The UK has Rememberance Day, the US has Memorial Day and down under we have ANZAC Day. Every child in Australia and New Zealand knows December 25 is Christmas Day, and April 25 is ANZAC Day. During our time at school we learn about the day when Australia truly grew up and became a real country. Through uncertain economic times, racial divides and severe drought, there is one day of the year when all else is put aside and the nation comes together to share a few moments of silence as we say thank you to those who have gone to war to protect our freedom.
For those unfamiliar with the ANZAC story (ANZAC – Australia and New Zealand Army Corp), it revolves around the dreadful events of April 25 in Gallipoli. Still a young nation and eager to impress, troops were sent to Turkey as part of the allied offensive in the First World War. Poor intelligence and woeful communication meant that instead of landing on a flat open beach on the Gallipoli Peninsula, the troops sailed straight into an ambush as the Turkish forces took position on the cliffs surrounding the landing site and opened fire.
Anyone who has seen the first 20 minutes of the film Saving Private Ryan does not need to try too hard to imagine the horrific scenes that followed. While both sides suffered heavy casualties, by the end of the eight month battle, more than 8,000 young ANZACs had been killed.
This single event has become one of the most important days of the year for this part of the world. It’s a time to celebrate freedom and mateship, a day to be thankful for the sacrifices we will hopefully never have to see made during our lifetime. ANZAC Day is more than just a day off work, and unlike our other major national holiday of Australia Day, you will never hear anyone complain when the day falls midweek instead of next to a weekend. It’s not just another day and it never will be.
Many Australians commemorate the day at a Dawn Service. Rising in the early hours of the morning before the sun has risen, thousands of people converge on a site for a memorial service. Wreaths are laid, a two minute silence observed and concludes when a lone bugler plays the “Last Post”. The first time I attended dawn service on ANZAC Day I cried like a baby. I cried for men I never knew, I cried for their families and I cried for the loss of innocence of a nation as thousands of young lives were violently cut short. Not a year goes by without shedding a tear or two as I look back and reflect on that terrible time. Thousands make the pilgrimage to the site of the battle in Gallipoli itself, and it has become a regular part of the backpacking ritual through Europe.
Throughout Australia’s capital cities, war veterans and their families march proudly through the streets, heads held high, looking resplendent in their army uniforms pinned with medals. Sadly the last of the survivors from Gallipoli passed away in 2002, however since his death the tradition and depth of feeling seems to have increased each year. Its not all doom and gloom though! After the sombreness of the mornings events, the afternoon usually consists of beers shared around a BBQ and watching the traditional Essendon vs Collingwood AFL match. Let’s face it, the day is as much about being mates as it is about war. The bonds formed by the troops as they faced the most terrifying moments of their lives will never be broken.
ANZAC Day is not just about that fateful day in Gallipoli, it’s an opportunity to pay our respects to those who fight to protect not only our country, but others in need, be it in the World Wars, East Timor or Iraq.
Whatever your opinions are on war, there is a time to acknowledge that behind the fighting are people, real people.
Men and women who have real family and real friends. Men and women who have given up a “normal” life. Men and women who may pay the ultimate price for their sacrifices. If we get nothing else out of ANZAC Day we should remember to not forget the people behind the ugly face of war. While politicians argue and evil reigns, young lives are lost and families torn apart.
Lest we forget.