Magazine of Socialist Action in Australia

Anzac Day: What lies behind the mythology?

Reading Time: 8 minutes

Anzac Day 2015 marks the 100th anniversary of the attempted Allied invasion of Gallipoli during World War One. But why is the entire political establishment so keen for people to celebrate this failed military adventure? Why do the bulk of history books cover over the real motivations of the imperialist powers involved and the mass opposition that developed towards it?

As Karl Marx pointed out “The ideas of the ruling class are in every epoch the ruling ideas”. History is not written from a neutral standpoint. The ruling class of today writes the history that reflects their own profit-driven interests.

As they have done in the past, the establishment is keen to promote nationalism as a way of building enthusiasm for current imperialist adventures. They refuse to explain that World War One was a war for control of capitalist markets as this would inevitably lead to people questioning the system as a whole.

In their quest to rewrite history to suit their own political objectives the ruling class have even appropriated the names and stories of some of the people who stood against the unnecessary carnage.

Below we publish a short history of Anzac Day along with a couple of articles that register some of the lesser known facts about those who stood opposed to the war effort.


A short history of Anzac Day

Anzac Day (Australian and New Zealand Army Corps) commemorates the events at Gallipoli on the Turkish coast during 1915. The gaol was for Allied troops to capture Constantinople, the capital of the Ottoman Empire. In the process they hoped to open access to the Black Sea for Allied ships.

Because of a navigational error, the Anzacs came ashore about a mile north of the intended landing point. Instead of facing the expected beach and gentle slopes they found themselves at the bottom of steep cliffs.

This put the Turkish troops in an ideal defensive position. As the Turkish troops saw it, they were defending their homeland from an unprovoked invasion and they put up a strong fight.

The Anzacs maintained their position but found it impossible to advance. After almost nine months of stalemate, they finally withdrew. During this time Australian and New Zealand casualties reached 8587 killed in action and 19,367 wounded in the line of duty.

At home World War One was not exactly popular. In October 1916 and again in December 1917 the Australian people voted against conscription. The government was unable to introduce conscription primarily due to the massive campaign waged by the labour and socialist movement.

As a reaction to the anti-conscription campaign the government held the first Anzac Day march in 1916. This was an attempt to stem the growing tide of revolt against conscription and to divert the anger of returned soldiers away from the government who had sent them to war.

The Anzac myth was created and used by the establishment to promote nationalism and ensure returned soldiers did not move into the arms of the labour movement.

For many years it seemed as if Anzac Day had almost died away but in the mid 1920s it was revived. The RSL (then called the RSSILA) was suffering from a loss in membership but it managed to rebuild on the basis of building RSL clubs and giving financial support to ex-soldiers. This was successful at the time as it was perhaps the only thing that kept many ex-soldiers going during the depression.

During the Vietnam War Anzac Day was extremely unpopular and was often the target of anti-war protests. After Vietnam, Anzac Day again almost disappeared. It was re-revived in the 1980s by the Hawke Labor government. Again it was used to promote nationalism and divert workers attention away from the class issues of the time such as wage cuts, job losses and cuts to social spending.

The government’s intention today is to continue to try and instil a sense of ‘solidarity’ with the establishment in an attempt to cut across the class issues including budget cuts, job insecurity and cost of living increases. They also want to try and create enthusiasm for their imperialist adventures in the Middle East and Asia Pacific region.

Socialists mark Anzac Day by remembering the heroic workers from all over the world who fought against this war for profits. We dedicate the fight against current imperialist adventures to those who were unnecessarily killed or maimed in the conflict.


Simpson the Red!

simpsonGenerations of Australian school children have grown up being taught the legend of Simpson and his donkey at Gallipoli – the heroic young man who rescued unknown numbers of wounded soldiers from the battlefield before being shot himself.

Yet what is deliberately withheld is that Simpson was a staunch trade unionist and his politics were left wing and socialist. He was sympathetic to the Industrial Workers of the World (IWW).

John Simpson Kirkpatrick was actually an illegal immigrant who jumped ship at the dock in Fremantle. He changed his name to John Simpson in order to evade the authorities.

The presenter of the ‘A Pleasant Sunday Afternoon’ national radio broadcast in the 1960s, Reverend Sir Irving Benson, got hold of and published excerpts from a series of letters that Simpson had written to his mother in England.

Benson was a friend of Sir Robert Menzies and a campaigner against communism. Hence wherever Simpson expressed his political ideas in the excerpts, the passages were deliberately omitted.

Simpson had worked as a labourer on the cane fields of Queensland, on a cattle station, in the coal mines of the Illawarra, on the gold fields of Western Australia and on the coastal trading boats. He joined the Australian armed forces hoping to get a free trip back to England.

In one letter, referring to a wage rise that had been won by the railway workers in the North East of England he wrote:

“I suppose the Lords and Dukes will take it off them next year again as the expenses will be too big for them to keep up. That is just like the style in the old country… I often wonder when the working men of England will wake up and see things as other people see them. What they want in England is a good revolution and that will clear some of these millionaires and Lords and Dukes out of it and then with a Labor government they will almost be able to make their own conditions. I am enclosing a PO for a quid.”

Vale Simpson, the revolutionary!


