From Achilles to Anzac: Homeric heroes and the Anzac tradition

HSV Public Lecture by Dr Sarah Midford, La Trobe University, at Balwyn Library on 23 April 2015

Presenting a supremely topical perspective on the Gallipoli campaign one hundred years on, Dr Midford began with the hope that her audience was not suffering from Anzac fatigue.

In her opinion, from the earliest colonial settlement of this country, when imperial tradition connected Britain’s history with classical civilization, Australia’s national story has been loaded with classical allusions. And when Australia and New Zealand were called upon to send armed forces against Constantinople, near the site of the celebrated Trojan War, the connection was made in order to validate their participation in an inherited, imperial conflict.

Reports from Gallipoli

Compton Mackenzie (a latent Scottish nationalist) was at Gallipoli and his imagination soared.

There was not one of those glorious young men I saw that day who might not himself have been Ajax or Diomed, Hector or Achilles.

[Gallipoli Memories, 1929]

British war correspondent Ellis Ashmead-Bartlett was on the beach at Anzac Cove, and his outspoken criticism of the campaign (conveyed by Australian journalist Keith Murdoch) was instumental in bringing about the recall of the British general, Sir Ian Hamilton, and the evacuation of British forces from the peninsula. Bartlett’s colourful praise of the colonial troops (“a race of athletes”) echoed around the world. Even Hamilton, speaking on Anzac Day 1935, made a parallel between Gallipoli and Homer’s Iliad. He forecast that in a thousand years Australian schoolboys would listen to bald and toothless professors expoun­ding both legends, proudly tracing their own descent from the Anzac soldiers; thus the gallant heroes would not be forgotten.

Turkish commander Kemal Ataturk in 1934 represented the conflict at Gallipoli as a chivalric one.

You, the mothers, who sent their sons from faraway countries wipe away your tears; your sons are now lying in our bosom and are in peace, after having lost their lives on this land they have become our sons as well.

Australian Charles Bean was the only war corres­pondent to stay for the whole Gallipoli campaign. He received a classical education and devoted much of his life (1879–1968) to documenting the Australian war effort, establishing the Australian War Memorial in Canberra and editing the official war history. The latter was a voluminous work of reference rather than an epic of valour but he concluded with the following ringing words.

What these men did nothing can alter now. The good and the bad, the greatness and smallness of their story will stand. Whatever of glory it contains nothing now can lessen. It rises, as it will always rise, above the mists of ages, a monument to great-hearted men; and, for their nation, a possession for ever.

[The Official History of Australia in the War of 1914–1918, vol. 6, 1942]

Analysing those phrases Dr Midford found echoes of particular expressions used respectively by Herodotus, Homer and Thucydides.

Looking backwards after WW2

After the Second World War the nation wanted to disengage from martial values and move on. High-minded legends from Greek aristocratic culture did not appeal to Aussie egalitarianism. A popular play in 1960, The One Day of the Year, showed that young people regarded Anzac Day as a hollow ritual. However, historian Bill Gammage saw the need to record oral history of the Great War before the surviving diggers died (The Broken Years, 1974), which was a stimulus to the film-maker Peter Weir to make his 1981 movie, Gallipoli. (The lecture was enlivened here by playing some video clips.)

This fine movie revived the poetic epic interpre­tation of the Gallipoli campaign for which Bean was not equipped. The script-writer (David Williamson) devised two protagonists of contrasting, archetypal character, and the Homeric heroes were obvious models. According to Dr Midford, the idealistic Archy (played by Mark Lee) is modeled on Achilles, and the cynical Frank (Mel Gibson) is modeled on Odysseus.

Archy and Frank are fine, athletic young men who are mates. Archy, who approaches the Hellenistic ideal of masculine beauty, runs like a leopard and is brave as a lion: too good for this world, he is marked for death in the battle of the Nek. Frank loses his innocence, does not go over the top at the Nek and devises an ingenious method of automatic rifle cover which saves Australian lives: his human flaws give him survivor skills and the toughness to re-establish ordinary life after the war. If Australia ‘came of age’ at Gallipoli, so does Frank: Archy does not, the moment of his death is frozen in time, in memory, a species of immortality which romanticizes the dead.

There are some inaccuracies in the movie version of events. And on the other hand the Trojan War cannot be dated, and we are not sure that it really occurred. What happens in both cases is that the facts drop away with time, while a desired narrative binds the audience together. Indeed the legends are converging, as Sir Ian Hamilton foresaw.

Myth succeeding facts

Why, in today’s multicultural society, is this anglo-celtic narrative not dwindling? In recent years the Turkish–Australian relationship has been carefully constructed. The Anzac Day service at Gallipoli transcends a military commemoration: it has other-wordly overtones, no longer an event for returned service personnel. Australian youth, predominantly female and not strong on actual history, are drawn to the heroic myth and make a ritual of stopping at Gallipoli on their way to Europe, as if their identity as Australians depends on it. The movie shows nightly in neighbour­ing hostels.

Although Prime Minister Keating identified the Kokoda Track campaign as being the nation’s baptism of fire, the next Prime Minister Howard restored that status to Gallipoli. With a deliberate policy of mythologization, a number of government departments are curating the national identity by encouraging the worship of national heroes. The money would be better spent on the Department of Veteran Affairs.

The cult of Anzac now fits the pattern of a religion. There is a similarity with ancient Greek cults of ancestor worship.

Report by Stephen Stuart

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