Thursday, April 25, 2024

Rising at dawn on ANZAC Day – revisiting a long and personal story

Waking before dawn on ANZAC Day I suddenly thought I’d take part in my own one-person Dawn Service by thinking quietly about those in my own extended family who had been to war. That’s my five uncles all of whom fought in World War 2 – and survived – with a sense of humour and a string of medals. It’s also my family-in-law – my father-in-law and mother-in-law who were both conscripted into the German Army. My father-in-law once said to me ‘I’d had enough of armies’. My under-age father tried in vain to join up to be with the brothers he adored, but his father refused to sign the necessary papers – luckily, otherwise I might not be here, part of a later generation, remembering them all with great sadness.

It's ironic that we make such a big thing of ANZAC Day on this date, which celebrates a pointless battle in a pointless war. Unlike World War 2, where the democratic world stood against the scourge of fascism, in World War 1 it’s hard to imagine two combatants more similar or more interlinked by culture and history. 

Air and ground crew with Beaufort bomber, Camden UK September 1944. My uncle, Jack Cassidy, is eighth from the right in the second row from the front, with the khaki hat cover on.

However too many of our politicians love uniforms and posturing and remembering the dead (who fortunately can’t answer back) while neglecting the living – the veterans harmed in their service to Australia. If it helps with re-election, that’s a bonus.

Remembering quieter, more impressive aspects
For me this is a day to remember the quieter, more impressive aspects of ANZAC Day – like the story of the small French village of Villers-Bretonneux, which after being protected by Australian soldiers during World War I, put a sign up in the village school, saying ‘Never forget Australia’ and which still celebrates ANZAC Day every year.

‘It's ironic that we make such a big thing of ANZAC Day on this date, which celebrates a pointless battle in a pointless war. Unlike World War 2, where the democratic world stood against the scourge of fascism, in World War 1 it’s hard to imagine two combatants more similar or more interlinked by culture and history.’

Since this year ANZAC Day falls on a Thursday, many will be taking the Friday off and heading away, mainly down the coast to make a proper extended holiday of it – it’s the Australian way, and it’s one of the features of Australians I admire. Unlike the Americans we don’t spend a lot of time flag-waving – we go down the coast for a barbecue with friends and family. That’s definitely something worth fighting for.

Aircrew Bomber Command. My uncle Flight Officer Jack Cassidy, navigator, is second from the right.

Public holidays like the one marking ANZAC Day used to be conveniently relocated to a Monday, so there would be a handy long weekend to enjoy. Then some bright spark thought everything should be celebrated on the actual day it fell due. All that did was turned a three day weekend into a four day weekend – or longer. The hit to Australian’s already dismal productivity would have been substantial.

Australia, its wars and those who served in them
On this one day of the year I also thought it was a good time to revisit all the articles I’ve written on my blog about Australian culture that touched on Australia and its wars and those who served in them. Until I looked back through them at dawn this morning I hadn’t realised how many there were.

Brothers in arms.

My most recent article celebrated the new tradition which grew out of the latest pandemic of marking ANZAC Day with small driveway services in local suburban streets.

Driveway Dawn Services – reclaiming remembrance 26 Apr 2022
‘I usually pass Anzac Day quietly, as befits remembrance. I try to avoid the flag waving and the speeches and the politicians – difficult as that is during an election. However, the day touches on so many issues that affect the future of Australia, that it always makes me think about where we have come from and where we are going. Lest we forget – or be doomed to repeat’,
 Driveway dawn services – reclaiming remembrance.

Who owns Australia’s ‘soul’?
Before that I wrote about the scandalous sum of money spent on a single building – the Australian War Memorial – when it is but one of the many cultural institutions that preserve our complex heritage. The Director of the War Memorial at the time commented that ‘the Australian War Memorial is…a place that reveals our character as a people, our soul.’ In the end though, Australia's ‘soul’ might turn out to be larger, longer and wider than our history of wars.

Who owns Australia’s ‘soul’? Our cultural institutions, our history and our future 5 Nov 2018
‘The announcement of a substantial sum from the Government for expansion of The Australian War Memorial has highlighted some crucial issues around shrinking support for our cultural institutions, recognition of our history and heritage, and sponsorship in a time of diminishing budgets. The Director of the War Memorial has commented that “the Australian War Memorial is…a place that reveals our character as a people, our soul.” In the end though, Australia's ‘soul’ might turn out to be larger, longer and wider than our history of wars’,
 Who owns Australia’s ‘soul’? Our cultural institutions, our history and our future.

