On Australia’s ‘Day of Shame’, after the release of the Brereton Report, there was much talk of ‘warrior culture’ and ‘bad apples’. Sir Galahad, shining exemplar of warrior culture, never burnt villages or murdered children, but ‘bad apples’ has more of a ring of truth if applied to the few soldiers who take pleasure in killing. The uncomfortable phrase ‘blood lust’ rarely gets a mention, in spite of a nod in that direction in the Brereton Report. It’s damned awkward to chat about a topic like ‘reptilian ruthlessness … one of the strongest of human drives’.1
The academic term is ‘hedonistic killing’, a subject as taboo as sex was in the 1950s. Lt-Colonel Dave Grossman, a US Army psychologist, broke the ice in the 1990s after spending 20 years interviewing veterans, hoping to understand ‘the beast called war—and the beast within each of us’.2 More research followed, confirming that for some soldiers the act of killing brings ‘a self-affirmation that is almost erotic’,3 as some veterans readily admitted.4 After such intensity, ordinary existence seems tedious and pointless. Joanna Bourke, after interviewing British, American and Australian veterans from three wars, found that this only applies to a small minority of alpha males; as little as 2 per cent according to Grossman.
Are Australian soldiers more brutal than others, as an American marine claimed recently? After reading the Brereton Report, political guru Guy Rundle wonders ‘whether there’s something uniquely Australian in all of this’.5 Our military culture does have a unique history; worth a look if it’s believed that current institutional behaviour is embedded in history and tradition.
Letters written by Australian soldiers show that many have concerns over violence and that they often sympathise with victims, but a brutal edge has been identified. ‘There is no doubt that our men are hard and even cruel,’ observed an Australian at Gallipoli.6 A century later, some allied soldiers believe that Australians are more brutal than most.7
From the start our soldiers bore an impossible burden, going back to 1885 when the colony of NSW sent troops to Sudan in the hope that ‘the sins of Botany Bay would be washed away by the waters of the Nile’.8 In 1827, a haughty British naval surgeon wrote that ‘Australia was the only country in the world which you are ashamed to confess having visited.’9
It was up to our soldiers to counter the convict stain by being the best, the bravest, the strongest and the most loyal to the mother country; to be living proof that the Australian colonies were not breeding degenerates tainted with inherited criminality. Their heroism has been one way, perhaps the only way, of rescuing national honour, and for the most part they have done us proud.
But the brutal edge was always there. It’s not hard to see why. A harsh settler society enforced toughness. The Molesworth Report of 1838, advocating an end to the transportation of convicts, commented that ‘a state of morality worse than that of any other community in the world existed in Australia’, and that witnessing chain gangs and floggings deadened the heart of the immigrant until ‘he becomes at last as cruel as the other gaolers.’10 Historian Geoffrey Blainey notes that brutality was common enough in nineteenth-century Europe, but ‘the brutality towards convicts in Australia seemed at times to surpass the standards of a callous age’.11
Convicts, working either as virtual slaves for the government or for free settlers, were liable to be flogged even for small misdemeanours. If soldiers were not available, squatters could employ professional scourgers to do the dirty work. At the height of transportation in 1835, it’s estimated that one in every three out of 27,000 convicts was flogged, with an average of 46 lashes each time. Twenty-five lashes could skin a man’s back and scar him permanently.12
The late Robert Hughes, in his classic work on this era, The Fatal Shore, believes that Australian society has been scarred by the ‘brutal psychic legacy of carceral life’.13 There were howls of protest at Hughes for speaking this truth, but the evidence is there. A culture of toughness reigned from the start, heavily overlaiden with militarist values. Has any other society, with the exception of ancient Sparta, been so thoroughly militarised? A visitor to the ‘jailer garrison’ in 1830 remarked on Sydney’s ‘military aspect’, with the large barracks known as ‘The Garrison’ dominating George Street at the centre of town, with batteries mounted on both sides of Sydney Cove and soldiers standing guard at public buildings. No other colony has had to arm itself from the outset against its own people, while at the same time putting down Indigenous resistance and preparing to fend off potential invasions from rival powers.
Having subdued a couple of major convict uprisings, the British redcoats were faced with permanent threats of insurrection, and in the countryside—alongside guerrilla warfare with tribal people—soldiers, squatters and travellers were plagued by escaped convicts and army deserters turned bushranger. A large professional military force was so crucial for enabling white settlement that Governor Bourke, in office 1831–37, wrote that without the redcoats ‘the country would be untenable’.14 The colony depended on the British garrisons throughout most of the first century, and military officers ruled as governors for five decades. Twenty-four British regiments rotated to Australia from 1810 until 1870, and were then replaced by local militia. Each regiment stayed for around four to six years before moving to the next post.15
Australia’s white population was seeded with soldiers and ex-soldiers, and by the end of the 1820s it’s estimated that one in every 17 whites was a soldier. Among the rest were numerous army deserters, convicts who had been soldiers, and discharged veterans known as ‘old soldiers’.16 Along with the serving soldiers there was an ‘almost forgotten stream of redcoat immigrants who helped populate Australia from the 1790s to the First World War’.17
The overwhelming military migration was thanks to the demobilisation of thousands of redundant British officers and men after the British-led victory over Napoleon in 1815.18 Pensions and half pay were inadequate and all were encouraged, even assisted, to emigrate. In the early 1830s, 4500 army pensioners were able to trade their allowances for a lump sum and a free passage to any British colony.19
Three companies of Waterloo veterans were sent to Australia to relieve the garrison from its policing role, but they proved to be ‘even more fond of the bottle than serving soldiers’20 and were disbanded to join earlier redcoat settlers on the land. But ex-soldiers without capital found rural life monotonous and hard. Near Mittagong outside Sydney, a visiting missionary noted ‘huts of several veterans who had grants of one hundred acres each … but drunkenness and profligacy have kept these wretched people in poverty’.21 Many formed the backbone of colonial police forces instead.
