Remembering, lest we forget

Director of Schools, Ray Collins, has long had a deep interest in the campaigns, and the cost, of World War I. He shares some reflections to mark the centenary of the landing at Anzac Cove.

That iconic scene in Peter Weir’s film, Gallipoli, of the members of the Australian Light Horse charging out of the trenches into the murderous machine gun fire of the Turks at The Nek will be called to mind as the centenary of the landing at Anzac Cove is commemorated this coming Anzac Day.

For some, more recent images from Russell Crowe’s film, The Water Diviner, which explores the Turkish aspect of the landing as well as the Anzacs, will be in people’s thoughts as memorial services take place around the world.

Each film’s focus is on a particular battle of the Gallipoli campaign that has stood as symbolic of the Anzac spirit and of the terrible carnage war creates. In Weir’s film, it is the absurdity of the charge at The Nek and the willingness of men to charge into battle, knowing certain death awaits them.  

In Crowe’s film, it’s the battle at Lone Pine where the fighting was incredibly intense and so many Australian and Turkish lives were lost in hand-to-hand fighting.

Importantly, both reflect on the despair that war creates, in the Mel Gibson character sprinting to stop the carnage and the waste of life that was occurring and in the overpowering grief of a mother who has lost all three sons and effectively, her own life.

As Australia prepares for the commemoration of this momentous event, there will be many strong feelings expressed in relation to the importance of the landing at Gallipoli. Some will see it as continuing a rise in nationalism that began to resurface in the 1980s and which brings with it a tendency to exaggerate Australia’s role in the World War I conflicts and to place too much importance on its impact on our country’s development as a nation.

Some will see it as an important step in the ongoing need to remember the sacrifices made by servicemen and women who responded to their nation’s call in various conflicts with a sense of duty and commitment to the democratic freedoms we all enjoy.

Some will see it as the glorification of war, others as a gross over-expenditure of taxpayers’ funds at a time of austerity.

I have never been to Gallipoli, although I have always wanted to go. I have also had walking the Kokoda Track on my itinerary but age and a bad back have eliminated that possibility.

However, I have travelled to the battlefields of the Western Front in France and Belgium and visited many of the military cemeteries and memorials that dot the landscape of the Somme valley and Flanders fields.

I will never forget the impact of the cemetery at Pozieres, one of the first we visited. The tight rows of headstones drove home a very strong message about the cruelty and futility of war. This was duplicated wherever we went.

Finding the graves of distant relatives and knowing a little about their stories only increased the sense of loss that a nation – and countless mothers and fathers – experienced.

As a teenager in the ‘60s and a tertiary student in the early part of the ‘70s, I was disturbed at times by a declining respect for Anzac Day in those very strong anti-war days.

I could never come to terms with the sacrifices men and women made in times of conflict when they knew that every action they undertook, any step they might take, could lead to their death or permanent disability and disfigurement. I could not believe that those who had served in times of war would return from those experiences with a pro-war perspective.

Walking around the battlefields of Europe, and I am sure for those who have visited Gallipoli, Kokoda or any other field of war, the feeling would be the same. The senselessness of it all is so confronting.

I have often asked myself what I would have done if I had been pitched into battle – at The Nek or Lone Pine; the devastating charges at Fromelles, Pozieres or Passchendaele;  the sea battles in the Sunda Straits; the bombing runs over Europe; the death marches at Sandakan; the trials of imprisonment and slavery on the Thai Burma Railway; the freezing conditions of Korea or the energy sapping heat of Vietnam; the unpredictable warfare of Iraq and Afghanistan – just to name a few.

Hundreds of thousands of Australians have had to face up to that reality; I haven’t.

For those men and women who endured this, no matter their reasons for serving, the memories must at some stage turn to the terrible effect of war.

I certainly believe that the celebration of Anzac Day is an acknowledgement of the service of these young men and women, so many of whom did not return home. It is a time for remembering sacrifice, for remembering survival and for continuing to tell the story of our country’s commitment to a just and fair world.

The centenary of the landing at Gallipoli will be the commencement of three years of commemorating the centenary of other momentous battles of World War I. As each is celebrated, the terrible waste of war will be remembered, the lasting effects on families will be recounted, the impact on small towns and large cities will be recalled and the reasons all of this occurred will be debated.  

There is a place for each of these, particularly the latter. Anzac Day for me is a time to reflect on the tragedy of war, on the self-sacrifice of so many, on courage, on pain and suffering, on despair and heartbreak.

The Anzac centenary will enable this to occur in a special way.

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Ray Collins

Ray Collins is the Director of Schools within the Catholic Diocese of Maitland-Newcastle. He is an authority on education issues.

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