Sunday, April 24, 2005
Australia is a young nation, and so finds it easy to place itself on the right side of history. We are not swung off course by the historical ballast carried by older countries; we fight the right wars, for the right causes. Australian servicemen and women have prevailed in many heroic conflicts. Yet Australia’s national day of remembrance for our fallen is tied to a battle ninety years ago that we lost, catastrophically. The very first Australian soldier to hit the beach at Gallipoli, Joseph Stratford, met a fate that would shortly befall many of his countrymen:
He struggled onto the beach and charged a Turkish machine-gun, bayoneting two Turks before falling over them dead, riddled with bullets.
Stratford wasn’t the first Anzac—it’s an acronym for A. & N. Z. Army Corps—to die. Others drowned before they could even make it to shore. As veterans of that day, and that war, gradually became too frail to march and eventually left this earth, many anticipated that our commemoration of an appalling defeat would fade with them. This hasn’t happened:
Peter Stanley, principal historian at the Australian War Memorial, said the combination of a “round anniversary” and the “fact that it has coincided with the 60th anniversary of the end of the Second World War” was driving interest in Anzac Day higher.
Mr Stanley said that 25 years ago, many Australians thought Anzac Day was “on the skids”.
"They looked around and saw the ageing veterans and said this day would decline, like Empire Day, and may even die out,” he said.
"Over 25 years, the exact reverse has occurred. It has grown, not just because it is a commemorative event, it has become the de facto national day."
Today thousands will gather in Sydney and the other state capitals to mark the 90th anniversary of the 1915 landing at Gallipoli. Perhaps 20,000 will be Gallipoli itself, where there will be surprise at the youth of many who died. Some marchers are as young now as were the soldiers they represent when they signed up for service:
Michelle Balfour, 15, will march tomorrow, wearing three generations of medals.
Her great-grandfather, Staff Sergeant John Balfour, was among the first Anzacs to land at Gallipoli on April 25, 1915.
"We’ve got to keep the tradition alive. If we don’t keep following it through, people will just think it’s in history and it wasn’t as big as it was."
Michelle and Michael Harris, the great-great-nephew of James Martin, who was the youngest Australian to go to war at age 14, will carry a replica banner used at the first Anzac Day service in 1916 at the Australian War Memorial tomorrow.
Small towns across Australia will also attend parades to mark a day that defines Australians. Which returns us to the fact that Gallipoli was a doomed conflict; how has this one battle come to shape us so profoundly? A clue may be found in the words of WWII veteran Bill McGrath, determined to march today, no matter what:
"I’ll just tag along at the end and see how far I can go, but I’ll tell you, I’ll be crawling before they put me in a car,” Mr McGrath said.
Anzac Day is less to do with loss or victory than it is to do with struggle and defiance, even when facing certain defeat. But Anzac Day also serves to remind us of Australian triumphs, as reader kisdm001 noted earlier in comments:
If you go to the north of France - as I did with the much better half a little while ago - there is a village called Villers-Bretonneux. This little village was liberated by Australian troops in World War One one year to the day after the landing at Gallipoli - April 25th 1916.
We stopped in at the local bar and had a drink and got talking to the old guy who ran the joint. My girlfriend - who is French - explained that I was Australian and that in the afternoon we were going to visit the Aussie War Graves just outside of town.
Finding out I was an Aussie was enough. The drinks were on the house and - after a second round - that old fella shut up shop and took us on a walking tour of the town. He showed us the flagpole in the village where the Australian flag still flies. He showed us the square where ANZAC Day is celebrated each and every year, usually with a representative of the Aussie embassy from Paris. And then he showed us the local school with the plaque attached noting that it was rebuilt with funds sent back to France from Australian soldiers who had liberated it from the Germans. There is even a kangaroo carved into the stone. 90 years on, this old fella still remembered what his father probably would have told him: Australian soldiers aren’t about killing, they’re about saving; it’s not about destroying, it’s about rebuilding.