All ranks settling here had been brutalised by army life. Brutality and racism are the core of any imperial army, but for the British this was institutionalised on a huge scale, unbroken over centuries and impacting countless men and their families. The world’s greatest training ground for the slaughter of non-white people was in India, where hundreds of thousands of British men over several generations learnt to fight and kill. By the early nineteenth century, the East India Company’s army boasted 195,000 men under arms, making it one of the largest standing armies in the world, around twice the size of the British Army itself,22 which took over the company’s armies after the ‘great mutiny’ of 1857.
British soldiers in India were trained to commit atrocities in cold blood, involving mass hangings, shootings, floggings and deportation of suspected rebels.23 With constant military operations as well, most serving or former soldiers coming to Australia in the early years had witnessed days of slaughter at battle sites in India, or at Badajoz, Albuera and San Sebastian during the Peninsular War. All ranks were scarred by scenes of horror. A lieutenant from the 73rd Highland Regiment described the defeat of the East India Company’s army at Mysore in 1780:
The last and most awful struggle was marked by the clashing of arms … the glistening of bloody swords, oaths and imprecations; concluded with the groans and cries of mutilated men, wounded horses tumbling to the ground amid dying soldiers … Some were trampled under the feet of elephants, camels and horses, and those who were stripped of their clothing lay exposed to the scorching sun, without water and died a lingering and miserable death, becoming the prey to ravenous wild animals.24
In this engagement 36 out of 86 British officers were killed, and thousands were taken prisoner—some jailed for a decade—while hundreds were forcibly circumcised by Tipu Sultan’s men at Seringapatam.
The great Indian rebellion of 1857, in which white women and children were killed, took British racism up several notches, and soldiers readily took to calling Indians ‘pests’ or ‘vermin’, a habit easily transferred to non-whites throughout the Empire. Revenge had been swift, and in ‘probably the bloodiest episode in the entire history of British colonialism’, the East India Company’s soldiers murdered or hung tens of thousands of suspected rebels.25 A British officer witnessed the sack of Delhi: ‘There is no more terrible spectacle than a city taken by storm … the men in their pitiless rage showed no mercy … seeing the impetuous fury of our men, I could not help recalling to my mind the harrowing details of the old Peninsular wars …’
Scenes of slaughter and torture were etched into soldiers’ brains. After the terrible British retreat from Kabul, General Elphinstone told his aide that ‘sleeping and waking, the horrors of that dreadful retreat were always before his eyes’.26 Many of the redcoat settlers in Australia doubtless arrived with post-traumatic stress disorders and many of them self-medicated with drink in time-honoured fashion. In India just as many soldiers died of drink as of fever and other illnesses.
In 1846, Private John Pearman of the 3rd Light Dragoons wrote: ‘There was a great deal of drinking and men dying every day from the effects of drink …’ According to historian William Dalrymple, ‘The constant presence of mortality made men callous: they would mourn briefly for some perished friend, then bid drunkenly for his effects …’27 Human wrecks who managed to survive were shipped home from the military hospital at Deolali; their tremors and tics were dubbed the ‘doolally tap’.28
The Duke of Wellington famously described British soldiers as ‘the very scum of the earth’. Some, he said, had enlisted ‘for having got bastard children—some for minor offences—many more for drink’. Lord Erskine, the Lord Chancellor and a former army officer, regretted ‘the uncontrolled licentiousness of a brutal and insolent soldiery’, 29 and the secretary of war told the House of Commons in 1795 that army recruits were ‘men of a very low description’.30
When recruits were thin on the ground, ‘vagrants and vagabonds’ were conscripted, and criminals were released from prison on condition of joining up. During the American Revolutionary War, three whole regiments came from British jails. An officer complained that criminals under his command were ‘men of reprobate habits … whom it was impossible to reclaim … men debased and devoid of principle’.31
Following his ‘scum of the earth’ comment, the Duke of Wellington went on to say that army life had turned men into ‘the fine fellows they are’.32 It was believed that the metamorphosis of such ‘worthless characters’ was achieved through draconian discipline. A soldier wrote, ‘The private soldier is looked upon as the lowest class of animal, and only fit to be ruled by the cat o’nine tails and the provost sergeant’.33 An officer claimed, ‘The soldier was treated as an unruly child in a workhouse—fed, clothed and flogged, but never instructed, never reasoned with.’34
Flogging was in frequent use until 1868, and after that could still be employed in overseas postings such as Australia. A culprit’s whole regiment was forced to witness the punishment. The soldiers were formed into a square around a triangle to which the man was strapped. The regimental drummers took turns to whip the man’s back, supervised by the drum-major, while a non-commissioned officer counted the number of strokes. General Sir Charles Napier, Peninsular War veteran and later commander-in-chief in India, wrote in 1842:
I … have always observed, that when the skin is thoroughly cut up or flayed off, the great pain subsides. Men are frequently convulsed and screaming during the time they receive one lash to three hundred lashes, and then they bear the remainder, even to eight hundred or one thousand lashes, without a groan; they will often lie as if without life, and the Drummers appear to be flogging a lump of dead raw flesh … 35
A drummer complained that after administering the first 100 lashes, the blood ‘would fly about in all directions with every additional blow of the cat, so that by the time he had received three hundred, I have found my clothes all over blood from the knees to the crown of the head’.36
Many were lashed unconscious, a few went insane or died, although surgeons in attendance were empowered to call a halt if the man’s life was in danger. In that case, the flogging would be resumed once the man’s back was healed.
