Reflection for ANZAC Day

Reflection for Western Heights Uniting Church
26th of April, 2020

On the 25th of April, 1915, one hundred and five years and one day ago, some 20,000 Australian, New Zealand, British, and French servicemen landed at the Gallipoli Peninsula in Turkey. Russia, which was under attack by Turkey, had called for help from its allies, and it was also thought that attacking Turkey would help protect Egypt and the Suez Canal. But the strategy was a failure. In November 1915 one young woman, writing to her soldier fiancé who was overseas, said: ‘Things about the Dardanelles are coming out now and it is openly acknowledged a failure. And the details of the failure are appalling.’[1] In December 1915 the invading forces withdrew. About 120,000 men had died: more than 80,000 Turkish soldiers; roughly 8700 Australians; and approximately 2700 New Zealanders. Controversy has raged ever since over whether the soldiers were landed in the right place and whether the invasion at Gallipoli ever had a chance. One thing is certain, whatever it is we do on ANZAC Day we are not celebrating a military victory.

A little over one hundred years’ ago, though, the prospect of a military victory that would lead to spiritual renewal was being preached from pulpits around the world. When war was declared the Anglican minister at Bright, here in Victoria, declared that: ‘We are British first, and Australian second … Let us then offer the best of our manhood and let us speak with our pocket in helping the Empire in its time of need.’[2] Christian enthusiasm continued even after the number of casualties from the debacle at Gallipoli was known; in late June 1915 the Australian Baptist newspaper ran an editorial encouraging the physically fit ‘to present themselves, a willing sacrifice on the altar of their Empire’s needs’.[3]

The most frightening example of Christian aggression in the English-speaking world comes from the Anglican Bishop of London, Arthur F. Winnington-Ingram, who preached a sermon in 1915 in which he urged the British to ‘kill Germans – do kill them; not for the sake of killing, but to save the world, to kill the good as well as the bad, to kill the young as well as the old, to kill those who have shown kindness to our wounded as well as those fiends’.[4] But there are similar examples from every nation involved in World War One. Churches saw World War One as a holy war, a new crusade.[5] This initially puzzled me; how could churches encourage the Christians in their own country to kill and be killed by Christians in other countries? The attitude of the then Pope, Benedict XV, who tried to make peace, made much more sense. The answer is that it is probably because each country had a national church, the Church of England, the Russian Orthodox Church, the Lutheran Church, even supposedly secular France had a special commitment to the Catholic Church. The nationalisation of churches allowed Christians to see the members of other churches as national enemies rather than fellow believers.

In late 1914 the Melbourne Church of England newspaper condemned Germans as ferocious and among the reasons it gave for this ferocity was that: ‘To some extent Germans are influenced by Martin Luther, whose lack of Christian meekness was shown in his brutal treatment of [Ulrich] Zwingli … in 1529’.[6] In a 1915 French play, Christmas Eve, 1914, a Catholic French soldier says: ‘It’s not a saint or a bishop, it’s Our Lady herself, it’s the Mother of God-made-Man for us, who endures the violence and the fire … she’s the one who stands as the rampart and the flag against Black Luther’s dark hordes’.[7] A German preacher asked, ‘Can God find pleasure in our opponents? France denies him, England laughs at him, Russia forgets him’.[8] Germans were appalled that England allowed ‘heathen Asiatics,’ Hindus and Muslims from India, to fight against ‘the people of the Reformation’,[9] although that was forgotten when Germany allied with the Ottoman Empire.

Church leaders didn’t just ‘de-Christianise’ their opponents. They de-Christianised Jesus. In the USA a Unitarian minister, Albert Dieffenbach, wrote: ‘There is not an opportunity to deal death to the enemy that [Jesus] would shirk from or delay in seizing! He would take bayonet and grenade and bomb and rifle’.[10] In Germany a Lutheran Pastor, Dietrich Vorwerk, rewrote the Lord’s Prayer, asking God to ‘lead Thy German Reich to glorious victories’ and praying ‘Lead us not into temptation/Of letting our wrath be too gentle/In carrying out Thy divine judgment’.[11] It is no wonder that the poet Siegfried Sassoon wrote the excoriating poem, ‘They’:

The Bishop tells us: ‘When the boys come back
They will not be the same; for they’ll have fought
In a just cause: they lead the last attack
On Anti-Christ; their comrades’ blood has bought
New right to breed an honourable race,
They have challenged Death and dared him face to face.’
‘We’re none of us the same!’ the boys reply.
‘For George lost both his legs; and Bill’s stone blind;
Poor Jim’s shot through the lungs and like to die;
And Bert’s gone syphilitic: you’ll not find
A chap who’s served that hasn’t found some change.’
And the Bishop said: ‘The ways of God are strange!’

