Saturday, April 25, 2009

The metamorphosis of Anzac Day

Watching today's Anzac Day marches on television, I was struck with how familiar it looked to twenty years ago when I first arrived in Australia. In 1989 I saw the last few First World War diggers lead the parade. They were dying out then and now they are all gone. Today it is the turn of fading World War II vets to see comrades dying in numbers similar to when they first met.

Anzac Day is about ritual which is one of the reasons the media love covering it. The day is a stable source of controllable news and a rare chance to get away with clich├ęs about pride, mateship and honour. One of those rituals is the day off work and it was skewed today falling on a Saturday. Numbers were down on last year as people didn’t feel giving the same time sacrifice on the weekend, and most states did not give a holiday on Monday.

The other key traditions of the dawn service, the parade and the two-up, were still well in evidence. A newer tradition is the battleground service in which Australians and Kiwis combine overseas holiday with a pilgrimage. Numbers were down at Gallipoli this year. According to the ABC it was the fault of the recession but today's event at Lone Pine still attracted 7500 people. Another 3000 packed out the French 1918 battle site at Villiers-Bretonneux which rose to prominence on its 90th anniversary last year.

Though overseas Anzac Day celebration dates back to 1916, it was possibly one of the few things the well-drilled founders of the tradition probably hadn’t anticipated. On 25 April 1916, Australian and New Zealand troops celebrated in England, Egypt and the Middle East and in France (where they had just arrived). Back home the excitement generated by what had occurred a year earlier ensured it would not be forgotten.

Much of the credit for the way it captured public imagination belongs to the war reporting of Ellis Ashmead-Bartlett and Charles Bean. Throughout 1915 their lively accounts ignited a fire which the religious institutions were quick to pick up on. By June the bodies were starting to come back from Turkey in significant numbers and they continued to arrive until the operation was called off in December. Over 8000 Australians died in the campaign and a national day of mourning was needed to deal with the massive collective grief.

Yet Anzac Day did not ignite spontaneously. The first Anzac Day Commemoration Committee was set up in January 1916. It was Brisbane auctioneer Thomas Augustine Ryan who decided 25 April was a good day to have the commemoration. He was a member of the local recruiting committee and the father of a soldier who survived the campaign. Ryan suggested the idea to TJ Ryan (no relation, as far as I’m aware) the then-Labor Premier of Queensland. Premier Ryan convened a meeting of local luminaries on 10 January 1916 and they appointed Anglican priest Canon Garland to draw up an agenda.

David John Garland was a remarkable political operator. He was a true missionary and an organiser with a fearsome reputation for getting things done. He was perfect for the Anzac job. Born in Dublin, he emigrated to Queensland in 1886 aged 18 to follow a law career. He fell under the influence of a Toowoomba Anglo-Catholic rector who employed him while he prepared for ordination. Garland was a chaplain in the army prior to the Boer War and spent ten years in Western Australia where he successfully got the rules changed to allow religious education in state schools. He came back to Queensland where he did the same and also won a referendum to allow bibles in state schools.

It was no surprise co-ordination should start in Brisbane. The first troops ashore at Anzac were the Queensland 9th Battalion of the 3rd Australian Infantry Brigade. The Ninth were also the first to return home in coffins in large numbers. As 1915 progressed a culture of commemoration grew in the city. Brisbane was quick to get other Australian and New Zealand cities involved. Garland also astutely arranged for marchers to get free public transport from Queensland Rail.

Although the 10 January meeting was initially organised by the Queensland Recruiting Committee to raise more troops, it didn’t take long for Garland to get his memorial on to the agenda. He got a motion passed to “make arrangements for, and carry out the celebrations of Anzac Day". The Brisbane Courier reported Garland said the war was teaching people “their duty to God in a degree would compensate for their neglect of God in the past”. Defeat at Anzac should not be considered a disgrace, Garland said.

Garland made sure the ADCC council was ecumenical and used his Irishness to woo the suspicious Catholic hierarchy. Garland included a two minute's silence which allowed everyone to quietly pray to their own God. There would also be time for speeches, hymns, the Last Post and God Save the Queen. It would be followed by a march of returned service men. Once Anzac became a commemoration that did not compromise sectarianism, all religions wanted a part of it. Together they would ensure Anzac Day had a religious as well as secular meaning. The ADCC wanted the day to have a similar feel of solemnity to Good Friday (which it was very close to on the calendar – in fact in 1916, it was just four days before Anzac Day). No cinemas, racecourse, hotels or sporting venues were allowed to open.

Royal support proved crucial. King George V attended the 1916 Anzac Day two minute's silence at Westminster Abbey. He issued a rare message direct to Australians: “Today I am joining them in their solemn tribute to the memory of their heroes who died in Gallipoli. They gave their lives for a supreme cause in gallant comradeship”.

Even with royal imprimatur, it would take 14 years for the idea to be institutionalised across Australia. Garland worked tirelessly and in 1921, he lobbied the Prime Minister to declare a uniform celebration across the Commonwealth. New Zealand declared it a day of solemn remembrance in 1920, Queensland followed a year later and WA in 1923. Businesses and hotels were required to close until 12.30pm to allow for services and the march. Seven years later Garland got Queensland to shut everything down for the day. Sensing an election tactic, the federal government took over ownership of Anzac Day from him and laid the Inauguration Stone at the National War Memorial in 1929.

The tactic failed for Prime Minister Stanley Bruce who was to lose the election and his seat a few months later. At the June 1929 Premier’s Conference, he invited all church denominations to hold memorial services the following year and asked the Returned Sailors and Soldiers Imperial League of Australia (RSSILA) to arrange meetings of remembrance. There wasn’t total agreement. The RSSILA could not decide if it wanted the tone of the meetings to be solemn or jubilant. It decided on both: solemnity in the morning and carnivals in the afternoon allowing the opening of sporting venues and bars.

Most states went with the RSSILA (now RSL) model. Queensland went it alone with the “sacred day” approach closing bars all day until the 1964 Anzac Day act was modified to allow the opening of hotels, racecourses and other places of amusement. Australia finally had a nationally sanctified and consistent Anzac Day that appealed to both the spiritual and the worldly side of the nation’s psyche.

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