Remembrance Day 2012

“Dulce et decorum est pro patria mori”

These words from Horace have survived since ancient times.

Yet more often nowadays we read it in other contexts like:

Ezra Pound: “some in fear, learning love of slaughter; Died some “pro patria, non dulce non et decor.”

Wilfred Owen’s excoriating Dulce et decorum est:

“If you could hear, at every jolt, the blood
Come gargling from the froth-corrupted lungs,
Obscene as cancer, bitter as the cud
Of vile, incurable sores on innocent tongues,
My friend, you would not tell with such high zest
To children ardent  for some desperate glory,
The old Lie; Dulce et Decorum est
Pro patria mori.”

I think of my ancestors and their comrades who fought in the Australian forces, some gone, without remains for a grave, just a name on a wall. Ordinary people caught up in horror of war. Not of their choosing, not of their making. Yet they did their duty. They fought. They stood by their mates. They died in distant lands.

Lest we forget

ANZAC 2012

I don’t think that many romanticise war too much these days. And there is something very poignant and compelling about seeing the fruits of war.Picardie-2010-Dec-074-225x300

In northern France and Belgium the unimaginable scale of loss wrought upon so many families in the great wars of the twentieth century is still visible at every step.

It was in north eastern France that I found some family graves. Here is the the resting place of young ANZAC Rupert Alexander, aged 31 years, along with his compatriots lost in France in 1917.

This poem by Gellert captures the melancholy of war:

Anzac Cove

There’s a lonely stretch of hillocks:
There’s a beach asleep and drear:
There’s a battered broken fort beside the sea.
There are sunken trampled graves:
And a little rotting pier:
And winding paths that wind unceasingly.
There’s a torn and silent valley:
There’s a tiny rivulet
With some blood upon the stones beside its mouth.
There are lines of buried bones:
There’s an unpaid waiting debt :
There’s a sound of gentle sobbing in the South.

By Leon Gellert

“They shall grow not old, as we that 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”
Lest we forget

ANZAC Day: remembering some ordinary diggers, not famous, not important #ANZAC

Another ANZAC Day and another day to remember the sacrifices made by Australian and New Zealand forces. Those who serve in battle never get off lightly, even if they manage to survive seemingly unscathed.

This year I remember some family members – Claude and Tim from Crows Nest, and Henry Demas – who fought in the Second World War. These men were ordinary working class blokes, not famous, not important. Based on stories and their military records they were larrikins with some disrespect for hierarchy and authority.

Local boys from Crows Nest in Sydney, Claude and Tim fought in North Africa and the Pacific. They sailed to the Middle East and were at Tobruk for part of the siege. After being withdrawn from Tobruk and following a training period in Palestine they took part in the two epic battles at El Alamein (first battle of El Alamein and second battle of El Alamein) before returning to Australia in time for offensives against the Japanese in the New Guinea campaign. Their fourth and final campaign took place in British North Borneo.

Claude and Tim returned at the end of the war. But they did not return the same as they had left. Not physically damaged, yet they were each damaged in some ways.

Claude returned as an extremely angry man. He became an alcoholic, abandoned his young family, lived an itinerant existence and died alone in a veteran’s hospital on a Christmas Day in the 1960s. Ironically, after so many years of wandering away from his family, the hospital in which he died was only a few minutes away from his family who were celebrating Christmas. A sad end to the life of a man who, by all accounts, was intelligent and easy going in his youth.

Tim – a polite, kind and unassuming man – married, worked in a factory and lived a quietly medicated existence until his death in the 1980s. He never could sleep very well after the war and only rested with the help of medication and beer. Always a natty dresser, Tim never left the house without wearing a ‘proper’ hat; and he maintained meticulous personal hygiene throughout his life.

Washing and carefully drying his feet was an extremely important ritual for Tim several times a day. As a young child I did not understand any of this. I never understood why he was so obsessed with keeping his feet clean and dry. But I bet if we’d fought in tropical New Guinea and Borneo during that fierce fighting in impossible jungle terrain we’d want clean and dry feet for the rest of our life too.

I can truly understand why the generation of men who went off to fight in World War 2 wanted to come home and live quietly ordered lives. I can see the attraction of a world where supper was on the table at 6pm and everyone was safely behind their white picket fences.

