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ANZAC DAY: Author’s Notes

Of Time and Place

April 25th, Anzac Day, has been a public holiday in both Australia and New Zealand since 1916. Initially used by government as an opportunity to conduct recruitment campaigns for a war that relied on volunteers, the holiday in each country soon became the national occasion for honouring the dead from all wars of the Twentieth Century.

April 25th 2002, however, was noteworthy as the last occasion when a survivor of the 1915 Gallipoli Campaign, which substantially inspired the tradition of the Anzacs[i], would be alive to take part in the ceremonies.

Australian newspapers in the preceding week had been filled with profiles of Alex Campbell who had volunteered to fight in the 1st World War at the age of sixteen and been invalided out of Gallipoli with pneumonia. Billed that morning on the front page of The Sydney Morning Herald as the ‘last man standing’, he would be driven through the streets of Hobart later that day in a wheelchair strapped into a 4-wheel drive vehicle. Some months later, aged 103, he died.

In Sydney that day many of those attending the Dawn Ceremonies and Anzac Parades were school children. Anzac Day features strongly in the Australian School Curriculum having metamorphosed into an event which some believe now celebrates the unique character of Australians. Every nation has its myths and it suffices to say that in Australia the Anzacs are an enduring one. One suspects, however, that when Australians close their eyes and imagine an Anzac, they see an Anglo Saxon or a Celt with a larrikin view of authority and a strong sense of mateship. As much as anything it may be the desire to hold on to this image that explains the continuing appeal of the day.

The history of Australia, as opposed to the myth, is relatively easy to relate. It is a story of immigration and property ownership. It’s a young country, after all. But to try and define the typical Australian is as difficult as defining an American. A third of Sydney’s 4.2 million inhabitants, for instance, were born overseas and only half the city’s population today describes itself as of Anglo or Australian heritage. Yet no-one would deny that the disparate peoples who are called Australians have created a bona fide identity. Stir the pot of their combined DNAs and a different, if not unique, species will be detected.

April 25th , 2002, was a good day for pot stirring. It began as a glorious Autumn morning without a cloud in the sky and the prospect of a warm day ahead. There would be racing at Randwick with a New Zealand mare favoured to win, and footy at the stadium between the Sydney Roosters and St George Illawarra. There would be many church and war memorial gatherings, too, with the main focus being on the Dawn Service in Martin Place and the march up George Street. Nevertheless, most people would probably lie in bed or choose to read the newspaper from cover to cover.

This Anzac Day story is an attempt to look beyond the mythology of the day and into the lives of people living in a modern city at the beginning of the Twenty First Century. The frequent references to The Sydney Morning Herald’s issue of April 25th 2002 are a deliberate attempt to anchor the story in reported facts while the writer concentrates on the sub-text.

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[i] The Australian and New Zealand Army Corps (the ANZACs) contributed 11,410 casualties to the failed invasion at Gallipoli. This was somewhat dwarfed by the British and French with 31,051 and the Turks at 86,692. The Turks were clear victors in that campaign, though it is generally agreed that the result had no influence on the outcome of the war.

"They wrote in the old days that it is sweet and fitting to die for one's country. But in modern war, there is nothing sweet nor fitting in your dying. You will die like a dog for no good reason." - Ernest Hemingway

"War paralyses your courage and deadens the spirit of true manhood. It degrades and stupefies with the sense that you are not responsible, that 'it is not yours to think and reason why, but to do and die', like the hundred thousand others doomed like yourself. War means blind obedience, unthinking stupidity, brutish callousness, wanton destruction, and irresponsible murder." - Alexander Berkman

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