Why should we remember the ANZACs?

Why should we remember the ANZACs?
Photo credit: Reuters

They shall grow not old, as we who are left grow old:

Age shall not weary them, nor the years condemn.

At the going down of the sun and in the morning

We will remember them.

Laurence Binyon

In the pre-dawn darkness of April 25, 2015, I joined thousands of Australians and New Zealanders in rising for the centenary of the Gallipoli landings. Among the silent crowds on Adelaide’s North Terrace, I stood with my head bowed in contemplation. Shoulder to shoulder with old men in uniforms and wide-eyed children hoisted on their fathers’ backs, I listened to the memorial service - the familiar melancholy notes of the bugle hung in the air, calling up visions of a distant battlefield as it existed on a morning long in the past.

Why do we remember the fallen Anzacs in this way? At first appraisal, Gallipoli seems the kind of campaign that we should prefer to forget. It was botched from the beginning, and the cause for which it was fought was by no means glorious. Britain and France, hoping to secure access to their Russian allies via the Black Sea, first had to gain control of the Dardanelles strait and the Gallipoli peninsula. To do this, they enlisted the help of troops from Australia, New Zealand and India, to name a few (in fact, as many as 15,000 Indian soldiers fought at Gallipoli - a contribution larger than New Zealand’s and nearly as large as Australia’s).

As we know, these troops were not successful in their attempts to dislodge the Turkish defenders, but success would in any case have been short-lived. The Russian Empire was to be overthrown by revolutionaries the following year, and it would play no further part in the war, rendering any sea access useless.

Why should we remember the ANZACs?
Photo credit: File

More broadly, the Great War itself was an exercise in futility. It brought a golden age of peace and high culture to an end, and it created the perfect mix of conditions for the rise of fascism, the horrors of World War Two, and the unspeakable atrocities of the Holocaust: namely a furious Germany, a war-weary Britain, and a generation of men whose love of life and belief in goodness had been thoroughly sucked dry.

So why do we honour the Anzacs, given that they were merely pawns for sacrifice in an enormous and pointless game of chess? If we don’t pay tribute to their efforts (which failed), their aims (which were negligible) or their fighting spirit (because warfare is these days difficult to admire), then why are so many Kiwis and Australians still stirred by the story of Gallipoli 100 years on?

Commemoration of the past is an important process. Humans evolved with the capacity to vividly imagine the experiences of their younger days, and ascribe meaning to these experiences. We also developed the ability to pass on this information to later generations, both orally and in writing.

We all have the strength of imagination to make stories come to life in our minds, and experience vicariously the triumphs and disasters of others. This is true for me when I hear WWI veteran Robert Graves’ lines:

Sick with delight

At life’s discovered transitoriness,

Our youth became all-flesh and waived the mind

Never was such antiqueness of romance,

Such tasty honey oozing from the heart.

And old importances came swimming back—

Wine, meat, log-fires, a roof over the head,

A weapon at the thigh, surgeons at call.

Even there was a use again for God—

A word of rage in lack of meat, wine, fire,

In ache of wounds beyond all surgeoning.

When I read these lines I’m no longer myself but a soldier, experiencing the war first-hand. Reading such a poem won’t necessarily change my political opinions, but it expands the scope of what I understand.

In the same way, when I hear Wilfred Owen’s anguish as he writes: ‘If in some smothering dreams you too could pace / Behind the wagon that we flung him in, / And watch the white eyes writhing in his face...’, I feel that I’m beginning to comprehend what he called "the pity of war", despite never having lived through it directly.

Reliving experiences of the past - even experiences of those who are long dead - can change what we value about the present, and give nuance to our hopes for the future. Our collective memory is limited, however, and out of necessity we need to assign varying degrees of importance to historical events. We forget a billion trivial things, but we literally etch in stone the most valuable or tragic experiences of those who came before us.

And so, in silent agreement, Kiwis have deemed the Gallipoli operation to be one of the most important events our predecessors had to endure. We therefore attend Anzac Day, murmur the Ode of Remembrance together, and listen sadly to 'The Last Post'. For a moment we forget about ourselves, and experience life as though we were an injured young soldier in a stupid, useless war - or perhaps someone who loved that soldier, who waved him farewell but never got the opportunity to welcome him home.

Remembrance of this sort detaches us from petty concerns, it brings us closer together.

And often, as the sun rises at the close of the service, we find that we turn our thoughts to the day ahead with unexpected optimism. A connection with those who lived and suffered and loved in the past can give us strength and inspiration as we face the future.

It’s for this reason that we remember, and should continue to remember, the fallen of Gallipoli, though more than 100 years have already passed. Having lost their lives for us, they have become our sons as well.

Matt Hayes is a freelance writer.