Members of my family have been involved in many of Australia's major military campaigns from 1915 French battles to service in Vietnam in 1970. It seems that whatever conflict, battle or act of heroism is mentioned, comparison is always made to the ANZACs at Gallipoli. That event will always stand out as the ultimate in Australia to describe courage, mateship and spirit.
These traits were made even more real through my recent visit to an interesting exhibition from the Australian War Memorial called 1918, Australians in France which gave me a greater sense of our heritage. The exhibition shows that by 1918, only three years after Gallipoli, an Australian identity was well established and acknowledged in Europe. It showed that for the first time Australians fought under an Australian commander, Lieutenant General John Monash. Two of the most interesting exhibits I found were the Australian Flag, which had been hoisted over the French village of Harbonhieres after its liberation by Australian forces. The other was the quote from the French Prime Minister, C. Clemenceau, to victorious AIF Troops in the town of Hamel which went, "We did not know from the very beginning, you would astonish the whole continent with your valour." The displays in this exhibition of memoribelia all show how Australians were seen as unique after the 1915 Gallipoli campaign.
I think it was part of the Australian character that people like my great Grandfather, Leslie McMahon, took with them to war when he joined the original Dungaree March from Warwick to Brisbane in 1915. Clemencau later reported, "I have seen Australians I have looked into their eyes, I know they are men who have fought great battles for the cause of freedom " Australians like Leslie McMahon, permanently lame from shrapnel and his brother who was severely gassed, were the sorts of Australians Clemenceau was referring to. Each year we remember these people on ANZAC Day. The day was named after a military defeat, but it is the battle that led to the establishment of the Australian Imperial Forces reputation as a unique group of men and women.
It was on the other side of the world, on the shores of Gallipoli, on the 25th April 1915 when ANZAC troops stormed the Turkish coast, that Australia faced its first big test as a new nation. In the battle the Australian and New Zealand Army Corp stood alone on their own patch of ground. They were not a part of a British or any other group. Whether they succeeded or failed they would do it in their own right, although only a small group of men battling in a small area, the significance of their endeavours was historic. At Gallipoli, through hardship and mateship, grew our own immortal symbol of national unity, the ANZAC tradition.
John Curtin, Prime Minister of Australia (1914-1945) recalled the ANZAC tradition early in the Second World War when the Japanese were advancing on Australia, "For remember we are the ANZAC breed. Our men stormed Gallipoli." Living in the Top End of Australia there are constant reminders of past difficulties. Darwin has been devastated by war and cyclones and each time the ANZAC spirit has been called on to rebuild it. Seeing the 1918 Australians in France exhibition made me realise how much war memorabilia we live amongst here in the top end. These are not things that were brought back from far away places, but reminders left here of a real threat to our own land. There are wrecks of World War Two planes at Gove and Milingimbi, the Catalina Base at Drimmie Heads, airstrips and machine gun pits along the side of the Stuart Highway, big gun turrets at East Point and pillboxes at Dripstone Beach. Many allied ships were sunk in Darwin Harbour and there is still the bombed shell of the old town hall. Our most important reminder is the Adelaide River war cemetery which reminds us of the reality of war.
More recently Darwin has played a large part in the Operations in East Timor. East Timorese heroism in voting for independence can be compared with the bravery of the ANZACs. They knew that their heroic stand, a vote for independence, could lead to their own death. In January 1999, my family and I travelled to East Timor for a holiday. Dili was like a ghost town, many of the shops were boarded up, there were very few people on the streets and a lot of bullet holes could be seen in the walls of buildings. In Baucau my brothers and I made new friends and we had a great time playing basketball and soccer with East Timorese. Ever since the militia attacked I wonder about the people and the places I saw.
A year ago we saw troops, under Major General Cosgrove, leaving Darwin to take up the challenge of peace. We have seen huge United Nations aircraft constantly flying in and out, large navy ships in port and there are Peace Keeping troops from all over the world on the streets everyday. In October 1999 a large refugee camp was set up near the sports stadium. A tent city was erected to house the many people who arrived, forced out of their own country by the militia.
We have a lot to thank the East Timorese for. They saved thousands of Australian lives during World War Two, and in the process many lost their own. So in a way, by helping them in any way we can, we are repaying a debt we owe our neighbouring country. Standing by your neighbours and mates is definitely the ANZAC way.
The ANZAC spirit continues to be made even more real through the oral histories I have heard about reconciliation, peace and harmony. My adopted Aboriginal sister at Yirrkala told me about how her father saved the life of an American pilot whose plane crashed near the beach on Dhambaliya Island. I saw two elders from Rorruwuy receive their service medals fifty years after the war for their involvement in the Recconnaisance Forces. My Grandfather showed me where he grew vegetables at Adelaide River while he was on leave from HMAS Quickmatch. We celebrated fifty years of peace in Nhulunbuy when three busloads of service men and women returned to Gove. They visited us at the Primary School and we said thank you. It was a very emotional event. A friend of my Dad's told us about how they lit up the statue of Christ in Dili Bay, just as the last ship load of Indonesian Military was leaving. These stories of real life are an important part of our learning.
This year I marched in the ANZAC Day parade at Humpty Doo with the army cadets and it made me think of members of my own family involved in wars and about the things I have seen and heard. Our ANZAC tradition will always be a strong part of our identity and it will live on from generation to generation through documents, memorabilia and our strong oral traditions. We will never forget.
Australian War Memorial. Photographs. (Online) Available http://www.awm.gov.au/database/photo.asp 21st August, 2000.
Bowers, P. 1999. ANZACS - The Pain and the Glory of Gallipoli. Australia Post, Melbourne.
Curtin, J. 1943. From radio broadcast to the American people in Word War 2. In Transforming Australian Politics., April, 2000., introduction..
Madden, A. (Grandad) Personal Conversation
Marika, D. Personal Conversation
Goddard, C. Pamphlet - "Australians In France - 1918" Australian War Memorial Travelling Exhibition.
Horton, P. 2000. Reconciliation is not just shaking hands. Horizons, Vol. 9, No. 1, P 4-5.
Keeley, E. B. , (Grandma) Personal Conversation
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