Friday, 25 April 2008

Anzac Day 2008.

For those not familiar with the Australian calendar, April 25 is Anzac Day. It’s a public holiday; our Veteran’s Day or Armistice Day.

That’s because today in 1915 was the first time members of the Australian and New Zealand Army Corps - the ANZACS - saw action in WWI. They’d landed on the Gallipoli Peninsula in the Dardanelles as part of a naïve Allied plan to gain control of the Black Sea and capture Istanbul, thereby knocking Turkey out of the war and opening an attack on Germany from the east. Understandably the Turks had other ideas, and being better equipped and militarily far more astute than their Anglo-centric invaders could imagine, the attacking Anzacs were slaughtered. By the end of 1915 they had withdrawn. The Gallipoli campaign was abandoned as a failure.

The following years brought Australian troops death in the Western European mud, but April 25 had already been established as our day of commemoration. And so it continues today, as the Australian media wax lyrical about the “Anzac spirit” being “forged in blood and fire.”

Yet the popularity of Anzac Day as a time of national remembrance by those not having served in the Armed Forces is a relatively recent phenomena mostly resulting from the Howard years’ facile jingoism. During the 1970s popular opinion was that the commemoration, which features street marches in every major town, would soon disappear due to lack of interest and the inevitable aging of veterans. Not so: today children parade on behalf place of long deceased ancestors, and any display of enthusiasm which appears less than vigorous runs the risk of public shaming as ‘unAustralian’.

But in 1925 mainstream Australia wanted little to do with those who’d fought for God, King and Empire. The surviving Anzacs weren’t eulogized as they are today; letters to the letters pages of local papers were filled with complaints about anti-social returned servicemen “refusing to get on with life” and “expecting the country owes them a living.” Much as Vietnam veterans were viewed in the 80’s, returned Anzacs in the 1920s and 30s were commonly regarded as misfits, not heroes.

It’s hardly surprising that men who had experienced places like Gallipoli and the Western Front developed problems. The horrors they’d endured were quite literally beyond the comprehension of their friends, family, neighbours and employers who’d stayed behind. Some returned soldiers tried to cope with the nightmares by embracing extremist political groups such as the New Guard or Wobblies: few sought any comfort in Sydney Anglicanism - working class inner-city parishes never regained their pre-war congregation sizes. Other men simply drank till they went insane, and many subsequently took their own life. Still others simply came home crazy and stayed that way.

In which case they usually ended up here: B Ward in Callan Park: a sprawling Victorian psychiatric hospital now partly occupied by Sydney College of the Arts, partly by health related groups, and partly, like B Ward, being slowly demolished by neglect.

There are no foundation stones on the buildings of B Ward, no plaques proudly declaring an opening on such and such a date by Major General Sir So-and-So in the presence of Bishop Longtoss and a raft of similar worthies.

The truth is people were ashamed of the incontinent screaming wrecks sheltered inside. Wards were thrown up as needed, and now these men have lived out however many years they were cursed to endure after losing their minds in a cloud of cordite and barbed wire it’s as if society wishes this remaining evidence of war’s obscenity would just disappear.

For me the most haunting reminder of these forgotten casualties of Archduke Ferdinand’s assassination is a miniature Sydney Harbour Bridge constructed in 1931 by the patients in memory of their fallen comrades. They beat the real bridge’s completion, which wasn’t opened until 1932, but the real feat is that few if any of the men who built the memorial had ever seen the real thing’s construction. Nor did they later cross it regularly; as military patients they were confined to the ward and, if they ‘behaved themselves’, the grounds. For most this was the template for however many fragile decades remained of their haunted lives.

In reading this you’ve helped ensure they are not forgotten; thank you. I’ve no doubt the men would also be touched to know we remember them, even though ours is a world beyond their comprehension. They would, however, undoubtedly recoil in horror from the war in which many of our countries are currently embroiled. We should be ashamed by how they would feel we have learned nothing at all from the past.

May we at least pray that those whose minds are indelibly terrified by our leaders’ ‘war on terror’ will be treated with greater compassion and grace than these men were. May these little ones at least be loved by the Church in a way that the men of B Ward never knew.


FranIAm said...

This is extraordinary. Simply extraordinary.

As you know, I am an American. Having traveled and read a lot, I am actually familiar with the surface part of this story... but this... Oh my.

God have mercy on us all.

Your words here bring honor, memory and integrity.

You have done a great thing with this post.

Brian R said...

Thanks, Alci. Reading your blogs back today, I have been moved from laughter (Pell) to joy(another woman bishop) and now tears. My second year missing Anzac day due to travels and yes in my youth I thought we would one day ignore it, how wrong I was. When in Sydney, The dawn service is a must for me. thanks for giving another insight into this great tragedy.

Wormwood's Doxy said...

You are really in the groove with your writing, my friend. I could almost envy you, except that I am greatly moved by what you have to say...