The Battlefield of Imperishable Memory
Passchendaele and the Anzac Legend
By Matthew Haultain-Gall
Published by Monash University Publishing
RRP $34.95 in paperback | ISBN 9781922464064
This book began life as a doctoral thesis and has taken Matthew Haultain-Gall the best part of a decade to write.
He began by posing the question of why our collective memory of the 1917 Belgian campaigns is so limited compared with how, for example, we as a nation remember Gallipoli.
His book aligns with a boom in what are now called ‘memory studies’ – the ways in which Western countries have begun to rediscover and confront their past history and the ways in which they commemorate – and often over-sentimentalise – the key events of the past.
The first major engagement the AIF fought in Belgium was the Battle of Messines in June 1917, a necessary prelude to the third battle of Ypres (now known as Passchendaele). By the time the AIF withdrew, it had suffered over 38,000 casualties, including 10,000 dead, far outweighing Australian losses in any other Great War campaign.
Given the extent of their sacrifices, the Australians’ exploits in Belgium ought to be well known in a nation that has fervently commemorated its involvement in the First World War.
Yet, Passchendaele occupies an ambiguous place in Australian collective memory.
Tracing the commemorative work of official and non-official agents — including that of C.E.W. Bean as well as returned soldiers, battlefield pilgrims and, more recently, the Department of Veterans’ Affairs, working in collaboration with Belgian locals — Haultain-Gall explores why these battles became, and still remain, peripheral to the dominant First World War narrative in Australia: the Anzac legend.
VERDICT: A well researched and thought-provoking book