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Thursday 30 March, 2017
There is nothing like the experience of attending Anzac Day commemorations in a small country town. A few years back, I had the pleasure of speaking at such a ceremony at Murrumbateman, near Canberra. I reflected on the fact that, although a relatively modest sized gathering, we were a part of something much bigger as the day was commemorated in towns and cities all over Australia.
There is a special place in my heart for such ceremonies. I grew up in a small country town in SA and my earliest memories of Anzac Day were in front of the Kangarilla RSL Hall. I remember looking in awe at the local farmers and workers I knew who, once a year, turned up with a chest full of medals – tough old fellas who, to my astonishment, would get a tear in their eyes as they remembered their mates and days long gone. I also remember the fabulous scones with jam and cream cooked by their wives.
I remember it mainly as a ceremony for older people, those who had been through the War. As the years went by and I entered my early teens it seemed that fewer young people were very interested in this day or what it meant.
It was about this time that I first heard the song “And the Band Played Waltzing Matilda” by Eric Bogle. I was struck by the imagery of the song, but particularly the last lines:
And the band plays Waltzing Matilda, and the old men still answer the call,
But as year follows year, more old men disappear. Someday no one will march there at all.
A few years ago I had the privilege of sitting next to Mr. Bogle at a formal dinner. He told me how he was inspired to write the song after attending an Anzac Day parade in Canberra in 1971, when the crowd was sparse and everything looked a bit sad and tired. At the time he was reviled by the RSL and many ex-diggers for his apparent ‘anti-war’ song, which was also seen as anti-Anzac Day and thus dishonoured the men and women who had fought and died for our country. Over the years he has seen attitudes completely turn around and his song become an anthem for Anzac Day – something that has given him great pride and made him a legend in his adopted country. It’s even a song that I have sung when deployed on operations.
Now Australians of all ages, and in ever increasing numbers, stop on this special day. They are moved deeply as they remember those who fought and died on the shores of Gallipoli, and those who have served in every battle before or since, and all those who have served in our Defence Force.
It has become especially meaningful for me over the years as I have served my country around the world. I have experienced Anzac Days on five continents – each has had a particular meaning for me.
I have felt great PRIDE in my country as I celebrated my first overseas Anzac Day at a service in Westminster Abbey, as London also stopped to recognize Australia’s contributions to the Commonwealth;
I have COMMEMORATED Aussie airmen who have died and were buried overseas at Arlington Cemetery in Washington, while at the same time REMEMBERING my Uncle John, a 20 year old Wellington pilot in WWII, who is buried in Klagenfurt in Austria;
I have felt CAMARADERIE standing side by side with my fellow Kiwi Peacekeepers at a Dawn Service at the Jesus Statue in Dili, Timor Leste, looking down at a cove not unlike the one where the landings were made on April 25th 1915;
I have experienced personal SUFFERING and the suffering of my colleagues as I made the decision to let a young girl die in Rwanda in 1995; and
I have been intimately involved in the DEATH of fellow serving members in Malaysia as I attended the autopsies of two pilots whose bodies I recovered following an aircraft accident.
Pride – Commemoration – Remembering – Camaraderie – Suffering – Death – Anzac Day means all of these things. However I think for me the moment that most brings home the meaning of the Anzac spirit came not on Anzac Day or while deployed on operations, but at Gallipoli itself during a private holiday in 1993. As I walked along the shore at Anzac Cove, soaking in the atmosphere, I met a man in his 60s or 70s with a thick European accent. He asked me where I was from, and I of course said “Australia”. He replied in a voice thick with emotion – “Me too. I have always wanted to come here, to this place that is so special to my country.”
Here was someone not born in Australia, a post war immigrant to our shores, and yet this place on the other side of the world meant as much to him as it did to me, a 5th generation Aussie.
Because after all, this is what Anzac Day is all about. It’s the day we came of age as a country, when we showed the world what it is like to be Australian: to look after our mates; to die for a cause; to live to serve.
And it’s about the sacrifices that were made to give not only those who were born in this country the freedom to live rich and fulfilling lives, but to provide opportunities for people from all over the world, even former enemies, to find similar freedom and a place to feel safe.
Anzac Day is Australia and Australia is Anzac Day. That’s why we gather together every year and we will continue to gather in the years ahead. And that’s why I’m delighted that Eric Bogle has been proven wrong and the Anzac Spirit will never disappear.