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Monday, April 22, 2013


April 25th is ANZAC Day here in Australia and, knowing I have readers who are not Australian or New Zealanders I thought I would talk a little bit about ANZAC Day and what it means to us.

I think every country in the world has its own day of remembrance and commemoration for those who have fought and died in the conflicts of the world.  Americans have Veterans Day, the British have Remembrance Day and in Australia we have ANZAC day, commemorated on April 25th every year.

ANZAC literally means the “Australian and New Zealand Army Corps”… the young men gathered from this far flung corner of the British Empire who sailed off in 1914 to help defend “the mother country”. The young men who boarded the troop transports at Princes Pier here in Melbourne, probably didn’t even understand quite what it was they were going to defend the mother country from. All they knew was that England had called and it was a good excuse for an adventure.

 Although, I have no direct Australian connection to ANZAC day (my own grandfather fought in the British army as a medic in Mesopotamia and in an earlier blog I have written of my search for the grave of my father’s cousin on the western front - Tears on the Western Front), I served in the Australian Defence Forces for nearly twenty years  and  I have followed my husband’s researches of his own grandfather, EAB,  who went to war in 1915, was wounded in the arm and returned home in 1919.

In 1914 Australia as a country was only 13 years old, having achieved its independence from Britain in 1901. The total population was only 4 million but the ties with England were still strong and in England’s hour of need a generation of young Australian men answered the call. Over 400,000 thousand enlisted to serve in the AIF (the Australian Imperial Force) - 10% of its entire population. Back to statistics later but remember that number.

Australian soldiers in Egypt

The big adventure started in Egypt. Wearing their distinctive slouch hats, the young soldiers explored the souks, had their photographs taken, visited the pyramids and rode camels. Anything further from Australia they could not have imagined. The British officers were heard to complain about their disrespectful attitude and their larrikin ways.

In far off London, the secretary for the navy, Winston Churchill was planning a campaign to seize the Dardanelles (the narrow entrance to the Black Sea) by attacking the Gallipoli peninsular, firmly held by the Turks under Mustafa Kemal (later known as Ataturk). Having failed to take the Gallipoli Peninsula with a naval attack, he decided to send in land troops. Key to this invasion were the ANZACs and on 25 April 1915 they landed at ANZAC cove and Suvla Bay. Confronting them were cliffs and the heavily dug in and armed Turkish forces. They came under heavy fire even as they struggled ashore. The campaign was doomed for failure even before it began.

The Gallipoli Campaign...the Australians landed in the north
The Australians and New Zealanders showed incredible bravery and forced their way up the cliffs establishing positions along the front but the Turks were too well dug in and for 8 long months a stalemate ensued. Attacks on Lone Pine and the Nek were repulsed with heavy casualties on the Australians side. In December 1915 the most successful manouevre of the whole campaign was conducted with minimal casualties...the withdrawal from the Gallipoli peninsular. 

In 1934 Atatürk wrote a tribute to the ANZACs killed at Gallipoli:
"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 to us where they lie side by side now here in this country of ours... you, the mothers, who sent their sons from faraway countries wipe away your tears; your sons are now lying in our bosom and are in peace. After having lost their lives on this land. They have become our sons as well."
(This inscription appears on the Kemal Atatürk Memorial, ANZAC Parade, Canberra)

The Australians at Anzac Cove
The irony that one of the most seminal moments in Australian history was technically a massive defeat is not lost on the Australians.  What is remembered is that Gallipoli had been a bitter blooding, a hard coming of age. 8,709 young Australians never left the Gallipoli peninsula and lie interred in the Commonwealth Cemetery at ANZAC cove. But if Gallipoli had been hard, worse was yet to come. The Australians were sent to the Western Front where for another 3 long years they fought and died for the “mother country”.  As the only battle seasoned troops on the Western Front they tended to be used as “shock troops” and suffered commensurate casualty rates, amongst the highest of all the allies.

My husband’s grandfather was among the second wave to land at Gallipoli and he talked quite freely about his time there so much so that the family assumed he had been wounded there. It was only when my husband started his researches that he discovered that EAB had survived Gallipoli and had sustained his wound on the Somme in November 1916 (only a few months and  a few miles from where Richard Conway-Lowe, my own forebear, died in August of that year). He never spoke about the Western Front. In 1919 he returned to Australia with an arm held together with twitching wire, cleared a soldier settlement block in the Riverland of South Australia, married and raised a family. He died of a heart attack on an ANZAC day march in the 1960s.

