Author: Jacob Hill
If you stand on Swanston Street in Melbourne and look south, you’ll see a large mausoleum sitting upon a hill three kilometres away. It looks like the Mausoleum of Halicarnassus, one of the ancient wonders of the world, and is totally out of place in a city yet to turn two-hundred years old with its (terrible) modern art and sculptures.
This is the Shrine of Remembrance, the ultimate war memorial in Australia. Originally dedicated to those who served in WWI, it’s since become a monument to every Australian victim of war, whether they’re soldiers in subsequent conflicts or civilian casualties. It also serves as a museum to tell the story of Australia’s role in various wars, especially WWI, where the national spirit was forged…
AUSTRALIA GETS AN ARMY
The country now known as Australia began on 1st January 1901, when six colonies federated into the Commonwealth of Australia (New South Wales, Victoria, Queensland, South Australia, Western Australia and Tasmania. New Zealand declined to join, but they can join at any time – it’s in the constitution). Australia remained part of the British Empire, with the King as its head of state.
Before Federation, the colonies had participated in military actions, whether overseas (e.g. The Boer War, Sudan, the Boxer Rebellion etc.) or at home (the long-term campaigns against Aboriginal Australians and New Zealand Māori). But a new nation had been formed, therefore a federal army was needed.
But of the 60,000 men ready to defend the country, most were former colonial soldiers, militiamen and volunteers. The professional federal army was a tiny fraction of the total. Even by 1904, the permanent force Australia had was just 1300 men.
In 1905, politicians were calling for compulsory military training, but this was fiercely resisted by the public, particularly the working class that resented the militarisation of society. Only in 1909 did the Deakin government follow through on mandatory training for males aged 12-20, who would then remain in reserve until 26. The program came into effect in 1911. The volunteer system was terminated.
Conscription has always been a heated issue in Australia. We’ll fight to the death to protect our homes, our families and our mates, but we hate the idea of having a gun shoved into our hands and being forced to fight in a war that’s got nothing to do with us. If it’s a good idea, we’ll do it, trust us! We have a streak of defiance: if you ask, we’ll bend over backwards, but if you demand, we’ve got many colourful ways of what we think of your demands.
Anyway, Australia began to ramp up its Federal forces. In 1910, Australia got its first warships, Parramatta and Yarra, and The Royal Australian Navy (RAN) was officially created in 1911 and the first naval college opened in Geelong in 1913. The first military academy (Duntroon) opened in 1911 and the army ballooned to 29,000 (although Lord Kitchener said this was far from adequate). Australia even began air training in 1914.
But Australia was still a young nation untested in war. Sure, the first battalion to represent the new Commonwealth was sent to fight the Boers in South Africa in 1901, but it would be in WWI that Australia would truly be put to the test…
AUSTRALIA IS BAPTISED
On 28th June 1914, Franz Ferdinand was assassinated and the complex political entanglements tripped all of Europe into war. Australia wanted to defend the mother country, so on 5th August 1914 Australia declared war on Germany. That same day, Australia fired the first shot of the British Empire against Germany: The SS Pfalz, a German merchant boat, was fired at and captured near Fort Nepean, Victoria.
The RAN proved its worth by capturing German wireless stations in German New Guinea (Modern-day northern Papua New Guinea) and supporting the New Zealanders capture German Samoa. In November 1914, the RAN sunk the SMS Emden,the most-feared ship in the German navy that was the stuff of nightmares for sailors. The RAN continued its successful liquidation of Germany’s pacific colonies.
Land forces reached British Egypt in December 1914 for training. In just a few months, fifty-thousand Australian men volunteered to fight, alongside fifteen-thousand New Zealanders. Since they’re very similar, the Aussies and Kiwis were incorporated into a single force: “The Australian and New Zealand Army Corps”. The typists couldn’t be bothered writing all that out in correspondence, so they just shortened it to ANZAC.
And these Anzacs, the first of the 400,000 Australians and 120,000 New Zealanders who enlisted (ten percent of their respective populations. Remember: they all volunteered to go, no conscription), were about to lay the foundation myth of their two nations by attacking the Ottoman Empire (modern-day Turkey). Why attack the Ottomans? The answer is Russia.
