Several thousand people gathered today in Speers Point Park for the Anzac Day dawn service. Traditionally the service has been held at the Anzac Cenotaph at one end of the park, next to the Esplanade, but this year for the first time it was moved to the bandstand in the middle of the park, apparently for security reasons. Ironically the wreaths at the end of the service were placed around a German trench mortar which was captured by Australian forces in the final days of the Great War and brought back to Australia as a trophy of war, and now stands as a memorial on the green grass beside the waters of Lake Macquarie.
I joined the gathering crowd while it was still dark; lights in windows dotted the shores and hillsides around the lake. As I crossed the Esplanade from Speers Point a lone piper was playing somewhere in the vicinity of the Olympic Pool; further on I could hear a young choir singing And the band played Waltzing Matilda. People were streaming into the park from every direction and I marvelled at such a massive assembly at such an early hour to commemorate the fallen in a war that ended a hundred years ago. What did that war have to do with us, in the far flung colonies? Though it can be hard to understand now, for our ancestors, a threat to Great Britain, was a threat to Australia. Our ancestors joined up enthusiastically to defend crown and country against the aggression of the German Empire.
Of course, these days Anzac Day commemorates all Australian and New Zealand servicemen and women from that time to this, and celebrates the freedom we enjoy as a result of their sacrifice. Even if the freedom of Australians was hardly threatened by the Great War in Europe at the beginning of the last century, our nation was directly threatened in the World War that followed only twenty years later. Most of the other conflicts that our military has been involved in over the last hundred years, however, have posed no direct threat to Australia; Korea, Vietnam, Afghanistan for example, have been other people’s wars, fought far away from Australian shores. So why has Australia been involved? Freedom is, after all, a nebulous concept, and though traditionally we see it as something to be fought for and defended from an enemy that would oppress and dominate, as time goes on and the world changes, we realise increasingly that freedom is something that takes far more than armed resistance to achieve and maintain. Today the greatest enemies we face often seem to be within ourselves, rather than on the battlefront in the uniform of some foreign nation.
At precisely 6 am a procession of old soldiers followed by a motley collection of scout groups, local cadets and others marched the short distance from the car park at the boat ramp on Cockle Creek to the bandstand where, the dignitaries sat waiting with the choir from Warners Bay High School. We sang The Recessional, a hymn indelibly connected to Anzac Day in my mind since early childhood. I reflected on the words, wondering what they really mean: they appear to be a plea to the “God of our Fathers” to be with us. I wondered how many of the assembled multitude feel any allegiance to the same God as our forefathers did a century ago.
God of our Fathers, known of old
Lord of the far flung battle line,
Beneath whose awful hand we hold
Dominion over palm and pine:
Lord God of Hosts, be with us yet
Lest we forget – lest we forget.
I gazed up at the vague silhouette of the hills behind Speers Point and Boolaroo and wondered if they look similar to the heights of Gallipoli that the Anzacs faced back in 1915, tasked with the ill fated mission of taking the high ground held by the Turks, in order to force a way through to Istanbul, and so free up the Dardanelles; success would allow Britain and her allies to attack the Germans on their eastern front, taking from the western front which had already hit a stalemate. I have never been to Gallipoli, though I know that a dawn service will be held there later today when the sun rises over Turkey, and I can only imagine what those hills look like.
At the Gallipoli campaign the Anzacs never really gained “dominion over palm and pine” – the Turks held the upper hand throughout despite massive losses on their part. But our God no doubt was then, as he is now, “Lord of the far flung battle line,” though why he allowed the madness of men to engage themselves in such a crazy campaign as Gallipoli, remains, as always, a mystery. But then the whole of World War 1 was madness, as are wars in general, the product of the pride and foolishness of mankind, and hardly the will of God, whose desire is rather to defeat evil than propagate it.
Its an interesting hymn, The Recessional. The second verse continues:
The tumult and the shouting dies,
The captains and the kings depart.
Still stands thine ancient sacrifice,
A humble and a contrite heart.
Lord God of hosts, be with us yet
Lest we forget, lest we forget.
I realised that this is a song about Jesus, commemorating his sacrifice, to defeat evil and to save humanity from its penalty. In the end, when all the wars are over, when all the shouting has ceased, that one sacrifice stands over all, the great sacrifice that taught us what true love is – to lay down your life for a friend. This happened on both sides of course, among the Turks and the Australians, the British and the Germans. These are sacrifices to be celebrated, as is the sacrifice of life to defend against tyranny, but the sacrifice of young lives to satisfy the whims of nations and their leaders, is a wanton waste. There are certainly things worth dying for, but there are many needless deaths in our world.
There were speeches and prayers to follow, prayers for the nation, the Queen, prayers of thanksgiving. I wondered at this in such a secular and irreverent nation as Australia. I have heard it said that there are few atheists in the trenches, and perhaps faced with the realities of evil, and death, and the memory of great sacrifice, people’s minds always turn to spiritual realities, realities which the cynics of every age have mocked (especially following the carnage of the great wars) and yet which the human mind and spirit cannot seem to relinquish.
The sun rose imperceptibly behind the clouds. It was a grey morning with a spattering of raindrops blowing across the leaden waters of Lake Macquarie. Umbrellas were raised and lowered repeatedly as the showers blew over, and the service drew to its close. The bugler sounded the haunting tones of the “Last Post,” bringing, as always, a tear to my eye. The flags were lowered to half mast and we stood for the One Minute Silence in commemoration of the fallen. Then the bugler sounded again, the “Reveille,” and the flags were raised, and I thought of how every day starts with new battles to fight, new challenges to overcome, and new hope with the rising of the sun.
It is easy to be cynical and angry about war, and every year Anzac Day brings its inevitable handwringing introspection as we again wonder what its all about. In the end the sadness of loss remains, but there is also the wonder of hope, a hope that in my mind comes not from victory in war, but from sacrifice, the sacrifice of one person for another, of one nation for another, and ultimately the sacrifice of God for humanity.