to deliver wagon loads of shells to sustain continuous rates of fire, as they would in the First World War. And this weaponry is child’s play compared with that of the twenty-first century.
The Prussian military theorist Carl von Clausewitz foresaw this evolution of weaponry to extremes in 1830 and he paved the way to a descriptive science of an apocalypse that is no longer mythical or in the realm of the imagination, but expressed in real time. Curtis Le May pressed the American President to use the strategic advantage of the atomic bomb to precipitate a quick end to the North Korean conflict. The President declined.
The Ottoman Turks were a strange imperial ally, an ally of empire. Who for instance considers Vienna and wonders what the world would be like if it were an Islamic city and had been so for hundreds of years? Apart from the Tsar at the time and perhaps Mr Putin now, who remembers 1453? The Tsar was on a “holy crusade” referencing that loss of Constantinople from the Greek-speaking Christians, and the Christian realm in which Gallipoli would once have lain. The imperial and “Christian” West sided with Islamic Turkey against the Christian Tsar.
So. In 1915, the Australian Imperial Forces went ashore as part of a much larger force, against recent, former allies of noble cause, the forces of the Ottoman empire, at Gallipoli Cove.
An Archbishop of Melbourne, F.W. Head, said around 1930, “Here in Australia we are part of the great British Empire and it’s our privilege to sustain that Empire, keep it Christian and preferably Church of England.” No Australian archbishop could say that today. The empire does not exist, the Commonwealth of Nations is a light-touch successor, and Christianity in the Western world is one of the questions rather than the default answer.
We hear the term “AIF” but have to imagine an imperial force. We are more familiar with AFL—and it might be said that the minute’s silence before the big match makes it the largest Anzac Day service and makes sport somewhat sacred.
Australians are suspicious of big-picture claims. Empire is gone, the Commonwealth is a kind of good idea but distant, and critical suspicion remains of our American alliance. Manning Clark said that Phar Lap, the surf at Bondi and Bradman’s score were more deeply in the psyche and Australia has become a nation of mega sporting stadia.
Anzac Day retains a residual emphasis on individual heroism or on the individual who outperforms—simply because she or he is more willing just to go and do what needs to be done. But no big-picture grand themes really remain to inform the social body as it considers the obscure book of history.
Perhaps it is our singular proclivity to shun the big-picture thinkers that makes the Voice an issue that some wish to see decided by the psyche of “good-blokism” and disengagement from any sustained critique of ideas and of hard-headed historical and contemporary inquiry.
Some Anzac media will encourages the heroic, god-like, warrior status of Anzac and other war dead. We do return readily to primal themes of blood sacrifice, but as Les Murray said, “When they come asking for blood sacrifice you must ask the name of the god calling for it.”
At Easter, Jesus’s body bore wounds of suffering, following an unjust trial and execution, brutalisation and thuggery at the hands of the Pax Romana military. It was in that abused but changed body that he rose from the dead, as the texts assert. St Paul also said, “I bear in my own body the marks of Jesus”—in effect the same wounds. Others may share in this.
Can the world move on, to see warfare cease or become rare? In historical time this seems unlikely and in 2023 we seem to be heading back to a new belle epoque of the first decade of the 1900s. A bellum epoque perhaps.
We are not to forget our war dead, nor the Easter claims, nor those who serve today. On Anzac Day we are not Narcissus looking into a pool of war dead and seeing only our own reflection in some way. It is about them, the war dead and war injured, and about the tragedy and indelible losses of war, and of a commitment to the better world.
The combatant Wilfred Owen wrote shortly before his death on the Western Front in 1918:
If in some smothering dreams, you too could pace
Behind the wagon that we flung him in,
And watch the white eyes writhing in his face,
His hanging face, like a devil’s sick of sin:
If you could hear, at every jolt, the blood
Come gargling from the froth corrupted lungs,
Obscene as cancer, bitter as the cud
Of vile, incurable sores on innocent tongues,
My friend, you would not tell with such high zest
To children ardent for some desperate glory,
The old lie: Dulce et decorum est
Pro patria mori.
Let us remember them.
Ivan Head, a frequent contributor, completed eleven years of tertiary studies in philosophy and divinity and holds a PhD from the pre-reformation University of Glasgow