Yesterday several of us Australians and Kiwis woke up early to attend the dawn ANZAC Day service. For those of you who don’t know, ANZAC stands for Australian and New Zealand Army Corps. Every April 25th there is national holiday in both countries to remember our war dead. The acronym was given during World War One because Australians and New Zealanders trained together in Egypt before seeing action in various campaigns. The first campaign that the ANZACS saw significant action was the ‘Gallipoli Campaign’. Essentially, the allied commanders, including Winston Churchill, had concocted a Grand Strategy to destroy Germany and this included aiding Russia. To aid Russia, the plan went, the allied troops would knock Turkey out of the war, which was allied with Germany. As bizarre as that sounds, that’s the reason that young men from nations far away, where the eucalyptus and the silver fern grow a plenty, were sent to lay down their lives in Turkey.
The Gallipoli campaign was a complete shambles. In just 8 months, 8709 Australians and 2701 New Zealanders had paid the ultimate sacrifice. Some Grand Plan, hey? Why do we commemorate this day then, April the 25th, the first day that they landed at the infamous ANZAC Cove? Well, for both Australia and New Zealand the whole ANZAC experience was a coming of age experience. These two burgeoning nations were seen by other nations as being insignificant islands of the Empire where ‘the sun never set’. When the young men dressed in khaki uniform, with their fixed bayonets, charged up the steep, steep Turkish hills, with unearthly screams and grunts, they made their presence known to the world. Sadly, the Turkish were well equipped with Maxim MG08 machine guns and ripped hundreds of the ANZACS to shreds. This baptism of blood, however, somehow announced to the world that Australia and New Zealand were real players. They were fair dinkum about fighting for what they believed in; they would not sit on their backsides while sadistic militants like the Kaiser bullied and bashed his way to Paris.
I grew up attending ANZAC services in my home town of Bathurst. Even 101 years after the first the ANZACS stormed ashore, the ceremony still pulls a large crowd. People come to cheer the old ‘diggers’, men and women who fought in WWII, in Korea, Vietnam and the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, amongst others. A pipes and drums marching band usually leads the march. People wave Australian flags. Some shed a little tear for their lost loved ones of long ago. Some people cheer as the veterans pass by, many so frail they are pushed. Here in D.C. there were no ‘veterans’ as such. The Australian and New Zealand expat communities are made up of professionals and their families mostly. Nevertheless, when we joined the crowd of about 700 people, it was an altogether familiar feeling of respect and admiration for those fallen servicemen and women. The bugle played. The flags were present, carried by soldiers with their traditional slouch hats. The Ambassador to Australia was present and read Laurence Binyon’s ‘Ode of Rembrance’ :
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.
There was a minutes silence. After, the awakening reveille was played. Soldiers saluted. Diplomats puffed their chests out as their beloved flags passed by. And then it was all over. The experience stayed with me for the rest of the day. I had been reminded of a very important part of Australia’s history, and therefore, an important part of my Australian identity. From the ANZAC legend we can extract some lessons applicable to today. To help out other people when they are need. To lend a helping hand, without being asked (considering all of the original ANZACs had been volunteers). To be proactive.
With the rising sun on our necks as we sauntered past the Washington Monument, we spoke about how glad we were we had made the effort to attend. With the backdrop of Lincoln’s memorial, the pool of reflection and the American Korean War Memorial, ANZAC day had had a distinctly ‘Yanky’ overtone. Nevertheless, the message that these memorials impart are one and the same with the ANZAC story. The American struggle for Civil Rights and the ANZAC story are just two different chapters from the book of freedom. Lincoln hoped that the lamp of liberty would ‘burn in your bosoms until there shall no longer be a doubt that all men are created free and equal’. And far away on the shores of ANZAC cove many a lamp still burns. Lest we forget.
The highest ranking New Zealand (left) and Australian (right) military officers in the Americas.