Gallipoli was a defeat, and Kokoda was a victory. Gallipoli was fought on the other side of the world, while Kokoda was fought on what was then Australian territory. Yet it is still Gallipoli rather than Kokoda which has caught the Australian popular imagination. In 1981, one of Australia’s leading film directors, Peter Weir, and its best-known playwright, David Williamson, collaborated on a hugely popular film about Australians at war – and it was called Gallipoli.
This echoes what has happened more broadly in relation to how the two world wars have been seen in Australia. This essay will attempt to trace the elements in the differing responses to them.
The threats to Australia in the World Wars, and the prices paid.
The relative lack of a ‘myth’ surrounding Kokoda and the rest of the New Guinea campaign seems remarkable given that Australians believed they were under threat of invasion by the Japanese in 1942. The Prime Minister, John Curtin, had declared on 16 February that ‘The fall of Singapore opens the Battle for Australia’. The Japanese went on to invade New Guinea, bomb Darwin and other towns in northern Australia, and send midget submarines on a raid into Sydney Harbour; they would also torpedo Allied shipping off the Australian coast through much of the war.
In response to this threat, Australia succeeded at Milne Bay by 6 September in inflicting on the Japanese Army its first defeat of the war, repelling the Japanese on one of the two approach routes to Port Moresby. General Slim, commander of British forces in Burma, would later point out (in an often-quoted remark) that ‘it was Australian soldiers who first broke the spell of the invincibility of the Japanese Army’, giving Allied forces a psychological boost. Meanwhile, by the end of September, the Australians had stopped the Japanese advance along the Kokoda Track within 50 km of Port Moresby.
It is easy to believe that, if the Japanese had actually attempted to invade Australia, and...