Roughly 16,000 straight line kilometres separate Canberra and Gallipoli. An undefinable human distance, excruciating kilometres torturing two young Commonwealth nations for a further 8 months. The Ottoman killing fields rob these nations of their innocence. Once lost, innocence never returns. The stench of death, a haunting symphony of synchronised trigger mechanisms, the last sensory experiences for 12,000 or so brave ANZAC souls. Death was certain yet they charged. No promise of their future, yet than ran. Why?
Federation united the colonies; April 25, 1915 strengthened its core. If Australia Day is a day for celebration, Anzac Day is a day for commemoration. I revere Anzac Day as our most important day. A day to recognise those who gave their lives to protect Australian freedoms. The freedom to voice our opinions, disagree with one another, entertain the absurd and, to “give it a go”. Freedoms we see as basic Australian rights, the Anzacs protected with their blood.
I have never experienced a war and only have a passing understanding of its long-standing repercussions. My family emigrated to Australia from the former Yugoslavia in the 1960’s. I have ancestral heritage and lineage in almost all the Balkan states. Relatives resisted the Nazis during World War II and unfortunately, fought and perished in a brutal civil war during the 1990’s that in effect, achieved nothing other than to establish nationalism. I cannot speak to the conduct of my relatives and a fair degree of my experiential information came to me by way of anecdotes from a tough, uncompromising man, my grandfather (Dida) Anté “Bosné” Surjan. Bosné, a teenage courier in Josip “Tito” Broz’s Partisan Army, ran messages and supplies through thick, Nazi patrolled Balkan forests to resistance soldiers. Imagine yourself, a little older than primary school age, running into the unknown, life or death determined by guile or pure dumb luck. That’s what Anzac soldiers confronted as their ships departed Australian ports; the unknown.
Former US President and 5 star General Dwight Eisenhower once said “There is no glory in battle worth the blood it costs.” History remembers its commanders, not its soldiers. Five million citizens young, 416,000 or so Australians enlisted to defend the Commonwealth in World War I. One percent (60,000+ Australian Anzacs) of the population would never return home. The City of Bayswater, gone. Anzac Day is a day to remember those soldiers; to cherish those soldiers; to share Australian pride in those soldiers. The cost was heavy, their legacy enduring. The world was introduced to the Anzac Spirit.
C.E.W. Bean, a prominent war historian described the Anzac Spirit as “the reckless valour in a good cause, for enterprise, resourcefulness, fidelity, comradeship and endurance that will never own defeat… the laughter, the pride and the love of life that is in every Australian.” To me, the Anzac Spirit defines our cultural identity. It established cultural norms that many of us hold dear today. Sticking fat with your mates when times are tough; laughing at the impossible and never giving up. Larrikinism, mateship and, humour is woven into the fabric of Australian culture. This is what the Anzacs defended with their blood.
It’s easy to trivialise death when nothing is at stake. There’s nothing trivial about death. As a boy, my earliest memory of death was driving past a fatal car crash observing the sickening fusion of metal, strewn objects and gathered crowd. Everyone wanted their piece of the action. Strangely, it wasn’t the accident nor its result that stayed with me. It was the crowd, 5 deep, scanning the scene as emergency services performed their roles. The darndest thing.
I grew up watching Cecil B. DeMille films. I was enamoured by them. The strength, the virtue, the story. 1998 detonated a bomb in my collective conscious and radically changed my perception of war. The shaking hand of a soldier taking a mouthful of water from his spluttering canteen did little to prepare me for the next 8 minutes of hell. Saving Private Ryan put a human face on war. No longer was it ABC News reports of casualties and ruins, it was indiscriminate machine gun fire ripping apart torsos, limbs and entrails scattered across beaches in a bloody mess and men crying out for their mothers as they took their last, dying breaths. I understood the notion of war but I did not understand the face of war until the Omaha Beach scene. Yes, it’s World War II and yes, it’s American soldiers but war is war. I’m not worried about dying and going to hell. War is hell and on April 25, 1915, the Anzacs were dropped right into it.
History describes the impact of the Gallipoli campaign on the Great War as negligible. History doesn’t tell you what it gave Australia. Bruised and battered like a veteran boxer, this international curiosity finally had an identity. Australia; loveable larrikins who would rather stay and fight than run and hide. Mary Anne Evans (pen name George Eliot) offered these famous words; “Any coward can fight a battle when he’s sure of winning, but give me the man who has pluck to fight when he’s sure of losing.” No matter the odds, no matter the circumstances, Australians stick fat, stand by their mates and they fight. That’s what we do. In the darkest hours facing impossible odds, Australians stick by their mates and they fight. Anzac fight. Anzac Spirit.
I’m proud to call Australia my home. We are a smorgasbord of cultures where divergent opinions are demanded. 23 million strong, we invent, we compete and we laugh at everything. We have the freedom to choose and the freedom to vote. We live in clean cities and we punch above our weight. We bicker then fight but live to tell the tale. We live in a country where sport is our religion, the arts our soul. The lucky country sure, but that’s not by chance. Spirit built this country, not favour or luck.
Anzac Day is a time to commemorate not just the dead but also, the living. Hundreds of thousands of Anzacs returned home. Hundreds of thousands carrying the burden of irreparable scars. Faces they would never see again, wounds that would never heal. Lives forever changed. I say to you, thank you. Thank you for building the country that I call home. Thank you for building the envy of all others. You are, and always will be, the best of Australia.
Lest we forget.
“They shall grow not old, as we that are left grow old;
Age shall not weary them, nor the years condemn.
At the going down of the sun and in the morning
We will remember them.”