ANZAC day – My grandad’s war stories.

Anzac day is a hugely important holiday in Australia. In many ways, it has become the de facto national day. Unlike Australia day, which is somewhat arbitrary and often divisive, Anzac day has a much deeper sense of purpose to it. Today, of course, marks its centennial anniversary.

Every Australian kid has the ANZAC story firmly imprinted on their minds. A story which is then reinforced every year: the soldiers of the Australian and New Zealand Army Corps setting out to capture the Gallipoli peninsular; the landing on the wrong beach; fierce Turkish resistance; a stalemated campaign dragging on for eight months; horrifying casualty rates and extreme hardship on both sides; and finally, a perfect evacuation.

ww1-war-victory-medal-pair

British war medal and Victory medal

A military defeat, it turned into a social victory for Australia, becoming a focal point for many national ideals. Mateship, sacrifice and pride are key elements to the day. Like many public holidays, Anzac day fills me with uncertainty.

At its most basic level, it is a day of remembrance for the sacrifices made by the countries service men and women during military operations. Their individual reasons for giving everything they had are infinitely varied. As a clear beneficiary of their struggles through no effort of my own, I certainly have no wish to demean their memory.

Over the course of my life, I have watched the original World War 1 diggers dwindle and die off. As this happened, the Anzac story has changed from living memory to historical mythology. In many ways, the meaning of the day has drifted, I think, to represent the ideals of what it is to ‘be Australian.’

Mateship and struggling together against the odds, self sacrifice for the greater good, and national pride are all ideas which can be so easily subverted. They are such small steps from nepotism, mob mentality, nationalistic jingoism and racial hatred.

Australians everywhere today will be sincerely saying ‘Lest We Forget.’ Recent times have seen the nation cut the welfare payment for orphans of soldiers killed in service, abolish the Vietnam Veterans Education Centre Advisory Panel, subject incapacitated veterans to yearly disability reviewsdefeat an attempt at the UN to highlight the humanitarian consequences of nuclear war, cut the wages of Australian troops deployed overseas, condone torture by foreign governments, and so much more. There is currently a strong push to sign trade deals which would give away many of the rights that our people have died trying to protect. Also, cashing in the branding of Anzac day, we have also been assured that we can honour those sacrifices by buying things such as fresh groceries and cold beers.

I cannot help but feel that Australia as a political unit has forgotten, and what we are left with is so much lip service. Such conflicting views leave me feeling very nervous about Anzac day. I just don’t know what to make of it anymore.

Adelaide comes to a standstill for a minutes silence. Remembrance day, 1955. Picture: Bill Krischock.

Adelaide comes to a standstill for a minutes silence. Remembrance day, 1955. Picture: Bill Krischock.

Working as a nurse, I get to talk to huge numbers of people I would otherwise barely glance at. The demographics of age and health means that I have met a lot of veterans over the years. They have no real commonality except a clear demarcation in their life of before and after service. I have heard many stories from them. These stories can be funny, poignant, technical, and traumatising. I leave the final story to my granddad.

As a young man, he found himself quite out of his depth as a field engineer on the battlefields of France and Belgium at the tail end of World War 1. Details of what he did and why are very sketchy. I suspect he enlisted due to social pressure at home rather than any real desire to go.

My granddad

My granddad

When I was boy, he lived in a small unit at the back of our house. I knew him as an kindly old man who pottered around with a walking stick, chain smoking cigarettes and quietly sluicing his way through crates of whiskey.

Shortly before he died, I was playing over at his place one day when I stumbled on a small box of wartime memorabilia. There was not much – a pair of shoulder titles, a portrait, and a couple of service medals.

I was absolutely dumbfounded. I had always known he was a veteran, but I couldn’t take in what I was seeing. I was simply unable to correlate the quiet old man I knew to the powerful young soldier in the photograph. That he had medals as well made the whole situation just inconceivable to me.

