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Issue #1648      July 23, 2014

Culture & Life

The ANZACs were sacrificed for profit

The centenary of the outbreak of the First World War has provided right-wing media and politicians with the opportunity to promote a whole grab-bag of reactionary concepts, including militarism, my-country-right-or-wrong style patriotism, jingoism, and notions of national superiority.

The democratic ideals represented by the rebellious miners in the Eureka Stockade, and the similar progressive ideas that drove the growth of militant trade unionism among urban and especially rural workers in Australia in the half-century before the War, are all swept aside as unimportant in this propaganda onslaught.

Instead, the participation of Australians in the predatory wars of British imperialism is hailed as an example of national “glory”. I heard someone on radio the other day waxing enthusiastic about Australia’s involvement in the Boer War, when the Dutch farmers of the Orange Free State in South Africa tried (with some initial success) to resist conquest by British empire-builders intent on seizing territory in Africa “from the Cape to Cairo”.

The real examples of national glory during the First World War, the things we can be really proud of, include the victories of the “NO” vote in the two referenda that sought to introduce conscription so that more men could be sent to fight for “the Empire”. The anti-conscription struggle was waged in the face of propaganda that claimed it was unpatriotic, a betrayal of the “mother country” and simply cowardice.

The push for conscription was led by the Prime Minister, one Billy Hughes, a former trade unionist and Labor MP who ratted on the ALP to become an arch-reactionary, pro-imperialist right-winger. His support for conscription and “the Empire” split the ALP. Despite all the propaganda, however, a majority of the Australian people held firm to their beliefs and refused to agree to their young men being forced to take part in the deadly military adventures of the ruling class.

Early in the War, the British government, on behalf of British banks and investors, became concerned at the possibility of Germany gaining control over Russia’s deposits of iron ore and coal. These had been coveted by British companies like Royal Dutch Shell for some time, and now – under war conditions – it was possible to do something about them. The result was the doomed attempt to seize the Gallipoli peninsula and force the Dardanelles.

Had it succeeded, a British fleet could have sailed into the Black Sea and “intervened” to take control of these precious industrial resources from Russia, on the pretext of saving them from Germany. Henri Deterding of Royal Dutch Shell revived this plan a decade later when he bought up the worthless stock of pre-revolutionary Russian companies that had owned the iron and coal of the Donbas and sought to encourage the anti-Soviet British government to invade the fledgling USSR.

Britain, France, the USA and Japan had all joined in the invasion of revolutionary Russia at the end of the World War, but a combination of heroic determination and tenacity on the part of the Russian people and international solidarity by workers around the world forced them to withdraw (although the Japanese troops were not finally expelled from Siberia until 1921). The possibility of a new war against the Soviet republic at the end of the ’20s was for a time very real. Instead, and unfortunately for imperialism, the Great Depression broke out, and capitalism had other things to worry about.

In 1915, however, this was still in the future. Churchill, that ardent imperialist, championed the forcing of the Dardanelles from his position as First Lord of the Admiralty. British, French and Dominion troops (volunteers from Australia and New Zealand) would be landed at points along the coast of Gallipoli, to seize the peninsula and thus gain control of the Bosporus and the entrance to the Black Sea.

Like so many campaigns of the Great War, it probably looked simple on paper, when the movement of men and materiel was a matter of drawing arrows on a map and the carnage of artillery shells and machine-gun fire could not be seen. Also not seen was the effect of the ocean current which carried the ANZACs (the combined force of Australians and New Zealanders) to the wrong beach, landing them at the foot of precipitous cliffs instead of a gentle slope.

The invasion was a seriously flawed operation in other ways. A significant time prior to the landings, the Royal Navy had bombarded the chosen sector of the Gallipoli coast, and then sailed away. The Turkish defenders, thus alerted, were given plenty of time to reinforce their numbers and also to strengthen their fortifications, etc.

The soldiers who had to fight their way off the beach and up the cliff had been told that they were going to free Gallipoli from “the Turk”, an alien, racially inferior element that had apparently somehow seized the region. They soon discovered the reality to be very different. The Turkish troops were fighting to defend their country against foreign invaders (the ANZACs), and fought accordingly.

Unable to clear the enemy from the peninsula after eight months of tenacious fighting, the whole sorry project was finally aborted, and the invaders once again took to their ships. They were sent to the Western Front, to the Hell that was Ypres and Verdun.

The spin-doctors of capitalism have tried to portray this costly failure as something noble and glorious, an event we can all be proud of. However, the courage and sacrifice of the soldiers who took part, the deaths, severed limbs, pain and suffering, were extracted in the interests of corporate profit, of improving the “bottom line” of big companies for whom the Great War was a financial bonanza.

I prefer to think that the fact that the Australian people resolutely refused to allow people to be forced to take part in this butchery is something that we can all be very proud of, and something that this nation should celebrate, on the anniversary of the first conscription referendum (October 28, 1916) perhaps.

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