Some reflections on Anzac Day and military service

As Anzac Day is less than 24 hours away I wanted to reflect on the day – as I do each year.

By the way, the blog doesn’t usually use the perpendicular pronoun, as regular readers would know, but this post seemed to require it.

Having watched my father march a number of times, and once taken the children to see him marching, I’ve only ever participated in one Anzac Day service, and that was as the guest speaker. Although I did participate in the Sydney and Melbourne Welcome Home marches – and also in the anti-war Moratorium marches – as did many other veterans.

While serving in Vietnam our Battery was in the field on Anzac Day 1969 but whether there was any commemoration I simply can’t remember. We probably had other things on our minds at the time.

In recent years I have annually participated in an event which commemorates the fatal shooting by the police of Allan Whittaker, a Gallipoli veteran, during the 1928 waterfront lock output. It is both tragic and ironic for Whittaker to have survived Gallipoli and then fall while protesting for the rights our political leaders claim we fight to protect.

I was a very reluctant speaker at the 2017Anzac Day service and warned the organisers that some people may not like what I was going to say. But, being Port Melbourne, some iconoclasm was not a problem.

Having written more speeches for others than I have ever given I was both very nervous and very emotional. So nervous that I forgot to do the Country acknowledgement before the speech itself and only realised it when I was a few sentences in.

The reaction to the speech was very surprising to me – of which more later.

For those who are not regular blog readers and/or have not seen the speech on the website this is what I said:

You may be surprised to learn that, despite being a veteran, this is the first Anzac Day commemoration service I have participated in since I returned from Vietnam 48 years ago.

 I watched the main march as a child and later when my father, who served in New Guinea, marched. More recently our company was deeply involved in the Australia Remembers program providing volunteers throughout Australia to support the program.

 And I’ve been to Gallipoli – although not on Anzac Day – which gives you a better opportunity to quietly appreciate the monuments, the realities of what happened and all the many people involved.

 As a former Army officer a couple of things strike you when you reach Gelibolu – which the place is more properly called.

 First, what a fundamentally stupid place it was to land. By the way, the other places sometimes suggested as the spots where the troops were supposed to land were probably worse.

Second, the cemetery above the beach where you see Ataturk’s moving message to the mothers of those who died at Gallipoli: 86,692 Turks; 21,255 British; 9,978 French; 8,709 Australians; 2,779 New Zealanders; 1,358 Indians; and 49 from Newfoundland.

 If you are surprised at the Newfoundland presence it is worth remembering that of all the WWI allied nations – it wasn’t part of Canada then – Newfoundland suffered the highest casualty rate as a percentage of its total population.

 Those Australians who died were in dramatic respects different in physique, occupation, place of residence and education to modern Australians.

 They were predominantly rural – some 40% of them were labourers – and a disproportionate number of professionals, compared to their share of the workforce, enlisted.

 But the young men who enlisted were also products of a nation which was among the pioneers of universal suffrage, votes for women and trade union rights.

 It is this – not military exploits – which define Australia’s coming of age and which make it worth defending.

 Alec Campbell, the trade unionist who at 100 was the last Australian alive to have served at Gallipoli, is a great example of that. As he said near the end of his life: “I wonder if the Prime Minister would give me a State funeral if he knew what I really stood for?”

 And we should also remember among the trade unionists Port Melbourne’s own Alan Whittaker who was wounded at Gallipoli and came home only to be shot and killed by police during the 1928 dock strike just down the road from here.

 Most of those young men didn’t enlist for King and Country but rather because their mates did. Many of them thought it would be an adventure – and most of them thought they better enlist as quickly as possible because it would soon be all over.

 Indeed, speaking as a veteran I am very sceptical when I hear people talking about soldiers having died for their country or the flag.

 Over the past century and a bit Australians have actually served under other flags more often than under our current flag.

 More importantly, in combat you don’t fight for your country or your flag. You fight for your unit, your mates and to stay alive.

 Now these may not be the sort of comments you expected to hear at an Anzac Day commemoration. Some may tell you the comments are ‘political’ but much about war and commemoration is political rather than historical.

 Indeed, in Alan Bennet’s play, The History Boys, one of the characters says: “The best way to forget something is to commemorate it.”

 I am a believer in remembering rather than commemorating.

Anzac Day is a solemn day of remembrance because it is a day on which we need to remember: the tragic waste of courageous lives at Gallipoli; all the other wars in which Australians have fought and died; and, all the sacrifices which have been made by Australian civilian men and women in wartime and after.

 But we need to remember these things through the prism of realistic scrutiny as the great Australian historian, Henry Reynolds, has reminded us.

 We need to remember the fallen from the very first wars we fought – the frontier wars – and that the dead Indigenous warriors in those battles are not yet acknowledged at the Australian War Memorial.

 Although Indigenous veterans are leading this year’s Canberra march we need to remember the long history of discrimination against the Indigenous diggers who served in our 20th century wars.

 We need to remember that this year is the centenary of the defeat – on December 20 1917- of the second conscription referendum proposed by Billy Hughes – a campaign in which many Port people were involved.

 What other country in the world in 1917 had the robust democracy to allow such a vote and abide by it?

 We need to remember that not all the wars we have been involved in – like Vietnam where I served and Iraq – were entered into wisely, or prompted by great principle, and guard against governments doing the same again.

 But above all else we should look beyond commemoration to remember: the individual and collective sacrifices; the sacrifices of women and families at home; and, the sacrifices of communities which are still today illustrated by avenues of honour in towns, and honour boards in schools, town halls and other places.

 And we should do it with one of the qualities, which have always characterised Australian troops, as the veterans here today will tell you – a little bit of irreverence.

 After the speech I was speaking to a number of people who came up to me – none of them critical surprisingly – when I saw a young man headed towards me. He was obviously very fit, close-cut hair and had a row of medals. I had him tagged as a probable Afghanistan veteran and he didn’t look happy.

As he came near, he extended his hand and I took it and we shook. Then he leant in and said quietly but with passion – “I have just been down at the Service listening to all the fucking crap. You told it as it is.”

There are a few military related moments from my post-military career which I remember vividly. That was one of them. But the other was about the quality of leadership.

At the Sydney Welcome Home March, we were gathered in the Domain waiting to march down the streets and past the Town Hall where the then Prime Minister, Bob Hawke, would take the salute.

Between the usual military hurry up and wait stuff the gunners were getting restless about Bob Hawke, who they blamed for the mail strike which deprived us of mail.

Our Battery Commander, Mick Crawford, stood quietly during all this. Then when we got the word that we could move out Mick turned to the gunners and said: “We are shortly going to march down through the city. When we get to the Town Hall, on my command, we will give eyes right to the Prime Minister.”

Not another word was spoken. The gunners marched in step and when the command came not a gunner failed to do it.

Mick Crawford is no longer with us sadly. But having served under his command, and then witnessed this event, he has been to me someone who defined what real leadership was.

……..and if you would like to know what Gallipoli was really about my blog post on an important revelatory book is very useful What was the Gallipoli disaster really all about? | Noel Turnbull