There are no medals in my family. That my father, five uncles and both grandfather’s escaped conscription is something of a small miracle. There are Australian families who lost all their men to war in the last century, so my family I think is unusual. And fortunate.
I grew up not thinking at all about ANZAC Day. But things have changed. Since my daughter joined the Scouting movement, ANZAC Day has become a tradition in our family calendar, and I’m not sorry for it.
This morning, for the fourth year in a row, I observed our local ANZAC ceremony, which grows a little larger every year. The march begins at the local RSL (Retired Serviceman’s League) with an ever dwindling gathering of local servicemen and veterans. There are a few World War 2 men among them. It’s sobering to see these dignified, suited gentlemen with their vast array of medals adorning their chests.
The march is led by a bagpipe band and I appreciate the melancholy edge the music gives to the occasion. Those who can walk behind do accompanied by grandchildren, children, brothers in arms. Others, for whom the walk up the hill has become too great an effort for their old legs, are ferried by minibus to the Greensborough War Memorial.
The soldiers are followed by local Air Force cadets, Scouting groups and family. The cadets look no more than sixteen and are polished and nervous in their crisp blue uniforms. I can see how seriously they take their role in the parade, trying hard to keep in tidy step. Later I will notice the lad who lays the wreath, his head held high and proud, a small smile of pleasure on his face at being chosen for this honour.
As I stand taking in the reverence of the ceremony I realise how very Australian this event is. The rising sun glints through dewy gum leaves and the Salvation Army band plays softly amid the cries of magpies and rosellas. Those who are not part of the formal ceremony dress casually. The crowd is scattered across the surrounding park and the top of the nearby climbing equipment in the playground is crowded with children of all ages, claiming the best vantage point to watch proceedings.
The master of ceremonies has a strong voice. An army voice, trained to give orders. His words ring clearly over the PA system, the distinctive Australian twang resonating among the gum trees. Nearby three long trestle tables are loaded with wreaths soon to be laid at the base of the memorial, setting it ablaze with colour.
Even though I have no personal connection with ANZAC Day, I am moved as the ceremony reaches a close and the The Ode is read. Tears sting my eyes in the silence that surrounds the playing of the Last Post. I think of all the young, able, good men and women who volunteered, or were lawfully forced, to do the most frightening thing in the world – go to war. All the flesh and bone of generations lying far from their homeland. The Aboriginal servicemen who fought and returned still unacknowledged as citizens of their own land.
People prepare to leave and I notice the area around the trestle tables is littered with trodden flower petals. The image leaves a poignant and irrevocably sad impression. I feel now, it’s important to be part of this day. I am glad that my daughter is growing up with these memories. These annual national acts of melancholy and remembrance will become part of her identity as an Australian. Her generation will at least have some awareness of the terrible legacy war leaves. Destruction. Devastation. Loss. Damage. Awful things difficult for children to understand, but important for them to remember lest they make the same mistakes when they are grown.
They went with songs to the battle, they were young, straight of limb, true of eye, steady and aglow. They were staunch to the end against odds uncounted, they fell with their faces to the foe.
They shall not grow 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.
Lest we forget.