Backs were badly scarred for life, and although some officers disapproved of excessive flogging, others enjoyed the spectacle. In 1806, one sadistic officer from the 28th Regiment was flogging as many as 25 men at a time in daily parades, often for trivial reasons such as coughing in the ranks.37 Radical writer William Cobbett pointed out that the French never flogged their soldiers:
Buonaparte’s soldiers have never yet with tingling ears listened to the piercing screams of a human creature so tortured: they have never seen the blood oozing from his rent flesh … in short, Buonaparte’s soldiers cannot form any notion of that most heartrending of all exhibitions on this side of hell, an English Military Flogging.38
In colonial Australia the army extended their well-practised military-style flogging to convicts. Before transportation ended, countless convicts were brutalised by brutalised soldiers. Some were defiant, determined to prove they were every bit as tough as their tormentors, and they ‘laughed at those who cried out under the lash’.39 As a Scot said after a flogging, ‘Dae ye ca’ that a flogging? Hoots! I’ve got many a warse licking frae ma mither!’40 Drunk or delinquent soldiers were punished just as fiercely as convicts; in fact ‘the military cat o’ nine tails was heavier than the one used on convicts’.41
A toughened settler society under military rule knew only one way to cope with Indigenous resistance. Operations against tribal warriors were led by soldiers, first the Mounted Police from the British garrison, then the even more brutal Native Police: Indigenous men trained and commanded by whites, death squads not disbanded until around 1915. They accompanied settlers and prospectors along the expanding frontier in a brutal campaign of ethnic cleansing.
By 1876, a settler in south Queensland was able to write, ‘Sir, I live in one of the many districts where the work of extermination is virtually an accomplished fact … They have been shot and poisoned wholesale …’42 The debate over whether the killing times can be called genocide is unresolved. Genocide was never an official position, though a reliable report sent to London in 1879 averred that at a Christmas banquet hosted by the governor, the gathering concluded that ‘there is nothing for the Aborigines but extermination’.43
Hundreds of well-documented massacres have been mapped by Lyndall Ryan and her team from Newcastle University,44 but most, perhaps 80 per cent, were unrecorded.45 In the 1840s, squatter Henry Meyrick, writing to his mother from Western Port in Victoria, confessed: ‘I remember a time when my blood would have run cold at the bare mention of these things but now I am become so familiarised with scenes of horror, from having murder made a topic of every day conversation. I have heard tales told, and some things I have seen, that would form as dark a page as ever you could read.’46
The brutal edge in our military culture was cemented by the killing times, and the worst of it was that hunting and killing Indigenous people was regarded by many as a sport, fostered by the military and taken up by white settlers. Mary Gilmore related a story told by her grandmother, a settler on the Hawkesbury River in the 1840s: ‘Among the sports of the military officers and landed gentry, was hunting the blacks. Grandmother told me they went out after them with packs of dogs just as they hunted foxes in Ireland … when it was over they made a feast and had a ball.’47
In the 1880s, a Queenslander wrote that attacks on Indigenous groups ‘formed the text of yarns around the camp fires and in the shearers’ hut’ and ‘within the recollections of men not now past middle age … exciting accounts of battles of blackfellows were as common as sporting narratives’.48
As late as 1897, the Queensland police commissioner wrote of men who thought it ‘equal good fun to shoot a n—-r or to ravish a gin’.49 A British colonial official wrote that ‘even men of culture and refinement … talk not only of wholesale butchery … but of the individual murder of natives, exactly as they would talk of a day’s sport’, while a NSW squatter mentioned the ‘stimulus of frequent and bloody conflicts with the Aboriginals’.50
Colonel Charles Mundy, visiting the Australian colonies with his cousin Sir Charles Fitzroy in the 1850s, wrote: ‘Extermination is the word! Men, women and children are butchered without distinction. Superiority of weapon makes it a bloodless victory; but there is a species of excitement in it, and—children of wrath, as we are—it becomes by practice a pleasurable excitement.’51 Mundy wrote of atrocities, including the Myall Creek massacre, concluding that the ‘New Hollander’ settler was ‘little better than a wild beast’. Victorian ‘new chum’ Niel Black wrote that ‘numbers of the poor creatures have wantonly fallen victim to settlers scarcely less savage tho more enlightened than themselves, and that two-thirds of them does not care a single straw about taking the life of a native’,52 or as the Aboriginal Protector George Robinson wrote, some ‘inhuman scoundrels’ considered the life of a native ‘to be of no more value than a wild dog’.53
And so it was that a tough culture tolerated and even celebrated the wholesale killing of non-whites. But when Robert Hughes concluded that people ‘might have suffered less if New South Wales had been colonised by free emigrants who were, at least notionally, less brutal’,54 he might instead have written ‘less brutalised’: a fine point, but most convicts and soldiers were not brutal until a cruel system entrapped and warped them.
