Monthly Archives: April 2017
Albert Biggs, a labourer from Sydney who enlisted in the Australian Imperial Force under the name Alfred Briggs, was 23 when he arrived in Gallipoli on 22 August 1915.
Biggs, as part of the second reinforcements for the 20th battalion, fought to defend the Anzac trenches on the ridge known as Russell’s Top, from where the ill-fated 3rd Light Horse Brigade had launched their attack for the Battle of the Nek. His battalion was evacuated to Egypt in December 1915 and sent to the Western Front the following April.
Biggs was awarded the Military Medal for “great initiative and bravery” at Lagnicourt on 15 April 1917, but he was severely wounded at the second battle of Bullecourt on 5 May. Shrapnel flew into his left knee, leaving it permanently fused, and his right humerus was shattered. This damaged the nerves in his arm so badly that he could scarcely use his right hand.
Biggs spent nearly 12 months in hospital in Rouen, France, before being moved to the Tooting Military Hospital in London, where he was first encouraged to take up embroidery. He returned to Sydney in September 1918 and spent almost two years at the 4th Australian General Hospital at Randwick (where the Prince of Wales Hospital stands today), and convalescent homes. He was discharged from the army in 1920.
Biggs was one of more than 156,000 Australian men who were wounded, gassed, or taken prisoner during the first world war. Like many of his comrades, however, it is also likely that he suffered from some form of shell shock.
Many of the hospitals tending the wounded during and after the War provided bright, clean, quiet environments where the men could perform meditative, transformative work that was essential to their rehabilitation from their physical and mental wounds.
One such activity was embroidery, also known as “fancy work”. Embroidery was widely used as a form of therapy for British, Australian, and New Zealand soldiers wounded in the War – challenging the gendered construct of it as “women’s work” that was ubiquitous throughout the 19th century.
Hospitals in England, France, Australia, and New Zealand all offered embroidery therapy and important examples of the soldiers’ work can be found in places such as the TePapa Museum in Wellington, New Zealand, the Australian War Memorial Museum and St Paul’s Cathedral in London, where the beautiful embroidered Altar Frontal was created by wounded soldiers from the UK, Australia, Canada, and South Africa.
Themes of the soldiers’ embroidery ranged from military heraldry to scenes from the French countryside to pieces for their sweethearts.
The 4 AGH in Randwick had vast recreation facilities to help with soldiers’ rehabilitation and occupational therapy. Staff encouraged Biggs to resume embroidery to pass the time and develop the fine motor skills in his left hand.
Individual embroidery was an excellent past-time for the wounded soldiers; it is a small, flat, quiet, intimate activity that can be conducted seated, either in a group or alone. The classes at 4 AGH were taught by volunteers and, as Lieutenant Colonel CLS Mackintosh noted, helped the patients, “to forget that they have any great disability.”
The Australian War Memorial holds at least four examples of Biggs’ embroidery. One, which he completed while at the hospital in Randwick, shows a cushion with the 1912 Australian coat of arms sewn in stem, long, and satin stitch onto a black background.
From what we know about Biggs’ service, we can surmise that this choice of embroidery pattern was bound to a constancy in his identity throughout his army experiences. Once a labourer, the war had made him a soldier, a war hero, and an invalid but he remained, above all, Australian.
Biggs’s niece transformed several pieces of his embroidery into cushion covers. The back of the coat of arms cushion features six colourful, embroidered butterflies. The butterfly is a Christian symbol of hope and of the resurrection, because of its three stages of life. The butterfly is also associated with Psalm 119:50, “This is my comfort in my affliction: for thy word hath quickened me.”
Biggs also created a piece with six gold daisies and four sprays of red berries and a piece with a King’s crown with crossed Union flag and Australian ensign, all within a laurel wreath. A scroll bearing the words, “For England home and beauty” sits above the piece; and a scroll reading “Australia will be there” below, but the rest of the pattern is unfinished.
Creating these delicate works was a great achievement for Biggs as the skill would have taken him years to master; it is not unlike a right-handed person learning to write again neatly with their left hand.