With all the enthusiasm that a death mad ten year old boy can muster, I nearly shouted at him, ‘What did you do to get those, granddad?’

What I wanted to hear was a boys own adventure story of how he took out a German machine gun nest using nothing but an entrenching tool, or some such thing like that. His real answer, of course, was very different.

I was very disappointed by what he said at the time. I have never forgotten it, though, and in later years, have had a few black humoured laughs at what he meant by it. It was the kind of story which says a lot through omission.

In his typically succinct and understated style, he used a single sentence to tell me all the war stories I ever heard him speak.

‘They gave me those for not getting shot.’

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About Blokeschool

I am a homeschooling dad with a wife and two boys. I'm not quite sure what I'm doing, so I feel compelled to write it all down. In my spare time, I work as a registered nurse, drink too much coffee, and intermittently renovate the house.
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9 Responses to ANZAC day – My grandad’s war stories.

  1. LisaMay Stowe says:

    Wow. Just Wow. Thank you for sharing.

  2. Cara says:

    Thanks for sharing your story. I bet your kids will too be influenced by your grandad’s memory. I think that it is the complexity of the Gallipoli story that makes it so fascinating. Having visited there as a young person I was struck by the Turkish side of the story – I mean, it launched Ataturk, who transformed the entire country. And when you look at the graves there, gravestones for 15 year old boys placed there by sisters – it is agonising, a kind of grief you can recognise. I like that the Australian history of war is about failure and loss and mistakes, because that is the aspect of war that needs to be understood, that there is a better way. But I still find it mind boggling that our country recruits young people, spends money on training and using them – and a few years later lets them go to be homeless and damaged and alone (3.000 homeless young veterans in Australia right now).

    • Blokeschool says:

      My kids dont actually know what Anzac day is. There is no way I can explain it to them and make any kind of sense.
      Your point about homeless and damaged veterans, I think, is a very valid one. As a nation, we only seem to recognise them if we dont have to look at them.

  3. Fiona says:

    Wow. This is a wonderful summary of what Anzac Day means to Australians. Thank you.

  4. Rebekah says:

    Powerful!! Thanks for helping us celebrate!

  5. Helen Hunter says:

    Thanks for a more thought-provoking Anzac column than most. The lack of reflection at this time of year can be disheartening as we seem to have a mass ‘selective memory’ about the war. And ‘lest we forget’ said over & over by a society that doesn’t seem to really want to know why the war happened or it’s realities. Empires fighting for imperial gain has little to do with values I hold dear. I like to look up this song at this time of year to remember not everyone follows the mass march to war, now or back then: http://historymatters.gmu.edu/d/4942/

    • Blokeschool says:

      I find it increasingly disheartening the older I get. I listened to that song on youtube. Interesting to hear a protest song from a hundred years ago. I didnt know they existed, although in hindsight it makes sense.

  6. suzjones says:

    I spent the day after ANZAC Day transcribing the war diary of the commanding officers (there were two because the first was killed in action) of the 5th Light Horse at Gallipoli. I began doing this looking for information on an ancestor killed on the slopes there. As I read, I saw in the words that were penned desperation, anger and pride. I learned more in those few hours spent transcribing the words of man who was experiencing it than all the commercial television specials showed this year. I have read the works of C.E.W. Bean also and found them enlightening (although wordy). To read the words of a man, who was in the trenches with his men was grounding. Although I say the words “Lest We Forget” each year, I sincerely hope that we remember these men for what they went through. There is no need to glorify the event because there is nothing glorious about war. And those that go to war (or see any sort of service) need our support and thanks.

    • Blokeschool says:

      First hand information, like these diaries, certainly does makes for a very different perspective than is usually given. They sound like a fascinating read.
      I think one of the reasons the nature of the day, and especially its commercialisation, has changed so much over the years is because so few people go to source material. It seems that even the experiences of modern day personnel are viewed through the increasingly imperfect lens of the Anzac story.

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