In the Great War of 1914–18, Egyptians, Bedouin and Palestinians were confronted by Australian soldiers. Several thousand in five brigades of the Australian Light Horse lived and fought in the Arab world for five years.55 Historian Bill Gammage, after researching the letters and diaries of around a thousand veterans, summed up their attitude: ‘To a man, light horsemen vehemently hated the Arabs … the Australians hardly thought it worth a mention if a few were killed.’56 The feeling was mutual: the Egyptians resented decades of British rule, and the Bedouin and Palestinians were literally starving, with their communities and food stores ravaged by the armies fighting across their land.
The Australian reign of terror in Cairo—represented as mere high jinks in Peter Weir’s 1981 film Gallipoli—involved drunken fights, rapes, looting, arson, insults, attacks and beatings culminating in the burning down of the brothel quarter. The British were concerned about ‘the prestige of the white races’.57 The ‘men in big hats’, as Egyptians called the Australians, brought British rule into disrepute. Some Australians had the impression that Egypt was English, and one reportedly asked, ‘Why were these——n—-s allowed in here at all?’58
In 1916, the Light Horse began the ride north through the Sinai desert, engaging in ‘great sweeps of the country in the endeavour to comb it clean of spying Bedouin’,59 a strategy deployed throughout the Empire to remove indigenous peoples from their land.60 One such sweep near Romani resembled the 1830 Black Line episode in Tasmania, with an identical outcome as only ‘a few natives were captured, but most of them were too fleet and wily to fall into the net’.61
The Bedouin were despised for thieving and even grave-robbing, and the official war historian H.S. Gullett wrote, ‘Scarcely higher in civilisation than the Australian blacks, these wretched tribes presented a miserable and starved appearance. Their women were particularly unattractive …’62 They were in fact starving, and certainly miserable. Hundreds were imprisoned to discourage any spying for the Turks. Their precious desert wells were systematically blown up to deny water to a potential Turkish advance—the British Army laid down pipes to ensure its own water supply—and their date crops and fruit trees were raided or destroyed.
The Light Horse on the road to Damascus were accompanied by thousands of Egyptians serving in the camel corps, transporting rations, water, ammunition, medical supplies and wounded men. Many were conscripted from their villages using methods described by a British observer as ‘a scandalous evil … shameful and corrupt’.63 Their clothing was inadequate, some were without shoes or head coverings, and none were issued with water bottles. The Australians were so brutal towards them that by August 1917 British HQ formally condemned the ‘promiscuous beating and flogging of native drivers’,64 while Australians complained that the British were ‘soft on natives’. There was no sympathy for those who died of sunstroke or from exposure in a severe winter in Palestine.
As the Light Horse went farther north, starving Palestinians were also despised. Their towns were wrecked in battles, and their crops and food stores were requisitioned or stolen. At Ludd and Ramleh ‘the dirty inhabitants scowled at us, plainly wishing they were man enough to cut our throats’.65 After war’s end, Australians and New Zealanders massacred unarmed civilians at the Palestinian village of Surafend, avenging a trooper who was killed when pursuing a thief.
Angry soldiers made a cordon around the village and ‘no Arab was allowed to leave’.66 The village headman could not or would not produce the culprit, and after hundreds more soldiers had gathered from nearby units, they killed most of the men in cold blood, after letting women and children leave. They then wrecked and burnt the village, and continued the rampage to a nearby Bedouin camp, which they also torched.67
The British commander-in-chief Sir Edmund Allenby arrived in person to denounce the soldiers as murderers and cowards, who had committed worse atrocities than the Turks.68 But within a few months, the same men were asked to put down a dangerous rebellion erupting in Egypt against British rule.
