Yesterday was ANZAC Day. It commemorates a battle in Turkey in World War One. A landing of Australian and New Zealand forces on the wrong beach. Under the command of English generals, they fought and took the beach with tremendous casualties. Then they held their position for a horrific eight months, before being unceremoniously evacuated. It wasn’t even a particularly useful position in the first place.
The whole thing was a senseless waste of life.
ANZAC Day comes at the end of autumn, usually just after Easter. It’s cold. It’s an odd sort of commemoration, a reminder of the horrors of war, while lionising those who carried them out. It sits uneasily with me. There’s a whole undercurrent of blood sacrifice – “They died for your freedom” following on so soon from “He died for your sins”.
Every town in Australia has it’s memorial. In some towns, that’s all there is – pub, cornerstore, memorial. Simple plinths, on one side they have all the boys names who died in WWI and all the WWII on another. I think we forget how pervasive those wars were. We’re an unceremoniously patriotic lot. We may not sing the anthem at football games, but when called, we signed up in droves.
The memorials sit idle for most of the year. On ANZAC day they are the focus of everything. There’s a dawn service and there’s a parade, both ending with the laying of wreaths.
ANZAC Day was a big day for my grandfather. It was for mourning lost friends, marching for them and holding space for them. I started going to dawn services just before he died, but after he no longer felt strong enough to attend them. Dawn services are short and to the point. Wreaths, a short talk, the last post and silence. “We shall remember them”
In Canberra, the dawn service is different. It’s huge and slick, with huges bleachers set up in the weeks before. Limousines deposit VIPs of all types, but particularly politicians. An order of service is handed out, so you know who the speakers are. The wreaths are more ornate, and there’s generally no school children. Thousands of people attend, but there’s little acknowledgement of local boys, local units. It’s thoughtful, and respectful, but it’s all about the nation, and nationhood. It leaves me cold.
But then, maybe I’m missing the point. The Canberra service is held outside the National Memorial, which does double duty as both shrine and museum. It wins prizes as a museum and tourist attraction. When you visit, you can look up your relatives in the Archives and copy their service records.
I don’t go the National Memorial much any more. Since my grandfather died, it makes me cry.