The soldiers’ work also created economic opportunities. Their embroidery and other ornaments were sold at the Red Cross Hospital Handicrafts Shop in Sydney where visitors were encouraged to “purchase the work of returned soldiers to help them help themselves”. The Red Cross also supplied printed templates for embroidery, many of which bore patriotic messages, such as the piece that Biggs left uncompleted.
One hundred years later, the story of Biggs’ bravery in Gallipoli and France has been stitched into the broader “mythscape” that surrounds Anzac Day. His embroidery, however, speaks to us of the quiet courage and dignity of Australia’s soldiers as they tried to mend their shattered lives following World War I.
And interestingly, two recent studies have helped articulate the rationale for rehabilatation embroidery. One has demonstrated that undertaking everyday craft activities is associated with emotional flourishing, revealing the importance of handcrafts to their makers. Another study has shown that embroidery and sewing can allow individuals to work through mental trauma associated with war.
Highlighting the practice of rehabilitation embroidery gives us new ways to remember Biggs and the 416,809 Australian men who served in WWI. The stories they stitched into their embroidery allow us to remember them as we grow old.
Australia is spending the extraordinary amount of A$562 million commemorating the centenary of the first world war between 2014 and 2018 — far more than any other nation, including the major combatants. This is compelling proof we are very attached to the cluster of beliefs and traditions we call the “Anzac legend”.
While we identify Anzac as one of the most prized components of the Australian identity in 2017, that has not always been the case. The values we associate with Anzac today – mateship, sacrifice, the birth of the nation – are not necessarily the qualities that would have come to mind for an Australian of the 1920s.
And if you asked a university student in the 1970s what they thought about Anzac, they might well have told you that it was an old-fashioned idea that glorified war; the sooner it was forgotten, the better.
The Anzac legend has an often-controversial history. That history began almost as soon as news of the dawn landing of the Anzac troops at Gallipoli on April 25, 1915 reached Australian shores.
Newspaper editors, politicians and leaders of the church readily proclaimed the charge up the cliffs into Turkish fire to be Australia’s “baptism of fire” and “the birth of the nation”.
The more obvious occasion for Australia’s national birth — the peaceful act of federation on January 1, 1901 – lacked the bloody appeal of Gallipoli. The Australian nation was created during the age of “New Imperialism”, when the empires of Europe were engaged in furious competition for colonial outposts and the resources and markets they would bring.
It was a contest that led in 1914 to the outbreak of the first world war. According to the chest-beating nationalism that accompanied and justified this imperial jostling, war was the truest test of the character of men and nations.
Australians felt especially keenly their lack of bloody initiation (the frontier wars with Aboriginal peoples did not count), given our penal past. A good showing in battle would expunge the convict stain and prove us worthy members of the British race.
Even the radical poet Henry Lawson favoured war as the national midwife over peaceful federation. “We boast no more of our bloodless flag, that rose from a nation’s slime,” he wrote in The Star of Australasia. Instead, Lawson forewarned:
The Star of the South shall rise, in the lurid clouds of war.
The earliest version of the Anzac legend reflected the society from which it sprung. It sought both to distinguish Australians from Britons and earn their approval. Thus, the original Anzac legend emphasised the fighting ability of the Australian soldiers, and their national distinctiveness.
Unlike the English, we were laconic and egalitarian. We didn’t stand on ceremonies like saluting and parading, but when it came to battle we were second to none. None of these comparisons with Britain indicated disloyalty to the “mother country”. One of the tenets of Anzac commemoration remained our continuing devotion to King and Empire.
The Anzac legend became an important addition to the Australian identity during the 1920s and 1930s, but it would be wrong to assume that it enjoyed the celebratory connotations it does today.
Anzac commemoration had natural constraints. Sixty thousand Australians were killed in the war, and 160,000 were recorded officially as wounded. Australians felt immense pride in the achievements of their soldiers, but that pride was tethered to the grief of those who had witnessed first-hand the devastating effect of war.
Along with the deep attachment to our British heritage, female subservience and sexual abstinence, the Anzac legend was one of the foundation stones of Australian society that was upturned by the generation that grew to maturity in the 1960s.
Alan Seymour’s 1958 play, The One Day of the Year, notoriously condemned Anzac Day as a day of “bloody wastefulness” perpetuated year after year by a “screaming tribe of great, stupid, drunken, vicious, bigoted no-hopers”.
