April 25th this year marks the centenary of the first ANZAC Day landings at Gallipoli. In retrospect they weren’t worth a zac strategically but the events of that day have been commemorated ever since on what has become an increasingly important day of Australian and New Zealand national honour.
The spiritual birth of the Australian nation, the so called “baptism of fire” at Gallipoli, is memorialized with something akin to a religious fervour each year. It even gets a football match played in its name at the MCG and that’s about as religious as you can get in this Land of Oz.
Living in Yallambie, you’re never far away from the presence of Australia’s armed forces on ANZAC Day. There’s a Dawn Service at the Simpson Barracks each year. In the past there have been Repatriation Hospitals operating at Bundoora and in Heidelberg.
Rumour has it, a soldier of the Great War was even buried beneath a cypress tree after 1918, possibly in the grounds of the former convent, Casa Maria, now Kurdian Court, Yallambie. (Conversation with local historian, Shane Stoneham.)
Years ago when our son was very young I well remember him waking me conspiratorially early one ANZAC Day with the words, “Look Daddy, look, I’ve found the money.”
He had in hand my father’s old war service medals and was holding them out to me in a jingly, jangling coin-like demand to get out of bed.
Most Australian families have an ANZAC story tucked away somewhere in the ancestral vaults. As a nation we have a long history of punching above our weight in other people’s conflicts, usually in places with diamonds, oil or strategic rubber plantations. Those medals didn’t see the light of day much when I was a boy. My son’s long dead grandfather had never, ever worn them in life although he did march regularly on “The One Day of the Year” until stopped by ill health. As an ex POW, Dad’s feelings about the war were probably something of a mixed bag.
In 2000, in an attempt to sort through the contents of that bag, I self-published a book at Yallambie of my late father’s memoirs entitled “Titch: The Telling Tales of T C McLachlan”. It was printed in a very limited edition, to be shared exclusively among friends and family. It told the story of my late father, Sapper Tom (Titch) McLachlan, VX33554 in World War II, his childhood in Depression era Ballarat, his active service in Malaya and Singapore with the 2/10th Field Company, RAE and the time that he subsequently spent as a Prisoner of War of the Japanese on the Burma Thailand Railway.
I cannot remember a time in my childhood when I wasn’t aware in some way of a sketch in outline of that story. Dad had been a prisoner long before I was born but he hadn’t been to gaol and my Mum never baked him a cake with a file in it. I’d seen Samurai on our old telly, watched them fight with razor sharp swords and dangerous looking throwing stars and I had seen them fly magically over tall obstacles. They were worthy opponents, straight out of a story book.
The truth was more complicated and certainly rather less magical. It has taken me a life time to gain a proper understanding of it.
Writing specifically of the 2/10th Field Company in action on Singapore, the Official Historian noted that “these technical troops made a valiant stand,” (Lionel Wigmore, “The Japanese Thrust”, p321, AWM) but the enduring ordeal for the unit came only after they became prisoners of war of the Japanese.
My Auntie Melva once said in answer to a relative’s questions about family history, “Why do you want to know about them for? They’re all dead.” Auntie Melva has been dead herself these many years but her answer I guess is an illustration of the contrasting values placed on history by those who have lived it and those who go out in search of it. Totalitarian rulers have been known to rewrite it but it is history that gives us our sense of place. It is why at the going down of the sun and in the morning, we remember.
I find something perverse in the current fashion of immortalising the ANZAC Day legend. After all, war is at the root of the ceremonies and as my father once said, “Anyone who seeks to glorify a war never lived through one.” The back firing action this week by a supermarket giant to cash in on the ANZAC tradition in an ill-advised attempt to spruik their products was as tasteless as the so called “fresh food” they were seeking to promote. Paul Keating, that most eloquent former Australian Prime Minister, once said that we make too much of the Gallipoli legend, but his 1993 eulogy at the funeral service of the Unknown Soldier of the Western Front has itself been immortalised and now takes its place as a part of the wider ANZAC legend.
Some of the most poignant expressions of artistic endeavour have resulted from military conflicts throughout history and the world over.
The poetry of Wilfred Owen, the paintings of Goya, the evocative images of the great German expressionists Käthe Kollwitz and Otto Dix and more recently, the confronting portrayals of Afghanistan veterans by contemporary artist and Archibald prize winner, Ben Quilty to name but a few.
Similarly, the POW images drawn by Ronald Searle, Jack Chalker and Ray Parkin fix themselves in our minds in a way that even the grainy and authentic photographs of George Aspinall do not.
