As I write, I’m munching on a tasty, oatey, coconutty biscuit. Reminiscent of a HobNob, but with a Pacific flavour, the delicacy in question is the noble Anzac biscuit, and it’s exactly the kind of biscuit one should be eating in late April if one has any kind of interest in (a) the history of WW1; (b) social history and its impact on baking; and (c) the South Pacific. I happen to fall into all three of those categories, so it’s perfection in dunkable form…
The Anzac biscuit in commercial form. (Source.)
Tomorrow is Anzac Day and the 100th anniversary of the beginning of the doomed Gallipoli campaign. The two are connected. While we remember the troops lost in war on the anniversary of the armistice, in the Southern Hemisphere, the main focus is April 25th – because it was at Gallipoli that the Anzac (ANZAC = Australia & New Zealand Army Corps) troops made their name.
Having made the unusual discovery that Anzac biscuits were in stock at Sainsbury’s, I got thinking about the legend of the Anzacs and Gallipoli. It threw me back in time, not a century, but a decade (and a bit). This time 11 years ago I was stuffing information about Anzacs and Gallipoli into my poor little brain, ready for a MA exam. [At this point I may need to explain something. Yes, I am currently doing a MA in theology. Yes, 11 years ago I was doing a MA in history. No, I don’t feel that I have too many academic qualifications…]
Specifically, this was a MA in Imperial & Commonwealth History at King’s College London. There aren’t many courses like that in the UK (at the time, there were 3) and I managed to mould my year’s studying generally around two themes: the history of mission in the 19th century and the South Pacific. A taught module on War & Society in 20th Century Australia fitted only into the latter category, but it sounded fun, so I went with it.
Back to the biscuits…
The Anzac biscuit (it is believed) was created as a long-lasting biscuit that could be baked in Australia and NZ and sent to loved ones serving in the Anzacs in WW1. Anzacs were involved both on the Western Front and in the Mediterranean, which brings us back to the Gallipoli anniversary.
The Gallipoli campaign was an unmitigated disaster (not one of Churchill’s finest moments), but it changed the course of history in the homeland of the bulk of the troops, largely thanks to the work of those who first reported the landings on April 25th. British war correspondent, Ellis Ashmead Bartlett wrote about the actions of the Anzacs in glowing terms:
‘The courage displayed by these wounded Australians will never be forgotten…they were happy because they had been tried for the first time and had not been found wanting.’
‘Report on the Gallipoli Landing, 8 May 1915’
Perhaps partly because the words had been written by a Brit, and because some positive had been drawn from a failure [the extent of the failure couldn’t be reported at the time] the report went down in history in Australia and with it, the ‘Anzac legend’ was born. It’s one that depicts the Australian man as a united in ‘mateship’ with his comrades; with great courage; strong and fit; humorous; egalitarian and ‘irreverent in the face of authority’. If you’re looking for an Aussie stereotype, you’ve got one right there! [In case you’re wondering about the Kiwis, I think it had a lesser impact upon NZ society, but to be honest, it’s not something I’ve researched! The poster below indicates that it was a feature to some extent.]
The legend affected Australian society for a long time. As I’ve returned to the file containing my MA essays, I’ve remembered a paper I wrote on the impact that the stationing of US troops had on Australian society during WW2. One of the significant effects was on the courtship of women! US solders (over paid, over sexed & over here!) wooed Australian women in a way that the typical Aussie male did not – with flowers, sincerity and romance. The Anzac legend had encouraged Aussie men to look like they were made of stronger stuff, and not the kind of men who bothered with things like flowers! The legend has become more myth and less reality as time has worn on, although you could argue that Alf in Home & Away embodies it. [Is Alf still in Home & Away? I’ve never been a frequent viewer, but he strikes me as that sort of type!]
The Anzac legend came to the fore again as troops were needed for WW2. [Poster, ’The “Spirit of ANZAC” Calls You’, Late 1939 / Early 1940, Wellington, by Whitcombe & Tombs Limited, New Zealand Army Department. Purchased 2007. Te Papa (GH015835)]
Oh, and there was also the small matter of the Australian journalist who set out to bring the real disaster of Gallipoli to society’s attention – one Keith Murdoch. His rise to fame had an impact that is certainly still being felt in global society today, thanks to the work of his son, one Rupert Murdoch…
Obviously, the centenary of this terrible loss of life [read up on Gallipoli, it’s up there with the Somme as a flawed military engagement with little regard for human life] is an occasion for solemnity and retrospection, and for making a renewed commitment to seeking peaceful ways to resolve conflict. However, do also remember the events of a century ago with a mug of tea and a packet of Anzac biscuits, or make your own.
What the world needs is less military action and more baked goods that can teach history!
If you’re interested in knowing more about the Anzacs, there’s (obviously) a wealth of resources to explore. You could go old school and watch the 1981 Gallipoli, featuring Mel Gibson. Or you could try Russell Crowe’s 2015 directorial debut The Water Diviner [disclaimer: this didn’t get a great review from Wittertainment]. Then there’s a different take on the conflict with Australia’s Anzac Girls, which is due to start airing May 1st on More 4.