A commemoration like no other…
In a few hours, thousands of people across Australia will stand in their driveway or pause inside their home to pay respects and remember those who gave their lives in WW1.
This special commemoration of an important day in the Australian calendar for national remembrance is because of COVID-19 and the unprecedented lockdown and social-distancing restrictions placed on the community to halt the spread of the virus.
Mordialloc’s local member of parliament, Tim Richardson MP, sent a special newsletter detailing the celebration of ANZAC Day and paying tribute to veterans.
ANZAC Day Dawn services are still being held without the crowds, so the RSL has asked those who have a brass instrument to play the Last Post for their neighbourhood who will #StandTO as the official service ends with the usual minute silence.
I’ve written other posts about ANZAC Day, not to elevate or celebrate the importance of military prowess but from the perspective that all war is a tragedy and a senseless waste of human life.
I took part in the Centenary Poppy Project and my sister’s quilt block was part of an Australia-wide Gallipoli Project, one of 100 blocks chosen to mark the WW1 Centenary.
WW1 is part of our family history – the trauma is personal. We have genuine heartache and tears remembering those who paid the ultimate price. The uncle buried in Egypt, who fought at Gallipoli, shares the same name as my father.
However, I fervently wish we had a national day every year to celebrate and work towards world peace!
The details of the grave of GEORGE ALEXANDER McINNES_is here. He is one of over 60,000 who sacrificed their life in WW1.
The Annual Service At The Shrine
I’ve only attended the Shrine Dawn Service once but have never forgotten the emotional experience:
Ten years ago, I booked a seat on the free bus to the ANZAC dawn service at the Shrine, leaving Mordialloc Station at 4.20am. No alarm needed because I toss and turn half asleep, fearful of missing the bus. Warm clothes required for the short walk along Albert Street – especially for my head recovering from the ravages of chemotherapy.
Exhaustion, the chill from the sea air, and discomfort from cancer recovery negligible compared to what my Uncle George and other soldiers endured. I clutch a travel mug of freshly brewed tea and hurry towards a group of shadows hovering at the bus stop.
A blonde in a fur-trimmed camel coat and matching hat detaches herself from the fence and returns my ‘good morning’ with a smile. A mother and teenage son turn away obviously not wanting a conversation – it is a bit early to be chatty. An indecipherable black figure doesn’t move from a post further down the street.
The blonde speaks, ’I wish I’d thought of a travel mug.’
‘One of my better ideas. I never slept.’
‘Nor me, and I went out last night.’
‘Gosh, no point in going to bed then.’
As we laughed a ringtail possum scurried along the electricity wires, ‘He’s probably wondering what we’re doing here in the middle of the night,’ I said.
‘This is my first time.’
‘Me too,’ I say, ‘ it’s on my Bucket List.’ I point to my mauve turban, ‘breast cancer.’
‘Good on you. I’m meeting a friend who goes every year. Her dad’s a vet…’
The bus grumbles to a stop and a dozen more passengers materialise from parked cars in the street and station car park. The night streets are silent as we drive to the city, neon lights stab the inky sky, masking the stars.
At the Shrine, a sea of people merges in the predawn dimness. The number of people takes me by surprise. Such a hive of activity. All ages and genders, all shapes and sizes… a steady stream of buses from rural and suburban Melbourne, drop people off to join the crowd.
The Shrine looms out of the fog. Soldier and media scrum silhouetted against the brightening sky. A handful of lights dot the skyline, making the buildings on St Kilda Road discernible except for a massive glowing cube, changing from blue and green to red and silver, atop a building.
Perhaps Dr Who or Daleks will arrive from this gigantic ice cube to remind that man was made to mourn and peace is an elusive concept for every generation…
Serendipity or synchronicity, but even that light doused when a church service hush descended.
45,000 attend this Dawn Service.
The words and music of Buffy St Marie’s Universal Soldier and John Lennon’s Imagine come to mind just as the public address system fails miserably. I can’t hear what they say, despite gigantic strategically placed speakers.
Silently, I recite the 23rd Psalm in place of whatever solemn speech is being intoned.
To be close to the front, I squelched through grass still soggy from a recent storm and rapidly churned to mud by the crowd. I imagine George sleeping in the trenches and emotion lumps in my throat.
Buried in Egypt, he died six months after arriving at Gallipoli. A working-class boy from Williamstown. He would never have imagined this huge, eclectic crowd, heads bowed, remembering him and others who did not come home.
Colour crept into the sky, a dark red stain obliterating the fog. Two fruit bats hover and fly away, not the squadron of nesting bats a friend complained marred last year’s ceremony.
The flypast invisible because of heavy clouds but the aircraft’s’ rumble and drone a cause to celebrate with a rifle salute that startles me, even although I was prepared. How did George and his mates cope with constant bombardment? No wonder so many came home shell-shocked.
A glimmer of sunlight bounces off the medals adorning chests lined up centre stage and on the chests of people around me. No need for uniforms to remind us this is a military occasion.
The smell of traditional breakfast – sausages, bacon, eggs, toast… a drawcard for many but I have no appetite. I weave through the crowd and climb on the bus to return home, fighting back tears and overwhelming sadness.
George, like so many others, died alone in a foreign land, never understanding what the war was about. His grave never visited by family… Lest we forget.
World War One began in 1914 and lasted for four years; 416 809 Australians volunteered for service. 324 000 served overseas and over 60 000 were killed, including 45,000 who died on the Western Front in France and Belgium and more than 8,000 who died on the Gallipoli Peninsula in Turkey.
Many nurses in the Australian Army Nursing Service served on the Western Front. These nurses worked in overcrowded hospitals for up to 16 hours a day, looking after soldiers with shocking injuries and burns. Those who worked in hospitals close to the fighting were also in danger of being shelled by the enemy.
