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By the world forgot



You’d think I’d be detribalised by now, after decades of absence from Australia, but I always remember Anzac Day: for years I’ve flown an Australian flag at my front gate on April the 25th. The reason for this is personal as well as general, as I had two very good chances of not being born: my grandfather was on active service during the First World War, and my father saw action during the Second. The former was in the artillery rather than in the trenches, a fact that probably saved his life, while the latter spent time as forward scout in the jungles of Borneo.

The process of commemoration started early: I was not even five when I placed the cross of white chrysanthemums, made by my mother, on the steps of the township’s war memorial. My classmates did the same with their own floral offerings, and for years afterwards we listened to Professor G.S Browne, himself a veteran who had won the Military Cross, give a broadcast to schools on the topic of Anzac Day and its importance.

In The Bellarosa Connection, Saul Bellow has his narrator, whose business is memory, ponder the question of what people do with their recollections. In the case of my men, one answer is not a lot, because they rarely mentioned their experiences. The brief references came in their old age: Grandfather remembered a voice shrieking Mother! over and over during the first shell attack he experienced. He sheepishly acknowledged the fact that later he realised the voice had been his own. Two months before he died, Dad told my brother about the amphibious landing on Borneo. I just kept my head down and kept on running.

A second answer to Bellow’s question is another question: Who knows? Because for the men in these and other conflicts there was no expectation beyond the one that they would resume the lives they had left behind as if nothing had happened, as if they had been on an extended business trip or something similar. There is a phrase that has become common in recent years: unexamined trauma, which must be the experience of many who have served in the military, if not all. It is of course impossible to estimate the number of people, partners and families, who have also suffered the consequences of this lack of examination. My mother told me about my father’s nightmares, and the way in which he was haunted by the things he had had to do under orders.

In a sense there is an obligation to remember for, as Bellow’s protagonist says, memory is life and forgetting is death. When I was 19, my grandmother died: it was the first bereavement I had experienced, and I did not cope well. But my wise mother bade my sister and me to believe that nobody is really dead until there is nobody left to remember them. Hilary Mantel’s idea that the dead are not absent, just invisible, is also comforting.

There is often controversy over Anzac Day, with some people claiming that the commemorations are part of a general glorification of war. Of course there are just wars and those that are clearly unjust, and we need to think about the differences between them, and try to understand those differences. Bellow poses another question. What is there worth remembering? One thing I remember is that Grandfather volunteered twice. He was a slightly built man, and the first time his chest measurement was not adequate, but after the slaughter began in earnest in 1915 he was accepted. I also know and remember what he wrote to the woman who became my grandmother. I could not bear you to think I might be a shirker.

I have never thought of Anzac Day as being part of the glorification of war. Rather, I think of it as an acknowledgement of the sacrifice that the young were prepared to make: the AIF was a volunteer force. Its men went to war for all sorts of reasons, but it seems that large numbers believed they could fight for an ideal, win, and never have to fight again. If we cannot understand this attitude or imagine what it was like to be human more than eighty or a hundred years ago, at least we ought to remember the sense of duty, the power of ancestral ties, and a feeling for others that many of the volunteers exhibited. They felt they were doing the right thing, and so risked everything they had.

Lest we forget.



Gillian Bouras is an expatriate Australian writer who has written several books, stories and articles, many of them dealing with her experiences as an Australian woman in Greece.

Main image: 'Over The Top' 1st Artists' Rifles at Marcoing, 30th December 1917 by John NashImperial War Museum, London.

Topic tags: Gillian Bouras, Anzac, Army, Australia, WW1, Trauma, War



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Existing comments

A great and thoughtful piece as usual, Gillian.
My best remembered Anzac memory is of two tours of Gallipoli, many years ago. As well as the Australian graves, I was especially moved by the Turkish ones and the recollection that those men were of course defending their homeland.

Juliet | 11 April 2024  

Anzac Day is a commemoration of those who served and died very bravely. As you mentioned about your father, Gillian, the physical and psychological consequences of participation often stayed for a very long time. There was a highly respectable Women's Anti-War movement here during the First World War and they are also part of the Australian Story. But they did not attempt to demolish nor denigrate Australian History. What concerns me is that some 'any occasion is suitable' protesters will try to disrupt an Anzac Day ceremony somewhere on spurious and unrelated grounds. I think we need to reclaim Australian History since 1788. There is both good and bad in it. What resulted is a phenomenal country well worth loving and doing all we can to preserve and improve for future generations.

Edward Fido | 18 April 2024  

A very timely reminder of the consequences of was and how it is easier now to distance ourselves from conflict while watching it play out on television.
I agree wholeheartedly with your mother about keeping memories of people alive.
I applaud your commitment to remembering Anzac Day since it is part of your history and I feel the same about Remembrance Day.
The nightmares of damaged young men returning from war is becoming more understood as neurological studies of dreams show how our mental health is linked to understanding and such an integral part of our evolution. The reasons for fighting were acceptable in terms of doing the right thing but I wonder what our recent wars will look like to our descendants

Maggie | 19 April 2024  

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