Like the recent bombings in Bali, the first Anzac Day in 1915 united Australians in grief and inspired national pride. It was the young people of Australia in Bali, like the young men on Gallipoli, who died as part of a perplexing war, a war they had little control over. Like Gallipoli, there have been stories of heroism, mateship and a larrikin approach to danger. The scale of Gallipoli was larger in every way with over 2000 casualties on the first day and more than 8000 Australians killed in the few short months of the campaign. It was Australia’s ‘baptism of fire’ and its entry into the world of war. The feats of the Australians on Gallipoli have become embedded in our history and have been commemorated ever since, a symbol of our entry into the world as a nation.
Anzac Day is a day for ordinary Australians. Viewing it through the eyes of individuals rather than the nation can be enlightening, illustrating why and how we remember it. The women in my family are examples of how and why people in Australia have commemorated Anzac Day over the past eighty years.
My great-grandmother, Emily Tuck spent the first days after the Gallipoli landing wondering whether her sweetheart Alex Ramsay was involved. She lived in my hometown, Buchan in far east Victoria, population 300 . Like all Australians she shared the grief and the horror when the casualty sheets brought the war home to country towns across Australia. Alec did not arrive in Gallipoli until June of 1915, but Emily didn’t know this until she received her first letter from there in October. Alex wrote:
Yes, they have got us at the Dardanelles darling, we have been here for some time now and we are still going strong. We get some very warm times here when the Turks start sending their shells in our trenches, but you can bet that we are well under cover when they start and then you hear our popguns reply and they soon fire the Turks up. It is just as well these bombardments don’t last more than half an hour for I would think it would soon drive us off our heads [sic].
He wrote in a later letter from Gallipoli ‘that war was not the best thing in the world’ and he talked about the hills rising above Anzac Cove:
We have got some very nice hills to climb over here and I don’t know how the first lot of boys done their charging and fighting up these hills. I know it takes me all my time to walk up them and then I have got to have three or four spells on the way.
Emily joined in commemorative services on the first anniversary of Anzac day in 1916. By this time Alex was on the Western Front where he remained for the duration of the war; sending letters home from Pozieres and Ypres. Emily was a musician and she played the piano for Anzac services in Buchan until the 1970s when they were disbanded. My mother remembers her gathering flowers to make a wreath to take to the service each Anzac Day.
For Emily it was not just a matter of celebrating victories in war but remembering how she lived through the Anzac experience. Her generation was touched most by WW1 because they were part of it. In her town sixty-six men enlisted and eighteen never returned and the Australia she knew had changed forever. The failure of the campaign did not matter; what did matter was the image of the diggers: their courage and skill. Having been put to the test, they had not only come through; they had shown the Empire what they were made of. Australia had come of age, as a nation and Emily and Alex were part of it.
Jessie Coates, daughter of Emily and Alec was born in 1924 and Anzac Day was always a big part of her life. Her father was one of only two Anzac veterans living in Buchan which gave him special respect in the tiny community. Jessie can remember often attending the Anzac Parade in Melbourne, always stopping off to buy a new outfit to wear. She would watch her father march and proudly wave her Australian flag. When they weren’t able to travel to Melbourne, they would attend the local Anzac ceremony in Buchan. Her mother played the piano and supplied the flag for the service, which was taken from a jetty in Gallipoli by Alec’s brother who was an original Anzac.
The only time I ever saw my father cry was when they played the Last Post at Anzac Day services. I was very proud to wear my grandmother’s brooch that she had made incorporating her sons’ battalion colours with a replica of the Military Cross won at Gallipoli by my uncle, Robert Ramsay’
Jessie remembered that
Anzac Day was a day of solemn remembrance. No shops were allowed to open and no sport was played. Everyone in the town went to the Anzac services whether it be on a frosty April morning or at dusk. At the services they sang ‘Onward Christian Soldiers’ and ‘Land of Hope and Glory’
These were reminders of the links with England. For Jessie’s father Anzac Day was a time to mourn the mates he had lost. For Jess, it was a time of remembrance and a time of national and personal pride. Later, as she lived through WW2 and like her mother saw local young men from go to war in foreign countries, Anzac Day became even more significant.
