Anzac Day, Brisbane, 2006

I took a stroll around town this morning as today is a national holiday – Anzac Day.

Anzac Day is a deeply complex national day in Australia. At its simplest, it’s a commemoration for all who have served in conflicts overseas. For many though, it goes deeper and marks the point at which Australia broke free of the British Empire and began to grow as a nation. This is not in a triumphant, War of Independence fashion, but with a stark realisation that the mother country could no longer be relied upon and that the young men of the “lucky country” were not isolated from world events and could be gunned down in their thousands in faraway places like anyone else.

Many people are uncomfortable with displays of militarism, but the day isn’t a celebration of militarism or war. You can’t fail to be touched when you see the old guys with their medals walking in the streets, arm in arm, reminiscing. Those of use who are young and have never lived through a major global conflict can’t begin to imagine or to make pronouncements about those times.

Take a moment today to contemplate this image of the Anzac landing. It’s poignant and strange – in the water, men leaping from boats, one crumpled at the waters edge. In the foreground, the 1st Brigade staff look almost casual, standing around with arms behind backs.

Then go to Project Gutenberg online and read Five Months at Anzac by J.L. Beeston, a field ambulance commander. It’s full of humour and sympathy for both sides. My favourite moment is when a truce is called so as the dead (now many thousands on each side) can be buried. “The Turkish sentries were peaceable-looking men, stolid in type and of the peasant class mostly. We fraternised with them and gave them cigarettes and tobacco.”

You wish that someone would just say “how about we just stop this and go home”, but of course nobody does.