8 April 2015


About 150 metres from where I am now living in France, is a mass grave where 70 French and Austrian soldiers lie buried (see photo). They died in 1815 in what was a ‘side-show’ battle to the main event that had concluded at Waterloo a few days previously (sadly and ironically those who participated were probably unaware that the outcome of the war had already effectively been decided.)

Until well into the nineteenth century, soldiers’ remains were often simply left to decompose where they had fallen, their deaths not marked in any meaningful manner. (It was only in the past ten years that a memorial was erected on the site of the mass grave mentioned above.) By the end of the 19th century broader cultural, social and political shifts in attitudes towards death, war and the nation had occurred. Where once death had been an accepted and ever-present spectre, there was a growing unwillingness to accept separation and loss. Accounts of war correspondents and photography contributed to that by bringing the reality of the frontline closer than ever before to civilian audiences.

Changing attitudes towards death in war during the nineteenth century raised fundamental questions about what men were fighting for. Were soldiers dying for their monarch or emperor, their nation, or for something else? Justifying the sacrifices of fallen soldiers required narratives and noble causes. To suggest that they might have died for some trivial cause or even in vain was culturally and politically unpalatable.

Thus acts of remembrance sought to legitimise death on the battlefield as a heroic sacrifice for a particular cause. Governments, armies, religious institutions, cultural actors, local communities and other interested parties attempted to impose narratives upon the dead to legitimise their own agendas.

As Australia prepares to commemorate its war dead on Anzac Day (April 25th) it is important to remember that debating the nature of wars, and how and why they were fought, is not to dishonour the memory of the dead. It is also important that commemorations are not used to legitimise or glorify war.

For Australians too, it can be asked why in our commemoration of those who died in war, (including the 8709 who died at Gallipoli), the estimated 30,000 deaths that occurred in the so-called Frontier Wars are ignored.

(some material for this article is taken from http://www.historyandpolicy.org/policy-papers/papers/how-should-we-commemorate-wars-lessons-from-the-nineteenth-century)

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