LEST WE FORGET – ANAC DAY 2021
Anzac Day is, without doubt, the most venerated tradition we have in Australia. It evokes deep feelings that go beyond mere national pride – feelings that are often hard to define.
It’s not a celebration of war, but rather a solemn remembrance of tens of thousands of ordinary people doing their bit for what each thought would be for the greater good of humankind.
The tradition of the Dawn Service began on the 8th anniversary of the landing at ANZAC Cove. The Rev Arthur White, who had served as the padre for 44th Battalion, took a group of 20 returned servicemen up onto Mt Clarence, overlooking King George Sound near Albany.
He reminded those present that where they stood had been the last sight of Australia those original Anzacs had seen; and for many of them the last they would ever see.
And as that small group silently watched a wreath float out to sea, Arthur White quietly recited the words we now know as the Ode:
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.
If you travel the great cities of the world, you will see monuments honouring great military leaders. But not in Australia. I only know of one in this country – the statue of General Monash in Melbourne.
But in suburbs and towns everywhere stands the image of the solitary digger; the unnamed man who represents all those tens of thousands of ordinary men and women who served and continue to serve.
Australia’s contribution to the Allied cause in the 2 World Wars was out of all proportion to her size and age as a nation.
In World War 1, of a population of 5 million, over 400,000 enlisted. 52% became casualties and 20% died – the highest casualty rate and second highest death rate of any allied nation.
In World War 2, of a population under 7 million, nearly one million men and women enlisted - twice as many as in WW1. 96,000 became casualties, including 40,000 killed. Hardly a family was untouched, and the experience has left its mark indelibly on the national psyche.
It’s hard for us today to comprehend the surge of patriotic fervour that swept Australia when war was declared in August 1914, and the rush of volunteers who flocked to the recruiting stations, many to be turned away because they were too young, or too old, or not tall enough.
That flow of volunteers continued throughout the war; although it did slow down towards the end as the realisation of the terrible and seemingly futile carnage of the Western Front dampened that fervour.
But the flow of volunteers never completely ceased, and Australia and New Zealand were unique in that they never had to resort to conscription to fill the ever-thinning ranks.
One of the reasons for this is found 450 kms north west of Sydney in the little town of Gilgandra.
There are 2 things Gilgandra used to be famous for: first. It used to have more windmills than any other town in Australia, but also, in World War 1, as a percentage of population, it had the largest number of men to volunteer to go to war of any place in the British Empire.
It all started with the local butcher, Richard Hitchen, and his brother Bill, who was a plumber and President of the Gilgandra Rifle Club.
They were sitting on the veranda one night looking at a poster which pictured an Australian soldier in Gallipoli calling out ‘Cooeee’ and asking his mates back home to come and help.
Suddenly they got an idea. They’d gather as many men as would join them and march all the way to Sydney, gathering more volunteers on the way. They decided to call it the Cooee March.
There were 35 of them who set off on 10th Oct. Their ages ranged from 17 to 51. Word got round and at every town people turned out to cheer them and more men joined them.
By the time they reached Sydney, 5 weeks later, that group of 35 men had grown to 263. 100,000 people turned out to see them march to the Domain where they were greeted by dozens of wounded veterans.
It became known as the Gilgandra Snowball, because it gave rise to several similar marches, including the march of the Waratahs which set off from Nowra on 30 Nov 1915 and passed through Bulli.
By the time the Waratahs reached the Domain, there were 120 in the group. They, like the Cooees, went off to France in 1916 arriving in time for the great offensive along the River Somme.
They took part in the Battle of Pozieres, a place, according to war historian Charles Bean, ‘more densely sown with Australian sacrifice than any other place on earth.’
1 in every 4 of the Cooees and Waratahs who arrived at the Domain in 1915 still lie in the soil of Northern France. Many more returned shattered in body and mind.
Few of those who served in the great wars ever spoke about their experience. They remained locked up inside them. The nearest we get to seeing into that terrible world is in the work of the soldier poets.
The First World War produced some very moving poetry. Amongst the thousands who volunteered were young men with literary gifts that enabled them to express what millions of others could never tell.
Men like Rupert Brooke who wrote of the patriotic euphoria that gripped the world in 1914 as thousands flocked to enlist.
Now, God be thanked who has matched us with this hour,
And caught our youth, and wakened us from sleeping,
With hand made sure, clear eye, and sharpened power.
