Is the ANZAC legend used for all the wrong reasons?

ANZAC day commemorations in Gallipoli and Northern France are only weeks away and continue to hold a special place in the psyche of Australians, with thousands expected to travel abroad again this year.

But Australians would be shocked to learn how the government and Department of Veterans’ Affairs have reshaped history at these memorial sites, to present a glorified and self-centred version of the First World War which serves political and commercial agendas, according to a new book.

“There is a clear gap between the way official government institutions commemorate Anzac, and the way everyday Australians do when they travel to the Western Front and visit these graves, which are deeply meaningful and personal.”

Why? To create an identity for a young nation, score cheap political points, secure commercial agreements and divert attention from burning social issues back home, argues Dr Romain Fathi, a lecturer in Australian History at Flinders University and chercheur associé at the Centre d’Histoire de Sciences Po, in Paris, France.

In Our Corner of the Somme. Australia at Villers-Bretonneux, Dr Fathi outlines how the glorification of Anzac on the former Western Front is showcased by the $10 million Australian Remembrance Trail and the $100 million Sir John Monash Centre in the village of Villers-Bretonneux; the most expensive war museum built in France in decades.

“The centre tells the Australian version of the war, tinged with nationalism, and showcases a very self-centred and biased narrative of the conflict. But let’s be honest, the French don’t mind that $100 million was spent by Australian taxpayers to generate more tourism in the region,” says Dr Fathi.

“Villers-Bretonneux has become a stage for Australia to project an image of itself in search of validation. But if you analyse this objectively the French only send senior representatives for commemorations when they’re negotiating a $50 billion sale of French submarines to Australia.”

With tensions escalating between the Morrison government and Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan in the wake of comments made after the Christchurch massacre, many Australians will consider travelling to the Western Front instead of Gallipoli this year.

In this book, Dr Fathi outlines how Australia has remembered its Anzacs in France and documents the Department of Veterans’ Affairs interactions with French institutions over decades.

“Beyond these small villages where the Australian government has invested heavily, most French people are unaware that Australians fought in the First World War”.

That’s not helped by the Australian government’s refusal to acknowledge the sacrifice of other nations.

For example, the Monash Centre makes no effort to remember the French Army’s Moroccan Division, which rescued the Anzacs in late April 1918.

“Instead of desperately pushing other nations to remember our sacrifice, perhaps Australians should go about it differently. This was a joint operation, so why make it solely Australian? We can’t expect others to remember us if we don’t remember them.”

The glorification of Anzac reached new heights during John Howard’s tenure as Prime Minister – but both sides of politics are guilty of employing these tactics, says Dr Fathi.

“Australia is the country that has spent the most money commemorating the Centenary of the First World War, more than any other nation put together, in order to put Anzac at the centre of the national narrative while sidelining other aspects of Australian history.”

“Sometimes commemorations are large and political but they can be personal and moving for individuals who travel to France, because they hold a significant place in each family’s personal story.”

About the book:

This book explores how the French remember Anzac. Or, rather, how they don’t, and how their alleged remembrance is staged by Australian agents of memory for the fulfilment of different agendas.

It tells the fascinating century-long story of French-Australian relations through previously unexplored and untranslated French primary materials, and renews our understanding of Australian war commemoration.

The book documents Australians’ interactions with local French people and French institutions on the former Western Front through their commemoration of Australia’s participation in the First World War. In this rigorous and richly detailed study, Dr. Romain Fathi revises our current understanding of the battlefields of France, and examines the assembly, projection and performance of Australia’s national identity overseas.

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