Anzac Day and Memorialisation

Anzac day always fills me with deep melancholy. It’s that annual combination of personal missing of my father, a WW2 Vet, autumn leaves falling, and that deeper sadness that comes from the stories and legends of the Australian/New Zealand experience in battle, particularly those relating to the soldiers who fought in the Great war, WW1. We can talk about personal sacrifice, the fallen, and repeat the usual psalms on this day but we can’t remember what we haven’t experienced. I don’t attend morning ceremonies on ANZAC day but I always spend time visiting small suburban and town war memorials whenever I’m travelling around the Australian countryside. After reading the list of names of the fallen, it becomes evident that in some country towns, a whole generation of related fathers, brothers, uncles, and cousins were removed from families. And when I think of these young men, I recall the history, again with deep sadness, of the calculated way they were used as colonial cannon fodder for a cause that was not their own- the fallen in the fields of France and Belgium, the slaughtered youth at Gallipoli. On this day, let’s also remember those who returned, the gas poisoned and shell shocked, the wounded, the legless and armless, those who could never love again, or be loved, those who lost their hearing, their sight, the mentally disturbed, the haunted, those with the shakes and post traumatic stress before that condition had a name, the men living out their remaining years in soulless suburbs or country towns, as life moved along often without them, forgotten by the governments of the day, their war medals or moth eaten slouch hat tucked in the back of an old wardrobe, the men whose names are not listed on the shrines of remembrance, and the sadness that they carried deep inside and tried so hard to forget.

And on this day, I often read the poetry of Wilfred Owen.

Dulce et Decorum Est

Bent double, like old beggars under sacks,
Knock-kneed, coughing like hags, we cursed through sludge,
Till on the haunting flares we turned our backs,
And towards our distant rest began to trudge.
Men marched asleep. Many had lost their boots,
But limped on, blood-shod. All went lame, all blind;He soon died;
Drunk with fatigue; deaf even to the hoots
Of gas-shells dropping softly behind.

Gas! GAS! Quick, boys!—An ecstasy of fumbling
Fitting the clumsy helmets just in time,
But someone still was yelling out and stumbling
And flound’ring like a man in fire or lime.—
Dim through the misty panes and thick green light,
As under a green sea, I saw him drowning.

In all my dreams before my helpless sight
He plunges at me, guttering, choking, drowning.

If in some smothering dreams, you too could pace
Behind the wagon that we flung him in,
And watch the white eyes writhing in his face,
His hanging face, like a devil’s sick of sin,
If you could hear, at every jolt, the blood
Come gargling from the froth-corrupted lungs,
Bitter as the cud
Of vile, incurable sores on innocent tongues,–
My friend, you would not tell with such high zest
To children ardent for some desperate glory,
The old Lie: Dulce et decorum est
Pro patria mori.

13 thoughts on “Anzac Day and Memorialisation”

    1. Beautifully written with love and emotion. I am a Canadian and writing a novel that includes the tremendous efforts of the Empire. Also I travelled to the Dardenelles where Winston Churchill made the blunder of his life that almost ruined his later career. I saw the graves of the Canadian, Australian, New Zealander boys, yes boys who were indeed cannon fodder. And I cried.

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      1. Thanks Mary, many Australian historians of note have written about this topic at length. I sometimes feel that there’s a modern tendency to focus on symbolism and ceremony, neglecting to read the history in all its ugly detail. One older Australian novel, set in the post WW1 period, a classic of it’s time, is ‘ My Brother Jack’. it is worth reading.

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  1. Inevitably we are all different. I am a very proud army brat born at the other side of the world. By the time I was three or four Dad had made clear to me that men fought in wars to make peace. I think ANZAC Day, my favourite day of the year, has come a long way since Gallipoli. I really feel it is at the bottom of the wonderful feeling of ‘togetherness’ and ‘mateship’ this country is experiencing at the moment . . . I love the poppies and the shiveringly wonderful sound of the ‘Last Post’ . . . I am afraid for me it is . . . lest we forget . . . be well . . .

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    1. Am I suggesting that we should forget? Please Eha, I am aware we are all different, we come from very different political and cultural backgrounds, but there’s nothing in this post that suggests we should forget. Quite the contrary.

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      1. My sincere apologies for not making myself clear ! I finish each and every comment on Anzac Day and oft before with ‘lest we forget’ That had nothing whatever to do with your thoughtful and personal post . . . methinks you remember what has happened in a more painful way . . . in a way I guess I sincerely wish you did not. I am quietly happy my God simply did not add the gene for ‘melancholy’ to my DNA. . . . best, truly . . .

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        1. We learn from painful memories, It’s the stuff of good history writing and poetry. It’s the flip side of that digger legend. I value my melancholy as much as any other mood or sensibility. It’s part of a set and certainly not a feeling that I would would want to lose. Thanks for your further elaboration.

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  2. Magnificent poem. It is the tragedy and awfulness we should remember. Melancholy is fitting. There is a terrible chasm between those who served and serve, and the powers under who they did and do so. Still, ever it seems, returning to an unfathomable emptiness but where duty of care should be shouldering their weight of the damage.

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    1. Thoughtful words Dale. Thank you. And in the spirit of melancholia that goes with the day, I’m playing those tunes too, the Furey’s version of the Fields of France, and the Band Played Waltzing Matilda. It took until the late 80s and early 90s to admit duty of care to the Vietnam Vets. I am proud to say, my father used to volunteer at his local RSL during that period doing administrative work for them. The Vietnam Vets radicalised him- they fought for and won the granting of the TPI pension for Vietnam Vets which was then extended to vets from other wars.

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  3. Anzac day brings back memories of my first brush with this date. When I had just learnt to read newspapers, I picked up one set aside by an uncle and saw that it was Anzac day. I asked him what that meant, and a part of his reply has remained with me. After explaining what it was, he told me about his childhood during the Bengal Famine: how the British soldiers took away all the food, and the only relief came for food distribution by Anzac soldiers. who refused to listen to the British. Many of them were later moved to Burma, became prisoners of war, and died building a wartime railroad for the Japanese war effort, as I found out much later. Anzac, the Bengal Famine, and the bridge on the river Kwai have been all mixed up in my head for years. Colonialism …

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