Today, 25th April Anzac Day is special for Australians, and New Zealanders – ANZAC, Australian New Zealand Army Corps. Originally the Day was to recognise someone who fought in Gallipoli but in later years came to mean any Australian or New Zealander who fought in the First World War. In time it included any member of the armed services. These days Anzac Day encompasses involvement by men and women in all theatres of war and conflict.
This year is the 100th anniversary of commemoration of courage in adversity; of mateship; of over the years embracing those who were once enemies, and realising that the ordinary folk, whatever their culture, their creed, they too suffered at the hands of power.
You may know the story of Gallipoli when on 25th April 1915 slaughter took place starting on a Turkish beach followed by carnage on the cliffs above. The Turkish people were only defending what belonged to them – their land and community, but at the time they were our enemies and a senseless battle with loss of life and living ensued. So why, you ask, do we celebrate this disastrous time? Well it’s not quite like that.
It started in 1916 with mates gathering in private remembrance in the early hours of April 25th, the timing of that fateful landing. The 1916 street March, which then became a yearly event, was for the public to acknowledge the bravery and sacrifice that had been and, was still happening with the war waging in Europe. It was only in 1927 when a group of returned men returning at dawn from an Anzac function held the night before came upon an elderly woman laying flowers at the as yet unfinished Sydney Cenotaph. Joining her in this private remembrance, the men later resolved to institute a dawn service the following year. Some 150 people gathered at the Cenotaph in 1928 for a wreath-laying and two minutes’ silence. This is generally regarded as the beginning of organised dawn services in Australia.
In 1972 at the height of the Vietnam War and much protest about Australian involvement a question in the media kept coming to the fore – does commemorating Anzac Day glorify war? The short answer is no. The nature of the Day is remembrance and to give thanks to brave people. The marches have changed with the passing of the older generation, and aging or infirmity of a current marcher. Younger people march either accompanying a family member, or on behalf of deceased family – often wearing a deceased person’s medals on the right chest (left-chest is reserved for a person who earned the medals). Over more recent times, conflicts that Australians have fought in or attended as peacekeepers are starting to be recognised by the Returned Services League of Australia (RSL) and welcomed into the March. Communities who once fought against us or defended their lands and thus called our enemies marched, at first unofficially, however in the last few years they march with the official sanction of the RSL. Actions never forgotten and can’t be undone, but current generations aren’t to blame for those past actions.
Aboriginal Diggers served in all of Australia’s main wars since the two Boer Wars and in 2007 Aboriginal people organised a separate march in Redfern Sydney. This became the ‘Coloured Diggers’ March’ recognising Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander veterans’ contributions. This March is in its ninth year. Other Indigenous communities throughout the country also hold their own ceremonies.
Whether participating in the solemness of a local Dawn Service, or at Gallipoli or in France at Villers-Bretonneux, attending the colourful and informative displays of marches through cities and towns, or watching Services and marches on television and live-streamed on the internet Australians embrace the Day. In Australia Anzac Day is considered more of a national day than any other on our calendar.
Today at memorials throughout the country, and at Australian commemorations overseas, you will hear the 4th stanza of the poem ‘For the Fallen’ written by Laurence Binyon in the early days of World War One. Known as The Ode I leave you with those words …
"They shall grow not 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."