The 1st and 2nd Light Horse regiments had already embarked for Australia, but all remaining regiments participated.69 Happy to postpone the voyage home for the sake of more stoush, they ‘went out gaily on a new enterprise’.70 In early 1919, they spread out through rural provinces to hunt down the rebels. The appearance of the Australians was regarded as ‘particularly sinister and threatening’, and one notable told a light horseman that the English troops had been withdrawn so that the Australians could ‘do any killing that had to be done’.71
Perhaps this was not far wrong, and indeed Light Horseman C.G. Powles wrote that ‘our men were received with fear in the multitude of little villages with which the Nile delta is filled’.72 The Australians formed cordons around villages, lined up inhabitants and searched them, flogging some suspects on the spot, shooting those who tried to escape and escorting others to prison. Again, the British were concerned at ‘indiscriminate and excessive use of flogging’ and unreasonable harassment of moderates.73
Flogging was by now a national tradition, and in April another atrocity occurred when 120 males at the village of Saft-al-Malouk were rounded up and viciously flogged after attacks on Australians. The tactic of surrounding dwelling places before moving in to kill inhabitants had also been practised back home. Trooper Henry Bostock mentions an ‘appalling’ death rate among the ‘rebelling native population’, recording one clash where ‘the Egyptians lost over 200 killed and many wounded … we also had casualties’.74 Australian atrocities led to two separate courts of inquiry involving alleged burning of houses, rapes of women, looting of valuables and killing ‘for acts of individual opposition’.75 Most of the accusations were denied, there was no investigation into the killings and no significant disciplinary action was taken.
Many ‘regrettable incidents’ went unrecorded, but a letter from Light Horse General Ryrie describes using Aboriginal trackers to hunt a rebel who had killed a sentry, then burning down the nearest village ‘which covered about 18 acres … [we] got frantic wires from higher authority not to do it, but “finish village”’. Ryrie added that ‘Some of our men were killed through being careless and through the contempt they have for the Gyppo’.76 According to the official war history, only 20 Australians were killed in the 1919 campaign.
News of the reign of terror spread to Europe and America, and in Paris an Egyptian delegation displayed photos of the atrocities in support of the allegations, while the issue was also raised in the British parliament. In the United States, Irish nationalists denounced the British as the oppressors of Irish and Egyptians alike.77 Three decades later, after Nasser’s revolution ousted the British, an Egyptian crowd tore down a statue of a Light Horseman. Light Horseman Bostock’s memoirs include a photo captioned ‘Desert Legion Memorial … originally erected at Port Said, later brought to Australia and re-erected at Albany, W.A.’, so apparently the statue was rescued.78
In World War II, Australian soldiers returned to the Arab world, to find that the British had prudently closed Cairo’s brothel quarter in anticipation,79 though Peter FitzSimons in his stirring account of the Australian ‘Rats of Tobruk’ mentions a brothel in Port Said where Australians were ‘likely to be wild’.80 In Cairo they had to be content with a nightly ritual of smashing up night clubs or singing bawdy songs about the Egyptian royal family at picture shows.81
On the march across Libya, when Benghazi was captured by Australians, Germans reported ‘a wave of terror and looting’,82 and the same occurred at Derna.83 As incidents mounted, the British commander General Neame placed Arab towns, villages and ‘native camps’ everywhere out of bounds for Australians.84 Instead, a large Australian base camp, a tent city including a field hospital, was set up in relative isolation near Gaza beach, with ‘natives’ forbidden entry.
War historian Timothy Hall summed it up: ‘There was hardly a campaign where Australians fought during the Second World War where criticism was not levelled at them for their behaviour. The charges ranged from looting and drunkenness to theft, rape and, in New Guinea, even sacrilege.’85
In the defence of Tobruk and in the clashes across the Western Desert, the Australian troops were superb fighters, as even Rommel admitted. But praising their heroism is not the point here. Thanks to Labor prime minister John Curtin, they were abruptly called back to defend Australia from the Japanese advance in New Guinea, and again they displayed heroism in terrible battles along the Kokoda Trail. But racism was still very much in evidence, and this extract from an army newsletter says it all:
Those of you who were forced to sojourn in an area in Tobruk … will remember the gloomy, hangdog, tremulous and pouch-eyed sub-humans who were the oldest inhabitants of that delectable spot … Apparently they have a counterpart in New Guinea … all stores must now be carried on the shoulders of a person termed a ‘Boong’. All attempts so far to ascertain whether the ‘Boong’, like the camel, is divided into the ‘Pack’ and ‘Riding’ varieties have failed.86
The shoe had been on the other foot when Germans captured by Australians at Rabaul mocked them as ‘sons of convicts, murderers and thieves’.87
Australians also fought a hard campaign against the Vichy French in Syria, in uneasy alliance with the Free French. By the time of the Armistice in July 1941, ‘the army occupying most of Syria was primarily Australian, led by an Australian General’, Lt-General John Lavarack. Their victory over an unpopular and corrupt Vichy French regime helped to prevent the French from reclaiming their colony, and so Australians played a part in the winning of Syrian independence in 1946.88 But Gunner Reg Smith of the 17th Regiment wrote from Syria of his hatred for ‘the Arab, both here and in Palestine … a dirty snivelling contemptible type that for the first time made the caste system in India seem not only comprehensible but also desirable to me’.89
Churchill’s friend Sir Edward Spears, British minister to Syria and Lebanon, said that people were frightened of the Australians. One was found to have two pairs of ears in his rucksack (no details given), and the Australians brawled in Lebanon, killed gendarmes and were involved in various rackets. One of them had even managed to nick Free French General Catroux’s ‘superb gold-leafed cap’ at the Armistice talks in Acre.90
Spears wrote to British commander-in-chief General Auchinleck: ‘The Australians are already greatly feared by the natives. Their behaviour, with the exception of some specialised units which are well-disciplined, would be a disgrace to any army.’ He also wrote to Australia’s General Blamey complaining of brutal assaults on civilians, on French and British soldiers and on police, suggesting ‘a whack of penal servitude’, a fate from which they were saved by the urgent recall.
