I have two abiding memories of Anzac Day – a national day celebrated in Australia and New Zealand on April 25, when the two countries remember those who fought and lost their lives in military actions involving the countries. It commemorates the specific day in 1915 when ANZAC forces landed in Gallipoli, a remote peninsula in Turkey, meeting stiff resistance from the Turkish army. Over 10,000 died over several months in a savage campaign under severe hardships.
One memory is the story of Simpson and his Donkey, taught to me in school. The other is a story about Jack.
In Australia, on Anzac Day alone, it is legal to play a gambling game called two-up. This same game was played in the trenches as a form of escape from the rigours of war. Unofficial games pop up in parks, pubs and clubs around the country on ANZAC Day. It is a simple game where you bet against another person or the spinner himself on whether two pennies thrown in the air from a flat wooden stick will result in two heads or two tails. A head and a tail results in odds and the coins are re-thrown. Much laughter and yelling adds to the raucous atmosphere as cash passes hands after each throw.
Some sixteen years ago, four of us wandered down to a local pub to partake in such a game and enjoy the comraderie of Anzac Day. With a glass nearly empty, I slipped to the bar to buy another beer and noticed an aged man sitting alone, hunched over the bar, resplendently dressed with a crisp navy blue jacket and a slightly askew rack of medals gleaming over his heart. I offered this old warrior a drink and started to chat.
Jack was born in 1898 and had fought at the tail end of the First World War as a very young man. He wouldn’t speak of the war and said he never had to anyone – it was too evil and shouldn’t be spoken of. I’d have loved to have learned more and despite gentle nudging, Jack kept repeating that war was evil and wouldn’t be drawn. With a heavy heart, Jack passionately described his closest friend, a near neighbour and school buddy from a small rural town in NSW who had travelled to the western front in Belgium with him. His friend was killed in the first 48 hours there and Jack still spoke of his friend’s fine qualities and enduring friendship. He said that he would have preferred it to have been him. While the medals symbolise battles past, Jack seemed to have battled with this burden of the arbitrary loss of his dearest friend and the burden of war locked away inside him every day from that time throughout his life. An old fuzzy photo of his friend kept in his wallet accompanied these mixed memories of a much admired friend cut down in his prime.
Every small town across Australia has a prominent memorial listing those inhabitants who perished in war. It is impossible to miss the strings of names from the same family – the loss of two or three or four or more sons, husbands and fathers must have been a burden almost too intolerable to handle. I am sure that Jack’s friend is memorialised in their small town.
Since that time, Jack is likely to have passed away but the memory of our conversation will last forever. Today, Anzac Day has undergone a revival as the last soldiers of World War I have died and those of World War II grow into their elder years. The sacrifices that these young soldiers made half way across the planet in such foreign lands has etched itself into part of the national character and forged part of the Australian identity as increasing numbers every year crowd Gallipoli, the European memorial at Villers-Brettoneux and memorials around the country for the dawn commemorative service.
Lest we forget.
Source: Lead Photo