Kirill Talanine
Canberra Grammar School
Winner – Australian Capital Territory

‘Ordinary people doing extraordinary things.’

‘Ordinary people doing extraordinary things.’ Refer to the original ANZACs and to the ANZAC spirit evident in Australian society at other times, to explain the extent to which you agree with this statement.

Australia is a nation of made up ordinary people, and a democracy founded upon them. Indeed this most especial country could not exist without them. For they – whether they be individuals or legion, leaders or followers, soldiers, scholars, sportsmen or farmers – have done extraordinary things.

But rarely throughout Australia’s history have people presumed to do extraordinary things. Almost always, even the greatest successes have been born with utmost modesty, only to be recognized by future generation. It is not through design that the extraordinary has been achieved, but through the inherent character of the ordinary Australian people.

Like so many Australians the Anzacs were everyday people, who could not have imagined how great a part they would play in the maturing of their nation. They were sons and brothers, husbands and fathers, but they fought and died for the country that they loved. They did not go to war because they were heroes; none knew what horrors awaited them when they volunteered for the army, and many did not truly realize what they were leaving behind to protect. And when the realities of war struck, along with the shrapnel and sniper shots which rained down upon the beachheads of Gallipoli on that fateful April the twenty fifth, they could have despaired and abandoned their duty, but they did not, and they persevered, and what is more they forged the Australian identity into a badge of honour and gave their nation a baptism of fire. They became the epitomes of courage, camaraderie, egalitarianism, good humour, and duty which are so central to the contemporary Australian ethos. That is what made them heroes; what made their deeds extraordinary.

The Australians and New Zealanders who made up the Australian & New Zealand Army Corp are not honoured because they gained victory in the Dardanelles campaign, and indeed they did not. They are honoured because of how they held themselves, how they treated one another, and for the ultimate sacrifice that almost nine thousand of them made.

What the Anzacs did was made all the more remarkable by the horrendous conditions on Gallipoli. They had little leadership, and that which they did receive was often very poor. In a letter to his mother Murray Aitken wrote of the situation after the first landing:

"…We were not led by our officers; the men acted on their own initiative, and by taking the whole affair into their own hands, so saved a very critical situation."

They also had to battle against an enemy fortified on high ground, had to assail steep and unforgiving terrain, with irregular rations and pandemic disease, in blistering heat during summer and frigid cold during winter, and what’s more they held their ground for over half a year. Truly these ordinary people became conquerors of the cruel nature of war.

Among their number were men like John Simpson Kirkpatrick who enlisted in the army hoping for a chance to go to England. His valour-lacking ambition quickly paled to his deeds and sacrifices on the Gallipoli peninsular. His role was as a stretcher bearer, but he disregarded these orders and worked independently, risking death countless times to rescue his charges, bearing them on the back of his donkey. He bore no weapon but the hope of life for the men he saved, and among the 21st Kohat Indian Mountain Artillery Battery gained the nickname "Bahadur", the Bravest of the Brave. His selfless conviction to saving lives cost him his own only four weeks after he reached Gallipoli, and his disregard for orders meant that he received no military recognition. However this enigmatic figure has become a vital part of the Anzac legend; an ordinary man who’s truly extraordinary actions went above and beyond the call of duty.

But Simpson was only one of a host of men who did the extraordinary. Men like Alfred Shout, whose bravery made him the most decorated Anzac, who told jokes as he lay dying. Or the New Zealander named Malone who died at fifty six years of age, after having pushed forward to Chinook Bear, the furthest inland any allied soldier had reached on Gallipoli. In truth there are countless Australian soldiers who served in places like Europe, New Guinea and Vietnam, whose heroism may never be learned of. These everyday people have individually and collectively done extraordinary things.

By no means do the ideals that these men and women impressed upon our nation’s culture exist only in concept. They are as real and palpable in contemporary Australia as they were on the beaches of the Dardanelles, the trenches of the western front, and the treacherous jungles of New Guinea. My own experiences of the Anzac legend and the extraordinary achievements of everyday people have struck close to home. In January of 2003 bushfires ravaged my home city Canberra, deeply affecting many of the cities people, including some that I knew. Fire fighters, many of whom were volunteers, battled valiantly against the destruction. But after the storm of flame passed, almost five hundred houses lay in ruin and four bright lives had been quenched. A terrible blow had been dealt to my community. However something amazing happened, and ten months on is still happening: a resurgence of the spirit that we call Anzac. Many of the ordinary people of Canberra responded overwhelmingly to the plight of the displaced who had lost everything. Throughout my time as a volunteer, helping to make right the devastation of January the eighteenth, I have seen a community do an extraordinary amount of work and embody the selflessness, synergy, and friendship shown almost a century ago on Gallipoli. Truly this adversity has brought out the extraordinary qualities in the good hearted, run of the mill people of Canberra.

However, the events in Canberra represent only the subtlest seedlings of that which was sown by our forefathers. In almost every community in this nation there are ordinary people who do the extraordinary: teachers who must often work in difficult and trying conditions to provide the youth of today with a future tomorrow; flying doctors who travel to the most remote regions of the sunburnt outback to help those in need; life savers who risk their lives to help swimmers in distress. And perhaps most extraordinary of all is the existence of the Australian democracy, which despite its flaws is one of the most free, open and egalitarian democracies in the world, thanks largely to every individual citizen; in this have the ordinary people of Australia achieved something truly special.

At every stage of this nation’s federation the acts of ordinary people have left remarkable impacts on the lives of others and the ideals by which we define our role as Australians. From the first digger to the present-day citizen, from Anzac legend to contemporary reality, the idea of ordinary people doing extraordinary things has gone a long way, yet it hasn’t really changed at all. Whatever one calls it - Anzac spirit, the result of our democracy, or simple our way of life – this characteristic of the Australian people has been a keystone in the century past, remains so in our present, and will most certainly continue in the century to come.

Bibliography:

Welborn, Suzanne 2002, Bush Heroes, Fremantle Arts Centre Press, Fremantle.

Australian Broadcasting Corporation 2002, TV Program Transcript – Lateline [online]. Available: http://www.abc.net.au/lateline [10/11/2003]

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