- Watters, Andrew, Chaplain, RANR
- RAN operations, History - WW1, WWI operations
- RAN Ships
- None noted.
- March 2011 edition of the Naval Historical Review (all rights reserved)
And while I am on the subject of investing a set of events with a meaning – and by that I do not mean that we invent something that was not there in the first place, rather we are doing the very natural and necessary human work of making sense of our experience – may I (respectfully) challenge one of the most venerable meanings of ‘Anzac’ which goes back to World War I itself.
Most of us are well versed in the recital of John 15:13 at Anzac Day commemorations: ‘greater love hath no man than this, that a man lay down his life for his friends’. I understand the deep need of the shattered and grieving nation that Australia was, during and immediately after World War I, to make sense of the slaughter. And the words of Jesus seemed ready made for such a need. However, I am a good enough biblical scholar to know that when Jesus uttered those words about himself, he was not referring to doing what he was about to do in the context of war and being killed in the act of killing someone else. So, I question the on-going use of this passage of scripture on the grounds that it is actually a misuse of the words of Jesus. I further challenge the ‘blood sacrifice’ mythology which lies at the heart of the way in which these words have been misused.
So what of the RAN’s contribution to ‘the spirit of Anzac’? The Australian War Memorial defines that ‘spirit’ as ‘the human qualities of courage, mateship, and sacrifice’. We are well aware that at the outbreak of World War I, the RAN was a fully professional organization of career officers and sailors. Volunteers were recruited for the duration but their numbers never outweighed those who made up the RAN in 1914. Contrast this with the overwhelmingly volunteer 1st AIF. The men of the RAN did not enter World War I looking for the once in a lifetime great adventure, as did many in the 1st AIF. One wonders what the crew of AE2 thought when they heard they were on their way back to the Mediterranean so soon after the difficult passage out to Australia! Nor were they attracted by the pay as a means to overcome economic hardship. They no doubt shared the same sense of loyalty to King and Empire as did many in the Army – perhaps more so, as the majority of the officers and senior sailors were Royal Navy personnel.
But what of ‘courage, mateship, and sacrifice’? Yes, the RAN had all three of these qualities. And they had had them for generations as part of the culture of professionalism inherited from the Royal Navy. In World War I, the RAN did not suddenly discover that they had these qualities. World War I merely provided the RAN with another opportunity to display these ancient naval qualities. That the RAN did not blow its own trumpet – though it did briefly capture the public imagination and adulation in the early part of the war, thanks to Sydney – was partly due to the fact that she did not have a Charles Bean to extol her virtues. Nor would her culture of professionalism allow it.
To conclude, I ask you to imagine that it is May 1919 and you have arranged a catch up with a mate who is a sailor. In the course of the conversation you ask him: ‘what would you say is the Navy’s contribution to the Anzac spirit?’ The sailor is dumbstruck for a moment. The question has no meaning to him. It is nonsense. But he can talk of the miles he has sailed, the watches he has kept, and the job he has done in his part of ship to complete the mission, and to reach home safely again.