To turn, as swimmers into cleanness leaping,
Glad from a world grown old and cold and weary,
Leave the sick hearts that honour could not move,
And half-men, and their dirty songs and dreary,
And all the little emptiness of love.
But it didn’t take long for that euphoria to disappear. And the poetry changed with it, like this one from Robert Graves.
Near Martinpuich that night of hell
Two men were struck by one same shell
Together tumbling in a heap
Senseless and limp like slaughtered sheep.
One was a pale eighteen-year-old
Blue-eyed and thin and not too bold
Pressed for the war and not too soon
The shame and pity of his platoon.
The other came from far-off lands
With bristling chin and whiskered hands,
He’d known death and hell before
In Mexico and Ecuador.
Yet in his death this cut-throat wild
Groaned ‘Mother, Mother’ like a child,
While that poor innocent in man’s clothes Died cursing God with brutal oaths.
Old Sergeant Smith, kindest of men,
Wrote out two copies there and then
Of his accustomed funeral speech
To cheer the womenfolk of each.
‘He died a hero’s death: and we
His comrades of ‘A’ Company
Deeply regret his death: we shall
All deeply miss so true a pal.
I think no one better captured the sense of alienation the soldiers felt from the people at home than Siegfried Sassoon.
I knew a simple soldier boy
Who grinned at life in empty joy
Slept soundly through the lonesome dark
And whistled early with the lark.
In winter trenches, cowed and glum,
With crumps and lice and lack of rum
He put a bullet through his brain.
And no one spoke of him again.
You smug-faced crowds with kindling eye
Who cheer when soldier lads march by,
Sneak home and pray you'll never know
The hell where youth and laughter go.
But it was Wilfred Gibson who best spoke for the survivors who came back from war and found themselves unable to talk about it.
They ask me where I've been,
And what I've done and seen.
But what can I reply
Who know it wasn't I,
But someone just like me,
Who went across the sea
And with my head and hands
Killed men in foreign lands.
Though I must bear the blame,
Because he bore my name.
And then there are the statues erected on memorials all over Australia. I’ve always felt that the one that most truly represents the experience of those who’ve lived through the experience of war is the sculpture that stands at the heart of the Anzac Memorial in Hyde Park.
Its name is Sacrifice, and it uses the analogy of the Spartan warrior who was told to come home carrying his shield, or being carried on it.
It represents an Anzac whose soul has passed to the Great Beyond, and whose body is being carried upon a shield by his best loved – the old mother with the ashes of remembrance in her mouth, the brotherless sister, and the young mother with her baby.
It is a powerful and deeply moving statue. There’s no pomp and glory in it; just stark tragedy, grim reality and the bitter truth of the suffering that war brings. But it also speaks of the noblest of all human qualities – self-sacrifice.
Its sculptor, George Rayner Hoff was deliberately making the point that that sacrifice was not just made by those who died, and whose sufferings are over, but even more so by the women and children who were left to live with grief and struggle.
The American poet Sara Teasdale expressed it as only a poet can in a poem entitled Dusk in Time of War, published in 1917:
A half-hour more and you will lean To gather me close in the old sweet way. But oh, to the woman over the sea Who will come at the close of day?
A half-hour more and I will hear The key in the latch and the strong, quick tread. But oh, the woman over the sea Waiting at dusk for one who is dead!
Well, once again, our thoughts turn back to the dark days of war and to those to whom we owe so much. The words we always associate with this come from Kipling’s great hymn: the words Lest we forget.
If there’s one thing that history teaches us, it’s that we easily do forget – and never learn what history teaches us.
But for people of faith, beyond the broken dreams of this world there stands that great hope that the ultimate destiny of humankind rests not in the hands of a flawed humanity but in God, who, in the final words of the Bible says: ‘Behold, I make all things new.’
It was this that in 1921 compelled the writing of that much-loved patriotic hymn I Vow to Thee my Country:
It was based on a poem written by Sir Cecil Spring Rice just before the start of World War 1, describing how we owe allegiance to two kingdoms – our nation and the Kingdom of Heaven.
However, at the end of the war, shocked by what he had seen, he re-wrote it, and added another verse pointing to the only hope we have of everlasting peace – the coming of the Kingdom of God.
But there's another country, I've heard of long ago,
Most dear to them that love her, most great to them that know;
We may not count her armies, we may not see her King;
Her fortress is a faithful heart, her pride is suffering;
And soul by soul and silently her shining bounds increase,
And her ways are ways of gentleness, and all her paths are peace.