Thursday, April 24, 2014
The ANZAC Legend
ANZAC Day – the Legend
This last couple of years I have been studying a Bachelor of Arts/Education at University, and one of the subjects studied was Myths, Legends and History. It was a history subject and I absolutely loved it. We looked in depth at the Trojan War and the Arthurian Legends, but also touched on more modern legends: Robin Hood, Ned Kelly, Jesse James and, believe it or not, the ANZAC legend.
Now what were they inferring by calling ANZAC a legend. By definition a legend is something that has historical basis, but that has been enlarged and exaggerated. Perhaps this idea triggers a defensive response in you. I admit that I certainly had my defensive hackles raised when they began to look at this subject with insinuations that perhaps ANZAC is a figment of somebody’s imagination, but as we went along, I began to see what they were saying.
One hundred years ago, the diggers were just members of the British defence forces. They were commanded by the British and served on behalf of the British interests. They were young men and women who were a half a world away from their own homes and families. Today it is a common ideal that the original ANZACS (Australian and New Zealand Army Corps for our Northern Hemisphere readers) were heroes who fought for our freedom. The ideals of larrikinism, mateship, and irreverence seemed to have emerged as synonymous with Aussie (can’t speak for the Kiwi’s). These ideals, even if we don’t actively engage in irreverent acts of larrikinism, we almost certainly would laugh about it with some sense of cultural pride. But for all this, is that what Gallipoli was all about?
My grandfather was a Sergeant Major with the AIF during the Second World War, and on his return trip home he was put in charge of a prison ship. These were not prisoners of war; they were Aussie soldiers who were on criminal charges, including murder. The following is an excerpt from his diary:
“Well this is nice kettle of fish. I’ve been made a ships patrol and that means policeman and believe me she’s a great ship to be anything on. She’s got prisoners S.N.L.R. (Service no longer required) A.B.C. class men of whom a lot are just thugs and wasters. I’m afraid we are going to have a lot of trouble on board before we get home but still so long as I get home that’s all that worries me.”
From other excerpts in his diary he used other words to describe these Aussie soldiers including “Swine”. He was not impressed, and according to his diary they were violent and troublesome. This image of Aussie soldiers is in conflict with the legendary ANZAC hero. Our youngsters today are hearing about heroes. I bet in a number of cases the word hero is an accurate reflection. But it obviously wasn’t always the case. The lads who enthusiastically signed up for the First World War probably didn’t have any concept of what it was they were signing up for. They were feeling patriotic and up for an adventure, but when they were deathly ill with dysentery, or their feet were rotting with disease from being forever damp; when they were in fear for their life and fled from a call to charge and were subsequently convicted of cowardice; when they got involved with women in various foreign places and caught STDs or left fatherless babies behind. These men were human like the rest of us, but they answered a call to service. It is good to honour the sacrifice of those who died. It is good to honour the mental, emotional and physical price that returned veterans have had to pay, but it is also good to remember that these men and women were human and vulnerable to the weaknesses of character that is common to us all.
As we commemorate ANZAC day tomorrow, April 25th, the day that marks the ill-fated Gallipoli landing, let us honour the service both past and present of those in the armed forces, but let us keep in perspective that they were ordinary young men and women and that war was not then, and is not now, a glorious pursuit, but a terrible conflict of states that requires the blood of those who engage, whether voluntarily or by force.
Re-reading this puts in sharp relief what the subject was saying by ANZAC legend. We want to think of our heroes as above reproach, full of courage and honour, self-sacrificing and willing to die for the sake of others. I know that there were ANZAC heroes who did and do fit that description, but the thing that we can focus on now is that there is a hero who fits this description every time. Of course I’m referring to our Saviour, Jesus Christ, whose story of life, death and resurrection - also a story full of horror - yields to us everlasting hope.
Author of 'Mellington Hall' and 'Cora Villa'