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Australia: Behind the ANZAC Myth - Conscription and World War 1

Joseph Toscano & Takver & Capt Matchbox | 22.04.2007 01:39 | Analysis | Anti-militarism | Repression | World

The ANZAC myth has become an integral part of Australian folklore, as the last living witnesses to the carnage that occurred cannot personally challenge the idealised sanitised accounts that are being trotted out each ANZAC Day.


The overt politicisation of ANZAC Day during the last decade by the Howard government, is turning it from a day in which the country remembers and recognises the ultimate sacrifice made by Australians who have died in war and the sacrifices made by those who continue to carry the physical and psychological scars that have blighted their lives and continue to blight the lives of their partners and children, to a jingoistic festival. Many survivors have had to carry the added burden of being sent to wars that were fought for short term political and ideological expediency, not the defence of Australia.

It is strange that ANZAC Day, almost a century after the Gallipoli landing, continues to have a strong hold on younger Australians. ANZAC Day has not always played such a pivotal role in Australian society. Between the Great Wars, Remembrance Day - the 11th November - was a much more important day than ANZAC Day to most Australians. The re-writing of history by Australia's growing band of government supported historical revisionists has muddied the waters so much that few Australians are even vaguely aware that Australia was a bitterly divided nation during World War One. The sacrosanct mythological account that has been spun to create the ANZAC myth has little, if anything, to do with reality. Hundreds of thousands bitterly opposed Australia's participation in WWI. When the reality of what was really happening on the Dardanelles and later on the Western Front filtered back home, the deluge of volunteers had slowed to a trickle.

Many Australians believed WWI was essentially a trade war that was fought by workers at either end of a bayonet. The bulk of the trade union movement, the Catholic Church, women's groups and radical groups like the Industrial Workers of the World (IWW) were openly defiant of the Prime Minister's plans to send more young Australians to the European killing fields.

First Referendum

Prime Minister Hughes was initially against conscription but when he returned from England in 1916, he had changed his mind. Faced with the reality the majority of Labor members of Federal Parliament had signed anti-conscription pledges and that neither Cabinet nor the Labor Caucus would allow him to introduce a Conscription Act into Parliament, he put his faith in the idea that the electorate would support a Conscription referendum. He gambled that no politician would dare oppose a Conscription Bill backed by the people.

When Hughes introduced his proposal for a Conscription referendum into Federal Parliament, he was expelled from the Political Labor League in Sydney and his own union - the Waterside Workers Union - censored him. The Australian Trade Union Congress called for a general strike if conscription was introduced. Although a large number of Labor members voted against the Referendum Bill, the Bill was passed with the support of the Opposition.

Faced with the prospect of a Conscription referendum in December 1916 and the introduction of the draconian War Precautions Act - an Act which was very similar to the so called 'anti-terrorist' legislation passed after 9/11 - the anti-conscription forces took to the streets to demonstrate their concerns and attempted to organise a general strike to oppose conscription. Across Australia, anti-conscription meetings and rallies were met with violence. The IWW were banned, its newspaper 'Direct Action' was closed down, its assets seized and its members were jailed and deported. Despite government censorship and the violence directed at the anti-conscription movement, the movement flourished.

Women's Peace Army Mobilises 100,000 in Melbourne

On the 4th of October 1916, a stop work meeting of workers opposed to the war drew a crowd of 50,000 people to Melbourne's Yarra bank. Two weeks later, the Women's Peace Army was able to mobilise 100,000 people (10% of Melbourne's population) at an anti-conscription rally held on Melbourne's Yarra bank that was addressed by a team of women's speakers.

In August 1916, the Labor electoral leagues (the local branches of what became the Labor Party) held an anti-conscription rally in Sydney attended by 90,000 people. (The Wobblies at War - Frank Cain)

The anti-conscription movement used cartoons, songs and poems to promote their viewpoints; to the relief of everybody involved in the anti-conscription struggle the conscription referendum held in December 1916 narrowly returned a no vote.

Second Referendum

Prime Minister Hughes, anticipating a no confidence motion in his leadership, walked out of the Caucus meeting with 23 of the 65 members present. The breakaway minority formed a National Labor Party that established a new government with the support of the Nationals. The torrent of dead and injured, and the deep divisions surrounding Australian participation in WWI, did not stop the new government holding another conscription referendum in late 1917.