Hugo Throssell: A real hero

throssellHugo Throssell was the all-Australian boy – a superb horseman and athlete, he was one of the first to volunteer for World War One. He was a winner of the highest military award possible, the Victoria Cross, at Gallipoli.

On his return he led the Anzac Day march in Perth, had the Victoria Cross conferred on him by King George at Buckingham Palace, and the Wells cigarette company even put out a card about him in their “Bravest of the Brave” series.

But the war did something to him. He stunned his home-town audience at the 1919 Victory Day celebrations: the Northern Advertiser reported his speech thus:

“Nearly five years ago he had ridden through the streets of Northam in charge of eighteen men… Of that eighteen, seven were lying either in Gallipoli, Palestine or France… War had made him a socialist… He had seen enough of the horrors of war and wanted peace.”

Throssell was injured in battle and while recuperating in London he met Katharine Susannah Prichard, who he later married. Prichard became a well known socialist and was a founding member of the Communist Party of Australia. She influenced him greatly.

His political opinions and activities caused great dismay amongst bourgeois society. The RSL turned against him. With the advent of the depression, and one in three West Australians out of work, he got severely into debt. He was so broke he even attempted to sell his Victoria Cross. His desperate financial situation eventually drove him to take his own life.

But with his death all was forgiven. As his son describes, “The army reclaimed its hero. Captain Throssell VC was buried with full military honours… The Union Jack covered the body of the Bolshevik… the Chaplain preached an obituary for an atheist.”

In total 53,000 Australian troops were killed in the First World War and a further 160,000 were wounded (out of a total population of 5 million people). More than 8 million troops died worldwide along with 5 million civilians. But why did this slaughter occur?

It was not because Prince Ferdinand got shot – the world does not tear itself apart because of the death of one prince. The war was over the domination of world markets and as long as capitalism survives the threat of further wars is always present. Hugo Throssell recognised that fact.

There will no doubt be many pious speeches from all manner of politicians and dignitaries this Anzac Day. But the greatest respect that we can show to the memory of all those who died is by making sure that such terrible carnage never happens again. We need to fight to eliminate the profit driven system that breeds war – capitalism – as did Hugo Throssell.

Vale Hugo Throssell, a real hero!


And The Band Played Waltzing Matilda

‘And The Band Played Waltzing Matilda’ is one of Australia’s most famous anti-war songs. It was written by Eric Bogle in 1972 and tells the story of a young Australian man who in 1915 lost his legs in battle at Gallipoli.

It incorporates the melody and a few lines of Waltzing Matilda’s lyrics at its conclusion. Waltzing Matilda means to carry a backpack and the song itself is about working class rebellion linked to the great 1891 shearers strike in Queensland.

Now when I was a young man, I carried me pack, and I lived the free life of a rover.
From the Murray’s green basin to the dusty outback, well, I waltzed my Matilda all over.
Then in 1915, my country said son, it’s time you stopped rambling, there’s work to be done.
So they gave me a tin hat, and they gave me a gun, and they marched me away to the war.

And the band played Waltzing Matilda, as the ship pulled away from the quay.
And amidst all the cheers, the flag-waving and tears, we sailed off for Gallipoli.
And how well I remember that terrible day, how our blood stained the sand and the water.
And of how in that hell that they called Suvla Bay, we were butchered like lambs at the slaughter.
Johnny Turk he was waiting, he’d primed himself well. He shower’d us with bullets,
And he rained us with shell. And in five minutes flat, he’d blown us all to hell
Nearly blew us right back to Australia.

But the band played Waltzing Matilda, when we stopped to bury our slain.
We buried ours, and the Turks buried theirs, then we started all over again.
And those that were left, well we tried to survive, in that mad world of blood, death and fire.
And for ten weary weeks, I kept myself alive, though around me the corpses piled higher.
Then a big Turkish shell knocked me arse over head, and when I woke up in my hospital bed,
And saw what it had done, well I wished I was dead. Never knew there was worse things than dyin’.

For I’ll go no more waltzing Matilda, all around the green bush far and free.
To hump tent and pegs, a man needs both legs-no more waltzing Matilda for me.
So they gathered the crippled, the wounded, the maimed, and they shipped us back home to Australia.
The legless, the armless, the blind, the insane, those proud wounded heroes of Suvla.
And as our ship pulled into Circular Quay, I looked at the place where me legs used to be.
And thanked Christ there was nobody waiting for me, to grieve, to mourn, and to pity.

But the band played Waltzing Matilda, as they carried us down the gangway.
But nobody cheered, they just stood and stared, then they turned all their faces away.
And so now every April, I sit on me porch, and I watch the parades pass before me.
And I see my old comrades, how proudly they march, reviving old dreams of past glories.
And the old men march slowly, old bones stiff and sore. They’re tired old heroes from a forgotten war.
And the young people ask, what are they marching for? And I ask myself the same question.

But the band plays Waltzing Matilda, and the old men still answer the call,
But as year follows year, more old men disappear. Someday no one will march there at all.
Waltzing Matilda, Waltzing Matilda, who’ll come a-waltzing Matilda with me?
And their ghosts may be heard as they march by that billabong, who’ll come a-waltzing Matilda with me?


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