One bitingly cold Toowoomba morning at 4am I dragged myself out of bed for an assignment. The Chronicle’s chief of staff had asked me to cover the dawn service on Anzac Day, so I started at the local RSL, where returned servicemen were getting an early start on coffee and rum toddies. In the early 1980s, the Anzac Day service took place in the middle of Ruthven and Margaret Streets at the 8m tall Mothers’ Memorial, built to honour the soldier sons who did not return from World War I. I don’t recall much about the ceremony on that day, other than it was bone-chillingly cold, with a keen westerly blowing up Ruthven Street.
The Chronicle covered what was a highly-controversial story in the mid-1980s when it was proposed to re-locate the much-cherished Mothers’ Memorial to East Creek Park. The aim of moving the memorial was to allow planners to re-design traffic flows through what has since become a significantly larger city than it was in those days. The memorial was moved, but not before everyone got to have their say.
People do get highly emotional about any suggestion that might interfere with or clash with our notions of Anzac Day as a sacred day of commemoration. Even today, the ban on retail trading on Anzac Day is enforced, though supermarkets and cafes are exempt. Saturday has become a major shopping day for most people and while some states allow shops to open after 1pm, other states still hold to a total ban.
Are you game?
Regular readers I see every week asked what I planned to write about today and I said, “Anzac Day – if I’m game.” When I was an idealistic teenager, reading a lot of pacifist literature, out of the blue my Dad said he was taking me to see a play called The One Day of the Year. It was a revelation and caused us to sit up late debating war and peace and not only the carnage caused by wars, but its bitter aftermath.
The One Day of the Year caused a great kerfuffle when first performed. Playwright Alan Seymour and his partner fled to England in 1961, partly because of the hostile reception to the play, but also (as he accurately predicted) his more liberal creative ideas would be better received in the UK.
Seymour, who died last month, had a great career as a writer with the BBC and other media organisations. He wrote 10 other plays, but none received the recognition or made the impact of The One Day of the Year. The play pitted young idealistic student Hughie against his right wing reactionary Dad Alf over what was in those days an excuse for old diggers to get thoroughly pissed.
I was musing about all of this while standing in the post office queue, idly looking at the displays of Anzac memorabilia, which this year include a CD and DVD by Lee Kernaghan and others, called “Spirit of the Anzacs”.
So what happens after this Anzac Day – the 100th commemoration of the day Australian and New Zealand troops landed on the wrong beach and were slaughtered in their thousands? Will all this stock be stored away until next year? It’s not perishable like Easter eggs or hot cross buns, but will it have the same appeal when the 101st Anzac Day rolls around?
I noticed that the HIT theatre company is touring The One Day of the Year. Even though I could have gone to Caloundra to see it, I had the feeling it would have dated and the impact it had all those years before would be diluted.
So instead I watched a couple of documentaries, including the Gen Y view of Anzac Day – Lest We Forget What? The most compelling segment in Kate Aubusson’s investigation was when Dr Roger Lee, head of the Australian Army history unit, tells recruits at the Royal Military College (Duntroon) to ignore all the myths and stories they have heard about Anzac Day
“The biggest myth about Anzac is that it probably would have succeeded,” he says.
“The force we sent away were really just a bunch of amateurs. When they went ashore they fought very well individually, but collectively they were about as organised as a bagful of cats.”
Harsh words maybe, but Dr Hall clearly wants the current cadet intake to know that everything they’d heard about Simpson and his donkey is largely myth, and stories that our troops went ashore in the face of thunderous machine gun fire are “rubbish”.
A time for sadness and reflection
I get unaccountably sad on Anzac Day, rather than on November 11, when the world in general remembers fallen soldiers from all generations. Maybe it is the untold story behind the photograph I have of my grandfather, sitting front and centre with a platoon of soldiers.
I never knew this broody-looking Scottish stonemason and my Dad told us little about him. Like so many soldiers who came back from World War 1, World War II, Korea, Vietnam, Iraq and Afghanistan, to name a few, he may well have suffered post- traumatic stress disorder and survivor guilt.
I find it dismaying that the Federal Government is spending $325 million on the commemoration of Anzac Day 2015, almost twice what it sets aside for the treatment of traumatised soldiers returned from far more recent conflicts.
The momentum began in 2012 when former PM, Julia Gillard approved $83.5 million over seven years to fund initiatives related to the Centenary of Anzac and the 100th anniversary of Word War 1.
“Anzac Day in 2015, I believe, will be like the bicentenary,” Ms Gillard said at the time. “It will be one of the commemorations that shape our nation and our understanding of who we are today.”
The budget seems to have blown out a bit since then. The spend compares with $166 million set aside in the Department of Veteran Affairs budget to meet the mental health needs of the veteran and ex-service community, including those returning from Afghanistan.
I still don’t understand why we have such a national obsession with the events of April 25, 1915 on a beach in Turkey, half a world away. There is so much less focus on the battle of the Western Front, where, as historian Tony Robinson informed us on SBS the other night, a forward-thinking Australian general, John Monash, played a pivotal role. Rather than relying on troops bunkered down in trenches until commanded to advance, Monash provided troops with tank and air support, a tactic which worked brilliantly and, as Robinson observed, is still used today.
So tomorrow I’m watching the Light Horse regiment and the parade down the main street and taking a moment to think about how Australia might be today if all those young men from the cities and towns had not gone off to war. I won’t be wearing my Dad’s medals (he didn’t believe in it), and I definitely won’t be draping an Australian flag around my shoulders.
Someone ought to outlaw that.