Though my own research goes no further than World War II, the Brereton Report lists alleged war crimes in Vietnam and Iraq as well as Afghanistan. After its publication, Australian journalist Andrew Quilty, based in Kabul since 2013, provided further information on illegal killings, and reported that the Governor of Uruzgan claimed that ‘the Taliban use the Australians’ brutality as a provocation to recruit men to fight against the government’. A victim added that the Australians ‘built animosity home by home’.91
Then Channel 9’s 60 Minutes program revealed attempts to intimidate witnesses of war crimes, and to hide videos of a drunken fancy dress party of Australian soldiers on duty in Afghanistan.92 Senior officers featured in simulated sex acts, and as a symbol of a deeply racist culture one soldier dressed in Ku Klux Klan robes, complete with the burning cross—a reminder that the first national president of the KKK was a former soldier, proudly presiding over the lynchings and murders of non-whites.
At the end of April, the Morrison government announced a Royal Commission into the alarming number of suicides among veterans; a move which had previously been resisted. It’s surely indicative of military dysfunction that while 41 defence personnel have died in the war in Afghanistan, there have been around 400 known veteran suicides dating back to 2001, and many more in the past year.93 There are multiple contributing factors, but when one grieving mother said that her son had been ‘kind and thoughtful’, it raises the spectre of what’s called ‘moral injury’. Our governments have been culpable for far too long for sending young men off to unjust wars; without parliamentary assent let alone any other form of public consultation. The cruel invasions of other peoples’ countries for no compelling reason must have dire consequences for soldiers who are basically decent and thoughtful.
In unjust wars only bullies thrive, and though the diverse cultures brought by large numbers of postwar migrants should have diluted the tough Anglo culture highlighted here, it seems that diversity has not had much impact on the military. The ‘carceral legacy’ of a militarised penal society may take more than a few generations to erase. Meanwhile we’re in debt to Dusty Miller and other whistleblowers, and to journalists such as the indomitable Chris Masters and Nick McKenzie for bringing on the Brereton inquiry and a promise of reform.
Caroline Graham is a former journalist turned academic and a retired senior lecturer in international politics, UTS. She is a founding member of Women’s Electoral Lobby NSW, now secretary of Northern Beaches Committee for Palestine and a member of Pittwater Knitting Nannas, activists for renewable energy.
- Karen Armstrong, Fields of Blood: Religion and the History of Violence, Kindle Books, 2014, Loc. 208.
- Dave Grossman, On Killing: The Psychological Cost of Learning to Kill in War and Society, Open Road, New York, 1995, Loc. 1788
- Armstrong, Fields of Blood, Loc 211.
- Joanna Bourke, An Intimate History of Killing: Face to Face Killing in 20th Century Warfare, Granta, 1999, see chapter 1, ‘The Pleasures of War’, a survey of combatants in three modern wars.
- Guy Rundle, ‘The uniquely Australian violence of the Brereton war crimes report’, Crikey Sunday Read, 22 November 2020.
- Bill Gammage, The Story of Gallipoli, Penguin, 1987, p. 54.
- Bourke, An Intimate History of Killing, p. 105. Veterans she interviewed identified Australians as ‘reputedly more brutal in battle’.
- Humphrey McQueen, A New Britannia, Penguin, 1986 , pp. 16–17.
- McQueen, A New Britannia, p. 99.
- Quoted in Geoffrey Blainey, The Story of Australia’s People, Penguin, 2015, p. 494.
- Blainey, The Story of Australia’s People, p. 280.
- Blainey, The Story of Australia’s People, p. 428.
- Robert Hughes, The Fatal Shore, Time Life Books, 1987, p. 25. Critics of this popular history point out that many convicts enjoyed a better life in Australia than they would have had in Britain, and the worst of the ‘legacy’ may have been limited to those who worked in manacles or leg irons in the ‘iron gangs’, under military guard and usually repeat offenders or, as Governor Darling called them, ‘double distilled villains’. The men were chained together when marching to work, escorted by soldiers with fixed bayonets, and as well as constructing public buildings they were condemned to building roads under harsh conditions in remote bushland.
- Peter Stanley, The Remote Garrison: The British Army in Australia 1788–1870, Kangaroo Press, 1986, p. 44.
- The rotation system was known in the army as the ‘arms plot’. The ‘jailer garrisons’ of Australia were often called on to help fight ‘over the ditch’ in the Māori Wars, 1845–70, before rotating to India or Britain. In one example of the system in operation, the 50th Regiment, the Queen’s Own—nicknamed the ‘Dirty Half-Hundred’—rotated to Germany, Jamaica, North America, Egypt, Malta, Ireland, Portugal, Australia, New Zealand, India and Crimea. Boredom and isolation in Australia resulted in a high level of desertion. The rank and file, on very low pay, were enlisted for life, and death, disability or desertion were the only escapes.
