Anzac stories

anzac stories

An ecumenical service of lament, repentance and hope will be held at St Paul’s Cathedral on Anzac Day. The service is based around the following three stories. 

Those who said no to war

When the Great War began the military leaders, schooled in the methods of Nelson and Wellington, imagined a quick victory. But the old ways did not apply in the world’s first industrial war.  By 1915 the War was static, and by 1917 it was bogged down.

From the outset most of the churches proclaimed the righteousness of the Empire’s cause, and joined in the recruitment drives. But in the small town of Hay in New South Wales, Reverend Bernard Linden Webb, a Methodist Minister, declared himself to be a pacifist. As the slaughter continued he remained firm in his resolve. He said:

“This war is not in keeping with our profession of Christianity… It is the outcome of materialism, worldliness and godlessness… Science is being prostituted to the terrible business of making instruments of destruction, and thousands upon thousands of lives are being ruthlessly sacrificed… the days are coming when the tales of blood and iron will no longer thrill us, but sadden and disgust.”

Although the war had not yet reached the stages of the Somme and Passchendaele, the congregation became divided. As recruiting continued apace, Webb continued his message. Hay was one of the first communities to openly debate the justice of the conflict that would divide Australian society. At the same time 15 young men – 20 per cent of the Hay congregation – joined up. Webb offered solid pastoral support to the men their families. Eventually four lost their lives and nine became seriously sick or wounded. But faced with such losses the congregation found it hard to tolerate their minister’s message and some left the church.

Webb’s views became part of a bitter debate within the Methodist Church. He was accused of turning a blind eye to reality and was publicly reviled as a traitor.  At the time of the Conscription debate the Methodist Church, along with most churches, declared its support. Webb, who decided he could not remain true to his principles and stay in the Church, resigned a week before the first Conscription referendum. When both Conscription referenda failed, Webb’s views seemed vindicated. But hounded from his church, he was a casualty of the War and the Conscription debate that continued to divide the Australian society.

Many Australians like Webb did oppose the Great War. In being faithful to their principles they made a unique democratic contribution to peacemaking. Because of them many thousands of Australian and German lives were saved.

The content of this paper relies heavily on Bruce Scates, Rebecca Wilson & Laura James, World War One: a history in 100 stories, pp 254-256, ‘A meddlesome priest, the Reverend Bernard Linden Webb’.


The Aboriginal wars

In the first decades of the 20th century Australian history was taught as the last lecture in the course on British history. Our story was a footnote to empire, and our Indigenous people, who were regarded as having no history, hardly featured in it. As late as 1959 Professor John La Nauze depicted Aboriginal history as a melancholy anthropological footnote in the history of European settlement.

In the 1970s and 80s Aboriginal history began to be seriously investigated by white Australians. Henry Reynolds’ research into life on the other side of the frontier showed that, conservatively, at least 20,000 aboriginal deaths had occurred in wars with settlers 1788-1928. He commented that it was not possible to bring this narrative into our history without changing the whole of the story as it had been so far received. In the culture wars that followed these findings, Prime Minister John Howard declared loudly that he did not accept “the Black Armband” version of Australian History.

Since then huge resources have been poured into the Australian War Memorial to commemorate the Great War and nationalise the Anzac myth. The AWM does acknowledge the Aboriginal diggers who served in wars, but it steadfastly refuses to admin that the now well-researched conflict that occurred on the frontier was as war.

The Australian landscape has many places with names such as Butchers Creek, Skull Creek, Massacre Bay, Slaughterhouse Creek and Skeleton Creek. These were named, not by Aboriginal people, but by settlers wanting to remember what their ancestors did there.

Recent investigations of the 20,000 deaths have concluded that in Queensland alone, between 1820 and 1900, more than 65,180 Aborigines died in frontier wars.

It is no longer possible to support the idea that the only wars that happened, or that should matter to Australians, are the ones fought overseas.

On Anzac day we acknowledge that Aboriginal people died here protecting their sovereignty, their culture, their homelands, their beliefs, and their people.

It is true that the military campaigns of the Great War, in which 61,000 Australians died overseas, were an important factor in creating the Australia we have known since 1914-18. But a significant war occurred in Australia, on the frontier, where a greater number of Indigenous Australians suffered and died.

For them, that what the Great War.

The content of this article relies heavily on The Art of Time Travel by Tom Griffiths, the Inaugural Tom Stannage Memorial Lecture, UWA, March 6, 2017 Professor Henry Reynolds,, The Honest History Book by David Stephens and Alison Broinowski, and The Forgotten War by Henry Reynolds.



The battles of 1917 were the worst. There was no heroic landing or scaling of cliffs. Instead, powerful artillery barrages raged and poisonous gases rolled over the land while aircraft and new technology increased the lethal impact of the war. Of the third Passchendaele offensive launched on the 9 October 1917 they said: “No battle in the War could compare in dreadfulness”.

Had Commander in Chief, Douglas Haig stopped the campaign early in October, Passchendaele might of have been remembered as one of his great achievements. But in the days before he renewed his attack, heavy rain fell. Everywhere the land turned into a series of lakes and bogs. Weapons were fouled by mud. Roads and duckboards collapsed, making it impossible to bring in supplies. The infantry risked becoming bogged up to their armpits in mud, and some simply disappeared. Heavy artillery, put in place with immense effort, often sank in the mud when fired. A soldier said: “Our worst enemy was the mud, it is beyond description …the [men] came to dread mud more than shells.”

Haig was obsessed with this campaign but was poorly prepared. He enjoyed great prestige amongst his professional colleagues but came to be regarded as the “supreme British donkey” whose unimaginative and irresponsible approach sacrificed countless troops for little strategic gain.

While British Prime Minister Lloyd George continued to proclaim the futility of Haig’s offensive, “he did not lift a finger to stop it”.

It was said: “To live through Passchendaele was to come out the other side of hell”. Neither side understood exactly what it was fighting for, or even the confines of the contested territory. They just slogged it out backwards and forwards over the churned up mud.

The losses were immense. The Germans suffered an estimated 220,000 casualties. There were some 275,000 casualties under British command. Of these 5,300 were New Zealanders, 16,000 Canadians and 38,000 Australians.

Of Haig it has been said: “It is possible that [he did] more damage to his own army than the Germans.”

It is not for nothing that the photographs of this campaign have become the ones most used by Australians to reflect the horror of the Western Front.

The content of this paper relies heavily on Broken Nation: Australian and the Great War by Joan Beaumont and  The Anzacs by Patsy Adam-Smith,

Image: Flickr/Kathrin & Stefan Marks

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