The unpopularity of the Vietnam War from the mid-1960s greatly exacerbated anti-Anzac feeling. Later, in the 1970s and early 1980s, feminist protesters targeted Anzac Day, condemning the rape of women in war. For many among the baby-boomer generation, war commemoration had become indistinguishable from the glorification of war.
Myths and legends always reflect the societies in which they exist. So, we have seen the Anzac legend bend and sway to accommodate our contemporary concerns with diversity and inclusiveness. Women and non-Anglo Australians have been increasingly drawn into the Anzac tent.
The extent to which Aboriginal Australians have both sought and been invited to participate has been one of the noticeable trends of the Anzac centenary commemorations. Tom Wright’s play Black Diggers has toured the country, telling the story of a group of Aboriginal soldiers who fought loyally for Australia, only to be relegated to their lowly status after they returned.
As the centenary of the Gallipoli landing loomed in 2015, it looked as if Anzac was becoming the kind of commercially driven carnival that Easter and Christmas have morphed into.
Canny business people knew a cash cow when they saw one. There were Gallipoli cruises, camps and concerts. Men’s magazines and merchandisers peddled Anzac porn (before the Department of Veterans’ Affairs shut them down). We even had Gallipoli the Musical.
The most notorious of the “Brandzac” ventures was Woolworths’ “Fresh in our Memories” campaign — a public relations disaster for the ages. Leading up to Anzac Day in 2015, Woolworths encouraged people to post images of those who had been affected by war. At the bottom of the images, Woolworths’ picture generator inserted the slogan “Fresh in Our Memories” and the company’s logo.
The blatant commercial motive drew an immediate social media backlash, including a rash of satirical memes.
Woolworths’ blunder was a symptom of a bigger problem. Perhaps the public appetite for Anzac had been overestimated. Amid rumblings about Gallipoli fatigue, Channels Seven and Nine scaled back their plans for coverage of the dawn service in Gallipoli. Lee Kernaghan’s “Spirit of the Anzacs” arena spectacular was cancelled due to poor ticket sales.
Channel Nine’s seven-part TV series, Gallipoli — predicted to be the “biggest show on television” in 2015 by network head David Gyngell — was a spectacular ratings flop, despite critical acclaim. Foxtel’s excellent Deadline Gallipoli, starring Sam Worthington, also failed to fire.
Anzac commemoration has been noticeably more muted since 2015. Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull is less ready than his predecessor Tony Abbott to exalt the Anzacs and prime the nationalist pump. Like his son-in-law and former army captain, James Brown, who criticised our “Anzac obsession” in his book Anzac’s Long Shadow, Turnbull prefers to emphasise the service and well-being of contemporary military personnel and veterans.
Criticisms of the Anzac excess from commentators including historian Marilyn Lake, co-author of What’s Wrong with Anzac?, and David Stephens at the Honest History group have arguably helped to temper the more exuberant rhetoric of politicians and ambitions of cynical commercial interests. Stephens has recently co-edited The Honest History Book, which argues that:
Australia is more than Anzac – and always has been.
While Australians no longer blink an eye at the rampant commercialisation of Easter and Christmas, we have drawn the line at allowing Anzac to be surrendered to the profit gods. Does this mean that Anzac is more sacred to Australians than the Christian traditions of Easter and Christmas?
With its invocations to suffering and sacrifice, its quasi-worship of long-deceased young men and its solemn dawn service rites, Anzac commemoration shares many of the elements of conventional religion.
The historian Ken Inglis wondered as long ago as 1960 whether Anzac functioned as a secular religion in Australian society. In 2017, I think we can confidently answer: yes, it does.
The Conversation is running a series of explainers on key moments in Australian political history, looking at what happened, its impact then, and its relevance to politics today.
During the Hawke-Keating years, the union movement – under the leadership of Australian Council of Trade Unions (ACTU) secretary Bill Kelty – became a partner in Labor’s economic rationalist agenda.
Through Accord agreements, unions accepted a degree of responsibility for Australia’s broader economic health. This was often at the expense of their own members’ interests.
The Hawke Labor government had a strong incentive to seek a new approach to industrial relations when it came to office.
