Yesterday was Anzac Day in Australia. Our official national day is Australia Day, 26th January, celebrating the establishment of a British Colony here. But increasingly Anzac Day is seen as defining what it is to be Australian. Which is perhaps a tad peculiar for non Australians when they come to understand just what it is that Anzac Day celebrates. Anzac Day remembers the landing of the combined Australian and New Zealand Army Corps (ANZAC) troops on the Gallipoli Peninsula in what is modern day Turkey on 25th April, 1915. It came to commemorate the whole of the Gallipoli Campaign which lasted aproximately nine months, and now encompasses all armed conflicts where Australian and New Zealand troops have served.
After a failed British Naval attempt to force the Bosphorus and gain control of the Black Sea, thereby opening up a supply route to Russia, it was decided a land invasion of Turkey was needed. A combined force from the UK, France, Australia, New Zealand, India and New Foundland (according to Wiki) was assembled. Poorly planned, badly executed – the campaign was a disaster pretty much from the start. And it rarely improved. We thought in our arrogance that the Turks were a backwards people that would be easily defeated, but they were brave, determined and resouceful. And they kicked our sorry arses back into the sea. Australia's first major military engagement as a new nation was also our first major defeat.
Superficially at least this is what we celebrate on Anzac Day. But what we are actually celebrating is the courage of ordinary people who did their best in endeavours that often had little chance of success and whose personal survival was far from guarenteed. People that showed us bravery is not defined by the absence of fear but by attempting what is asked of them whilst in the grip of terror. Ordinary people. Heroes.
Anzac day begins with a Dawn Sevice at a memorial, perhaps linked to the dawn landings of the Anzac forces. Often the 4th stanza of Laurence Binyon's poem "For The Fallen" is recited ....
"They shall grow not old, as we that are left grow old;
Age shall not weary them, nor the years condemn.
At the going down of the sun and in the morning
We will remember them."... Lest we forget.
This is followed by marches of veterans of previous conflicts as well as current military personel and other groups. Increasingly, children and grandchildren of dead veterans are marching in their places. Over the past several years mention somewhere on the day is made of the comment attributed to Mustafa Kemal Atatürk, a Turkish military commander during the Gallipoli Campaign who went on to become the first President of the modern Turkish state. Bearing in mind that we invaded his country slaughtering close to 100,000 of it's people and wounding upwards of a quarter of a million more, the chivalric generosity of his comments has made my eyes tear more than once. In 1934 he said to the families of those invaders that died in that campaign ...
"Those heroes that shed their blood and lost their lives… you are now lying in the soil of a friendly country. Therefore rest in peace. There is no difference between the Johnnies and the Mehmets where they lie side by side here in this country of ours… 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. Having lost their lives on this land they have become our sons as well. "
Anzac Day is also commemorated by New Zealand, several Pacific Island nations and in various other countries around the world. In an ongoing generosity of spirit Turkey has built and maintains a specific site at Gallipoli to cater for the increasing crowds of mostly Australians and New Zealanders that visit each year to attend the Anzac Day Dawn Service. For this Turkey deserves our constant thanks. Apparently this year there were also several hundreds of Turks amongst the crowd, a truly wonderful thing.
Two songs have come to represent the paradoxical nature of what Anzac Day means to many of us, how we feel about past conflicts as we honour those that served in them. The first is "And the band played Waltzing Matilda" by Eric Bogle in 1972. This is about the Gallipoli Campaign, and despite having several historical inaccuracies (not the least that I'm not sure Anzacs were ever part of the Suvla Bay landings) it is still probably the most evocative song about Australia's involvement in WWI. Here is link to a You Tube version by Liam Clancy ...
The second song is "I was only 19" by the band Redgum from around 1983. It deals with our involvement in the Viet Nam War. It was unfortunate that many of us expressed our opposition to the war by turning our backs on those who fought in it. A cruelty I'm personally ashamed of and regret to this day. A link to You Tube is here ...
It's a funny thing but as the years pass I've become so fucking proud to be an Aussie, knowing that we don't have to glorify war, we can mourn the stupidity and hurt of armed conflicts whilst celebrating the courage and sacrifice of those we send to fight them. I just find it hard to believe it's taken me so long to realise this!