Australians claim Anzac Day
25 Apr 2016|

Today is Anzac Day, the 101st anniversary of the ANZAC landing at Gallipoli.

Anzac Day has broadened its personal reach and become less overtly political or even geopolitical.

The annual moment of memory has evolved. And what we remember has changed.

My previous column noted that the Imperial element has faded from the commemoration of the Australian Imperial Force in the 1st and 2nd World Wars.

In the way the Anzacs are remembered today, you’d hardly know they served British commanders on a British mission. Now they’re honoured as Australians embodying an Australian ethos.

The slouch hat mystique means today’s Australian Defence Force inherits much from the Anzacs. But the public sees the Anzacs as having enlisted in the Australian Defence Force, not the AIF.

Anzac Day has buried the British dimension. The idea of the Australian Briton has been interred along with the Empire.

To see the shift, come join me for a 1950s memory at the Carrum State School. Every Monday morning, we assembled for a rendition of God Save the Queen and recited the National Salute as Victorian State School kids had since 1901:

‘I love God and my country,

I honour the flag,

I serve the Queen,

And cheerfully obey my parents, teachers and the law.’

We used to zoom through that final ‘cheerfully obey’ line like a bunch of staccato chooks.

The conception of Australian Britons echoed through my Monday assembly. Serving the Queen seemed a natural enough commitment to be grouped with God and flag and those obeyed with a smile.

Even as those sentiments were being affirmed to the kids, the Imperial settings had been blasted out of Oz geopolitics, rapidly evaporating as a force in Oz politics. The nation with its own continent could find all the identity it needed in the wide brown land.

We are a pragmatic people, quick to abandon what no longer works. As Britain’s power waned, so did the once powerful characteristics of the Australian Briton.

Anzac Day’s exclusively Australian identity expanded to take the whole space of memory.

Date the final sunset moment for the Oz Briton as the moment Sir Robert Menzies retired as Prime Minister in 1966. He left not long after provoking mirth by proposing that when Oz abandoned pounds and shillings, the new note should be called the Royal.

The jest was that we adopted the dollar, not the Royal, to honour the replacement great-and-powerful ally.

Popular culture reflected the elevation of the Australian qualities and disowning of the Imperial mission.

In movies like Breaker Morant and Gallipoli, the British officer class was bludgeoned. Just recently, The Water Diviner portrays a Turkish commander at Gallipoli as a far more sympathetic character than the arrogant Pom officer who tries to thwart the hero’s search for his dead Anzac sons.

As a Vietnam-era movie, Gallipoli was also making a point about going to war on behalf of the great ally, new or old. An enduring continuity is the debate about the cost of serving the alliance.

The public usage today has many elements that would jar with the quasi-religious remembrance of earlier generations: Anzac Day football would have been as sacrilegious as playing footy on a Sunday.

We still play two-up after The March, but much else of that society has gone. No memory now of the dry decades when the pubs closed at 6pm, a discipline imposed during WWI that persisted for 50 years as an emblem of Oz wowserism.

In earlier eras, The March, as much as the 6 o’clock swill, was private men’s business. Australia saluted Anzac Day and then stood back as the returned comrades gathered to drink and commemorate and, for a moment, share the nightmares as well as the memories.

Anzac Day mattered to my father in complex ways. With the 9th Division in WW2, he’d taken a bit of shrapnel in the head during El Alamein and been back on the line within a week. He went on to the 9th Division landings at Lae, Finschafen and Tarakan.

By Tarakan, he remembered, the veterans thought the war would never end. Not many of the original Division would be still going if they had to fight all the way to Tokyo.

My mother dreaded Anzac Day. It meant the nightmares were likely to recur. Often it was the Japanese and the jungle.

The Vietnam veterans cracked the code of silence bequeathed by men from the AIF. Or, perhaps, the Australian society was ready to listen to the Vietnam vets in ways that they could not bear to hear from the AIF.

The change is reflected in the different tone of Anzac Day—no longer secret blokes’ business.

Because of the Vietnam vets, my father got a new and incredibly valuable benefit from Repat. He talked to a psychiatric counsellor about his nightmares and gained new insight into the demons he’d so successfully fought in a career as a great teacher and husband and father.

After that, Dad agreed to take out his medals occasionally and talk to groups of school children at the War Memorial.

It was the action of a born school teacher who served the Victorian Education Department with devotion equal to that he gave the 9th Division.

Those talks to kids at the War Memorial on the experience of war were a sign that the memories didn’t come so harshly in the dark. Towards the end, my father managed to change the personal meaning of Anzac Day. Just as Australia has reshaped its understanding of what we mark on 25 April.