Henry Demas was much more unlucky than Tim and Claude. He was part of the Australian 2/18th Battalion and was taken prisoner by the Japanese at the fall of Singapore in February 1942. This is such a sad story. He survived Sandakan – one of the most horrific parts of the war in the Pacific – until the war was almost over. Henry survived several of the Sandakan Death Marches only to die very close to ANZAC Day in 1945 – 28 April 1945. That simple fact made me cry. The Japanese surrender was only a few months away in September 1945. To be so close to the end and not survive seems terribly poignant.

But then only six men survived the horror of Sandakan, which some refer to as “Australia’s holocaust“. The exact numbers of the dead at Sandakan, as recorded by the Australian War Memorial: 2428 “known” dead: 1787 Australians and 641 British.

“They shall grow not old, as we that 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.”
Source: The Ode

Lest we forget.

Flanders mud is pretty bad too

Recently I visited the site in Flanders where John McCrae wrote the famouns pomen In Flanders Fields. It is at the Essex Farm Aid Station only a few kilometres from Ieper (aka Ypres).

I visited on a cold, muddy and miserable day. The concrete bunker where the medicos triaged the wounded was not far from the various battlefields of the Ypres Salient. The site is also a cemetery now – Essex Farm Cemetery – as those who expired were buried in the field next to the aid station.

But the most telling thing for me was the tiny space that so many men fought and died over. The Ypres Salient was about 20 km by 6 km and you can stand on one of the few ridges in the area and see much of the disputed territory that was fought back and forth over between 1914 and 1918.

McCrae’s poem is moving – especially with the backstory of his inspiration at the death of his friend. But the sad truth is that some poetry was a mechanism for supporting the war and encouraging more men to sign up to fight. To become mere names upon a wall (like the Menin Gate) rather than to live, to create and know joy or peace.

I find the final sentiments of his poem not to my taste:

“Take up our quarrel with the foe:
To you from failing hands we throw
The torch; be yours to hold it high.
If ye break faith with us who die
We shall not sleep, though poppies grow
In Flanders fields.”

Source: In Flanders Fields

More to my taste – having seen the utter waste and destruction of World War One – is Wilfrid Owen’s pungent poem:

“If you could hear, at every jolt, the blood
Come gargling from the froth-corrupted lungs,
Obscene as cancer, bitter as the cud
Of vile, incurable sores on innocent tongues,
My friend, you would not tell with such high zest
To children ardent for some desperate glory,
The old Lie; Dulce et Decorum est
Pro patria mori. ”

Source: Dulce et Decorum Est

Simply because the wars we fight now are not on the same grand scale as World War One it does not mean that individual and societal human suffering is any less. Afghanistan, Iraq show us the same futility and waste of humanity, and the pain and suffering will reverberate into future generations in ways of which we cannot yet count the cost.

The Somme really does have sticky mud

I have taken some time out from business meetings in Europe to make something of a personal pilgrimage in the steps of my ANZAC ancestors.

It has been a very moving and very sombre experience. To see the tiny spaces of land fought over in World War 1 that resulted in so many deaths is beyond tragic.

It is sobering to realise that every death did not just kill the individual concerned, it had flow on effects to each family, town and country and that damage reverberated for generations. And for every survivor there was no counselling, no awareness of the physical and emotional damage they carried with them and shared with families and society throughout their lives.

I toured the Somme and Ypres Salient with a French guide who combined a deep knowledge of the history of World War 1 with a gerat reverance for the sacrifices made by those who fought. Olivier Dirson of Chemins D’Histoire really helped me to understand what had happened both in battle and to the people around.

One of the saddest places to visit is the Fourth Australian Division monument at Bellenglise. Sad because it is a monument to battles fought in 1918 and to sacrifices made so close to the end of the war.

Yet also sad because, unlike the fine Somme American Cemetery and Memorial near Bony in Picardie, the Australian memorial is in the middle of farmers’ fields and can only be approached by a rough and muddy road. The stories of Somme mud are no joke. It is sticky and clumps-up on your feet and it is easy to see how walking through this mud could add several kilos to every step.

In damp or snowy weather it is impossible to drive up to the Fourth Australian Division monument at Bellenglise. This is a national scandal! That Australia cannot even be bothered to ensure that those of us who would remember them can reach this memorial made me feel angry.

How much would it cost to build a short paved road so that we can visit this site to remember the enormous sacrifices made by these men?