War – is commemoration the same as glorification?

Australians commemorate Anzac Day  (25 April) or Remembrance Day (11 November) with mixed emotions. Some still see it as a time to venerate brave soldiers and remember ‘the fallen’.  Others take the opportunity to point again to the futility of war.

Remembering wars brings out all sorts of emotions: mawkish sentimentality, strident nationalism, grief for young lives lost in faraway battles, the yearning for universal disarmament.

And the marketeers emerge with battlefield tourism – Gallipoli is a sellout (some would say in more ways than one).  The pop history of ‘Anzackery’ continues to dominate despite the growing feeling of resentment that war has overshadowed other strands in the history of Australian democracy.

An article on the recently developed Honest History website resonated.  David Stephens wrote:

Ultimately, what is important is not what our fathers and grandfathers did in war but what war did to them and to us. And here there is an important difference: the generations who fight wars suffer directly; the soldiers go where they are sent and their families wait. But later generations – us – have some control over the impact of war. We choose our own history, which bits of the past we wish to burnish and which we prefer to leave alone. Read more here.

Whatever our thoughts are about how we should commemorate war – or indeed whether we should commemorate war – it seems there are two groups of Australian soldiers whose service is generally overlooked: Indigenous Australians and those who grew up in orphanages and children’s Homes.

Indigenous Australians

Many are beginning to ask why our national institution, the Australian War Memorial, pointedly refuses to acknowledge the undeclared (and some would say unfinished) war between the First Australians and the powerful boat people who dispossessed them. Read more here.

It can’t be that the frontier war was too inconsequential. In body counts alone, it is estimated that at least 20 000 Indigenous people were killed and at least another 2 000  on the other side. Is an honest history too discomforting even all these decades over the legal battle over terra nullius has been fought and won – or lost, if you’re on the other side?

The topic of Indigenous Australians in the two World Wars is another matter that has until very recently been whispered about rather than openly debated.  Indigenous Australians were basically disqualified from enlisting in the Australian Infantry Force (AIF) in the 1st War, yet scholars are now able to list the names of more than 800 soldiers of Indigenous heritage who served at Gallipoli, the Middle East and the Western Front. While many reports say they were treated well in the trenches, their treatment back in Australia after the War was disgraceful. Read more here

Recommended Reading: Philippa Scarlett, Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Volunteers for the AIF: the Indigenous Response to World War One, (2nd Edition, reprinted 2013,2014). Published by Indigenous Histories. $30 plus $10 postage within Australia.

  • available from Indigenous Histories at indigenous.histories@netspeed.com.au   or
  • PO 686 Jamison Centre Macquarie,  ACT, Australia 2614

Australian soldiers who grew up in orphanages and children’s Homes

While soldiers who grew up in orphanages and children’s Homes were not confronted by the racism referred to above (unless they too were Indigenous!) many have been forgotten or overlooked in commemorative avenues, plaques and rolls of honour.

They came from  families so fragmented or disrupted that no one was in a position to know about their enlistment. A few Homes erected Rolls of Honour and a couple even created their own Avenues of Honour, but in most cases these have fallen into disrepair or have long been forgotten.

Read more about a project to redress this situation 

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