Anzac Day is commemorated at an RSL in Woronora, NSW. Photo: John Veage
It’s only a small march, perhaps 50 metres. They set up these men – some in their once-a-year suits and straight ties, medals glistening – by the little town’s courthouse. They wait for the order, then begin marching to the memory, for the memory, of their service and those now absent, leading others now who serve the nation in civilian ways.
Each year time reaps a little more of this crop of those who served; it takes its toll in the recently departed and puts paid to the lie that age shall not weary them. It does. It surely does, as we watch legs that march ever more slowly, though no less determinedly, to the shrines and cenotaphs of remembrance, those sites that are silent in these country towns for all but one day of the year. But this day, they call out to be heard. As long as we listen we carry their memory, and they live.
In a generation or so, none will be left who fought in the larger conflicts: the world wars, Korea and Vietnam. There have been, of course, other arenas such as Iraq and Afghanistan where Australians have fought and died, and now the men and women from those missions follow the ghost steps of past campaigns.
In three years, Gallipoli, the birthplace of Anzac Day and from which arose so much death, will commemorate its 100th anniversary. None who were there will see the day. There’s a poetic symmetry of nature and man that Anzac Day falls in mid-autumn. The shadows lengthen early in the pale light. The leaves descend to the earth. Life goes on.
Today the marchers will stop at the little town’s war memorial, and then will fall into the crowd gathered in a semicircle. The less sturdy will have seats at the front. By ceremony’s end, the base of the cenotaph will be covered in wreaths, placed there by strangers to strangers: children, the middle-aged and elderly giving only what they can – a gesture – back to the green youth cut down decades ago. Tea and coffee will be available. People will catch up with each other.
With the laying of flowers will come the singing of hymns, the playing of the bugle, the recitation of prayers, and the giving of speeches that will invoke sacrifice to God, country, fellow countryman and woman and oneself.
No sacrifice is the same, for no life is the same. Everyone carries a different story within them; some carry it unknown to the grave; others' stories are known to all.
In 1944 at Normandy a young English soldier named Keith Douglas was killed. He was 24. He was also a poet. Three years earlier, he had written of death, memory and the soldier’s life. It was called Simplify Me When I’m Dead. It begins:
Remember me when I am dead
and simplify me when I’m dead.
A nation’s rituals also demand simplicity. One remembers the simple things the better to honour them. What could be more simple than a march of 50 metres in a little country town in the autumn light. Such a journey into the past brings the present with it. It pulls it into the shadows of war and then out the other side into the light of day. This day.
In March 1919, Siegfried Sassoon, who survived World War I’s horrors of the front line, wrote Aftermath. The first section is:
Have you forgotten yet?...
For the world’s events have rumbled on since those gagged days,
Like traffic checked a while at the crossing of city ways:
And the haunted gap in your mind has filled with thoughts that flow
Like clouds in the lit heavens of life; and you’re a man reprieved to go,
Taking your peaceful share of Time, with joy to spare.
But the past is just the same — and War’s a bloody game...
Have you forgotten yet?...
Look down, and swear by the slain of the War that you’ll never forget.
But there were those who didn’t forget for all the wrong murderous reasons.
Twenty years later, the world was once again at war. Sacrifice was writ in blood. Mass murder reached industrialised levels. In the decades that followed war has marched on, in a hundred different ways; it’s the mongrel dog yapping at the heels of peace.
And for each battle, men and women will march for what has been lost and what has been won. Utopia will come when none need to march. It’s an impossible hope.
My father, aged 82, Korean War veteran, president of the local RSL, will be there, too, marching in the little country town. He will always be there. The town’s Gisborne. His name’s Bob.