Last year a young Sudanese-Australian woman, Yassmin Abdel-Magied, a Muslim, an activist (who is not afraid to speak her mind) posted on Facebook: “Lest. We. Forget (Manus, Nauru, Syria, Palestine…)”. It resulted in an intense and vitriolic backlash, “90,000 twisted words written about me in the three months since Anzac Day, words that are largely laced with hate”, she wrote “…as well as daily death threats”. Milder criticisms claimed her post was disgraceful and disrespectful.
That incident triggered a discomfiting response in me: Is there something wrong with our present-day observance of Anzac Day? I’m unsure, but I am turning to history, as I often do.
Australians embraced, with startling fervour, the newly formed Anzac force and their first battle at Gallipoli on 25thApril 1915. Even at Kandos, before the year was out, Thomas Lloyd had named two streets in his newly surveyed Ferndale Estate, Anzac Avenue and Cairo Street.
Queensland led the way with the first Anzac ceremony, under the direction of the secretary of the Anzac Day Commemorative Committee of Queensland, Canon David J Garland, Anglican clergyman and military chaplain. Anzac Day would be a day of solemnity, a day to commemorate fallen heroes and honour surviving soldiers. On that day in 1916 all government offices and schools closed and businesses were asked to close. Returned soldiers in uniform marched to their respective churches for early morning memorial services. Later in the morning similar services were held for civilians. A public meeting was held in the evening, specifically not for money raising, “but to draw out the features of national character”.
By 1927 Anzac Day was a national public holiday and customary ceremonies throughout the land included an Anzac Day march, wreath-laying, special church services, two-minute silence (intended, in lieu of prayer, to include everyone), and luncheon for returned soldiers.
During the 1920s and early 1930s, Anzac Day at Kandos was reported as being “quietly observed”. Stores and banks closed, the cement works held two-minute silence and Kandos diggers and residents joined the ceremonies at Rylstone. A rare ceremony in Kandos was held in 1921, when returned soldiers, the band, two ministers and a large number of residents gathered in the White Crescent on Anzac Day evening, “to pay homage to those who had given their lives for freedom and had secured a place for Australia amongst nations”. No doubt this followed the more traditional ceremony held earlier in the day at Rylstone.
In 1932 the Kandos diggers formed a RSSIL* sub-branch (which included lady members) and had their own club room. The following year Kandos held its first commemoration service. It was a service full of symbol, ceremony and emotion. Let me take you to the Angus Memorial Hall (now Kandos Motorcycle Museum; at that time it was the picture theatre on two nights of the week).
As we enter, our eyes are drawn to a huge wreath suspended above the centre of the stage. Draped from a table is the emblem of the AIF, the Rising Sun. More wreaths decorate the stage, all “tastefully arranged” by Jim Junge. The clergy are seated, adding further decoration in their regalia, ready to play their part in the proceedings: Rev R Douglas Church of England, Rev C C Cashin Methodist, Rev Baimer Presbyterian and Captain Treford Salvation Army. The Catholic priest is noticeable by his absence at this “non-sectarian” event, but that’s the way it was in those days. It is a full house, sprinkled throughout with veterans in uniform, medals glowing; wives and mothers wearing medals of their dead sons and husbands; the Junior Red Cross in uniform; and subdued civilians, including Catholics. There are hymns, notably “O God our help in ages past”; prayers, including for the League of Nations; scripture readings; a spirited sermon, “urging all to avoid sectarianism and party feelings and show a united front”; and two minutes’ silence (I smile that we can only manage one minute these days). The service ends on a stirring note with Lou Junge sounding the Last Post, Digger F Bingham moving the resolution of loyalty, and the congregation rising to sing the closing hymn, “God Save Our King”. No mention of lunch for the returned servicemen – perhaps they joined Rylstone. No march that year either.
My memories of Anzac Day are of learning to march around the playground to the tune of It’s a Long Way to Tipperary or some such, and then lining up with my classmates for the Anzac Day March down Market Street. It is also of watching my father carefully merlex and press his double-breasted suit and polish his shoes (or was that my mother?). In any case there he stood, eager, animated, slightly nervous, his medals attached, my mother pleased for him, all her body language acknowledging this was his day. And when he came home, worse for wear, staggering a little (or was that a lot?), there was no reproach.
I noticed many references to the Anzac Smoko in the ’20s and ’30s, held the Saturday after Anzac Day. I imagine that was the Diggers’ piss-up, with plenty of speeches thrown in. The first time there was reference to a piss-up on the actual day was 1940, when another war had started. There’s a whole group of them, forty in total, including Stan McQuiggin, Skinny Randall, Wullie Warden and Gordon Mills, who do a quick march from the ceremony to the Rylstone Hotel, have a raucous game of two-up, then fall in for a march to the Globe, singing all the way. And after a debatable time, the writer of the Mudgee Guardian” was placed gently in a car” and taken to the Railway Hotel to report on the Kandos Diggers’ dinner.
I don’t know whether you know the play The One Day of the Year by Alan Seymour, set in the 1950s. It was a popular English text in my teaching career and I found an old copy in the Community Shop. It still has resonance. Written in 1960, it was initially banned for fear of offending Returned Servicemen, and bomb threats interfered with the opening night staging, yet the play went on to have successful productions in Australia, London, Tokyo, Britain, Germany, and more, and is still being produced.
There is working-class Alf railing against the Poms and I-ties: ‘Australia for the Australians’. And enthusing about Anzac Day and wiping himself out on the day: ‘It’s my day, see…that’s the old diggers’ day.’ There is Hughie, Alf’s university student son, railing against Anzac Day and war: ‘It’s just one long grog-up…Anzac-Gallipoli-was a waste. Certainly nothing to glorify. God, there’s been another war since then. Dozens of wars everywhere, thousands of lousy little victories and defeats to forget.’ Hughie also enthuses about migrants: ‘The Europeans here force us to see that all people are pretty much the same’. And there is Wacka, WW1 veteran, remembering what it was like: ‘Sometimes y’d be runnin’ and y’d hear a noise and it’d be y’self sorta screamin’. He described what it was like afterwards: ‘When we went in there we was nobody. When we came out we was famous. Anzacs. Ballyhoo.’ And later he pleads with Hughie: ‘Can’t you let ’em enjoy it? You don’t have to agree.’
Even in those early years, Australians understood the significance of Anzac Day as more than a commemoration of those who had fought. It was about nationhood, about having a place in the world, about having a national consciousness and national character. Yet I can’t help feeling that out of that has arisen an elevation of war, a jingoism, an intense nationalism.
While each of the characters in the play speaks truth of a kind, it is Wacka who reminds us of the horror of war, the danger of myth-making and the need for tolerance.
So there you go, I didn’t find my answer in history, but in literature.
IFeatured Image: Evacuation of wounded from Anzac Cove. http://cas.awm.gov.au/item/C02679
* RSSIL – Returned Sailors and Soldiers Imperial League of Australia