- Craig Wilcox, Red Coat Dreaming, Cambridge University Press, Melbourne, 2009, p. 17.
- Wilcox, Red Coat Dreaming, pp. 69–70.
- Christine Wright, Wellington’s Men in Australia: Peninsula War Veterans and the Making of Empire, 1820–1840, Palgrave Macmillan, 2011, p. 14. The scale and speed of demobilisation were impressive, with 236,000 in the British Army in 1814 but only 81,000 by 1819.
- Wilcox, Red Coat Dreaming, p. 69.
- Wilcox, Red Coat Dreaming, p. 28.
- Wilcox, Red Coat Dreaming, p. 78.
- William Dalrymple, The Anarchy: The Relentless Rise of the East India Company, Bloomsbury, London, 2019, p. 365.
- Shashi Tharoor, Inglorious Empire: What the British Did to India, Scribe, 2017. Chapter 5, entitled ‘The Myth of Enlightened Despotism’, gives details of Britain’s bloodthirsty rule, in opposition to historian Niall Fergusson’s depiction of a more benign imperialism. Tharoor is a former under-secretary of the UN, a Congress MP and the author of 14 books.
- Dalrymple, The Anarchy, p. 253.
- Dalrymple, The Anarchy, p. 391.
- William Dalrymple, Return of a King: The Battle for Afghanistan, Bloomsbury, London, 2016, p. 435.
- Dalrymple, The Anarchy, p. 76.
- Marquess of Anglesey, A History of the British Cavalry 1816–1919, Vol. II, reprint by Leo Cooper, 1998, Loc. 5565.
- Philip J. Haythornthwaite, Redcoats: The British Soldiers of the Napoleonic Wars, Pen & Sword Books, 2012, Loc.259. In the 1770s Erskine, a liberal Whig, produced a pamphlet entitled Observations on the Prevailing Abuses in the British Army…
- Haythornthwaite, Redcoats, Loc. 259, as quoted in the London Chronicle, 23 July, 1795.
- Haythornthwaite, Redcoats, Loc.1622.
- Haythornthwaite, Redcoats, Loc. 226. The notorious quotation was taken from the Earl of Stanhope’s Notes of Conversations with the Duke of Wellington, 1831–1851, London, 1888.
- Richard Holmes, Sahib: The British Soldier in India 1750–1914, HarperCollins E-Books, 2011, Loc. 7237. Holmes is a former brigadier and a prolific military historian. In assessing imperial historiography he steers a middle road between Niall Ferguson’s positivity and the negativity of some like Shashi Tharoor or Linda Colley.
- Holmes, Sahib, Loc.1278.
- Holmes, Sahib, Loc. 1381 and 1396.
- Holmes, Sahib, Loc.1387.
- Holmes, Sahib, Loc.1413.
- Holmes, Sahib, Loc. 1457, from William Cobbett’s Weekly Political Register, 22 June 1811. In 1810, Cobbett was imprisoned for seditious libel for objecting to the flogging of a local militia.
- John Hirst, Freedom on the Fatal Shore, Black Inc., Melbourne, 2008, p. 135.
- Holmes, Sahib, Loc. 7243. The Lieutenant who relayed this story was arguing that flogging was not degrading and was necessary to curb insubordination.
- Peter Stanley, The Remote Garrison, p. 8.
- Raymond Evans et al., Exclusion, Exploitation and Extermination, ANZ Book Company, Sydney, 1975, p. 80.
- H.D. Gibney, ‘McNab, Duncan, 1820–1896’, Australian Dictionary of Biography, vol. 5, Melbourne University Press, 1974. McNab, a Catholic priest (related to Australia’s first saint, Mary MacKillop) arrived in 1867 and spent the rest of his life working for Indigenous rights.
- Massacre website launched 5 July 2007, <https://c21ch.newcastle.edu.au/colonialmassacres>.
- Timothy Bottoms, Conspiracy of Silence: Queensland’s Frontier Killing Times, Allen & Unwin, 2013, p. 183. Massacres documented by Lyndall Ryan are estimated to be at most 20 per cent of the real total, according to research by Robert Ørsted-Jensen, a Dane who researched frontier massacres for his doctorate from the University of Queensland, concluding that the available records cover less than 10 per cent of the real total.
- Ian Clark, Scars in the Landscape: A Register of Massacre Sites in Western Victoria 1803–1859, Australian Institute for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Studies, Canberra, 1995, p. 1
- Mary Gilmore, More Recollections, Angus & Robertson, Sydney, 1935, p. 246. Her grandparents, the Beatties, had a farm on the Hunter River, but were run out of the area for daring to say that the shooting of Indigenous people was murder, and for sheltering those who were being hunted. Their cattle were shot and their paddocks set on fire.
- Henry Reynolds, Frontier: Aborigines, Settlers and Land, Allen & Unwin, Australia, 1996 , p. 59.
- Reynolds, Frontier, p.74.
- Reynolds, Frontier, p.52.
