“They shall grow not old, as we that are left grow old;
Age shall not weary them, nor the years condemn.
At the going down of the sun and in the morning
We will remember them.”
The haunting words of Robert Laurence Binyon evoke a visceral response for Australians and New Zealanders as we approach Anzac Day and honour the fallen on the date which symbolises a baptism of fire for our nations. These lines are part of a larger work, originally referred to English soldiers and were published in September of 1914, (seven months before the landing at Gallipoli). They have become indelibly associated with the Anzacs, and as familiar to us as the words of our national anthem.
As we sit here, with bellies full of Easter goodies and (hopefully) basking in the warmth of celebrations with family and friends over the long weekend, it is good to think of what we owe to those whose blood and sacrifice have long kept our land safe. That is why we will pause in silence at dawn services around the country. It is not to celebrate war or endorse the misery that flows from it, but to remember the fallen and those who returned. It is to remember the debt we owe and to reflect on war’s horrible cost and understand why we shouldn’t allow it to happen again.
It is hard to find a family in Australia which has not been touched by war, partly because we have seen a lot for such a young country. The First World War, of course, occurred in our infancy as a nation, and took many of our bravest and best from us. From a population of under 5 million, 416,809 men enlisted, 60,000 were killed and 156,000 wounded, gassed or captured.
Those figures are literally astonishing. Over 8% of our entire population served in the armed forces; 1.2% of all Australians in existence at the time were killed, and another 3% endured significant trauma from the conflict. That number would not include those who suffered what was then called shell-shock and would now be described as PTSD.
That war was meant to be the war that ended all wars, but of course it did not, and Australians continued to fight — World War 2, which saw our shores directly threatened (the Japanese dropped more bombs on Darwin than they did on Pearl Harbour), Korea, Vietnam, Afghanistan, Iraq — no wonder most of us have been touched by war.
On Anzac Day I will be thinking of all those who have served and protected our country, and I’ll be silently thanking them. I will think of the uncles that I never knew, like my uncle John Potts whose plane crashed into the side of a mountain in Bougainville while dropping supplies to the coast watchers below. When I was growing up everyone talked of an uncle who died in the war, and of course they were always uncles; they didn’t get the chance to be husbands and fathers.
I will think of them, and their courage, and I will raise a glass to their memory. Then, I will revel in the freedom they gave us. I’ll enjoy time with my family and friends in the safe, happy land that is their legacy — and I urge you to do the same. I don’t think the Anzacs and their later counterparts would want us to wallow in sorrow or mourning. I think they would want us to acknowledge their efforts and then get back to the good old Aussie tradition of enjoying life.
Finally, to those who have served, and those who serve today, my heartfelt thanks; you all do your country proud.