Remember the 400,000 men who went to war?  According to historian Patsy Adam Smith:
    • died            58,961
    • wounded   166,811
    • missing or prisoners of war 4,098
    • suffered from sickness  87,865

"At almost 65%, the Australian casualty rate (proportionate to total embarkations) was the highest of the war."

As a percentage of the Australian population, nearly an entire generation of young men had been wiped out or were in some way left impaired by the War (part of the story behind my own novel, GATHER THE BONES).

ANZAC day itself was formally gazetted as a public holiday in 1921 , although its observance had begun as early as 1916. As a child growing up in Australia in the 1960s and 70s, in the midst of another unpopular war being fought in Vietnam, ANZAC day became almost reviled. Protesters would line the streets, hurling abuse at the old soldiers as they marched past.  It was thought as the last of those who served in the Great War died and the ranks of those who fought in the second grew thinner, that ANZAC day would lose its meaning  and like the old soldiers just “fade away”.

I don’t know what happened, what changed but in the 1990s, a new generation discovered  ANZAC day--whether it was being taught in schools or it was part of a wave of national pride or a real understanding about what the lives of those young men who died in that terrible war really meant. The crowds at the ANZAC day marches and dawn services began to grow, a new generation wearing their grandfather’s campaign medals started to march behind the battalion colours. Today the dawn service at Gallipoli in Turkey is the site of a mass pilgrimage of young Australians every year.

The Dawn Service at Melbourne's Shrine of Remembrance 
The traditions of ANZAC day are part of our genetic make up. The dawn service, the playing of the last post, the words “Lest we Forget”, followed by marches, wreath laying, the gunfire breakfasts and the games of  "two up" and the baking of home made Anzac biscuits.

To me, as a soldier, ANZAC day was an important part of the year, beginning as a private soldier in a hastily cobbled together drum corps  (as I have no sense of rhythm my career as a drummer was shortlived!), to a young officer helping the parade marshalls. My husband, an infantry company commander, frequently marched with his soldiers. We enjoyed many a “gunfire” breakfast – tea and whiskey and avoided losing our money at two up. I have worn the slouch hat with its distinctive "rising sun" hat badge with incredible pride, conscious of the men and women who went before me.

For the three years we lived in Singapore, we attended the dawn service held at Kranji War Cemetery, where another generation of young Australian lie buried – those who fell in the defence of Singapore in 1942. A lone piper stood high above us on the roof of the memorial as the day broke through the humidity over the peaceful green sward, peppered with its simple white gravestones.

I have been to the dawn service in Paris, stood on the battlefields of France where Richard Conway-Lowe died and where my husband’s grandfather was wounded, attended the ANZAC Day commemorations on the Somme and sung the Australian national anthem and the Marseilles so many times I became hoarse. I have shared breakfast at the little school in Villers Brettoneux, paid for by fundraising from Victorian school children after the war. This little village had been liberated by the Australian troops on Anzac Day 1918. Around the walls of the school hall with its carved Australian animals are the words. “Nous n’oublions pas l’Australie”. We will never forget Australia.


Excerpt from GATHER THE BONES by Alison Stuart. In this excerpt Helen Morrow reflects on the moment when her husband and brother decided to join up. Her husband, Charlie, did not return.

"The photograph showed two young men in the uniform of infantry officers, one seated and the other standing, a photograph like thousands of others that were now the last link with the dead. Helen had a single portrait of Charlie, taken at the same photographic session, sporting an elegant, unfamiliar moustache and grinning from ear to ear, like an over-anxious school boy, keen to join the ‘stoush’, kill the ‘bloody Bosch’. She felt a keen sense of pain that reverberated as strongly as it had on the day he told her he would have to return to England.

“I can’t leave them to fight the Huns, Helen,” he said. “Damn it, I have a duty to England.” 

The drunken words came back to her and she could see Charlie in the kitchen of Terrala with his arm across her brother Henry’s shoulders, as they celebrated their mutual decision to join the war.

Henry had already enlisted in the Australian Light Horse and Charlie told her a few days later that he intended to return to England to join his cousin’s regiment.

“Do you think I would leave Paul to uphold the family honor?” he said. And he’d gone.

Even as she had stood on the dock at Port Melbourne, the cold winter wind whipping at her ankles, she had known he would not return. She wondered if his decision to go would have been any different if they had known she was carrying his child. Probably not."