The first twenty years of my life spent in Ireland left a strong legacy of distrusting any institutions that had strong links to British imperialism and the culture around Anzac Day fitted that bill. I was also naturally inclined to view it through the prism of the senseless slaughter of the First World War. Its religious overtones held little appeal too. My anti Anzac Day sentiments were shored up by Peter Weir’s Gallipoli and the angry lament of the Pogues’ version of “The Band Played Waltzing Matilda”.
Eric Bogle wrote that song in 1971 but Anzac Day would eventually prove him wrong. Although the numbers of the original diggers shrunk to nothing, there were more than enough veterans of other military conflicts and overseas engagements to take their places. The size of the march began to increase again and so did the audience for the services and parade. The young people stopped asking “what are they marching for” and began to wear their grandparents medals with pride. Gelibolu Yarımadası became a compulsory stop on any European tour.
Thanks to the attention it got from the Hawke and Keating governments Anzac Day was well on the mend in Australia by 1996. Through a collection of circumstances I was awake and in the centre of Melbourne for that year’s Anzac Day dawn service. I shivered through a crisp autumn morning at the city’s massive war memorial on St Kilda road but was fascinated by the formal solemnity of the ritual I was watching. Lit by fires under the dramatic dawn skies, the ceremony expertly fused elements from church services, funerals, concerts, orations and military display in pervasive sombreness.
About a month earlier, John Howard was elected Prime Minister. Eight long years after he said it, the times finally suited him. The invented tradition of Anzac Day chimed in perfectly with his more strident view of Australian white history and the British tradition it sprung from. He also tapped into a growing nationalism based on “Aussie, Aussie” culture and the primacy of the flag. Anzac Day became bigger than ever.
I resisted most of these strains. Yet Gallipoli was growing on me. I read Les Carlyon’s wonderful history of the campaign and what struck me most, apart from the inevitable catalog of errors, was the number of Australian deaths. 643 in the first week, 1,805 through May, 265 in June, 143 in July, 2,054 in the August offensive with another 572 in the last four months. All across Australia that winter, people would have heard about the death of a father, brother, son, cousin or friend. This was Australia’s first major national tragedy since Federation in 1901 and it was this communal grief that the ANZAC committees tapped into as early as 25 April 1916.
The Anzac experience was compounded by events in Western Europe. Thousands more Australians would die in the horrible hell holes of Ypres and the Somme. Over 400,000 Australians enlisted in the First World War – almost two in five of the adult population between 18 and 44. 61,513 of them died (easily the largest of any conflict) and another 170,000 were injured or taken POW. In a country of four million people, it would be difficult to imagine anyone who wasn’t somehow affected by this catastrophe. Anzac Day was as good a way as any of honouring the memory of this harrowing experience.
This year, my job as a country reporter took me to two dawn services, the first in Roma and the second 40km away in the small town of Muckadilla. I hadn’t been to a dawn service since that first one in Melbourne in 1996 though I had attended a few of the parades. The formal part of the Roma and Muckadilla proceedings had not changed. “Shortly after 2am, three battleships, the Queen, the Prince of Wales and London reached their sea rendezvous off Gaba Tebe and stopped to lower their boats,” began the narrative of 95 years ago. The flag was lower and raised, the Ode was recited followed by a minute’s silence, the last post and the national anthem.
But beyond effigies of symbolism lay the meeting of real people. 250 people turned up in Roma, 42 in tiny Muckadilla, easily doubling its population. A bigger crowd still congregated back in Roma for the parade and another service. But for me it wasn’t the ritual that was important. It was what those people did and said to each other before and after the ceremonies that gave the day its power. It brought people together for a common theme if not a common purpose. Again as part of my job, I asked various people what Anzac Day meant to them. Almost all the answers were thoughtful and complex. Most remembered the deaths of family members or friends or people they knew about. If nothing else the Anzac tradition concentrates the mind wonderfully about mortality, and that for a day is no harm.