Anzac Day was a big part of my Aunty Val’s life. Slightly younger, but of the same generation as Jess, Val married Stuart Haldane in 1947 after he had survived the horrors of being a prisoner on the Burma Railway. Stuart was a true Anzac; born on April 25th in 1922. As a young girl Val had followed the exploits of the Australian soldiers overseas and often went down to the Melbourne docks to celebrate the return of the Australian troops, where she first met Stuart. Val never missed an Anzac Day March. She would spend the day at the 2 /2nd Pioneers Reunion serving the ex- POWs with cups of tea and scones late into the night. For Val Anzac Day was a way of gaining understanding about what her husband had experienced in war, and a way for her to participate. She was immensely proud of his military record and equally proud of his fellow soldiers.
My mother Frances grew up in the 1960s in Buchan. She witnessed a changing attitude to Anzac Day. As a child she attended Anzac Day services at school and in the town.
It was my turn to wear the brooch and my brother was allowed to wear my grandfather’s medal. At school there was always a radio program the day before Anzac Day, usually based on Simpson and his donkey. My grandmother still played the piano and sent me out to collect flowers to make her wreath. The Gallipoli flag was always displayed on a table at the service. My grandfather died in 1958 but I still felt pride in the fact that he was a Gallipoli veteran.
But the 1960s saw a change in attitude towards Anzac Day. The Vietnam War and plays like ‘The One Day Of The Year’ by Allan Seymour which Frances studied at school made people realize that there were no winners in war.
slogan was painted on the Shrine. I had mixed feelings about it. I didn’t like war but I could also see the hurt it caused to my my grandmother and parents."
I remember when the Peace
The Anzac services stopped in Buchan and Frances remembers when milk bars were first allowed to open on Anzac Day, but she still watched the march on television to see how many people were marching in her grandfather’s battalion. After studying Australian history and reading Bill Gammage’s book The Broken Years, she finally came to an understanding of what Anzac Day was really about
Rather than being a celebration of war it was a celebration of the achievements of ordinary people; it defined the Australian character and it was a recognition of what it means to be Australian. I really wished I could have talked to my grandfather about it, but I was too young and he was too old. I remain in awe that these people I knew could have endured what they did and remained whole human beings who went on to live ordinary lives.
Today as a teenager living in Buchan in the 21st Century and witnessing tragedies such as September 11th and the Bali bombings, I realize anything can happen. But I have also come to realise that Australia is a safe, peaceful country and part of that heritage is due to the Anzacs of Gallipoli. The Anzac spirit continues in the themes of mateship, larrikinism, courage, bravery and a feeling of being connected to my Australia. Why and how we celebrate Anzac day is up to the individual. It could be because you lived through it like Emily, or because it links you with your past like me.
For me, the Anzac spirit is a belief in democracy and a fair go for all, it’s courage, mateship, bravery and never giving up. I believe the Anzac flame burns at the heart and soul of every Australian whether they show it out on the football field, by singing Waltzing Matilda with extra voice, by peacefully protesting or whether they enlist as a volunteer for the Red Cross or the CFA. In these uncertain times Anzac Day reminds us of shared beliefs and draws us together as a nation. It reminds us of what we are and where have come from.
Bukan-Mungie: 150 Years of Settlement in the Buchan District 1839-1989: Buchan Sesquicentenary Committee. EG Printers. 1989.
Not Only a Hero: Tom Curran Go-print. Brisbane. 1998
History in SOSE 2: Australia’s Links With the World: Helen Calvert. Macmillan, 2001
Australian History: Robert Engwerda. Jacaranda. 2000
Experience of Nationhood: K.J. Mason . McGraw-Hill. 2001
Spirit of the Anzacs: Herald-Sun May 18th 2002
Letters from Alex Ramsay from Gallipoli and France 1915-19.
My family was my inspiration to write this essay. I interviewed:
Jessie Coates, Buchan aged 78. (My Grandmother) October 2002
Frances Haldane, Buchan, aged 48. ( My Mother) October 2002
Robert Haldane, Buchan, aged 51. (My Father) October 2002.
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