Sunday, April 22, 2012

The Legend of ANZAC

April 25 each year is commemorated in Australia as ANZAC Day. It is on this day each year since 1916, that millions of Australians rise from out of their beds before dawn and assemble at their local Cenotaph in their town or city, and pay homage to Australia's war dead by participating in a short ceremony, usually attended and performed by military personnel currently members of the Australian Defence Force. And upon the Sun rising in the east, the Ode is recited;

                                       They shall not grow 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.

The sombre sound of a buglar playing the Last Post then signals the end of the ceremony and the crowd will disperse before attending whatever venue is arranged for breakfast and a later march along the town's main street, or arranged route in the larger towns and cities. The Veterans lead the marches, there are still survivors from the Second World War and the Korean War. The survivors of the later wars of Malaya, Vietnam, the First Gulf War, Iraq and Afghanistan are now beginning to outnumber the previous wars survivors. There are no Veterans left from the First World War, and the medals worn by those who once marched are now worn by members of their family. I feel proud to see young kids and adolescents, young men and women marching with those surviving Veterans and wearing their relative's medals. It is plain to see they do so with pride which is emotionally uplifting for those of us who value the sacrifices made by those who can no longer take part in this national day of rememberance.

But what is ANZAC Day and how did it come about? To understand this perculiarly Australian national day one must need to understand this nation's beginning;

Up until Federation Day, January 1st, 1901, Australia was an island continent of six British colonies, all with their own colonial parliaments, proud of their British outlook on life, but with their 'Australianess' readily on display. The push for national unity was becoming quite evident to the British Colonial Office that administered each and every colony individually. In aquiescence to the 'colonial independance' that was then driving the main political agenda of the day, the Constitution of Australia came into force whereby Australia became a Federation, the colonies became states of that Federation and the Commonwealth of Australia became a reality. National unity at last! Well not quite! A simple act of parliament cannot unite a people who had developed from individual colonies, even though they all shared their 'Australianess'. Something more was needed to unite the country into one people. And that 'something' would be an event that convulsed an entire world a little over 14 years later, the First World War.

Much has been written about the 'patriotic enthusiasm' of Australia's young men who enlisted to fight in the European War which broke out in 1914. Yet, many of those young enlistees came from the ranks of the unemployed, the down and out, or those out for some 'adventure' and a life not available at their dreary office jobs. Many were bushmen, skilled horse riders familiar with a 'hard life' in the 'bush' and self disciplined to a point where self reliance was very evident. Some joined up to fight for 'Mother England' while many just wanted the steady income of 60 cents a day. What they all had in common though, was that they were all volunteers to a man and they would fight together as Australian troops from Australian states, and not as colonial troops from individual colonies as they did during the Boer War.

So it was, that at dawn, on April 25, 1915, the First Australian Imperial Force and the New Zealand Expeditionary Force (ANZAC) landed at Gallipoli, a small cove in Turkey, which was to become known as ANZAC Cove. A name that is still carried to this day and enshrined as a memorial by modern day Turkey. Over the duration of the Gallipoli campaign, Anzacs in their thousands died defending what soon became apparent to the General Staff as indefensible. The impact of so many deaths (10,000 killed, 20,000 wounded) from two young nations of low population density (Australia 5 million, NZ 1 million) was shattering, not only to the public who became quickly aware of the military disaster as it unfolded, but to the politicians who had sent them off to fight under the guidance of the British General Staff who still fought wars based on 1880 tactics and thinking.

Worse was to come for those Anzacs who survived Gallipoli only to find themselves at the Western Front a few months later at the mercy of the criminally negligent British approach to fighting a modern war with outdated tactics, while being put up against a thoroughly modernized German killing machine.

To those who were not familiar with why Australians, and to a lesser extent New Zealanders, commemorate the disaster that was Gallipoli, I trust you will now have a better understanding of why a military defeat, and that is what Gallipoli was, is now a national day of commemoration and rememberance for all of Australia's war dead. ANZAC Day has never been about glorifying war as some will assert. It is all about remembering those Australians who have sacrificed their lives for our freedoms and cultural values, and that is why ANZAC Day has become embedded in the national psyche, and in those who consider themselves to be Australian.