ANZAC means not just Australia, but Australia and New Zealand. The story of how pre-eminent New Zealand global special effects company Weita, which was responsible for the spectacle of such films as Lord of the Rings, worked on bringing to life the story of New Zealand’s Anzacs is an enthralling one. It brought together all the power of the digital creative world to match the power of the story being told.

Industries of the future help tell stories of the past – Weta at work in the shaky isles 15 Dec 2016
‘After three weeks travelling round the North Island of New Zealand, I’ve had more time to reflect on the importance of the clean and clever industries of the future and the skilled knowledge workers who make them. In the capital, Wellington, instead of the traditional industries that once often dominated a town, like the railways or meatworks or the car plant or, in Tasmania, the Hydro Electricity Commission, there was Weta. It’s clear that the industries of the future can thrive in unexpected locations. Expertise, specialist skills and industry pockets can occur just about anywhere, as long as you have connectivity, talent and a framework of support that makes it possible. These skills which Weta depends on for its livelihood are also being used to tell important stories from the past’,
 Industries of the future help tell stories of the past – Weta at work in the shaky isles.

Australia’s wars started early
The stories about Australia’s wars aren’t only the obvious ones – Australia’s wars started early. The National Museum of Australia exhibition ‘Encounters’, which included the Gweagal spears stolen by Cook in 1770 when he first struck Australian land at Botany Bay, is part of this history – just as the history of Aboriginal resistance should be part of the remit of the Australian War Memorial.

In a massive breakthrough I never thought I’d live to see, one with potentially endless repercussions, those spears have just been returned from the UK into the hands of direct descendants of the hunters who originally confronted Cook with their fishing spears. Eventually they will be displayed by the local community at Kurnell for all to see at the very spot from where they were taken, over 250 years ago.

In the meantime they will be cared for at the Chau Chak Wing Museum at the University of Sydney. Noeleen Timbery from the La Perouse Local Aboriginal Land Council, generously acknowledged the role Cambridge had played in caring for them over two centuries. She commented ‘A big part of you wants the fact that they were never taken away, but had they not been taken away and had they not been really carefully preserved and cared for by Trinity College and the museum here, we wouldn’t be able to connect to them today…We’re really looking forward to sharing these with all Australians.’

Unfinished histories – encountering ‘Encounters’ 29 Mar 2016
‘A single exhibition can sum up many things. By bringing together so many histories, stories and objects – particularly long-absent ones from the British Museum – the 'Encounters' exhibition at the National Museum presented a snapshot of the ongoing living history of Australia. Many strands ran through it, reflecting the complexity of the realities it tried to express. By successfully reflecting on the pressing issues it raised we have some hope of getting beyond the vision of the Great South Land of 18th and 19th Century ambition towards a truly great nation of the 21st Century’,
 Unfinished histories – encountering ‘Encounters’.

When universes collide – ‘Encounters’ exhibition at National Museum of Australia 11 Dec 2015
‘The Encounters exhibition at the National Museum of Australia, a once in a lifetime event, makes you realise that astoundingly all this earth-shattering history happened only a few generations ago, so much so that descendants of the Gweagal, those first people Cook encountered, still talk about that encounter in 1770 as though it was yesterday. Despite the continuing concerns about the vast holdings of mostly looted cultural artefacts, the return of these objects, however briefly, will serve to emphasise how recently the British came to Australia, how much more we need to do to be fully at home in this country and how much part of a living, contemporary tradition Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander cultures are’,
 When universes collide – Encounters exhibition at National Museum of Australia.

The ongoing struggle to ensure democracy survives
Our involvement in wars through the ages was for all sorts of reasons, including embedding us further in the Imperial alliances that have enmeshed us – and continue to do so. We would hope that a large part of the reasons – as with our involvement in World War 2 – was to ensure that the forces of democracy were not overcome by the evils of fascism. In our contemporary world where those same dark forces are once more marshalling, it’s a good time to celebrate our stance against dictators and dictatorships.

Land of hope 13 Aug 2015
‘There were times in our past when Australia was seen as the great hope of the world – when it offered a vision of a new democratic life free from the failures of the past and the old world. It seems we have turned from our history, from the bright vision of the nineteenth century and the great nation-building vision of the period after World War 2, with its sense of optimism and fairness, towards something much more pinched and narrow – mean and weak-willed. For such an optimistic nation we seem to have developed a ‘half empty’ rather than ‘half full’ view of the glass – and the world. If we want to live in a land to be proud of, a fair country that truly inherits the best of Australia’s traditions, while consciously abandoning the less desirable ones, we need to change course – otherwise we will have to rebadge Australia not as the land of hope but instead as the land without hope’,
 Land of hope.

