The original ANZACs were the Australian and New Zealand Army Corps. They landed on 25 April 1915 at Galipoli in the Dardenelles for what was to become a protracted and punishing military defeat.
Australians (and New Zealanders) still commemorate Anzac Day as their national day of remembrance and with numerous dawn services, remembrance parades followed by war stories, stories about the (great) grandkids and drinking with your mates. It’s a day that is both sombre and joyous, reverential and light-hearted. We remember our dead in a peculiarly Australian fashion.
Today I was privileged to go to the ceremony with Alice. Alice looked after me as a child and I return the favour in her old age.
Alice served as a nurse in the Second World War. Her first husband served in Palestine, Tobruk and possibly El Alamein – but paid with his life at the true battle for Australia – at Kokoda. (The reason I am not sure he fought at El Alamein is timeline. He may have been at El Alamein and he was certainly in Egypt but the main battle was fought at El Alamein in late 1942 and the Kokoda battles were already happening by then.)
Alice’s family sacrifice did not end there – her second husband had what I suspect were continued psychological problems after New Guinea. Alice’s son (Richard) served in Vietnam. (It is possible however that Alice's second husband fought at El Alamein - and she confuses which battles they fought in.)
I pushed Alice in her wheelchair at the Legacy War Widows Service in Sydney. The ranks of World War II War Widows are getting thinner – and Alice may have been amongst the oldest. She is the youngest (and one of only two surviving) of more than a dozen children. Being the youngest of many her father was not young when she was born – and – possibly uniquely – she was wearing her father’s Boer War medals. The medals proudly were issued under Queen Victoria and Edward VII and showed their heads – reminding us that Australia has always fought under the auspices of the British Crown.
The ceremony was short and moving – and whilst I was pushing a wheelchair I did not feel that I belonged in the march. Other people had sacrificed much and I was a beneficiary not a victim. Still many tears were shed.
It was about an hour till the main march went through. Richard disappeared to march with his Vietnam buddies. I was left chatting with a bunch of mostly spritely women in their 80s whose husbands had died when they were 18-20. Most did not remarry though one did and the second husband died in the Korean War.
Their husbands mostly died in campaigns against the Japanese after fighting the Germans. The woman who sat next to me told me her husband served on HMAS Australia and was killed by a kamikaze at the Battle of the Coral Sea. I was surprised as I did not know that kamikazes had been used as early as the Battle of the Coral Sea (1942). Moreover it did not gel with her age as she was 18 married and pregnant when the war ended (1945) so it was unlikely that he was killed in 1942. But HMAS Australia was the victim of a kamikaze – possibly the first kamikaze and there were many dead. The date of that attack (January 1945) matched the age of her child. Not to quibble. She bought up a very well adjusted child as a very young widow – and she never remarried. It does talk however to how inaccurate memory is – even of very important things. Her mixed up memory matched Alice's doubt about which husband (if any) fought at El Alamein.
The march itself was charming, lighthearted, sad and poignant. And most of those things all at once.
It was led by a group of horses in full nineteenth century military regalia. After a decent interval came a man with a wheelie bin and a shovel who – to cheers from the crowd – cleaned up the horse dung.
Then came a riderless horse called Galant in lieu of any surviving veterans from the Boer War. Another riderless horse represented the First World War which was dated 1914-1918. Flags representing all Australian divisions that fought in that war were carried by serving military officers.
There was no horse and no other representation for Australia’s (minor) involvement in the Russian Civil War (1919). Australia played a very small role in that war – and there were few Australian dead – but the parade did not honour them. The Australians fought in British units – though – according to this minor history at the Australian War Memorial web site Australia did send naval ships for reconnaissance.
After a decent interval came a formal precession led by Professor Marie Bashir. Marie Bashir is the Governor of New South Wales – and hence the representative of Her Majesty the Queen of Australia. Governor Bashir is I think 78 years old – but my spritely war-widow companions thought she looked young and fantastic.
Then came a large number of divisions of Second World War veterans. Some were carried in taxis, some in military vehicles, some in wheel chairs – but most marched. A few dropped out of the march to flirt with the war widows which I found hilarious and the widows found flattering. Many saluted as they went past us.
The women tended to look a little better than the men (which is not atypical amongst 85 year olds). Most colourful were the women who served in field hospitals who were dressed to the nines and all wearing gleaming (and elegant) white gloves. Interspersed were marching bands mostly provided by various high schools including my high school. My old high school (Sydney High) is an academically selective school with a history of taking the upwardly mobile children of the latest generation of immigrants. In the days that Jim Wolfenson went there it was full of Jews and other children of Eastern European refugees. It now is the children of Indians and Middle Eastern Muslims as well as South East Asians. The band filled me with hope for Australia – and the racial mix of the students in it differed dramatically from the all-white Second World War returned soldiers.
