Elizabeth Reid Reflective Essay
The Buttes Cemetery near Polygon Wood, Belgium. On 26 September 1917, the 5th Australian Division successfully captured the German-held positions surrounding the Butte de Polygone, an earth mound that before the war had been the butt-stop of a rifle range. The success was a proud moment in the division’s history, though the the Australians suffered 5478 casualties in the battle. In this photo, Australian Army Reservists practice for the a ceremony to be held the following day, in which they would bury of the remains of an Australian soldier who fell in 1917.
Image source: PAMS 2016 photo collection (photograph by Noah Macmillan)
Premier's Anzac Memorial Scholarship 2016
The Significance of the Anzacs
Walking in the footsteps of the Anzacs is an incredible experience and one which relatively few people have had the chance to do. Even fewer have had the chance to do it at a time where they are able to visit during centenary events. Yet coming back from the incredible experience of walking where the Anzacs did and having learnt about all that happened, people are left with a dilemma. How can they share something which changed them when the people they see every day don’t seem to know even the littlest things about the events which caused them to make the trip? Those who have made the trip understand something which is inexplicable, so how can they try and explain it? It is all too easy to just share the facts and figures of history. But history was made up of ordinary people who had their own stories. Sharing history is as much about an emotional experience as an intellectual one. People can be taught facts and figures, but facts and figures alone are not enough to change people. It is the personal connection which comes from learning about the individuals which helps people to understand history. Learning has to be voluntary and for a desire to learn, most, although thankfully not all, people need to see the relevance of something in order to learn about it. So why is it important after 100 years that the spirit of Anzac lives on in the memory of every Australian not just a select few?
Winston Churchill is often attributed with saying “Those who fail to learn from history, are doomed to repeat it.” Learning about the Anzacs is how we learn about past mistakes so we don’t repeat them. But why is World War I the war that has been chosen to be remembered? What happened in the four years that causes people with no first-hand remembrance of the war to weep generations after the event? And why do the Anzacs deserve a place in the forefront of the minds of Australians today?
It is undeniable that the Anzacs shaped the identity of Australia, both on the shores of Gallipoli for months but then also in the mud of the Somme and Flanders, this time for years. Whilst there have been other events which have shaped out nation, this one was unique. In European history there had been wars, but there had been nothing fought before World War I on a worldwide scale, with so many causalities or with such powerful weapons. And for Australia, war was a new experience and a chance to prove themselves and one which many ran towards. Learning about the past helps those in the present to understand how their identity has been created.
The identity which has been bequeathed to us from those who fought consists of many things. Our national identity involves defending the defenceless. The Anzacs fought alongside the French, helping them to conquer an enemy whom alone they would not have defeated. We have an identity of voluntarily helping those in need. Of the 416,809 Australians who enlisted in the Australian Imperial Force 416,809 voluntarily stuck their hands up to serve. Many of them knew that they would likely die yet they were willing to pay the ultimate sacrifice for freedom, the freedom of those they knew and those they would never know, sacrificing their lives for the lives of their nation.
There are over one million allied servicemen buried overseas in cemeteries run by the Commonwealth War Graves Commission and countless more with no known grave. They show a small part of society at the time. A time where religion was changing, where people shared a wide range of beliefs, languages and countries. Germans, Australians and Indians are buried in the same cemetery. Jews, Christians and atheists are all buried in the same row. There was nothing uniting them but their purpose, each of their stories are unique. One person can never know them all but neither should no person know no story. Stories have been told since the dawn of time as humans try to remember the significant events in their lives. That the events by the Anzacs became legends shows how important it was to them and their generation that the fighting should never be forgotten. Mere mortals were immortalised as men became equal in the face of death. Ordinary men back home performed extraordinary feats overseas, and we have only heard about the ones people lived to tell tales of. How many more were buried with their bearers in the fields of the European countryside?
World War I was a war which would be considered won and rejoiced over if the consequences were not so horrific. It ought to be remembered and shared. The sheer scale of the bloodshed, especially on the Western Front makes it something not worth repeating. It shaped the nations identity yet as Les Carlyon said, “the western front is the major episode in Australia’s military history. … But who remembers it? Who goes there? Not many …” so responsibility lies with those who have been to share it with those who will never go. To share the stories of those who served, whether men or women. If 100 years on only a handful of people remember, where will we be in 200 years if nothing more is done?
The Ode is well-known in Australian services honouring those who served, yet the words are often said with little thought behind their meaning. It is a powerful promise that the present has made to the past for decades. Promising “At the going down of the sun and in the morning We will remember them.” Saying these words means promising never to forget those who died. Because they can no longer tell their stories, we have to tell them instead, passing them down through generations so that in 100 years when people ask ‘Why should the Anzac spirit live?’ the next generation of story bearers can say ‘They died when they did not have to, sacrificing their freedom for the freedom of those they would never meet. The debt we owe is tremendous and unpayable. Their stories have been told since the day they occurred because their actions ought never to be forgotten. Lest We Forget.’