Why We Remember
Posted on April 28, 2015
Yesterday Australia commemorated the 100th anniversary of an ill-fated battle at Gallipoli. There was blanket coverage across the television networks, and dawn services around the world as the sun rose around the globe. I spent the day engaged in the rather more prosiac activity of helping keep Boodi and Lady calm and entertained while waiting to be seen by a doctor in the ED of our local hospital, after Boodi dislodged a front tooth. I steer clear of jingoism on Anzac Day. I don’t celebrate the battle or the war, but I am invested in it. I don’t buy into the idea that this doomed battle forged nationhood, and I deplore the hyperbole of the people who decreed it so. For me, the ANZACs aren’t just about one day, or a beach soaked with blood and shrapnel, but about the entirety of the war, and those many men bled from a very small, young (from a white settlement point of view at least), innovative nation who still felt very much tied to England, Scotland and Ireland, because their parents and grandparents came from there, and extended family remained there.
It is about those men, and all of the women left behind in a country stripped bare of fit men for years. It is most certainly about stories. I have my Great Grandmother’s letters from France and Belgium from WWI. She carried them around for her whole life, until she died in her 100th year, so long after these letters were sent across slow oceans and seas to her. They are from her future husband and his brothers, and various others, and read as a chronological narrative, they tell a criss crossed story of what the men experienced, and how curiously bereft of fear or concern for self they seemed. You can read the transcribed letters here.
Transcribing the letters, I was drawn in to their observations and the clues of their personalities. When my Great Great Uncle was injured in the trenches I was aghast with worry and fear for him, as though the events were taking place in the present to people that I knew. I can only imagine how Nan (Colina) felt, with the letters arriving haphazardly, months after events in Europe.
It is this sense of familial closeness to the men of ANZACs that affects people so much. Perhaps my generation is the last who will have first person links to them. I never knew any of the men who wrote these letters, my Great Grandfather died 20 years before my birth, but my sister recalls Charlie, his brother, the man injured in the trenches, and I knew Colina, the recipient of the letters. We remain linked, so that it is as though we must remember that generation of men, so untimely ripped from their natural lives (whether they died in the war, or lived on afterward).
They were, of course, only men, made more exceptional by their absences, and the juxtaposition of them in Europe. I think of my Great Grandfather in his goatskin coat, trying to keep warm, writing letters in his exquisite copperplate hand about the old fashioned methods of French farming, and how the diggers would pitch in to help with the harvest, and of Charlie’s lamentations of the terrible crimes committed against the poor folk of France and Belgium, and his rallying call ‘Are we downhearted? No, no, no!’, and I think, this is not jingoism, this is the tragedy of a generation.
As the dead lay quietly mouldering in oblivion,it is enough for one day to bring light to their ordinary deeds again, to say that they were here once, and we honour them. Why do you remember? Do you have any precious artifacts from the trenches to tie you to that time?
Linking up with Jess for #IBOT