Daniel Mannix, the co-adjustor Catholic Archbishop of Melbourne, joined the anti-conscription campaign and used church functions to campaign against conscription. He, like the trade unions, Quakers, socialists, the I.W.W. (International Workers of the World) and the Women's Peace Army, had joined the massive national campaign against conscription because they believed WWI was not the war to end all wars, or a war fought to protect smaller nations, or a war to promote freedom or democracy. To them it was just another grubby trade war.

Archbishop Mannix told his congregation:- "We hear a great deal about the cause of the war, that it was a question of the rights of smaller nations, but as a matter of fact, it is simply a trade war. Those who are now our enemies before the war had been capturing our trade. I say, deliberately in spite of all the things we hear about the war, that it is an ordinary trade war".

The second conscription referendum in 1917 was easily defeated. Through the courage and efforts of the Australian people, another 60,000 young Australians would not be sacrificed on the European killing fields for the glory of God, King and country. Considering the historical record, it is ironic that ANZAC Day has become such an important day in the Australian calendar. 60,000 young men from a population of 5 million were sacrificed in bungled military campaign fought over a trade war that was opposed by a majority of Australians. The Gallipoli campaign was an unmitigated disaster. The Allied troops that wrest on that peninsula in Western Turkey died in a pointless invasion. The Turks died defending their homeland, the Australian and the rest of the Allies died in a poorly planned and executed diversionary campaign.

Comparing ANZAC Day to the Kokoda Campaign

ANZAC Day is an inappropriate day to remember those Australian men and women who have died in war, and those who continue to suffer because of their war experiences. There are other more important and appropriate dates that exist.

The Kokoda campaign in Papua New Guinea in 1942 is a much more important campaign than the failed ANZAC campaign. Faced with imminent invasion by the Japanese Imperial Forces, Australia was a united nation during WWII. The young soldiers who were sent to Kokoda were inexperienced, poorly armed and out-manned. They succeeded with the assistance of the Papuans in defeating the battle hardened Japanese Imperial Army. Their success on the battlefield prevented the invasion by a fascist army which would have reeled havoc among the poorly prepared Australian civilian population.

The Kokoda campaign was everything the ANZAC campaign was not. The Australian military succeeded in driving back the Japanese Imperial Forces. They succeeded in preventing the invasion of Australia; they succeeded in preventing the establishment of a fascist occupation force in Australia. They were fighting to protect the nation's integrity, individual freedom and parliamentary democracy.

Why do we as a nation still continue to remember the horrors of war and honour those who died, those who were injured and those who fought on such an inappropriate day, when other more appropriate and relevant days are available to the Australian people?

Behind the Story of Simpson and his Donkey

I concur with Dr. Brendan Nelson, the Federal Education Minister's call to invoke the story of Simpson and his donkey to inculcate Australian values among Australian students in Muslim schools.

John Simpson Kirkpatrick, an illegal immigrant, jumped ship when the ship he was working as a stoker on, docked in Fremantle. He changed his name to John Simpson to evade deportation. He worked his way around Australia taking on what work he could find. Simpson was sympathetic to the aims of the Industrial Workers of the World (I.W.W.), a radical workers organisation that eschewed parliamentary politics and promoted direct action. The I.W.W. was at the forefront of the successful W.W.I. anti conscription struggle. For their troubles, the group was banned under the War Precautions Act. The I.W.W.'s assets were seized and its members were jailed and deported by the Billy Hughes government.

John Simpson was a strong union man and a socialist. In his letters to his parents in England, he called for a socialist revolution in Britain. He volunteered to join the Australian Armed forces thinking he would be able to score a free trip back to England, never imagining he would end up on the shores of Gallipoli. He became a stretcher bearer, believing this was the best way to avoid combat duties. When he arrived at Gallipoli he adopted a donkey which he called Abdul and for 40 days ferried soldiers who had been injured by flying shrapnel back to the beach for evacuation. He avoided going into the thick of battle to take out the wounded and concentrated on carrying out soldiers on his donkey who were not seriously injured.

John Simpson Kirkpatrick had no intentions of dying for God, King and Country in the senseless and pointless slaughter that was going on around him. Kirkpatrick was an internationalist and preferred the company of the Indian artillery at Gallipoli, sleeping with them at night rather than the Australian troops.

His life and death at Gallipoli was immortalised by a publicity machine that was keen to create an acceptable hero among a war weary public back home. Little regard was taken about the real John Simpson Kirkpatrick and a myth was spun to suit the propaganda needs of a government that was coming under increased pressure back home because of horrifying number of casualties that were occurring.