Russia was allied with Britain and France, but Germany, Austria-Hungary and the Ottomans were blocking all land-routes between the two allies. Russia was performing disastrously in the war and needed supplies and support desperately. There were only two paths forward: through the Baltic Sea, which was controlled by Germany, or through the Black Sea, guarded by the ‘sick man of Europe’ – the Ottoman Empire. Access to the Black Sea is through the Dardanelles, so an attack on Gallipoli Peninsula by Anzacs was suggested by Winston Churchill.
So, on 25th April 1915, Anzacs landed at Gallipoli, with British forces landing in separate locations. Conducting operations independently, the Anzacs were determined to prove their mettle against what should have been an easy target.
The campaign was an immediate disaster. Turns out, the sick man of Europe still had some life left in him.
The problem was Gallipoli itself: The cliffs were steep and the landscape was scarred with ravines and valleys, leaving Anzacs at the mercy of the innumerable Turkish snipers. The Anzacs were never in a good enough position to quickly defeat their opponents and the campaign just devolved into the disastrous trench warfare as seen in Western Europe.
For four months, Anzacs hadn’t penetrated one kilometre into Ottoman Territory. After the Sari Bair offensive, they gained about a kilometre, but the losses were staggering: Of the 65,000 Anzac sent, half of them were killed or wounded, sometimes by Turks, other times by exposure. Even with British reinforcements, the battle stagnated once again.
TURNING LOSS INTO VICTORY
After seven months of futile fighting, evacuation was finally ordered. But in order to keep British pride intact, the evacuation was planned so that the Ottomans wouldn’t even realise the Allied forces were leaving.
Ruses were employed such as timed explosives and my cousin William Scurry’s “drip-rifle”. Basically, water dripped from one tin to another, making it heavier and heavier. This tin would weigh down the trigger of the rifle and eventually fire. These could be set up hours in advance to go off at different times – when the guns finally fired, the men would have long disappeared. But the Turks believed they were still fighting a formidable force!
Another ruse was staying absolutely quiet. No man’s land was so close that the opposing sides could hear each other! So when Turks realised the Anzac trenches were silent for hours, they would come out to investigate and get slaughtered. The Turks quickly learned not to investigate quiet trenches.
The conspicuous silence left by a retreating force would be assumed to be a trap. Combined with self-firing weapons, days passed before the Turks realised the Australians had left!
Gallipoli had a massive impact on Australia. This was the first time that such a large force representing the independent nations of Australia and New Zealand were thrown into battle. 30,000 casualties meant that everyone in these countries knew someone affected by it, whether it be a family member, friend, or member of the community. Gallipoli became a uniquely Australian and New Zealand event, which cast aside any doubts of the legitimacy of their nationhood.
The pervasive impact of casualties was not the only way Gallipoli transformed Australian society. It also gave rise to the “Anzac Spirit”. This Spirit was the qualities accentuated and noted positively by other nations that singled out Aussie and Kiwi soldiers as truly unique.
Ever since the days on the Turkish beaches, the qualities the Anzacs demonstrated is alive and well today in both countries. It can be described as stoicism, endurance and bravery, balanced out with good-humour, mateship and a ‘fair-go’ attitude that finds class differences completely pretentious – the doctors and plumbers live next to each other, and everyone’s a mate regardless of background. Think of Aussies and Kiwis, and you’ll be thinking of the Anzac Spirit.
But Gallipoli was also the source of many Australian legends, such as Simpson and his Donkey. But perhaps the greatest of them all was John Monash.
THE MAN ON THE HUNDIE
The son of German-Polish Jewish immigrants, John Monash was born and raised in Melbourne (although he spent some time in Jerilderie, where Ned Kelly staged his infamous raid). He was renowned for his intelligence and gained a Bachelor of Arts, a Masters in Science (Civil Engineering) and a Doctorate of Engineering from Melbourne University. But engineering wasn’t his only wheelhouse. He was also a soldier, having joined the University Company in 1884.He rose through the ranks, reaching the rank of colonel in 1913.
When the war broke out, he was appointed commander of the 4th infantry bridge of the Australian Imperial Force. This appointment caused controversy due to his German and Jewish background. And although Monash’s brigade was among the first to land at Gallipoli, many failed operations promoted the conspiracy that he was a German spy.
But his organisational capacity combined with his quick and independent thinking shone bright, allaying fears of a potential 5th column. And despite the disastrous nature of the campaign, those under Monash’s command seemed to be faring better than the rest. Also, he was the only Australian brigade leader to not be killed or wounded. He was promoted to brigadier general in July 1915 and gained some renown.
