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Photo credit: Lutars Travel

Today is ANZAC day in Australia and New Zealand. This year marks the 100th anniversary of the ANZAC landing at what is now Anzac Cove in Gallipoli, Turkey. ANZAC stands for Australian New Zealand Army Corps and, on this day, we remember the soldiers or ‘diggers’ who died in the many wars around the world. We also have Remembrance Day on 11 November but I suppose we use today to think specifically of the ANZAC losses and particularly of WWI as that’s where the ANZAC spirit was really forged.

Every year, all major cities have a dawn service as well as a veterans’ march and then usually the whole country spends the day drinking in a pub somewhere and playing two up (look it up). The dawn service starts at 4am and usually this is enough to dissuade me from attending. But not this year. Despite working the night before and not getting home til 1am, we got back up at 3am and made our way into the city along with 30,000 other attendees.

We stood in the dark and sang hymns and read poems. Big projector screens flashed images of long-dead soldiers, usually smiling at the camera as if they didn’t know what was coming. For me, the most emotionally intense part of the ceremony is always the Last Post, a haunting bugle tune, followed by a minute’s silence and then the words ‘lest we forget’. The bugle then comes back and plays Reveille and then we get more hymns and so forth. I’d seen the Last Stand – Reveille part before on TV and the internet and stood for it at school but somehow it was much, much more powerful at this morning’s dawn service.

Surrounded by all those people who had gotten out of bed and dressed in the darkness to come and stand on the streets of Sydney and remember and honour our dead made it an incredibly intense experience. So many lost lives. So much bloodshed and grief. So much hardship and sacrifice that so many of today’s Australians couldn’t even begin to comprehend (myself included). To quote Chuck Palahniuk in Fight Club:

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Photo credit: IZ Quotes

The country of Australia was only 14 years old when it got called into WWI. Before that, it was a loose federation of states and territories with just their land mass, proximity and British colonisation in common. ANZAC troops fought and died far from home in places like Amiens and Villers Bretonneux in France and Flanders in Belgium. But it’s the battle in Gallipoli, Turkey that seems to hold the most resonance for us, despite it being a terrible slaughter on all sides.

We have many Gallipoli movies extolling the bravery of our troops in what was essentially a huge military clusterfuck. The decision makers hadn’t done their recon. They thought the Turks were cowards and would fold quickly. They didn’t. They misjudged the terrain. There were many bunglings and fuck ups. Then they delayed evacuation even though men were dying of sickness and the harsh Turkey winter and hospitals that were ill-equipped to tend to the huge number of wounded coming in each day. In the end, 28,150 Australian troops were lost in the theatre of Gallipoli alone, a huge number considering our small population at the time (this info comes courtesy of my little ANZAC handout I received at today’s ceremony).

In all battles, the ANZACs built a formidable reputation but it’s the spirit of mateship that really defined them. And this mateship is something Australians are proud of to this day. There are stories of men jumping out of the trenches to pull injured comrades to safety. Men volunteering, arguing to stay with their mates in battle when injured or when not required, refusing to leave their mates behind. I’m sure every army has these stories. This is what men (and women) are capable of when faced with the most dire of circumstances.

We haven’t had a world war since WWII but there have been plenty of atrocities since then. Maybe we’ve learnt a little from our past but not nearly enough. In that one minute of silence just after 5am this morning, I pictured all those scared men knowing they might die and doing what they were told regardless. What a terrible thing for anyone to experience; fighting for the greater good, knowing you might die and not knowing if your death will make a difference.

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