21 years of living next door to Anzac

My first Anzac Day in Australia was in 1989 and it brings back happy memories purely because it was an unexpected long weekend and a first chance to visit Adelaide. When in the city of churches I paid no attention to Anzac Day ceremonies and probably spent the day either on Glenelg beach or in the Barossa wineries. Even when I got Australian citizenship a few years later, I didn’t think my love for living in Australia would ever cover its military history or traditions. (picture: 2010 dawn service at Muckadilla, Western Queensland)

The first 20 years of my life in Ireland left a strong legacy of distrusting institutions with links to British imperialism and the culture around Anzac Day fitted that bill. I was also inclined to view it through the prism of the senseless slaughter of the First World War. Its religious overtones held little appeal. 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 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 Yarimadsi became a compulsory stop on European tours.

Thanks to Hawke and Keating government funding 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. Lit by fires under the dramatic dawn skies, the ceremony fused elements from church services, funerals, concerts, orations and military display in pervasive sombreness.

About a month earlier, John Howard was elected Prime Minister, the times finally suiting him. The invented tradition of Anzac Day chimed perfectly with his more strident view of Australian white history and the British tradition it sprung from. He also tapped into a growing nationalism 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 history of the campaign and what struck me most, apart from the 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 communal grief 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 hell holes at 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, most were affected by this catastrophe. Anzac Day was a way 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 at Muckadilla. I hadn’t been to a dawn service since that one in Melbourne in 1996 though I had attended a few 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.

Beyond the 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. 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 and common purpose. I asked 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. The Anzac tradition concentrates the mind about mortality, and that for a day is no harm.

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