I grew up on the Anzac legend: Simpson and his donkey, diggers from the bush, mateship, larrikins, the bloody British, and ‘Lest We Forget’. But I realised I never knew exactly what I was supposed to remember, and I wondered, who decides what we forget?
Why is it so difficult to challenge the official version of our history? I can’t be the only one asking these questions. Isn’t that what makes us quintessentially Australian? Irreverence for authority? Challenging the status quo? Surely our national story can stand up to a bit of robust questioning – that is what spurred me on this epic quest. But I was terrified. I dread being called ‘unAustralian’. Because what kind of monster would question the sacrifice of these brave men?
Over the last year I’ve traversed the cemeteries of Gallipoli and the Western Front. In many places I found idealised, cartoon soldiers that bore no resemblance to flesh and blood diggers as humans who fought, who made mistakes, who trained hard, some who died, and were eventually victorious. These real soldiers of the War are betrayed by our feeble understanding of the complexities of the First World War.
It was an adventure full of discoveries and unlikely friends. Young pilgrims on their way to Anzac Cove for the dawn service, dependent on Peter Weir and Mel Gibson for their history lessons, just like me. Brilliant military historians tearing down the myths and replacing them with a far greater, more powerful story to be told about Australians in the First World War. But what touched me most, was the total surprise and visceral emotion that hit me when I discovered my own personal connection to those original diggers, who were my age when they set off to war, propelled by their own stories of adventure and glory.
This is incredibly important to me. If we’re going to continue to send soldiers to war, we need to know what that means. Not the cartoon version of history, but the unvarnished truth, the debate, the dissent – guts and all.