Commemorating ANZAC Day

My father spent much of his earlier adult life in the army (or during the days of horse-drawn artillery, in the militia and later in the coastal artillery during WWII), but to my recollection, he never once participated in an ANZAC Day March or Dawn Service.  So why do I, who never progressed beyond the school cadets, attend every Dawn Service and encourage my family to accompany me?

I’ve asked myself this countless times, recalling my very first ANZAC Day, when school mates and I stood in the cold, early morning drizzle, at the Cenotaph in Sydney’s Martin Place.

Perhaps the answer is, at least in part, that we Australians are a pretty perverse mob.  We’ve often heard it said that in commemorating the hour and date on which the first Australian Imperial Forces (AIF) landed on the beaches of ANZAC Cove, we are honouring a defeat.  An unsuccessful campaign in which the Turks clearly emerged victors.  Why not commemorate some of our subsequent victories of that protracted war? For example, the Western Front or Palestine? WWI, the ‘Great War’, wasn’t even our first overseas foray – our armed forces had been to Sudan, Crimea and, even after Federation in 1901, the Boer War.

As a nation, we’re not overtly ‘patriotic’. Unlike the USA and many European countries, we’re not into flag-flying and saluting. Sadly, most of us don’t even know the words of our national anthem – I often find myself cringing at people stumbling over the words when I watch public events.

But I’ve come to suspect that, in our country, there’s a less obvious, more subtle form of ‘patriotism’. Not jingoistic, and difficult to articulate, but nevertheless very real for at least a significant proportion of the population.

In 1916, when the Australian authorities declared 25 April as the official date for commemorating the nation’s ‘baptism of fire’, the conflict was to be ‘the war to end all wars’. Sadly, as we know today, the Treaty of Versailles merely sowed the seeds of the next world war. So ANZAC Day, at the risk of sounding insensitive, gained a new lease of life; the passing of the WWI diggers would no longer lead to the demise of this national day of commemoration. And so the pattern emerged; Korea, the Malaysian ‘emergency’, Indonesian ‘confrontation’, Vietnam, Iraq, East Timor, Afghanistan, plus countless smaller spats ensuring that every year there was a Dawn Service, followed by a march and countless reunions across the continent and in numerous overseas locations.

Now, after every ANZAC Day, the RSL and the media will announce that ever larger numbers attended these services, marches and other events across Australia. And, as an observer, I can certainly vouch for that. The Dawn Service at the Shrine of Remembrance in Melbourne has grown more crowded with each passing year. Those attending appear to represent a very diverse range of Australians – families, sometimes three generations, the young and old, men and women.

We’ve all heard how, in recent years, young Australian and New Zealand backpackers have draped themselves in their nations’ flags to attend the Dawn Service at ANZAC Cove. But many others, of all ages, visit Gallipoli throughout the entire year. Our family did so in June 2012. To stand above that beach and below those infamous ridges and gullies, is a deeply spiritual experience. And, now, our daughter SJ, the YourLifeChoices correspondent in London, rises early and buses to Hyde Park Corner to attend the Dawn Service before work. This year she’ll be joined by other young Australians and Kiwis from her office.

Perhaps, as other traditional and more obvious sources of spiritual inspiration and fulfilment have been eroded in our society, this eternal need in human beings is in some way satisfied by such pilgrimages to sites of extreme courage, sacrifice and ‘mateship’.

Two decades ago, there was justifiable concern amongst the authorities, including the RSL, that interest in ANZAC Day was waning, as demonstrated by declining attendances on the day. This trend has, to the surprise of many, been reversed and this augurs well for the foreseeable future. Hopefully, we will not require fresh casualties amongst the nation’s armed forces on active service to maintain this level of support.

How will you spend ANZAC Day?

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