I have a difficult relationship with Anzac day.
Firstly, I am fond of the practice of remembrance. It reminds the Australian people of their unique narrative, and place in the world. One that we can too easily take for granted, or pound into dust via political correctness.
For those of us with forefathers who were broken by war, it can be difficult to find a pathway beyond bitterness towards grateful ownership of our own narrative.
We find ourselves busy trying to repatriate ourselves into a family, in the shadow of those who found it difficult to be repatriated.
For example: ‘when the war ended, thousands of ex-servicemen, many disabled with physical or emotional wounds, had to be re-integrated into a society keen to consign the war to the past and resume normal life’. (AWM)
A personal example of this is my Great-Great grandfather, Frederick William Petrie. He was a locomotive fireman (stoker) and a volunteer, who enlisted in December 1916, at the age of 36.
From Australia he went to France, where he became a corporal in the ‘6th Australian broad gauge railroad company’ (6th A.B.G.R.O Coy). His war record shows that he served until July, 1918. Four months before the war was officially declared over.
Frederick’s reason for discharge was because he had ‘neurasthenia’. Neurasthenia is a general condition related to ‘shell shock’. That is, he suffered from ‘severe fatigue and emotional distress’. This was more than likely brought on by the trauma of spending eighteen months shovelling coal into the belly of a steam train moving back and forth with supplies to ‘barren and bloodied battlefields’ (King).
Although Frederick was a non-combatant, as an engineer, his support role was crucial to the allied advance and it put him in harms way where he would surely have come under fire. Usually from artillery barrages, an enemy he could not see or even anticipate.
Lt. R.J Burchell in an interview for the ‘West Australian’ in 1919 illuminates the circumstances:
‘we were not fighting troops, but I may say that the whole of our sphere of operations was within range of the enemy’s artillery, and he paid particular attention to the railways, both with his heavy guns and aeroplane bombs. Even…the furthest back station of the 4th company was under fire from the 15in guns…With both planes and guns the enemy paid systematic attention to our main lines of rail, so you can realise that life in a railway unit was not altogether a picnic. The 5th Coy…had the worst of it…their section of line was continually exposed to bomb raids and gunfire, night and day, and their casualties were heavy…the amount of work behind a great army is tremendous. Despite the network of lines, I have seen 280 trains per day pass over a single section of line, and trains carry 1000-ton loads…the difficulties and odds against which they had to contend are seldom realised.’
(Lt. R.J Burchell 5th coy, The West Australian, June 1919)
F.W.P returned to Australia in 1918. Petrie had difficulty readjusting to a peacetime existence.
He helped raise my Grandfather, ‘Ted’, who had joined the Australian Airforce as an aircraft fitter in the 1950’s. ‘Ted’s testimony at a court-martial indicates the difficulty imposed on families by the ongoing effects of war:
Adding to this the representative for his defence argued that:
Although I have my reservations, I refuse to ‘howl with the wolves’ (Barth) and ridicule Anzac Day, deconstructing it, in an overexcited academic orgy that decries war, the evils of Patriarchy or the evils of Western civilisation.
I simply want to state that for me and my family, along with a large portion of Australians, Anzac day forces us to confront a ‘stubborn fact – the brutally elementary data’ (Arendt cited by Elshtain, 2000, p.135), that proves: causalities of war are not only the servicemen who were thrown into it’s abyss.
There is a ripple effect and it’s causalities also include the wives, children and the generations that followed these men.
Anzac day is not about a nations ideology. Anzac day is about a nations remembrance; its humanity and its theology. This is exhibited every April when a nation makes room for healing, gratitude and the acknowledgement that, those generations directly impacted by war are not forgotten.
Anzac day allows us the room to reflect and explain to others that we bear the burden of their scars, not just the benefit of their medals.
Anzac day should affect us. If the gravity of it doesn’t force us to reflect, we will end up in an ignorance which leads us to being only one misstep away from repeating history.
This also has theological relevance. For instance, we are reminded of James’ call to look out for the widow and the orphan (Jm.1:27), and David’s reminder that ‘God is the father of the fatherless and protector of widows’ (Ps.68:5).
The benefit of Anzac day is that it allows a nation the room to grieve collectively.
According to my family history, we are the children of soldiers. We do not carry their wounds, but we do carry their scars.
Although we share different contexts, we still feel the effects of the price they paid.
Today, there are serious interpersonal conflicts. These are largely caused by the hidden effects of a trauma still echoing through the generations. Because this goes unacknowledged, it is like watching ripples spread out from a point of impact in my family’s history. Anzac day helps me to frame that drama in a very real context. War, although now distant, is in large part the cause of that dysfunction.
Anzac day disturbs my complacency by confronting me with the story I am handed. It reminds us that we are given the gift of choice, and the chance to not make the same mistakes.
The Anzac pilgrimage each April is a paradox of thanksgiving grounded in the dialectic outcomes of war. War disinherits. Through the sacrifice of freedom it sets up an inheritance of freedom.
War costs families. It diminishes the potential for healthy and holistic relationships. Yet it opens the door for grace, forgiveness and gratitude.
Anzac day also brings us to find some deep sense of solidarity with Jesus Christ and the cross He was crucified on. It reminds us of His resurrection (Jn.15:13), and brings, by this fact, families to a place of hope, saying that through Him they can rise from the ashes of war.
Anzac day allows each generation to move forward in courage. It allows room for people to own their stories, leaving at the foot of the cross, the psychological, spiritual, emotional and financial dysfunction that war causes.
The hope of Anzac Day is Jesus Christ. It compels us to align ourselves with the table turning Messiah (Mt.21:12), who, through His Spirit, is constantly at work in ordinary people, doing extraordinary things, even when we don’t see it.
It is here that we can catch our breath and find hope among the ashes.
References (not otherwise linked):
Elshtain, J.B 2000 ‘Who are we?: Critical reflections and hopeful possibilities Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing company, Grand Rapids, Michigan