Sometimes I think that Australia needs a navigator – probably many of them. My uncle was a navigator – on Lancaster and Beaufort bombers high above Europe during World War 2. He left Australia to join the Allied war effort and he never made it home. He saw out his days in a nursing home in Northern Ireland, where he had settled and raised a family after the war.

The last man standing
He was the very last survivor of five brothers – the last man standing, or at least sitting. All of the brothers made their contribution to Australia, serving in (and surviving) World War 2, our last Great War. They served on tiny torpedo boats in the Adriatic, on freezing Atlantic convoys to Russia and as aircrew in rattling, flak-damaged Lancaster bombers over Germany. 

They served and they were decorated, some more than once. It’s a miracle beyond words that every one of them survived when so many didn’t. In a challenge to logic, my last uncle – the one most in the way of danger – survived the longest. He ended up with his life and two Distinguished Flying Crosses. He used to joke that the attrition rate amongst Bomber Command crew was so dire that they gave the medals to anyone who survived. However, I doubt they gave them out for just turning up.

Rosemary is for remembrance - and red poppies, too.

There are some subjects about which I write that are so emotionally charged that I have to polish and rearrange each word. It's like a magic spell that has to be spoken in exactly the right way and the right order to realise its power. War and family survival are one of those subjects.

My uncle saw many things I’m sure he wished he hadn’t. He was a navigator on the bombers that fire-bombed Dresden, that jewel on the Elbe, turned into a centre for war industry and refugees by the war. My wife's relatives were living on the outskirts of the city and her mother saw the waves of bombers and watched as the city was destroyed.

A navigator on a Lancaster bomber 5 Jun 2015
‘Sometimes I think Australia has lost its way. It’s like a ship that has sailed into the vast Pacific Ocean in search of gaudy treasure, glimpsed the beckoning coast of Asia and then lost its bearings, all its charts blown overboard in squalls and tempests. It seems to have turned from the great nation-building vision of the period after World War 2, with its sense of optimism and fairness, towards something much more pinched and narrow. It’s time to rediscover the Australian dream. We need a navigator – or perhaps many, one in every community – who can help us find our way, encourage us as we navigate from greed and complacency to a calmer shining ocean of generosity and optimism’,
 A navigator on a Lancaster bomber.

Frontier wars to Great War
Despite the frontier wars, where Aboriginal soldiers fought European settlers and their soldiers, over a thousand Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Australians left their communities in remote Australia or our regional cities or the big state capitals to travel overseas to fight and die in the European trenches far from home. Why is a question that is all their own but also part of a larger Australian story.

Black diggers – telling war stories 29 Mar 2015
‘If you are convinced you have heard all of Australia’s great stories, think again. If you consider you know something about Indigenous Australia you probably need to start from scratch. Black Diggers, “the untold story of WW1’s black diggers remembered” is a great Australian story. Why over a thousand Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Australians left their communities in remote Australia or our regional cities or the big state capitals to travel overseas to fight and die in the European trenches far from home is part of a larger Australian story. Why they would bother when they were not even recognised as Australian citizens in their own land is a story all their own – but a story relevant to every Australian’,
 Black diggers - telling war stories

Dam busters turned to dam builders

Wars are about destroying nations, but often what springs from them is nation-building – and Australia’s story was no exception. Upon returning home, Australia’s dam busters turned to dam builders.

Nation-building – dam busters turned dam builders 5 Mar 2014
‘I have always seen the building of community culture as being about nation-building from the ground up – but a different kind of nation-building. It’s not so much about bridges, dams and buildings but about connections and skills and capabilities and social institutions that can make a country worth living in. It’s one that is inclusive of different cultures and different groups. It doesn’t pit one nation against another. It recognises that diversity and the positive interaction between cultures builds resilience and innovation, creativity and productivity’,
 Nation building.

Making good
Amongst both the victors and the losers in war – though the truth is in the end we are all losers in war – hope lies in the way people find their way through the destruction to a new future. In ancient German cities, the rebuilding was inspirational. My aunt in Hamburg was one of the trümmerfrau, the 'rubble women' who rebuilt German cities brick by brick using historical plans as a guide.

