You could not be in Australia, or among Australians* in 2015, and be unaware of what happened to an extraordinary group of men** on the Gallipoli Peninsular on April 25th a hundred years ago. Their extraordinariness has grown with the legend and become inextricably linked with the story of a newly federated nation in a new century. And they have come to represent all that is to be loved and admired and treasured by a small population emerging as a nation on the world stage. As many have observed, their feats of courage, loyalty to mates and stubborn determination to dig in, in the face of hopeless odds, have been replicated in many other places, from The Somme to the Burma Railway, from Vietnam to the Kokoda Trail. But it is on that sheer and beautiful Turkish headland that – like it or not – the legend of what has come to be seen as the quintessentially Australian character was forged.
Part of it is that they were unlikely heroes; lads seeking adventure, insulated by distance from an understanding of the political endgame in which they were unwitting players. They were endowed, according to the legend, with physical strength, a capacity for hard work, a larrikin disposition, and most poignantly, blithe optimism, which drained away with their blood into the Aegean, just like the heroes of Greek myth and The Iliad. It was replaced by dogged endurance, mateship and resourcefulness learned in no small part on the stations and small towns of country Australia.
And it is how they behaved in the face of impossible odds and bureaucratic bungling that has come to represent a rich vein of the national character, at least in our perception. And it endures as strongly as ever even though the last Gallipoli veteran died in 2002. All the revisionist versions – that it is a masculine and martial depiction of the national character that leaves out so many other important strands – cannot displace it. Indeed the SBS reporter Scott McIntyre, who dared offer a seamier version of the bronzed Anzacs – one of rape and careless violence typical surely of any armed force – was summarily sacked.Whatever our view of war and waste and sacrifice – and these questions are complex and troubling – the courage and fortitude of these men and women continues to be honoured.
And the celebration has been remarkable. Some of us might have found the rock-concert scale of the Gallipoli service disconcerting (and absolutely freezing apparently, for special guests and ill-clad choristers forced by the logistics to sit for many hours in the dark.) They probably hadn’t imagined they would not only remember the campaign but they would go close to replicating the conditions!
But the importance of this major anniversary is reflected in the many and varied stories offered by all media outlets. And even if your main source is ABC Radio National (guilty as charged) the offerings were varied, absorbing, and moving. We learned of Indigenous Anzacs denied the vote, but proving more than equal when asked to fight for Australia. We discover that all of our lives have surely been enhanced (and maybe saved) by the lessons learned from the remarkable feats of medicine miraculously achieved in appalling conditions. Emergency methods of triage and the role of the paramedic invented by the humble stretcher-bearers are just a couple. And what about those unique and wonderful war-horses, the Australian Walers? I defy you to podcast their story and remain dry-eyed. And what happened to the conscientious objectors, or the shattered men whose war continued long after the Armistice? So many, many stories, all of which will richly repay a visit to http://www.abc.net.au/radionational/
And let’s not forget Peter Weir’s elegaic, impossibly romantic and handsome film Gallipoli. The music alone will get you, as will Reflections on Gallipoli performed by the amazing Australian Chamber Orchestra with Richard Tognetti. On a more modest, but no less moving occasion, the Noosa Chorale sang Karl Jenkins’ Mass for Peace entitled The Armed Man. Even my somewhat reluctant hubby, who arrived murmuring something along the lines of this is two hours I won’t get back, had to admit he was blown away by it.
But the closest we came to peeling back the layers of legend, of hype, of militaristic jingoism was at a tiny settlement in the Sunshine Coast hinterland called Verrierdale. It consists of a small community hall with a raised stage in the corner, whose worn timber could speak of many a fiddler and foot-tapping accordionist at the dance on a Saturday night. Not easy to find in the pre-dawn darkness, nevertheless the grounds were full of locals gathered round a simple shrine. We had a piper, some speeches and Abide with Me, followed by the Last Post. An old proud uniformed soldier limped forward to lay a wreath, followed by a young girl remembering her Vietnam veteran grandfather. And then, for the price of a latte in some of the swankier spots of Noosa, a magnificent breakfast served by a dedicated group of locals of all generations. Smiling grandmothers doled out the milk liberally dosed with rum (known as a gunfire breakfast or, more locally Moreton Bay porridge!). And their grandkids buttered the toast and threaded their way through the tables serving and clearing. So enduring a tradition is it that the tablecloths are stitched with hand-knitted poppies, and come out every year, lest we forget.
In nearby Eumundi, twenty spreading fig trees throw their welcome shade over the main street; one for each man lost from this town.The grief that spread like a stain through this small community is emblematic of the suffering of families all over the world. All that love, and all that loss somehow endured for the sake of a higher ideal. It has to mean something: decency, community, freedom, and ordinary people being extraordinary.
* And New Zealanders (great anthem!) and so many others, although surely the Dublin Fusiliers deserve a moment of our remembrance for their terrible losses.
**And women, who waited aboard Hospital Ship Gascon a mile offshore from Gallipoli ready for the 557 casualties from that first day.)