Dr. Brendan Nelson in true spirit of Australian politics has involved the myths surrounding the Simpson and the donkey story to push a political agenda that has little to do with Australian values and everything to do with the Howard government's myopic re-election strategy. Ironically Dr. Nelson has, by promoting this story, inadvertently evoked values that are anathema to the Howard government but which continue to strike a chord with a significant number of Australians.


Even the Australian War Memorial acknowledges that Kirkpatrick was "a trade union activist". Peter Cochrane in his 1992 book 'Simpson And The Donkey: The Making Of A Legend' goes much further and says "Again and again Simpson’s allegiance to class, his vehemence and anger, have been erased, in favour of the simple tale centred on his alleged loyalty to mother, nation, empire and, in the last instance, to his manhood."

One of Kirkpatrick's letters home to his mother in 1912 gives an idea of his political values when he said "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 Labour Government they will almost be able to make their own conditions."

According to a report in the Age in 2003 "1920s, pacifist schoolteachers adopted Simpson (Kirkpatrick) and his donkey to turn Anzac Day commemorations away from militarism and towards a celebration of the mateship that passed for socialism in the bush." Also in the same report, Captain Hugo Throssell, VC, told the Peace Day gathering at Northam (WA) in July 1919 that the war had made him a socialist.

Much of the idealized myth of Simpson was generated by Reverend Sir Irving Benson, superintendent of Melbourne’s Wesley Mission, in his 1965 book 'The Man with the Donkey'. Simpson’s politics were effectively excluded to fit the anti-Communist ideological crusade of the time with the rapidly expanding Australian military commitment in Vietnam.

The 'real story' of unionist, anti war Gallipoli martyr Kirkpatrick aka Simpson and his Donkey
Alf: ...I’ll tell you a story about Kirkpatrick. You might know him as Simpson. He was from a village called [Shields End?]. They were seafaring people. So was my grandfather. They were seafaring people when they came out here too. Ships carpenters and various other jobs. They knew Kirkpatrick and he was always visiting their place. They believed in the same things. There was a lot of support at that time for something called the IWW, international [or did he say “industrial”] workers of the world. They were part of that. Seafarers used to carry the message to ports across the world.

Me: Strong mateship eh? What was your grandfather’s name?

Alf: Whalton. W-H-A-L-T-O-N.

Me: That’s an unusual spelling. [I’m thinking ‘John Boy’ in the Waltons tv series.]

Alf: I have his death certificate at home. So anyway Kirkpatrick hated guns, didn’t want anything to do with them. He thought he would join up here and get a trip back to the UK and disappear as Simpson and start living as Kirkpatrick again. But the ship never got that far, it stopped in a place called Gallipoli.

Me: He was the famous Simpson with the donkey? He did that for about a month or two didn’t he?

Alf: Yeah. He wouldn’t fight you see. Refused to work for the Australian army. He got involved with the Indians. They loved him for helping their wounded. It went to an Australian General they reckon who said just let him be.

Me: He probably knew what would happen to him soon enough.

Alf: Maybe. Some say he was killed by the enemy, some even say it was an Australian bullet. No one knows really.

Me: Where would that latter story come from? The Indians?

Alf: Not sure.

Me: You know this is a pretty embarrassing version of history for Defence Minister Nelson. He holds Simpson up as a model of Australian values. He’s put it in an education pack to all Australian schools. Can I quote you on this? I do a bit of web publishing. ,p> Alf: Okay.

Me: What’s your name?

Alf: Alf Rankin.

• Anarchist Age Weekly Review No. 736 16th April - 22nd April 2007
• Anarchist Age Weekly Review No. 735 9th April - 15th April 2007
• Anarchist Age Weekly Review No. 658 29th August - 4th September 2005
• The Wobblies at War. A History of the IWW and the Great War in Australia (1993) Frank Cain
• Sydney Alternative Media Blog - 14 Jan 2007
• AUSTRALIAN HISTORY - DONNELLY'S DONKEY by historian Humphrey McQueen, accessed 22 April 2007
• The Age April 25, 2003



Remember the IWW on Anzac Day

This is a crucial event which need more support.

So we are now coming around to the fourth annual remembrabce of the great IWW victory against conscription. I am just now buying the balloons to make the skulls for a "War Tree". The enthusiasm is running a little dry but I feel it important that this event be kept up. *

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The ANZAC myth has become an integral part of Australian folklore, as the last living witnesses to the carnage that occurred cannot personally challenge the idealised sanitised accounts that are being trotted out each ANZAC Day...

Joseph Toscano & Takver & Capt Matchbox


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