But it was on the Western Front that Monash showcased what he was capable of. In July 1916, he was promoted to major general and commanded the Australian 3rd Division. He applied his engineering training to the troops, focusing on the small details and the particulars. This was a completely different route than the other generals took, but the results were undeniable.
His division was put into action after November 1916, first deployed along a “quiet section” doing patrols and minor raids on Germans. In 1917, they participated in the battles of Messines, Broodseinde, and the 1st Battle of Paschendale. Although the division sustained heavy losses, they actually accomplished some war goals. In a war where nobody was achieving anything, this was a miracle.
British High Command was impressed with him and wanted him to become a corps commander. He impressed them further when he helped capture Villers-Bretonneux (sidenote: The fact the Aussies were all volunteers earned them mad respect from the British and French – remember, we hate conscription!). Although not a significant battle, Villers-Bretonneux happened on the 3rd anniversary of Gallipoli so Aussies laud it.
On 1st June 1918, British High Command had seen enough. Monash became lieutenant general and was placed in charge of the Australian Corps, the largest individual corps on the Western Front (It included 200,000 men, of which were 50,000 Americans).
His first battle as lieutenant general, the Battle of Hamel, was a resounding success: Monash employed new military tactics (e.g. instead of just sending a human wave, he utilised combined arms, supply tanks, air-dropping supplies and wireless communications) and planned the operation meticulously, briefing the troops on exactly what they needed to do. He predicted it would take 90 minutes to complete: It took 93 minutes. Such a tightly-run and successful operation had not been seen in this war before.
On 8th August 1918, the Australians spearheaded the Battle of Amiens. The Australians trounced the Germans and gave the British army their first decisive victory in the war. Also, it is widely reported that this battle when the Germans finally realised the war was lost; General Ludendorff himself called it the “black day of the German Army.” That’s right, the Aussies black-pilled the Germans!
He commanded the Corps through many more successful battles and his ideas were quickly adopted by other Allied generals (who were notorious for not changing their mind). He was the mastermind behind breaking the Hindenburg Line in October 1918, which forced Germany to surrender. He played no small part in winning the war for the Allies.
When he came back to Australia, he was worshipped as a hero (despite the German background). As he should be – he was the only General in WWI with any sense of originality: not only in his thinking, but also by distinguishing himself from the British superiors, promoting the idea of Australian as a separate identity. He became Manager of the Victorian State Electricity Commission and Vice-Chancellor of Melbourne University. Such was his impact that he ended up on the $100 note!
LEST WE FORGET
But a commander must look after and honour his troops – even the dead.
Monash had conducted an impromptu memorial service on 25th April 1916, as did several Australians back home, which marked the beginning of the first truly Australian and New Zealand tradition, separate and distinct from the UK. But as the Anzac tradition evolved (and eventually became the dawn service), he wanted a place where people could go and remember the sacrifices his soldiers had made.
This idea was popular with people and it was decided that Melbourne (the capital of Australia at the time) should have a large dedication to those who served. However, the construction faced fierce opposition from the media, meaning construction didn’t actually begin until 1927. It was mostly being funded by the public who donated massive amounts of their own money to get it built.
The Shrine was completed in 1934. One third of Melbourne appeared to see it dedicated, over 300,000 people! Monash was unfortunately not around to see it, having died in 1931.
But soon, another World War broke out. Australia suffered 100,000 casualties in WWII and over 30,000 Aussies were taken as POWs in WWII. and after all that bloodshed, it was decided that those who fought in that war should be commemorated too.
But instead of building another shrine, they added to the current Shrine. This has happened for every war and peacekeeping mission Australia has been involved in, including Vietnam, Malaya, East-Timor, and Iraq among others. So, it went from a WWI memorial to a place that honours all Australians lost in war.
Underneath the shrine is a museum surrounding a crypt. Above this crypt is a very simple yet powerful sanctuary, whose main feature is the Stone of Remembrance in the middle. At the top of the sanctuary is an opening where, at 11.00AM on the 11th of November, i.e. the time when the WWI armistice took effect, light shines through and illuminates the word ‘love’ of the stone.
Finally, you can go up top and get a quiet and serene view of the city of Melbourne, which you soon realise was only possible with the sacrifices made by men and women, atop whose memorial you stand.
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