Pristine cities 17 Jul 2011
‘Visiting old German cities, the compelling thing that strikes you about them is the sense of how brand new and pristine they seem. Compare this to a city like Lyon, which is genuinely old and worn and dirty. In Germany, everything seems to have been bombed. After the war, in a vast miracle of recreation, after the rubble women had cleared the wreckage by hand, whole city blocks were built again from long-forgotten plans and drawings in a miracle of hyper-renovation’,
 Pristine cities.

Remembering Dresden 17 Jul 2011
‘The age we live in is one of small, short wars. It affects some of us in large ways, but most of us, hardly at all. This is a return to the norm, for the widespread horror of world war is unusual this century—at least, so far. During World War 2 one of my uncles was a navigator on the Lancaster bombers that fire-bombed Dresden. It’s hard to imagine how young they were, in strange countries, thousands of miles from home, seeing the world in ways they could never have expected – through bomb sights’,
 Remembering Dresden.

Lest we forget – and repeat the mistakes of the past. As the well-known saying notes, ‘those who forget the past are condemned to repeat it.’

© Stephen Cassidy 2024

See also

An everyday life worth living – indefinite articles for a clean, clever and creative future
‘My blog “indefinite article” is irreverent writing about contemporary Australian society, popular culture, the creative economy and the digital and online world – life in the trenches and on the beaches of the information age. Over the last ten years I have published 166 articles about creativity and culture on the blog. This is a list of all the articles I have published there, broken down into categories, with a brief summary of each article. They range from the national cultural landscape to popular culture, from artists and arts organisations to cultural institutions, cultural policy and arts funding, the cultural economy and creative industries, First Nations culture, cultural diversity, cities and regions, Australia society, government, Canberra and international issues – the whole range of contemporary Australian creativity and culture’, An everyday life worth living – indefinite articles for a clean, clever and creative future.
 
Beyond a joke – surviving troubled times
‘We live in troubled times – but then can anyone ever say that they lived in times that weren’t troubled? For most of my life Australia has suffered mediocre politicians and politics – with the odd brief exceptions – and it seems our current times are no different. Australia has never really managed to realise its potential. As a nation it seems to be two different countries going in opposite directions – one into the future and the other into the past. It looks as though we’ll be mired in this latest stretch of mediocrity for some time and the only consolation will be creativity, gardening and humour’, Beyond a joke – surviving troubled times
 
Endless attrition at major collections institutions undermines our cultural future
‘The endless attrition of the ‘efficiency dividend’, with its long-term debilitating impact on our major national cultural institutions, continues to do harm. With the periodic announcement of job losses, more and more valuable expertise is increasingly lost and important programs affected. This will undermine the ability of these institutions to care for our heritage and to provide access to their collections for Australians across the country. The long term impact of these cumulative changes will be major and unexpected, magnifying over time as each small change reinforces the others. At some point Australians will ask where valued and important programs have gone and how critical institutions have managed to diminish to the point where return will not be possible,’ Endless attrition at major collections institutions undermines our cultural future.
 
Cut to the bone – the accelerating decline of our major cultural institutions and its impact on Australia’s national heritage and economy
‘I always thought that long after all else has gone, after government has pruned and prioritised and slashed and bashed arts and cultural support, the national cultural institutions would still remain. They are one of the largest single items of Australian Government cultural funding and one of the longest supported and they would be likely to be the last to go, even with the most miserly and mean-spirited and short sighted of governments. However, in a finale to a series of cumulative cuts over recent years, they have seen their capabilities to carry out their essential core roles eroded beyond repair. The long term impact of these cumulative changes will be major and unexpected, magnifying over time as each small change reinforces the others. The likelihood is that this will lead to irreversible damage to the contemporary culture and cultural heritage of the nation at a crucial crossroads in its history’, Cut to the bone – the accelerating decline of our major cultural institutions and its impact on Australia’s national heritage and economy.

Flight of the wild geese – Australia’s place in the world of global talent
‘As the global pandemic has unfolded, I have been struck by how out of touch a large number of Australians are with Australia’s place in the world. Before the pandemic many Australians had become used to travelling overseas regularly – and spending large amounts of money while there – but we seem to think that our interaction with the global world is all about discretionary leisure travel. In contrast, increasingly many Australians were travelling – and living – overseas because their jobs required it. Whether working for multinational companies that have branches in Australia or Australian companies trying to break into global markets, Australian talent often needs to be somewhere else than here to make the most of opportunities for Australia. Not only technology, but even more importantly, talent, will be crucial to the economy of the future’, Flight of the wild geese – Australia’s place in the world of global talent.

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