An ex-POW once reported his feelings upon seeing a jungle branch draped in abstract fashion against the linear design of the corrugated metal wall of a Japanese barracks. Across the barrier of their language he enquired of his gaolers why it was that this seemingly functionless object had been placed there. The reply he received was that they found it pleasing to their eyes. The POW felt a pain beyond the usual pain inflicted by a Japanese beating as he recognized the capacity for artistic endeavour within his enemy. It was easier to hate them as brutes than to accept them as fellow members of the human race, capable of a higher expression.
When my father returned to Australia at the end of 1945 in his new “loose fitting uniform” the best advice the repatriation department could give the ex POWs was to forget about what had happened and to simply get on with their lives. Post-Traumatic Stress as a diagnosis only came into vogue in the 1980s although it has surely been around since the first humans were chased around the forests by sabre toothed tigers.
Shortly before he died my father confided to me one day in answer to my enquiry that even then, nearly 50 years after the end of World War II, not a day went by when his thoughts did not stray back in some way to those days he had spent as a POW. This is the true legacy of conflict. ANZAC Day is not just about the fallen soldiers but it is about the men who return home carrying with them the burden of their experience. It is about the families they leave behind. It is about the destructive legacy that war levels on a civilised society. It is a legacy that continues even today as the Australian Government moves to commit yet more troops to the Middle East, the words of the Judean People’s Front still ringing in their ears, “What have the Romans ever done for us?”
The consequences of Australia’s 20th century military conflicts manifested themselves in a variety of ways for the soldier survivors which were not always apparent by their physical injuries. Some turned to the bottle. Others affected that peculiarly Aussie brand of stoicism — a devil may care, “she’ll be right” attitude that masked an underlying pain. Some chose to live a solitary life and, rarely, a few even found solace in self-destruction. Most sought refuge at some point in the comfort of the local RSL where they could share unspoken memories with mates who understood or could laugh at the sometimes absurdly black humour of war’s lighter side.
I remember my father parked on a Saturday in the tin shed in our back garden at Rosanna, the chimney of the pot-bellied stove smoking away like a steam ship in the winter of his life. ‘What did he do up there?’ I wondered. “Just getting the scratchings,” he would say, offering his interest in picking that ever elusive gee gee as justification for his solitary musings.
Dr Meares of Yallambie’s Aldermaston Manor served in New Guinea and in the Northern Territory himself during World War II as an Army doctor but it was his post war work helping disturbed veterans that led him to an eminent career in psychiatry. After the war was over, Meares became fascinated by hypno-analysis and a treatment where patients were encouraged to air repressed feelings of conflict. After a trip to Nepal in 1956 he embraced Eastern philosophical ideas such as pain management through mind control. His therapies were somewhat unorthodox for the time and this led him to a gradual departure from the main stream field of psychiatric medicine.
Meares was the author of over 30 books including the 1963 “Atavistic Theory of Mental Homeostasi”and pioneered what became known as “Stillness Meditation”, advocating the idea of accessing the undisturbed calm within a person as an antidote for anxiety, illness and pain. Between 1973 and 1979 he held self-hypnosis classes for up to one hundred people every week which he described as a community service.
In his student days in the 1980s, a teacher pal of ours worked in a well-known Melbourne book store. He maintains that “Meare’s books went out like hot cakes and we sold them as fast as we could get them in.” They were by far the biggest selling item on the catalogue.
Soldiers aside, there’s always been a need for self-help mantras and today’s modern living seems to be driving the trend to new heights. Over in Lower Plenty there is a meditation venue called the “Vine and Branches Personal Growth Centre”. Set in a 5 acre retreat alongside the Yarra River near its confluence with the Plenty, it aims to promote “growth, holistic health and healing”. Personal growth must be a growth industry since in a sign of the times they have just moved a one hundred year old, disused church from nearby Templestowe and refurbished it for use as an additional venue on site.
Meanwhile, in Heidelberg, the former sub branch of the RSL closed its doors after reportedly failing to get their pokies revenue ticking over. It would seem that pokies are at the heart of many RSL operations today with returned service men themselves taking something of a back seat. In this brave new world of the 2nd millennium, AD, there is no room for sentiment and the sound of jingly jangling money has replaced the sound of jingly jangling medals and the voices of the returned service men yarning over their tall glasses. The Heidelberg RSL was located just below the Heidelberg railway station on the corner of Mount and Yarra Streets, within a block of the land donated by Thomas Wragge to the Anglican Church in the 19th century. The 97 year old RSL building was demolished in the weeks leading up to Christmas. I watched it come down on a day to day basis on my way to and from work. It didn’t take long before there was nothing left of the old building other than a vacant block for yet another Heidelberg apartment complex, and sadly, a few fast fading ANZAC memories.