Canberra is a town where Australia's military history is plain to see. Lining the broad avenue of Anzac Parade are a series of memorials commemorating individual campaigns and arms of the service, leading up to the monolithic Australian War Memorial. Not only is this impressive precinct testament to the powers of town planning, but (as you probably could have predicted if you have been reading this blog with any regularity) the history of Australia and New Zealand's involvement with the Middle East is sprinkled throughout the memorials and in the museum itself.
Further up Anzac Parade, on the other side of the road there is a very different memorial. The Kemal Ataturk Memorial, opened in 1985, was designed to honour Mustafa Kemal who led the Turkish troops opposing the Anzac landings at Gallipoli. He later went on to become the first President of the Republic of Turkey in 1923, but is a figure wrapped in legend. The famous 'mothers wipe away your tears' speech, which is credited to Ataturk was, almost certainly, not delivered by him, and indeed was finessed by an Australian Gallipoli veteran in the 1970s to be the speech with which we are familiar. Fittingly, however, for a man dubbed Ataturk (or 'Father of the Turks'), there was a wreath placed at the memorial when I visited, wishing Mustafa Kemal a happy father's day.
Finally we make it to the Australian War Memorial itself. Unique among national war memorials, the AWM is a museum of Australia's involvement in war from the First World War through to modern conflicts in Iraq and Afghanistan. As a war museum, it is full of exhibits relating to the Middle East (which says something of the nature of our relationship with this region over the past century). I wanted to single out one particularly interesting, and controversial, collection item for discussion.
During the Second Battle of Gaza in April 1917, Australian troops overran Turkish trenches near the town of Shellal, and found that the Turks had partially uncovered remains of a sixth century Byzantine mosaic. In a fitting symbol for the destructive effects of war on all things bright and beautiful, the mosaic was damaged from having a machine gun nest dug into it. Others have told the story of how the mosaic made its way to Australia, so I will not do that here. All I will say is that artifacts like the Shellal Mosaic have recently become objects of interest again with the growing call for repatriation of cultural treasures looted by colonial powers.
The placement of the mosaic makes me wonder if the AWM is aware of the controversial nature of the object but is uncertain how to manage that controversy. It was not easy to find in the museum - I had to ask an attendant for help locating it, and it was hidden away behind a partition wall in the otherwise unrelated Hall of Valour, which commemorates Australia's Victoria Cross recipients. I could be reading too much into this placement. It simply could be that there are few places to display the admittedly very large artwork, but it seemed a curious choice when there are several large open galleries relating to the Palestine campaign in which the mosaic was discovered.
The reason I was in Canberra was to attend the '1919-1939 - Towards a New History of the Interwar Period' conference at UNSW Canberra. It was an enlightening couple of days, covering everything from economics and international law, to interwar art and literature and the Australian military in the 20s and 30s. I would like to acknowledge the generous support of UNSW Canberra and the Society for Military History in enabling me to attend the conference, and participate in a series of interesting and stimulating discussions.
In late August, we had the pleasure of hosting Dr Meredith Lake, author of The Bible in Australia: A Cultural History, for two days. Her book has just won the Australian History Prize in the NSW Premier’s Literary Awards, recognizing its readability, the wide-ranging exploration of the ways the Bible infused Australia’s past, and her argument that in order to understand the colonial history of Australia (and we’d add New Zealand), we must better understand how the Bible operated as a cultural and literary text in our societies.
The Bible is central to our project. It was the key way in which Australasians encountered the Middle East in the late 19th century, and it was the common reference point for almost all Australians and New Zealanders who went to the region in the first half of the 20th century. Sunday schools and Bible study groups flourished in the mid to late nineteenth-century as part of what Lake calls a ‘church boom’ in the colonies. Sermons and family bible reading ensured that the lessons of the Old and New Testaments were tightly woven into daily life in Australia and New Zealand.
Bibles were also the most common book soldiers took to war. Harold Kretschmar’s Bible Study group gave him a Bible before he embarked, which had a photograph of the group pasted inside the front cover. Australasians learned the Bible in varying depth, but for most, at the very least, ‘the Holy Land’ was the place of Jesus’ birth and death. Chaplains and padres led tours and gave lectures to men and women who were stationed in the Middle East. How men reacted to the sights of the Holy Land were also influenced by Bible-learning with many soldiers being dismayed by the ornateness of the Church of the Nativity, or the commercialism of what they saw as sacred places.
Sunday Schools were a vital mechanism for learning the Bible in the early 20th century, probably more so than church attendance. As well as the establishment of Sunday School classes across Australia and New Zealand, large numbers of tracts, newspapers, and journals were produced for young readers and those who taught them. Illustrated Bibles and Children's Bibles were especially popular, creating not only stories of the Bible and its peoples and landscapes for children, but images as well.