While leaders erred their courage held
Bloodied birth waters for a young nation
Not so far from there a crowd yelled
Bloody minded in their mob betrayal
Quiet days that soar still on our modern calendars
Far places weighing on our clever consciences
Calvary and Anzac Cove say, ‘Not my will, lest we forget’.
Great defeats born with blood, borne by love
Teaching us still decades, centuries, eternally
That winning is not always won in victory
But sometimes by the brave, in loss.
The good die young, die in sand and mud, die in their thousands
And we remember them, more than ever, more than mostMoved and strangely weeping.
But listen, echoing along with shuffling feet on dawn’s street
The sound of metal striking metal
Wood giving way, and flesh
And the cry of an only Son
Who dies on a tree, dies with scorn, dies alone
Not my will, lest we forget.
In discussing the amazing opportunity that lies before the 23rd million Australian who joined us last night, Michael Pascoe says that perhaps the most significant thing about being Australian is redemption.
‘…it came down to redemption, to giving people a second chance.’
Pascoe says that while he hoped baby 23 million would make the most of its first chance at a lucky life, he agreed with John Menadue that being Australian is all about the great second chance. Here’s some of what Menadue wrote at Australia Day:
‘…whether Australian born, migrants or refugees an equal opportunity in life, a second chance. That ethos of redemption is a core part of our history…. A friend of mine, Ian McAuley, said that whilst the British sent the puritans to America, they sent convicts to Australia and that we got the better of the deal. The underprivileged and the outcasts in Australia got a second chance.’
We see redemption also in Anzac Day and perhaps this is why it has become such a powerful national symbol. Young Australians caught up in a military mistake, a tactical disaster and a human tragedy find a way to redeem this hopelessness through courage, self-sacrifice, comradery and humour. We may have lost the battle and many thousands of sons, but we bought at great price a sense of national identity and pride.
If that is true, if as Pascoe, Menadue and McAuley seem to agree – redemption is at the core of who we are – then there is great hope because national redemption is still needed.Read More »
Remembrance Day last week was highlighted by a preponderance of 11s – 11/11/11 at 11am – and reminds us that the events of time and space are not only measured by dates and location but by our less exacting recollections.
Memory and identity are in many ways at the heart of Julian Barne’s 2011 Booker Prize winning novel, The Sense of an Ending, which includes character Adrian quoting, ‘History is that certainty produced at the point where the imperfections of memory meet the inadequacy of documentation.’
If that is true, even in part, then all the more reason to have rituals of remembrance so that some things are not lost. Many of the world’s most memorised sayings or occurrences, such as those of the Christian faith, were passed down through oral traditions that perfected remembrance in a way we rarely do today.
One such ritual is Remembrance Day which recalls for us Armistice Day, November 11, 1918 when hostilities ceased on the western front, virtually bringing to and end The Great War. It came too late for my great-uncle Roy who was killed in action on April 4, 1918 at Villers Bretonneax. He was one of 60,000 Australians who died in WWI and one of 11,000 or more whose bodies were never recovered.
The day before Remembrance Day I visited my sister’s grave because even though 17 years have passed since she was killed, we still remember and are still affected by her loss. We have a body, but no explanation as to who killed her and why, and so our remembrance is unsettled to this day.
It made me realise that as a nation, we must have been powerfully affected by 60,000 families all caught in a remembrance of loved ones lost. Even those who had graves to attend and accounts to read, would still have found the deaths of their loved ones hard to reconcile. Maybe our very identity as a people shifted through this mass remembering of those who would not return.
And so we remember, through to World War 2 and it’s 40,000 slain Australians and onwards to today, including three more Diggers dying in Afghanistan. And while the casualties of war-time are just a part of the never-ceasing tide of life and death and birth and ageing that we are all part of, it is the sheer enormity of loss of life that these wars brought that stir us to find ways to remember, to acknowledge, to incorporate a sense of who we are through what has occurred.
But I fear that our remembering in this sphere is too often marked by what is forgotten or ignored as by what is recalled. The only number that comes close to the casualties of the two world wars, was that of Aboriginal deaths during frontier conflict across Australia.
While estimates by some writers of up to 100,000 Aboriginal deaths due to conflict with settlers is regarded as too high, many historians agree on a figure of about 20,000 Aboriginal people killed during a relatively short period as British colonisation of this land occurred. Perhaps 1-2000 white people were killed in these same conflicts which were, on more than on occasion, referred to at the time as the Black War or similar.
