Gang-gang. A Canberra Battle of Waterloo legend is being battled by some facts

Gang-gang. A Canberra Battle of Waterloo legend is being battled by some facts

You will wonder at first why this utterly parochial little Canberra-focused column is mentioning it, but this Thursday 18 June brings the 200th anniversary of the Battle of Waterloo of 1815. Just to enlighten our younger readers, who will never have heard of this grisly occasion, (today's young people take no interest in the history of anything that happened before the onset of their puberty) the battle at Waterloo in today's Belgium saw the Anglo-allied army of the Duke of Wellington thrash the French army of Emperor Napoleon. There were 50,000 killed or wounded, in a crunching battle of great significance.

Now, Canberra legend and folklore have it (but I am afraid that the truth lie in wait, getting ready to ambush the legend in just a few sentences time) that a man who fought for Wellington at Waterloo then came out to these colonies and became a person of significance on these Limestone Plains.

Napoleon at Waterloo looks in vain for James Ainslie.

Napoleon at Waterloo looks in vain for James Ainslie.

He was James Ainslie, born in 1787, a Scot and a shepherd and overseer for Robert Campbell of Duntroon. Canberra's Mount Ainslie, crucial to the Griffins' dreamy vision of our city, is named in honour of James Ainslie.

Ainslie always seems to have claimed that he had fought at Waterloo. James Ainslie authority, Rowan Henderson of the Canberra Museum and Gallery, has found that when very drunk Ainslie became quite dangerous to his companions because he imagined himself to be in the thick of the carnage at murderous Waterloo.


But was Ainslie ever at Waterloo? Rowan, spoilsporting, doubts it.

She has found that a Waterloo Medal was awarded to every British soldier, irrespective of rank, who took part in any one of a suite of battles against the French (one of them at Waterloo) in June 1815. Alas, though, there's no mention of James Ainslie among the 37,000 recipients catalogued in the original Waterloo Medal Book.

Perhaps Ainslie, wishing he had been there, lied that was. Similarly, millions of people of my generation swear that they were at Woodstock when the select few of us who really were there (and with flowers in our hair) numbered only 300,000.

Bur we mustn't grieve too deeply over Ms Henderson's findings because popular legends show a famous teflon-like resistance to truth and to facts. Most Canberrans will continue to believe that James Ainslie fought at Waterloo because it is such an attractive idea. We hear what we want to hear and disregard the rest.

There is a highly topical (with Gallipoli and the Great War on all our minds) example of this very phenomenon going on at the moment. The scholarly, evidence-fixated folk of the Honest History movement and blog, are convinced, by research, that Kemal Ataturk probably never have wrote or said the famous sentiments attributed to him about Australia's war dead.

"Those heroes that shed their blood and lost their lives ...You are now lying in the soil of a friendly country ... You, the mothers, who sent their sons from far away countries wipe away your tears.Your sons are now lying in our bosom and are in peace after having lost their lives on this land."

"They are lovely words", Dr David Stephens of HH agrees, "but we really don't know that Atatürk ever said or wrote them. It detracts from the dignity of commemoration, whether it is in speeches or memorials, if we keep quoting these words and putting his name under them without proper evidence. Doing it again and again, as we have done ... just sets in stone what may well be a myth."

And so it has come to pass that HH, hearing that the City of Hume in Melbourne is planning a monument or memorial to Ataturk emblazoned with the famous words, is in correspondence with the City's movers and shakers. That correspondence is on the HH website. It reveals HH counselling the city to beware of setting in stone what may not be an Ataturkism at all. The city's response thus far shows a sweet indifference to whether the words are true or not and a determination to use them because they are such jolly lovely words and are much quoted by of lovely politicians.

Some of us will wager that the City of Hume will press ahead. Australia is dumb now, and when Truth and Sentimentality get into an Australian ring together, Sentimentality usually wins by knock out.

Your columnist has personal experience of another, less consequential example of truth having no power to spoil a dear old story.

I discovered and have written about the real reasons why the federal capital city was built not along the idyllic coast but so far inland and at such a chilly, frost-prone elevation. They are meteorological and racial reasons and are rather fascinating (we won't go into them here) but I discovered long ago that they cannot compete with the popular belief, that the federal city was built so far inland so as to be out of range of bombardment from guns of the Russian navy.

That belief is nonsense (I always offer to buy a lottery ticket for anyone who can find me anyone involved in the Battle of the Sites parliamentary and wider public debates ever even mentioning it as a factor) but it is amusing, neat and tidy, intellectually undemanding nonsense. It is a harmless, pleasure-giving fable that, thank goodness, will live on for centuries long after the last copy of my truth-packed little book on the subject has been nibbled to oblivion by silverfish.

100 years ago: Sydney's housing crisis celebratess its centenary

Sydney's housing crisis and housing affordability horrors, dominating the news today, were similarly newsworthy 100 years ago this week, albeit lacking a Joe Hockey buffoon figure to make things worse.

The Sydney correspondent of Melbourne's Punch confirmed that "The housing problem is the big bugbear that Sydney is facing at present; or, in fact, has been facing for a very long time.

"We have sent an enormous number of men to the war, but that seems to have made little or no difference to the question of where to put the people of this over-populated city. This subject has been talked over by various political and non-political bodies; but the question is the same as when we started, for we have got no further ahead with the scheme for the establishment of dwelling places for the middle class as well as the poor.

"Flats of tremendous heights and innumerable rooms are run up with an almost incredible rapidity, and the tenants have taken on leases before the first storey is finished, and they fill up long before the completion of the building.

"As for cottages and houses, it is almost impossible to get either close to the city as it was for the poor camel to pass through the eye of a needle. People who have homes seem to cling on to them like limpets to a rock, and house rent is a King's ransom."

Ian Warden is a columnist for The Canberra Times

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