The troops went past largely in order of the campaigns they fought. Most of the campaigns I knew Australians were involved in – but there were groups that fought with Americans and other services (usually in specialised roles) that I did not know about. One example were the Polar Bears – a naval group covering arctic supply lines.
There were contingents from Korea, the Malaya Emergency and extensive Vietnam Veterans. There were small groups from the first Gulf War, East Timor, Iraq and Afghanistan.
Finally there were groups representing allies we fought with in various wars. There were for instance a small group of Dutch soldiers who were assigned to Australian Divisions after Dunkirk. There were Americans (mostly from Vietnam), Ghurkhas and other assorted South Asians. The largest group were Vietnamese who fought for the South and later settled in Australia as refugees.
To me though one of the most moving parts of the whole parade happened by fluke. We tried to find a bathroom for Alice – and a woman who worked for Legacy led us to a disabled toilet. Legacy is a charity for families of war dead – and it was Legacy who had organised the War Widows special ceremony. They have a group for the children of war dead – and – for the first time – she had organised them a place in the parade. They were led by a military truck and in the back was their oldest member – a son of a soldier who died in the Great War – and their youngest member – a son of a soldier who died in Afghanistan. I would not have understood the significance of that baby had I not met the organiser.
And whilst I am sad for the child – if I judge it by the children of the war widows I sat with then the boy will turn out OK, and in sixty five years he will still be honouring his father’s sacrifice.
PS. I have to repeat one of the comments.
My mother was raised in an orphanage in Brisbane run by Legacy. As far as I know, she doesn't go to A.N.Z.A.C. Day parades, but does go to the Dawn Service. The "Legacy Kids"/orphans have their own get-togethers. Every August for the past 26 years, the orphans have a re-union on the birthday of the woman who ran the orphanage. She was a Legacy employee who had lost her husband on the Kokoda Track. One of her brothers was a Rat of Tobrook (9th Division) and El Alemein veteran, who later lost an arm at Milne Bay in Papua New Guinea. Another of her brothers is buried in France, killed while flying for the RAF. After her husband died, she lost her only child. She later gave back by running the orphanage for Legacy. She touched hundreds of orphan's lives. They never forgot her. She was also my Godmother.
My Grandfather was killed in Sydney during WWII while serving in the Australian Army. My mother has never visited his grave - its just too painful, even after all these years. My father has an uncle buried in northern France, a casualty of WWI's Battle of the Somme. No one from our family has ever visited his grave to pay our respects. There are many families like ours in Australia with similar stories to tell.
Lest We Forget.
PPS. I have been a little perplexed by the stories told by the War Widows. They are sometimes embellished, sometimes the stories are compressed. I gather Alice's first husband fought with the 7th division. He could not have fought at El Alamein as he would have been in New Guinea by that time. Here is a history from the 7th's website. Almost all of what Alice told me (and the medals she wore) are consistent with this history - though she mixes her two husband's campaigns up.
The 7th Division left Australia in October 1940 for the Middle East. Over the next two months, the 7th was concentrated in Palestine. It was slotted for a move to Greece to help in the defence against Axis invasion, but instead moved into defensive positions in the Western Desert. Parts of the Division under the command of Maj General Allen crossed into Syria and fought a hard won victory in the campaign against the Vichy French . 18th Brigade excelled itself as part of the defence of Tobruk. With Japanese invasion of Australia imminent, the Division was recalled home. Elements of the Division (2/3rd Machine Gun Battalion, 2/2 Pioneer Battalion, 2/2 CCS,2/6 Fld Pk Coy and 105 Gen Tpt Coy)were diverted to Java. They fought a defensive campaign against overwhelming Japanese odds and were only forced to surrender after an early capitulation by the Dutch forces there.
The Division moved to New Guinea and established headquarters in Port Moresby. The timely arrival of the Division in New Guinea helped to halt the Japanese advance.. 21st Brigade fought a bitter campaign of attrition on the Kokoda Track,until replaced by 25th Brigade who slowly forced the Japanese northwards. 18th Brigade and other Australian units inflicted the first decisive defeat of the Japanese on land in World War 11 at Milne Bay and then at Buna and Sanananda in January 1943. 21st Brigade and the militia 39tth Battalion won a costly victory at Gona in December 1942. George Vasey took over command of the Division in October 1942, until his death in a plane crash in 1945. Major General Milford then took over command until the end of the war. In 1943, the Division was airlifted from Port Moresby to Nadzab in the Markham Valley. After an advance on Lae, the Markham and Ramu Valleys were soon swept clear of Japanese troops. A bloody campaign in the mountains of the Finisterre Ranges followed.