- Jane Lydon, ‘Witnessing Myall Creek’, in Jane Lydon and Lyndall Ryan (eds), Remembering the Myall Creek Massacre, NewSouth, Sydney, 2018, p. 64, from Mundy’s popular journal of his travels Our Antipodes, Richard Bentley, London, 1852.
- Jan Critchett, A Distant Field of Murder: Western District Frontiers 1834–1848, Melbourne University Press, 1990, p. 129.
- Critchett, A Distant Field of Murder, p. 32.
- Hughes, The Fatal Shore, p. 281. Geoffrey Blainey argues that South Australia was not settled by convicts and that this was perhaps a reason for better treatment of Indigenous people there.
- Ian Jones, Australians at War: The Australian Light Horse, Time-Life Books, 1987, p. 25. Also, two-thirds of the Imperial Camel Corps on the ‘Great Ride’ were Anzacs.
- Bill Gammage, The Broken Years, Penguin, 1975, p. 145.
- Suzanne Brugger, Australians and Egypt 1914–1919, Melbourne University Press, Melbourne, 1980, p. 61.
- Brugger, Australians and Egypt, p. 95.
- H.S. Gullett, Official War History 1914–1918, Vol. VIII, The AIF in Sinai and Palestine, University of Queensland Press, 1984 , p. 119.
- Lyndall Ryan, ‘The Black Line in Van Diemen’s Land: Success or Failure?’, Journal of Australian Studies, vol. 37, no. 1, 2013.
- Gullett, Official War History, p. 119.
- Gullett, Official War History, p. 103.
- B. Carman and J. McPherson (eds), The Man Who Loved Egypt: Bimbashi McPherson, BBC, 1985, p. 149.
- Brugger, Australians and Egypt, p. 77.
- Ion Idriess, The Desert Column, Angus & Robertson, Sydney, 1982 , p. 291. Around a dozen of the Light Horsemen published memoirs; the extremely racist views of Idriess are probably the tip of the iceberg.
- Gullett, Official War History, p. 788
- Accounts and numbers murdered vary. The official war historian Gullett defied pressure from the minister and the secretary of the Defence Department to omit any record of this massacre from the official account (see A.J. Hill’s introduction to the UQP edition, p. xxix in Gullett, Official War History. Gullett implied that the main perpetrators were New Zealanders though with close support from large bodies of Australians. Patsy Adam-Smith’s informant remembered ‘a mixed bunch of Australians, New Zealanders and Scots’ (p. 313).
- A.J. Hill, Chauvel of the Light Horse, Melbourne University Press, Melbourne, 1978, p. 92.
- Brugger, Australians and Egypt, p. 114. Australian historians neglect to cover this campaign so I am grateful to Brugger for her careful research and ability to read Arabic, as well as to published memoirs from a few former Light Horsemen.
- Gullett, Official War History, p. 793. Gullett’s official history devotes only an appendix of five paragraphs to the 1919 campaign, concluding only that the Australian and New Zealand Light Horse were ‘undoubtedly the dominant factor in temporarily restoring tranquillity to Egypt’.
- Gullett, Official War History, p. 120. Reported by Captain Higgins of the 12th Light Horse Regiment, at Simbellawein.
- C.G. Powles, The New Zealanders in Sinai & Palestine, Vol. III, NZ Official War History, 1922, p. 270. Powles was a Kiwi. The New Zealand Light Horse rode with the Australians and attitudes were indistinguishable, judging by Powles’ accounts.
- Brugger, Australians and Egypt, p. 126.
- Henry Bostock, The Great Ride, Artlook Books, Perth, 1982, p. 209.
- Brugger, Australians and Egypt, p. 131.
- General Granville Ryrie, letter dated 29 March 1919; War Memorial File MS986 644–681.
- Brugger, Australians and Egypt, p. 140.
- Details were hard to find. Another report mentions that this statue was at Alexandria.
- James Lucas, War in the Desert, Arms and Armour Press, London, 1982, p. 61.
- Peter FitzSimons, Tobruk, HarperCollins, Sydney, 2006, p. 117.
- Lucas, War in the Desert, pp. 61–2.
- Lucas, War in the Desert, p. 59.
- Timothy Hall, Tobruk 1941: The Desert Siege, Methuen, 1984, p. 32.
- Hall, Tobruk 1941, p. 33.
- Gavin Long, Australia in the War of 1939–1945: Greece, Crete and Syria, Official War History, Vol. II, Collins, 1986 , p. 516.
- Captain G. Moore, Mud and Blood in the Field: A collection of newsletters of the 2/23 AIF battalion, 1942–1945, John Sissons, Hughesdale, Victoria, 1984, p. 447.
- L.L. Robson, The First AIF, Melbourne University Press, 1982, p. 127.
- The allied forces comprised 18,000 Australians, 9000 British, 2000 Indians and 5000 free French.
- Reg Smith, letter in file of Pte William Towle, 11 July 1941, AWM file no. Pro 5262.
- Edward Spears, Fulfilment of a Mission: Syria and Lebanon 1941–1944, Leo Cooper, London, 1977, pp. 123, 139.
- The Monthly, 3 April, 2021.
- 60 Minutes, Channel Nine, 11 April, 2021.
- ABC News, 22 March, 2021.