A mature nation, I believe, would realise that if white remembrance of the losses of war are vital to our sense of identity, healing and balance, then so too, or even more so, that of Aboriginal people. We cannot go back and undo these horrific losses for the first Australians, any more than I can go back and undo the death of great-uncle Roy. We can’t set aside the tide of history that produced colonial powers sweeping the globe any more than we can for the not dissimilar causes of World War 1 and 2.
But we can acknowledge that it happened – that many thousands of Aboriginal people died in attempts to defend their homes and their families and many more were killed in acts of revenge, extermination and ethnic cleansing so that white people would feel safe. We can acknowledge that this was and is brutally hurtful to those left behind and those that followed, and that it had far-reaching consequences then and now.
Are we ready as a modern Australian society to include in Remembrance Day or Anzac Day or Australia Day the idea that there is another great conflict at the heart of Australian identity and it is the one between Aboriginal and European?
It doesn’t mean that conflict need remain. Australia has rebuilt excellent relationships with many previous enemies – not by forgetting, but by remembering and at the same time, choosing to move forward. As to whether, when and how Aboriginal people may want to do this is another matter.
I fear our (white Australian) refusal to acknowledge this war in our past makes it harder for all of us, black and white, to enter into a peace that is authentic, just and durable. We can ignore it, but an unsettled loss rarely goes away on its own. That’s why we stop to remember year by year, so that in time the remembering hurts less and we are able to reflect and learn from our past.
There has been some comment that Anzac Day on April 25 trumped Easter Sunday on April 24 with the SMH reporting that, ‘Media Monitors says there were 1878 mentions of the word Anzac in broadcast media over the long weekend, compared to only 44 resurrections.’
The unusual conjunction in the Australian calendar of the two ‘key foundation stories’ meant that the devout may have found themselves at a dawn service two days in a row!
No doubt coverage of Anzac Day did outstrip Easter commemorations, one reason being that most Anzac Day events took place out in the community with a degree of effort taken to ensure everyone was made welcome to attend. In many case Easter services took place behind church walls with the uninitiated left to work out for themselves how to attend.
For example, holidaying a long way from home, we received invitations both verbal and written, to the Anzac Dawn Service in the small town in which we stayed but were left to search Google to see if there was a church within walking distance. There wasn’t.
It may be that in some cases, the church has given up trying to make the amazing message of Easter accessible to all while momentum for Anzac Day continues to grow. I would say – more power to Anzac Day, but those of us who know the power of Easter truth should not be afraid of taking our joy outside in genuine, unself-conscious and welcoming ways.
The Divine may yet have the last headline in any case. Media commentators may not be aware, but in many Anzac Day commemorations, large and small, around the nation, Christian ministers are invited to give the address and invariably draw comparisons between the self-sacrifice, giving of life and courage embedded in Anzac Day and likewise in the Christ of Easter.
There is nothing closer to a national Christian service than Anzac Day, even though it is a secular event. The sentiments expressed are often as close to the Christian message as they two days were on the calendar this year.
When I first saw the name R. F. Hallett carved in the stone of the Australian War Memorial, Villers-Bretonneax, France, in 2009, it was if it shouted out to me, ‘Hey, here I am, where have you been?’
I felt like Roy Frederick was waiting impatiently for someone to come find him, his body never recovered from the killing fields on which the memorial came to be built.
Under the warm sun and surrounded by the peaceful green fields of rural France, my wife and I had made our way from Paris to Amiens and then on to Villers Bretonneax as an act of remembrance for my father’s uncle who never returned from World War 1.
Ironically, Roy went to war with a bullet scar already showing on his foot, perhaps the result of an accident while hunting or working as a stockman.
Or maybe he belonged to gun club, as did many of those recruited around the same time, into the 36th battalion. Ambrose Carmichael, Minister for Public Information led a recruitment drive from the rifle clubs of NSW in early 1916. The battalion became known as ‘Carmichael’s Thousand’. Carmichael led by example and enlisted as well, serving in the battalion as a captain.
Whatever the source of his bullet scar, he was to see much, much worse in his short but bloody tour of duty along the battlefields of Europe.
While Roy never returned, his scant belongings did and among them were two religious books. Our family history is not particularly religious but it sounds as if Roy may have found some solace in faith in the face of death.
The rest of his story, as gleaned from Australian war records, follows and is my contribution to Anzac Day… Lest we forget.