I am going to be very upfront and say something that is so politically incorrect in Australia that it is almost forbidden. I hate Anzac Day.
For those of you who know little about Australian history and customs, April 25 is Anzac Day, a national day commemorating our war dead. There is a dawn service followed by a returned veterans march. Every city, town and village has its march, complete with banners and children and grandchildren and even great-grandchildren wearing medals. On Foxtel you won’t see anything in April except war films.
Nothing wrong with that, you might say — and you would be right. Every country should remember soldiers who died in war.
But over here, we do it rather oddly. Anzac Day commemorates not a glorious victory but a ghastly defeat which began when Allied troops landed on the Gallipoli peninsula, in Turkey, on April 25, 1915.
Australian troops had fought in both the Sudan and the Boer War, but as “colonials”. In 1901, with Federation, Australia became a sovereign nation. So at Gallipoli, for the first time, Australians were fighting under an Australian flag.
They did not get off to a good start. The British and French had cobbled together a plan to seize the Dardenelles, open up a link to the Black Sea and their Russian allies, capture the capital Constantinople (Istanbul), and knock the Ottoman Empire out of the war. But a naval bombardment failed to dislodge the defenders and when the expeditionary force landed on narrow beaches, the Turks in the hills above were ready for them. About 8,000 Australians died over the next eight months– along with 48,000 other Allied troops and 56,000 Turks.
My great-grand-uncles Frederick and Ernest Ray were two of the originals who landed at Gallipoli on April 25, 99 years ago. Why they went into the army is a mystery. My great-grandmother ( whose brothers they were) and my staunchly Labor and nationalist great-grandfather were firmly against it. When a proposal to introduce national conscription was being canvassed my great-grandfather campaigned long and vociferously against it. In his view it was England’s war, a European war, and Australians should have nothing to do with it.
He was right of course, but we were a very young and enthusiastic nation, eager to ‘get into it’.
Perhaps the brothers went out of boredom; perhaps they just needed adventure. Who knows. Fred, originally a rather mild-mannered accountant, was in the famous Light Horse cavalry regiment, famous for their dashing uniforms and the emu plumes on their slouch hats. But despite the glamour of the Light Horse, he was sent off to the front at the Dardanelles. Ernest was part of the medical corps. He told me that they spent most of their time picking up corpses for burial. They would try to get to the wounded in no man’s land, but the heavy shelling often prevented them. At the landing they sustained 60 percent casualties.
What happened at Gallipoli and why it turned into such a mess has long been a matter of debate. Revisionist historians now regard the British high command as blunderers who, having made a huge tactical error, couldn’t or wouldn’t back down. They simply could not move far enough off the beaches to take the peninsula. Instead the Anzacs and the other Allied troops were bogged down and slaughtered. There is no doubting that the ferocity of the Australians and New Zealanders impressed the imperial commanders. They were renowned for giving no quarter. The Anzacs were also renowned for what we call in Australia ‘larrikinism’, or their ‘yobbo yahoo’ attitude, which often didn’t sit well with the British officers.
After evacuation from the bloodbath at Gallipoli, our Fred and our Ern were sent to France and separated. Fred was gassed and went to England to recover. Then he was sent back to the front for the ‘clean up’ at Passchendaele, the Third Battle of Ypres. There he was wounded and mentioned in dispatches. Part of his leg was amputated and later the rest had to come off at the hip. Ernest survived without a scratch. Both of them went through the whole war, not returning to Australia until being demobbed in 1919.
So with forebears who actually took part in the Gallipoli campaign, why do I hate Anzac Day?
Until recently I was neutral about the hoopla. Although it was fashionable in my youth, when the Vietnam war was raging, to spurn it and call soldiers ‘war mongers’, I never felt like that. Too many of my parents’ generation had fought in World War II when Australia was in danger of Japanese invasion. And as Australia is geographically close to Asia, I could see the point of the Vietnam War, even if the strategy had failed.
But Vietnam had an impact and attendance at Anzac Day services dwindled year by year. People started to query why we were idealising a terrible defeat.
Then in the 80s a wonderful film called Gallipoli starring a very young Mel Gibson recharged Anzac Day. It showed that the disastrous campaign was really about that quintessential Australian thing, mateship. Gallipoli was a hopeless catastrophe; it shouldn’t have happened; the Brits were wrong; the whole war was wrong — and most of the Australians and New Zealanders knew it. Australia’s freedom was not at stake in World War I, even if the Empire was.
No, the soldiers didn’t know why they were there, but once they were there they did it just for one another, just for their mates. That is what the Anzac spirit really is about. It is about individuals, not about the birth of a nation or prowess in war. It is essentially a Christian ideal — the ethos that demands that you stick by your mates. Greater love hath no man… It is no accident that in Australia Anzac Day is bigger than Easter. Very few modern Australians pray for the dead or have any conception that they should. Anzac Day is the only occasion that many of us ever go to a religious service.
And yet what has happened in recent years? Anzac Day has become a maudlin fiesta of jingoism. The wasted lives have been overshadowed by national chest-beating. I hate Anzac Day because we have forgotten the shocking sadness of all those young lives snuffed out.
What became of my uncles? Neither married. Fred died young as a result of his terrible wounds, and Ern always said that after the great carnage he would never work again — and he didn’t. He managed to amass ten thousand pounds, which was a fortune back then. With that he retired and became a professional punter. We lived in Randwick and occasionally he would drop in on his way to the nearby race course. He was the only member of the family who always wore bespoke suits — and we all thought, good luck to him!
Angela Shanahan, a columnist for The Australian newspaper, writes from Canberra.