At some point I lost the ability to see things only in black and white. One of the casualties was ANZAC Day, the annual day to honour those soldiers who died on the coast of Turkey 100 years ago. It was the day that the Australian nation was born. Wasn’t it? Or did it mark the start of the stretching of bonds between The British Empire and her little colony? Or was it just a failed campaign that cost thousands of lives?
Back in primary school we were taught about bravery, sacrifice and the necessity of waging war against evil, and the nobility of those young men who died for us. The crucified man on the wall was a template for self-sacrifice and the young, tanned and wiry men in slouch hats his successors. For years, whenever I saw a sports game with fit young men I’d flash back to descriptions of the soldiers and transpose them into the old uniforms, running across no man’s land in style of Mark Lee.
As I read more I discovered a contradiction in the idea of war being against an ultimate evil. There were stories of food thrown over the trenches, camaraderie across the lines and the speech of Ataturk,
…your sons are now lying in our bosom and are in peace. After having lost their lives on this land they have become our sons as well.
Under orders young men killed other young men, but in moments of humanity they saw each other as people. This narrative echoed over and over, the soldiers victims of a stupid war that pitted them against people who could have been friends.
Around high school I began to go to the Dawn Ceremony, wrenching myself and my dad out of bed before dawn to make our sleepy way to King’s Park. There we gathered with others in the cold, rain and occasional sprinkler malfunction to watch as wreaths were laid, speeches were given and we muttered that next year we would definitely bring fold-out chairs. Finally a trumpet was blown and 10s of thousands of people stood in silence in the dawn, as rosy hues spread across the sky and magpies called from the top of the monument, the silence broken by the Ode of Remembrance.
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.
Lest we forget.
With each year the crowd would grow, and we ended up further and further back from the memorial. Sometimes we brought my brother, friends or visitors, but always it was my dad and I, talking about the old boys and the memories of the men who had left us a pauper’s grave and the medals that dad wore on his chest.
On ANZAC Day my mum always stayed at home to look after my sister and because she didn’t feel the same need to go as we did. I’d ask why she didn’t want to come and she’d say that it seemed to her a celebration of war that she didn’t want any part of. I’d try to explain my feelings about the day and what it meant to me, about remembrance of sacrifice and honouring the dead, but beneath this was an acknowledgement of what she said. Were we celebrating the nobility of war, and an ideal of humanity that didn’t exist outside of fiction? What was the difference between honouring the deaths of young men in the service of their country and honouring the necessity of the war that took them away? She has since said that she understands it better, remembering family and the personal remains of the war, and seems not so opposed to the day as she was in the past.
However, all the talk about the birth of the nation on the beaches of Gallipoli seemed to deny all that had come before. Even now the day of Federation or when universal suffrage was passed are vague to most Australians, but ask them about the date of a battle in a far off land and they can tell you in seconds.
Then this year, the day before Australia day, I found out about an event that had taken place exactly 100 years previously. On the 24th of April 1915 the Ottoman government rounded up and executed Armenian intellectuals in Istanbul and ordered the deportation of other Armenians across the country. The reason given is they were perceived as being a threat to the war effort, and over the coming years able-bodied men were massacred and the rest were force marched into the Syrian desert to die of starvation. In total, between 800,000 and 1.5 million people died. With the threat being removed, the focus could then shift to the shores of Gallipoli.
Though the genocide wasn’t caused by the Allied soldiers, there is a connection between these two events and for this year at least I couldn’t think of one without the other.
So it was with mixed feelings that I loked forward to the 100th anniversary of the landings at Gallipoli, and then realised that I had agreed to go on an overnight cruise of the Baltic on ANZAC Day (more on that trip later). So I kept the day in mind and regretted my poor planning, wishing I could have gone to the ceremony held by Australian and New Zealander expats. The day came and went, and I started writing the draft of this post on the train to Stockholm and finishing it on the way back.
Posts from friends and family flooded Facebook, reflecting on war, the past, Australian identity and family. On Sunday morning I saw a post from my mum, a series of photos from their ANZAC Day across the world. Rather than attend the Dawn Ceremony, dad stayed home and mum made pikelets. Then they went to the Blackboy Hill memorial, where my paternal grandfather had enlisted and trained before being sent off to France at the tender and secret age of 16. Then they visited his grave and left a temporary plaque in lieu of the official stone to replace the bare, iron numbers of the pauper’s grave. Then King’s Park and the pub, to while away the last hours of the day. Right now I can’t think of a more appropriate way to spend the day, in the company of family past and present, keeping the memory of those who were lost to the war alive.
The Monday after ANZAC Day, when I was preparing an activity for a student using coverage from the Australian memorials, I unexpectedly burst into tears when they showed the Perth ceremony, the familiar monument and sunlit distant hills bringing all of the homesickness I had thought long gone to the surface. I’ve now missed two ANZAC Day’s, and I didn’t really realize until then how much.
So after explaining what the day means to non-Australians and writing this post, I think that ANZAC Day is never just one thing, clear in black and white and disconnected from context and doubt and nor should it be. It’s a day for acknowledging the shades in-between black and white, and it’s a day for remembering.
Lest we forget.