ANZAC Day Dawn Memorial Service

This morning I was up and at ‘em at three thirty. 

Nothing new there, then.

However, far from partying hard with friends, or even having a party for one at home, or watching my beloved Liverpool FC play several time zones away, I was awake at this ungodly hour for a rather more sombre reason – to attend the ANZAC Day Dawn Memorial Service, which was to be held at the beautiful and austere location of ANZAC square, in the heart of Brisbane city.

For those that don’t know, (I certainly didn’t before I moved to Australia) ANZAC stands for “Australian and New Zealand Army Corps” and April 25th is a public holiday, known as ANZAC Day, which commemorates those soldiers from Australia and New Zealand who fought – and in a lot of cases – died at Gallipoli, Turkey to fight against the Ottoman Empire in World War I.

All around Australia, there are services held to remember those who perished or were injured in Gallipoli, as well as acknowledge and to give thanks to those who gave the ultimate sacrifice in subsequent battles and wars.
Consider it Australia and New Zealand’s version of our Remembrance Day which is held each year on 11th November.

Many of these ANZAC Day services are held at dawn which I think adds a certain gravitas to proceedings and – let’s face it – what’s one early start a year in comparison to the sacrifices that those we remember today gave?

Now, let’s get one thing straight here. I am certainly not an advocate for war and I am sure most of us would agree that war is most definitely ‘bad.’ Indeed, war is a cruel and terrible reflection of all that is worst about mankind. However, what I do strongly believe in and something that I am very grateful for is to have been fortunate to have lived all my life in democracies. Something that should never be taken for granted and on ANZAC day, I take the opportunity to pay my respects to those that fought and died so that the rest of us could enjoy that privilege.

I am not making any grand political statement here but for me – ANZAC day, as well as Remembrance Day – play a vital and important part of our fabric and I will continue to take part as often as I can.

I remember as a kid back home in Northern Ireland going to the local war memorial park on Remembrance Sunday with my Nana, who proudly wore her polished medals – and those of my deceased Papa – as we paid our respects and this is a memory that I cherish to this day.

My Papa flew and landed gliders behind enemy lines to gather reconnaissance info. My other Grandad also fought in World War II and indeed lost some toes whilst under mortar attack diving head-first into his bunker. Had he not dived head-first, then he would most likely have had his head blown off instead. Which would have meant my father would never have been born and therefore, of course, neither would my brothers and I.

These were ordinairy people thrown into extraordinairy circumstances and – but for timing – I could have been thrown into a similar situation: scared, cold and a long way from home fighting an enemy that consisted of men just like me. It is hard for me to grasp that concept and almost seems surreal as I live my day to day life and enjoy a standard of living here in Australia that I shouldn’t take for granted but have to admit, I very often do.
I spent a few years living in Belgium and once went to visit the Fields of Flanders with my mum. The sight of immaculately maintained pristine graveyards containing row after row of countless brilliant-white gravestones reflecting the summer sun is a humbling experience that I shall take to my own grave.

Another lasting memory from that day was that, in the entrance to the St. Patrick's Cemetery, Loos-en-Gohelle, just one of the multitude of graveyards and the one that we happened to stop at, was a log-book of all the soldiers who were buried there. One of those names belonged to a 15 year-old Private from New Zealand. 

Can you imagine that?!

He obviously lied about his age to get into the army and would have spent weeks travelling to Europe only to fall in the Fields of Flanders. At times like these, I often wonder what it must have been like for that young boy, so far away from home caught up in the maelstrom of war...

On a lighter note – another tradition of ANZAC Day is something known as a “Gunfire Breakfast.” Now before, I go any further, I had never heard of such a thing.

One ANZAC Day, a couple of years ago, I was holidaying with friends on Stradbroke Island, a simply stunning part of the world just off the coast from Brisbane. 

The night before had been spent playing board-games, chatting amicably in the company of great friends and consuming plenty of glasses of wine, all to the soundtrack of the sea crashing up on the beach a hundred metres away and with the warm sea breeze whispering through the swaying palm trees. 

Basically, we were in full holiday mode.

And so, it came to pass, that we were rather dusty when we got up just a few short hours later to go to the small and intimate ANZAC Day ceremony on the island. 

At the close of the ceremony, the MC invited us all to the local “RSL” (Returned and Services League) Club where we were welcome to partake in the aforementioned “Gunfire Breakfast.”

Upon arriving into the club, I spied several small glasses of milk on the bar which people were taking to drink. More than a little hungover and with a parched throat, the idea of imbibing a lovely chilled glass of milk was like stumbling across an oasis in the desert and I happily plucked one from the bar and as I did so, I said hello to two elderly soldiers who were standing at the end of the bar surveying the scene.

Putting the glass to my lips, I greedily downed the glass in one – only to find that it wasn't quite what I had expected it to be. In fact – and let this be a lesson to those of you not in the know – the glass contained a mixture of milk AND RUM and was actually a drink given to soldiers for fortification as they prepared to go Over The Top into battle.

Not wanting to look like a complete and utter eejit, whilst ABSOLUTELY looking like a complete and utter eejit, I bravely swallowed the potent mix, my eyes watering as I did so. The looks on the two elderly gents’ faces were a picture. Needless to say I had one or two more that morning, all be it not by downing them in one, and by the end of proceedings I would be preaching to all and sundry about just how lovely they were…

Australia aspires to be a democratic, multi-cultural, inclusive and tolerant country. Of course, whether it has actually got to that point yet is very much open for debate but its intentions should nonetheless be applauded. 

Could this be achieved without the sacrifices that our forefathers made? I’m glad we didn’t have to find out.

So yes – I take pause for reflection on ANZAC Day and give thanks to the brave men and women who fought and died for me.

Lest we forget.