From our twenty-first century perspective the people who seem to have got it right are poets like Sassoon, and other writers. John Buchan, the son of a Scottish manse who wrote The Thirty-Nine Steps and later became the Governor-General of Canada, wrote a twenty-volume history of the First World War while the war was actually happening. The first volume was published in February 1915, and in it, reflecting on the fall of Antwerp in Belgium to the Germans in 1914, Buchan wrote:

Fighting has its own decencies, and when it is done on conventional lines of attack and counterattack by normal armies, our habituation prevents us from realizing the colossal unreason of it all. But suddenly comes some such business as Antwerp and unseals our eyes. We see the laborious handiwork of man, the cloak which he has made to shelter himself from the outer winds, shrivel before a folly of his own devising. All the sacrifice and heroism, which are the poor recompenses of war, are suddenly overshadowed, and etched in with bitter clearness we note its horror and futility. Someday the world, when its imagination has grown quicker, will find the essence of war not in gallant charges and heroic stands, but in those pale women dragging their pitiful belongings through the Belgian fields in the raw October night.[12]

In his autobiography A. A. Milne, who we know as the creator of Winnie-the-Pooh, wrote of the war:

it makes me almost physically sick to think of that nightmare of mental and moral degradation, the war. When my boy was six years old, he took me into the Insect House at the Zoo, and at the sight of some of the monstrous inmates I had to leave his hand and hurry back into the fresh air. I could imagine a spider or a millipede so horrible that in its presence I should die in disgust. It seems impossible to me now that any sensitive man could live though another war. If not required to die in other ways, we would waste away of soul-sickness … I was a pacifist before 1914, but this (I thought with other fools) was a war to end war.[13]

ANZAC Day doesn’t celebrate a military victory, and after so many subsequent wars ‘lest we forget’ cannot simply be an imperative to us to avoid the ‘mental and moral degradation’ of war. (Milne himself wrote in 1939: ‘I believe that war is a lesser evil than Hitlerism. I believe that Hitlerism must be killed before War can be killed. I think that it is more important to abolish War than to avoid or stop one war. I am a practical pacifist.’[14]) So for many Australians ANZAC Day is now a celebration of Australian identity. ANZAC commemorations often talk about the birth of Australia from the sacrifice of its soldiers. But that cannot be the meaning of ANZAC Day for Christians. Our identity comes from our baptism, not from war; as the Apostle Peter tells us: ‘Once you were not a people, but now you are God’s people’ (1 Peter 2:10). And for Christians the only necessary sacrifice took place on the cross almost two thousand years’ ago, ‘when Christ had offered for all time a single sacrifice for sins’ (Hebrews 10:12). So if ANZAC Day is observed by Christians it must mean something else.

In 1915 Sigmund Freud wrote about the First World War that it ‘tramples in blind fury on all that comes in its way as though there were to be no future and no peace among men after it is over. It cuts all the common bonds between contending peoples and threatens to leave a legacy of embitterment that will make any renewal of those bonds impossible for a long time to come’.[15] He was right, World War One led directly to World War Two. But then something changed. For Christians, maybe ANZAC Day can remind us of the constant need to remake the common bonds between people that war and violence sever. Maybe for us ANZAC Day can be about reconciliation.

One of my favourite stories about reconciliation from the First World War is told by a British Conscientious Objector, Corder Catchpool, who had been imprisoned for his refusal to fight. On the afternoon of the Armistice, 11th of November 1918, he and some of the other COs were in the exercise yard in their English prison:

An airman suddenly swooped down from 3,000 feet and skimmed over our heads, waving a black arm and an oily rag. I was deeply touched by this little incident. I took it as peace overtures from the Army to us – a message of goodwill for the future, bygones bygones, all recrimination and misunderstanding, all heart-burnings over, wiped out by that kind, dirty bit of cloth.[16]

On ANZAC Day we remember all those affected by war; commemorate all those who have been injured or killed in war; mourn with all those who have lost people they loved; recognise all those who conscientiously refuse to fight. We also pledge ourselves to do everything possible to prevent war, so that future generations will not have to experience its horrors. We do this as Christians because Christ is our peace; because in his body he broke down the dividing wall, the hostility, between all human beings (Ephesians 2:14). As Paul told the Corinthians: ‘All this is from God, who reconciled us to himself through Christ, and has given us the ministry of reconciliation; that is, in Christ God was reconciling the world to himself, not counting their trespasses against them, and entrusting the message of reconciliation to us’ (2 Corinthians 5:18-19). Let us use ANZAC Day to commit ourselves to be agents of reconciliation. In the name of Christ, Amen.


[1] Quoted in Joy Damousi, The Labour of Loss: Mourning, Memory and Wartime Bereavement in Australia, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1999, p. 20.

[2] The Labour of Loss, p. 19

[3] The Labour of Loss, p. 104

[4] Philip Jenkins, The Great and Holy War: How World War 1 Changed Religion for Ever, Oxford: Lion Hudson, 2014), p. 71.

[5] The Great and Holy War, pp. 4-5.

[6] The Labour of Loss, p. 50

[7] The Great and Holy War, p. 9.

[8] The Great and Holy War, p. 97.

[9] The Great and Holy War, p. 98.

[10] The Great and Holy War, p. 11.

[11] The Great and Holy War, p. 13.

[12] John Buchan, A History of the Great War. Volume: 1. Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1922, p. 310.

[13] A. A. Milne, It’s Too Late Now: The autobiography of a writer (1939), p.209.

[14] Quoted in Ann Thwaite, A. A. Milne: His Life (1990) p. 526

[15] The Labour of Loss, p. 1.

[16] Quoted in Adam Hochschild, To End All Wars: A Story of Protest and Patriotism in the First World War, London: Pan Books, 2011, p. 342.

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1 Response to Reflection for ANZAC Day

  1. Pingback: Reflection for ANZAC Day ~ Kindness

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