The last time Labor held government was under Gough Whitlam, between 1972 and 1975. At that time, Hawke was ACTU president, and the front man for the industrial militancy and wages explosion that saw inflation peak at 18% and unemployment reach 5% for the first time since the early 1940s.
Hawke was a confrontational union leader. But Hawke 2.0, the self-possessed teetotaller who became prime minister in 1983, preferred consensus.
In opposition, Labor’s industrial relations spokesperson, Ralph Willis, developed the idea of a formalised agreement between the unions and Labor in government, which was adopted as policy at the Labor Party conference in 1979.
The Prices and Incomes Accord was a series of agreements between Labor and the ACTU where unions would moderate their wage demands in exchange for improvements in the “social wage”.
The first Accord was struck in February 1983, just before the election of the Hawke government. There were six subsequent accords, culminating in Accord Mark VII in October 1991, which ushered in the system of enterprise bargaining.
The Industrial Relations Commission developed a policy of “two-tier” wage fixation, in a shift from the “wage indexation” system of the past. Basic increases would be provided but additional wage rises were dependent on “efficiency offsets”.
By the early 1990s, this had developed into the dual system of basic annual wage increases for award-covered workers, and the opportunity to implement enterprise-based agreements to drive productivity at the workplace level.
The Accord’s social wage elements included better public health provision through Medicare, improvements to pensions and unemployment benefits, tax cuts, and – eventually – superannuation.
What was its impact?
The Accord was a key component of the Hawke-Keating governments’ economic reform program. Along with the floating of the Australian dollar, opening the door to international banks and the reduction of tariffs, the Accord signalled a turn toward a more globally engaged Australian economy.
Hawke’s consensus-oriented style brought the union movement inside the economic policy management tent. This was also a corporatist project: although business groups were not formally part of the Accord, Hawke brought big business into other institutions such as the Economic Planning Advisory Council.
Generally, business groups became critical of the influence the ACTU exerted over Labor through the Accord years. From the mid-1980s, arguments for radical reform of the industrial relations system grew stronger.
Elements in the Coalition and the New Right pushed for individual workplace bargaining and a reduction of union power. They saw the Accord as symbolic of the much-reviled “industrial relations club”.
Within the union movement itself, the Accord was always controversial. Critics argued it transferred power from the grassroots network of delegates and shop stewards to an elite group of senior officials sitting around the table with business and government.
The Accord evolved over the 1980s to focus mainly on managing wages outcomes while ignoring accompanying increases in the social wage. In response, left-wing officials like Laurie Carmichael of the Metalworkers Union became increasingly critical of the Accord. For many, the union movement had simply given up too much for too little.
What are its contemporary implications?
On the 30th anniversary of the Accord in 2013, ACTU president Ged Kearney said the Accord’s spirit should be revived to meet the challenges of job insecurity and wage inequality.
Rising inequality is behind the backlash now underway against neoliberalism and the mantra of prosperity through free trade and globalisation.
The ACTU’s new secretary, Sally McManus, has been in the headlines since assuming her position in March this year. McManus said she believed workers were justified in breaking laws that they judged to be unfair.
She later declared neoliberalism had “run its course”, and:
The Keating years created vast wealth for Australia, but it has not been shared, and too much has ended up in offshore bank accounts or in CEO’s back pockets.
McManus’ combative style recalls an era before market economics gained bipartisan support, when the lines between labour and capital were more sharply drawn. Her approach also raises important questions about the future of the relationship between the industrial and political wings of the Australian labour movement.
McManus appears to be positioning the union movement as the bulwark against unfairness, and the vigorous defender of long-held conditions. There is none of the Kelty “pinstriped proletarian” in her approach. It is unknown whether the McManus-led ACTU will entertain a similar kind of compact with a Shorten Labor government, or take a more conflict-oriented approach.
Bill Shorten is by nature a consensus Labor leader, who is inclined to seek common ground between business and labour. At present, though, he is riding the turn against neoliberalism, adopting a pro-union position and populist rhetoric on issues such as corporate tax cuts and penalty rates.
There is some prospect therefore of a new Labor-ACTU compact for the 2020s. This would not focus so much on the Accord’s economic objectives, but on the protection of workers’ rights in the fast-changing world of automation and new platforms of service delivery.