Red poppies worn on Remembrance or Armistice Day, November 11, are often used as a symbol for ANZAC Day too.
The tradition has its origins in a poem written in 1915 by Lieutenant Colonel John McCrae, a doctor in the Royal Canadian Medical Corps. Lieutenant Colonel McCrae noticed that, despite the devastation caused by the war to towns, farms and forests, thousands of small red poppies began growing everywhere in Spring. This inspired his poem, first published in England’s Punch magazine in December 1915.
Within months it came to symbolise the sacrifices of all who were fighting in WW1.
In 1918 Moina Michael, an American, wrote a poem in reply, We Shall Keep the Faith, in which she promised to wear a poppy ‘in honour of our dead’ and so began the tradition of wearing a poppy in remembrance.
She and Frenchwoman Madame Anna Guérin, known as “The French Poppy Lady”, encouraged people to use the red Flanders poppy as a way of remembering those who had suffered in war.
In Flanders Fields by John McCrae, May 1915
In Flanders fields the poppies blow
Between the crosses, row on row,
That mark our place; and in the sky
The larks, still bravely singing, fly
Scarce heard amid the guns below.
We are the Dead. Short days ago
We lived, felt dawn, saw sunset glow,
Loved and were loved, and now we lie
In Flanders fields.
Take up our quarrel with the foe:
To you from failing hands we throw
The torch; be yours to hold it high.
If ye break faith with us who die
We shall not sleep, though poppies grow
In Flanders fields.
Nurses and Doctors Always In the Front Line
During the current coronavirus catastrophe, we have lauded medical staff as heroes. This acknowledgement of their dedication and courage is important. They put themselves at risk and serve the community in peacetime and war.
When I was on duty at the Soldiers Memorial Institute for Open House Bendigo 2019, their historical exhibits and telling of Bendigo stories impressed me. I’ve been to many historical exhibitions and museums commemorating WW1, especially during Centenary celebrations, and I always learn something new or discover another aspect not considered before.
In the recently refurbished building, they present well the stories of Bendigo nurses and doctors who went to war and also Chinese Australians.
The Returned Soldiers’ Memorial Hall grew out of the returned soldiers’ associations that were established throughout Australia during and after World War I. The first such association in Bendigo was established at the home of a local woman but by 1917 the Returned Soldiers’ Association was advocating for the creation of club rooms at the former Hustler’s Royal Reserve mine site, Pall Mall.
Local architect George Dawson Garvin was commissioned to design the Memorial Hall and the Governor of Victoria officially opened it in 1921. They added the Institute building to the Victorian Heritage Register in 1997. Recent conservation works by Lovell Chen have included the removal of past extensions and, as the building is sited over old mine shafts and on a compacted mullock heap, underpinning.
A new gallery, designed to Passive House standards and conceived as a contemporary interpretation of the arcaded loggia, nestles behind the Institute. The external use of a single material for the walls and roof blurs the scale of this new addition, allowing it to read as a single storey building. An entry vestibule at the north end mediates between the inner gallery and an encircling verandah that also provides additional exhibition space. The verandah is timber lined (floor, walls and ceiling) focusing and framing the visitors views constantly outwards through the arcaded openings, in-filled with glass and perforated mesh.
Open House, Melbourne
Seventy-four Bendigo nurses volunteered to serve in Egypt, the Dardanelles, Salonika, France, Belgium, England, Italy, India, and on hospital and transport ships. Their qualifications ranged from infectious diseases, acute care, experience in theatre, ward and hospital management. They cared for the injured and sick with care and compassion.
Of the local nurses who served, two died because of their service, and twelve were invalided home. Four were Mentioned in Despatches, one received the award of the Royal Red Cross and four received the Royal Red Cross Second Class.
Thirty-one doctors from Bendigo volunteered to serve, leaving the safety and security of their positions at the Bendigo Hospital, medical practices, or studies. Some supported the recruitment and training effort in Australia, others went overseas.
The local doctors came from two distinct groups. Fifteen were linked to the Bendigo Hospital; sixteen were born or educated in Bendigo, or had family connections to Bendigo and had practised in central Victoria.
Non-combatant medical officers, they dealt with horrific wounds, grave illnesses and deaths associated with war with constant compassion and dedication.
Of the Bendigo doctors who served, three died because of service, several were invalided home, seven Mentioned in Despatches, four received the Military Cross, two received foreign decorations, one received the Distinguished Service Order and three admitted to the Order of the British Empire.
Over 200 Chinese-Australians joined the AIF. Almost all were born in Australia. Many were descendants of immigrants who came from southern China to central Victoria during the 1850s gold rushes.
Samuel Tong-Way was born in Ballarat to Chinese-born parents. Despite being initially rejected by recruiting officers in 1916, Tong-Way persevered and enlisted in 1917 when there was an easing of restrictions. After training, he was posted to France in December 1918, just after the Armistice. Before returning home, Tong-Way obtained study leave at the Imperial College of Science and Technology in Kensington.
He returned to Australia in 1920 and resumed studies teaching. He taught at the Violet Street and Gravel Hill state schools and marched every ANZAC Day in Bendigo until the year before his death in 1988.
Whenever I see the honour rolls of war dead, the immensity of the loss to families is always overwhelming. On the Bendigo roll, many surnames the same, and reflect a similar story in other Australian country towns – you ache for the farming families who lost several sons and cousins.
This ANZAC Day, I hope all those who pass the Gallipoli Precinct at St Nicholas’ Church in Mordialloc, will pause.
Please think of the tragic loss of life in all wars and make a commitment to always champion peace. I know I will when having my daily exercise walking Josie.
Lest We Forget