Wednesday, April 25, 2012


Today, the 25th of April, is Anzac Day, the day that Australians and New Zealanders remember their fallen fighting men. It especially exists to commemorate the day in 1915 that the Australian and New Zealand Army Corps—or Anzacs for short—landed on the Gallipoli Peninsula as part of an Allied expeditionary force. They had been sent to conquer Constantinople, but the plans for the attack—Winston Churchill was responsible—seem to have been ill-made. After a terrible landing, the campaign stalemated and the Anzacs dug in (which is why Australian soldiers will always be called “Diggers”), fighting a long and seemingly pointless series of battles until their evacuation at the end of the year.

It was just one more fiasco in the long series of fiascos that was World War I. But for Australians and New Zealanders fighting their first war as nations, Gallipoli was a defining moment. Although many English and Frenchmen also died in that campaign—although it ended in evacuation, not victory—that rugged peninsula will always belong to Australia and New Zealand.

Other names have become linked to Anzac Day. The charge of the Australian Light Horse at Beersheba, one of the last great cavalry charges of history, was a victory as sudden and brilliant as Gallipoli was slow and deadly. The gruelling seige of Tobruk in World War II Libya became a proud name in our history, especially after German propagandist “Lord Haw-Haw” called its plucky Australian defenders “poor desert rats of Tobruk”--naturally, the Australians adopted the epithet, even striking unofficial medals from a downed German bomber and even after finishing the War and returning home,called themselves with pride the Rats of Tobruk. Erwin Rommel, the German general who failed to conquer the town, is recorded as saying, “If I had to take Hell, I would use the Australians to take it and the New Zealanders to hold it." A year later, in Papua New Guinea, a small body of Australian troops fought the Kokoda Trail campaign: it was a single-file track through jungle and mountains, along which the Japanese hoped to advance in order to take Port Moresby. This would have put them in an ideal position to threaten Australia's more populous southeastern states and make it impossible for the Allies to use Australia as a base. The campaign, one of the very few times Australian territory has ever been threatened, has been called “Australia's Thermopylae”.

I looked around for an appropriate poem to mark the occasion. This one, despite the pacifist overtones early on, seems to say it well:

by John Le Gay Brereton

Within my heart I hear the cry
Of loves that suffer, souls that die,
And you may have no praise from me
For warfare's vast vulgarity;
Only the flag of love, unfurled
For peace above a weeping world,
I follow, though the fiery breath
Of murder shrivel me in death.
Yet here I stand and bow my head
To those whom other banners led,
Because within their hearts the clang
Of Freedom's summoning trumpets rang,
Because they welcomed grisly pain
And laughed at prudence, mocked at gain,
With noble hope and courage high,
And taught our manhood how to die.
Praise, praise and love be theirs who came
From that red hell of stench and flame,
Staggering, bloody, sick, but still
Strong with indomitable will,
Happy because, in gloomiest night,
Their own hearts drummed them to the fight.


Kim Marsh said...

I don't know whether The UK has a day like your Anzac day which combines commemoration of our dead soldiers with patriotic celebration. We remember our dead on Remembrance Sunday in november and our national saint's day is on April 23rd ( also Shakespeare's birthday) which is generally ignored ( unlike the Scottish, Welsh and Irish saints' days). I think thiis is a good thing as it may help prevent one group ( the military)
Appropriating patriotism to itself. The British have always maintained an ambivilent attitude to the military equating standing armies with continental absolutism which the English Revolution and the Glorious Revolution of 1688 were supposed to have banished. Also regarding the common soldier as only one up from jailbirds ( often true). c.f Wellington and Kipling. This is a burden which as far as I am aware the Australian and NZ soldier and veteran does not have to contend with. The experience of the two world wars being virtually the only conflicts in which you were involved being so much more widely shared than any British war prior to 1914. Am I right here? Is there a real difference in British and Antipodean attitudes to the military, remembrance and patriotism or is this me leading with the wrong foot again?
Regards Kim Marsh.

Suzannah said...

Wow! What an interesting comment, Kim!

When you say you prefer not to have the military appropriating patriotism, do I detect a reference to the USA? In that case, although ANZAC day is the major national patriotic celebration here in Australia, the attitude toward the military is nowhere near what it's like the USA. I think the major reason for that is that we think we are our military, almost as if instead of it was a militia instead of a standing army.

That said it is very interesting what you say about the British attitude to a standing army, which I would share! Is that still the British attitude today?

You would be correct in thinking that the attitude towards the military that you outline is not extant in Australia today. In an ex-colonial, non-aristocratic society, the closest an Australian gets to claiming nobility is pointing out the exact convict he was descended from! Thus the soldiers fighting in both the wars were from our own 'class', so to speak.


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