Photo Essay

Lest We Forget: The Importance of Anzac Day

The National War Memorial of Australia, ANZAC Day, 2012

4.30am. April 25th,1915. In the predawn silence, Australian and New Zealand soldiers of the Australian and New Zealand Army Corps clamber aboard white boats heading for a small stretch of beach tens of thousands of miles from their homes. These, the first ANZACs, are part of an Allied assault on the Gallipoli Peninsula in the Dardanelles region of Turkey. As members of the British Empire, both countries have sent armed forces to fight for King and Country. Unlike other engagements in the First World War, which were primarily defensive operations against Germany, the Australian and New Zealand forces are attacking a member of the Triple Alliance. They are invading a sovereign nation. Their objective is to aid in the capture of Constantinople in a bid to open the perilous Dardanelles to the Allies, allowing forces along the eastern front in Russia to be replenished, and for Russian wheat to be exported to a hungry Europe. Within an hour, the silence is broken by the sound of gunfire and shells exploding as the young men, many of them barely adults, jump from the relative safety of the boats and race ashore, as many of their number are mown down by artillery fire. What follows is a battle that lasts until ANZAC forces are forced to admit defeat, finally evacuating the peninsula in December 1915. Constantinople remains in Turkish hands, with the maximum amount of ground gained by ANZAC forces a mere few hundred metres at most. Over 10,000 ANZAC lives lost. At the time, the Australian nation was barely 14 years old, the federation of the six formerly separate British colonies having taken place on January 1st, 1901. While the reason for Australia's involvement in the war was undeniably tied to a strong feeling of devotion to the Empire, the Dardanelles Campaign, of which the Gallipoli landings were a small part, gave the soldiers of the Australian Imperial Force an opportunity to show the world what it meant to be Australian. It was a baptism of fire that has become a core part of the mythos of Australian nationalism.

Ninety seven years later, 25th April, 2012, Anzac Day. Thousands of people have turned out at the National War Memorial in the Australian capital, Canberra, to honour those who served and to remember the fallen. Although the day and the time of the Dawn Service commemorates the landing of ANZAC soldiers on the beach that now bears their name, Anzac Day has become more than about just one battle. It is an opportunity to show gratitude to those who have served under the Australian flag and those who continue to do so, and to reflect on, and to celebrate, peace. Anthropologist, Bruce Kapferer, has written about the nature of Anzac Day as Australia's 'secular religion'. Indeed, in a country in which many people regard spirituality and religion with suspicion, Anzac Day stands alone as a day of great spiritual significance in the Australian calendar, combining Christian elements with nationalism and a deep underlying layer of a unique spirituality. Alongside Christian hymns and prayers, there are symbolism of the day is essentially designed to relive the creation story of Australian nationalism and to invoke the virtues of the Anzacs.

Following the Dawn Service, I wait in line to visit the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier, in the Hall of Memory, the domed structure at the eastern end of the Australian War Memorial. The Unknown Soldier, an Australian serviceman whose remains were removed from a cemetery in France in 1993 and reinterred in their current location after lying in state at in King's Hall at Old Parliament House in Canberra's parliamentary triangle, the political heart of the Australian nation. His reinterment in the Hall of Memory, the spiritual heart of the nation, is to represent all Australians who have given their lives in wartime. He is one of us. He is all of us. Above his final resting place, the dome of the Hall of Memory shows the spirits of the dead rising towards their spiritual home. He is surrounded by fifteen stained glass windows, each representing one of the values or virtues of the Anzac. I circle the tomb, clockwise, along with a steady procession of hundreds of others, whose footsteps resound with a deep reverberating echo through the hall. If Anzac Day is the high religious celebration of Australian nationhood, surely this is the high temple.

The sun has risen and the crowd is thinning out. I make my way out of the Memorial and make my way back to my car, reflecting on what Anzac Day means to me. I have never lost a loved one to the horrors of war, nor do I have any family members serving at present, but I am acutely aware of the fact that since the supposed 'war to end all wars' ended with the Armistice in 1918, there has not been one day of peace on Earth. War has continued to take the lives of men, women, and children. Ironically, to my mind, Anzac Day, the supposed spiritual birthday of Australian nationhood, reveals the folly of nationalism. At the heart of the Hall of Memory lies a man of unknown origin, whose presence testifies to this fact. He could be any of us. And he died 'for King and Country'. Lest we forget.

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