Bob Percy's funeral December 2006 Cocos (keeling) Islands
Today is Anzac Day. ANZAC refers to the Australian and New Zealand Army Corps, a Commonwealth unit which most famously fought at the Battle of Gallipoli in Turkey during the First World War. The attitude of the young Australians, and New Zealanders who were, arguably, sent into battle by their British commanders knowing that they were likely to be slaughtered is legendary…the same heroism of young, teenage men, from a young country at that time, far from home was displayed gallantly at Villers-Bretonneux in Northern France in the same war.
These young men, and those that preceded them in the Boer War and followed them in the Second World War, the Korean War, the Vietnam War and latterly the Iraq and Afghan conflicts are honoured on the 25 April every year.
I have my friend from Europe with me in Australia at the moment. Today he asked me what does Anzac Day mean to me? He has been in many fields of conflict as an humanitarian aid worker; as such he is not dispassionate about war and its influence on the innocents – the civilians who suffer during conflict.
He quoted me some figures about the balance of mortality between soldiers and civilians in the conflicts since the Manchurian War…they are startling and remind us of the magnitude of war.
I was born into a military family. My father, when he died in 2006, had been long retired on a remote island in the Indian Ocean, the Cocos (Keeling) Islands. He retired as a Commodore in the Royal Australian Navy after 40 years’ service. These remote islands had been touched by war, but my father more so, as with so many of his generation. When he died, his belief that war and fighting for freedom of speech and religious interpretation were worth the sacrifice, was envisaged. His funeral service on this remote Australian coral atoll, 2 metres above sea level, was attended by most of the island’s Muslim and Western, Christian, and agnostic population. And was a celebration of his life.
My father's funeral on Cocos, December 2006
I still have a lump in my throat when I hear the traditional Naval Hymn sung. I still have a lump in my throat when I see on the news naval ships returning to the safety of Australian shores after being away – in many conflicts around the world – for 6 months or so. It reminds me, when as a child, my mother would dress my sister and me in new dresses to greet our long departed father, on the wharf on his return from duty. And how my sister and I would get a special bag of chocolates or other sweets, and a rare opportunity to watch “day time TV” while Mummy helped Daddy get over his terrible headache!
But these memories only reinforce in me the questioning about the necessity of war, or “conflicts” as they are referred to these days if they don’t impact directly on the security or defence of our own nation. I am reminded during these musings by my European friend, whose family was both the recipient of POW status and refugee status, what war means to Australians who have never been invaded by land, or suffered a conventional civil war.
I was bought up with a respect for the serving military. When my sister and I urged our father in 1986 to first march in an Anzac Day parade as part of the Royal Australian Naval contingent he was hesitant. But I remember making a particularly strong argument, probably over a family Sunday lunch with roast lamb and wine, that without his participation his grandchildren would view Anzac Day as an irrelevant public holiday. He marched proudly that year, and for many years later.
Anzac Day 1986
And so to today, when our Australian troops are scattered around the globe, in various conflicts, defending our honour, our ability to free speech, our alliances? I also suggest to my children that they remember the innocent victims of conflict, not only the military personnel but the forgotten heroes. Please remember that those you meet as you pass through your lives will have had members of their families touched and traumatised by war and conflict. And remember what is to be an Australian when you meet them. Our ability to be compassionate and broad minded Australians is what my father and so many others, I believe, fought for.
I feel proud to be Australian. And when asked by my European friend about the spirit of Anzac and what it means to me, I have had to think for most of the day. Is it a legacy based on the friendship and support for soldiers or sailors or airmen, one for another during time of war, on which we reflect as part of our relatively new history? Or has that mateship, that sense of “us” filtered through so very much into our community life, our psyche as Australians, that we no longer see Anzac as an expression of a military comradeship but, as a friend of mine reminded me today ‘Pride in ourself as a small nation which can “punch above our weight” '?And to be a home for all those who aspire to and are inspired by such a value. And who help one another in times of “droughts and flooding rains” in the spirit of a mateship born through the Anzac tradition.