ANZAC tradition now beyond satire

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Chris Johnston - Anzac CoveThe place was rotten with dead...
Bulged, clotted heads slept in the plastering slime.
And then the rain began
the jolly old rain!
– Siegfried Sassoon

Nearly 50 years ago, Alan Seymour submitted a play called The One Day of the Year to a drama competition. It was ostensibly a vigorous attack on the Anzac Day tradition in Australia—the reunions of old soldiers, many of whom would get very drunk, and whose behaviour seemed to demean and obscure the seriousness of the occasion and blur the truth of its history.

The play predictably provoked outrage and fury. It opened at the Adelaide Festival in 1960 under police protection, but was then banned. Its Sydney run closed because of a bomb threat, and it remained intermittently controversial for a decade.

A couple of years after the play's stormy debut—a play which, like most of my student peers, I found persuasive and an overdue critique of weary, received wisdoms—I had an opportunity to visit Gallipoli. At that time, such excursions were very difficult to accomplish. For one thing, in 1961, Gallipoli and its environs remained a military area and getting in there was like trying to enter the Eastern Bloc.

ANZAC tradition now beyond satireInterrogated under a bare light bulb by a chain-smoking, much bemedalled officer, whom my two mates and I privately christened "the Colonel", we eventually gained permission to enter the controlled area.

The next morning, in a bleak whippy wind beneath a thick gunmetal sky, we followed the Colonel in our stereotypically battered Kombi Van and parked near the beach at Anzac Cove.

Out in the bay, jagged shards and rusting, irregular crenellations of metal stuck out of the flat water, where some vessel had ended its active service. And, in the sand of the beach where we walked, metal everywhere: .303 shells; an Australian water bottle with a bullet hole right through it; metal in every random handful of sand—lumps and jags and slivers, legacies of the hard rain that had begun to fall across the peninsula on 25 April 46 years before, and left it nine months later lashed, shredded, shrapnelled, broken and silent. As we stood there, overwhelmed, the rhythmic lap lap of the quiet water did not break this silence, it simply became a part of it.

Looking at the steep rise of the embankment behind the beach, I decided to see what it felt like to run up it as far as I could. But the Colonel, quietly smoking with his three acolytes on the rocks at the end of the beach, intervened to stop me. "A cause des serpents," he explained blandly (vestigial French was the only language bridge between us). Military secrets, perhaps. Certainly not snakes, though I would never know for certain.

ANZAC tradition now beyond satireThe cold wind rifled through the scrub on those bone-heaped and blood-soaked hillsides, and the sea shifted endlessly on its rattling pebbles, but in the end it was the silence that invaded our imaginations. To speak seemed somehow out of order, anything approaching flippancy a gross misjudgment of the place and its memories.

The Colonel and his three sidekicks stayed at a respectful distance, talking very quietly, but we were never out of their view. However nondescript and apparently unused, this was a military area, and we were permitted visitors. They weren't showing us around, they were keeping tabs on us.

There were no signs, no paths; as far as we ever saw, no marked graves, although since 1919 work had been continuing on cemeteries at various points and there must have been graves somewhere nearby.

We were permitted to see only Anzac Cove—the grey, vacant water, the cold light, the muttering pebbles; no fishing boats anywhere in sight, no life on the shore. Like so many of the tragic and doomed soldiers who landed at dawn on 25 April 1915, we would get no further than the beach …

ANZAC tradition now beyond satireCrowds of young Australians flock annually to the now manicured and doctored site of the ANZAC landing, and many of them get very drunk, and their behaviour seems to demean and obscure the seriousness of the occasion and blur the truth of its history. Plus ça change. In our age, of continuous and ambiguously justified war, the commemoration has become highly politicised. Times have changed. WAR IS PEACE as Orwell tells us in 1984. Infiltrated by party politics and populist bravura, the one day of the year is now beyond satire.

… The next day, sadder and wiser, my mates and I left the military area beneath darkening clouds. In a field on our left, a tractor stitched line after line into the thick brown earth; on our right, olive trees gave off their peculiar glistening light.

"And then the rain began, the jolly old rain."



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Existing comments

Bravo Brian for such a challenging if sobering article. I loved Seymour's play when I first saw it in 1961 and I also explored Gallipoli in 1969.My memories so different from the polluted and profane images we see today.

Roger Borrell | 18 October 2006  

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