Anzackery & Me

Military mythology has coloured Australia’s perception of itself since the Rum Corps arrested Governor Bligh and pushed him out to sea in 1809. We settlers like to think we’re a bunch of rowdy top blokes, mates standing shoulder to shoulder against tyranny, gathering at the bar afterwards to slap each other on the back.

And don’t we treasure having an Anzac story of our own to share, too, something to pull out of the drawer this time of year to connect us to the legend.

The stories we tell ourselves are powerful – personally and nationally. Our myths can celebrate the best in us – and perpetuate the worst. The stories we don’t tell devastate those whose achievements and traumas are overlooked. First Nations, Asian and Afghan service is  too often relegated to a dusty box in the attic of nation-building.

Did you know that over 200 Anzacs were Chinese? Or that Aboriginal stockmen – about 1000 of them – were among the most skilful and courageous of the famed Australian Light Horse?

I certainly didn’t know anything about these small but richly significant stories until research took me there via writing novels about Australia. Asking the questions all the while: what is Australia and who are we? Really. And these are questions I’ve been asking since childhood.

My first glimpse of the realities that lie behind prideful Anzackery came at about the age of seven, 1970-something, walking across Maroubra Road at the Junction, my hand in my grandmother’s as we made our way to the taxi stand on the last leg of our journey home from fabric-hunting in the city. An elderly drunk fell out of the pub on the corner in front of us, shouting and carrying on as he stumbled past.

My grandmother, Nin, squeezed my hand and said something like, ‘Don’t worry about him. He’s an old soldier.’

Nin planted a seed in my soul that day, telling me that compassion is more useful than pride for those who’ve been harmed by war. Understanding that there was more to the story – more to everyone’s story – dawned within me too.

She told me all about one of her brothers, Peter, who joined up, lying about his age on the form because he didn’t want to wait until he was twenty-one to go. He didn’t want to miss his chance. It wasn’t boyish adventure he was chasing, though, but an escape from poverty. Serving, and maybe distinguishing himself, was his ticket to a better future.

This is the inner-Sydney house he lived in when he left for war. I can imagine his disapproving but hopeful mother, my great grandmother, waving him goodbye from the steps:

Peter did distinguish himself. He went in as an ordinary private and ended up a lieutenant. Here’s a snippet from his service record:

It shows a first entry of being busted smoking on sentry duty. Of course! The next shows he was wounded at Gallipoli. Peter served for the duration, going on to the Western Front, and going up the ranks, from corporal to sergeant, then to cadet officer training. He won the Military Medal, too, for ‘conspicuous services’ and ‘bravery in the field’.

Peter made it through the whole ordeal, and when he came home, he was able to study law. He married the daughter of a colonel. No doubt all beyond the wildest dreams of the kid who’d left home in 1914.

But when Nin spoke of him, overlaying her quiet awe at his achievements was sadness. Peter had been injured by mustard gas at some point on the Western Front and, in her opinion, it had caused his early death afterwards.

I haven’t been able to discover any details of his illness, or what his post-war life might have been like. Whatever might have happened, his little sister thought it was too great a cost.

In my sporadic searches for him, I came across a notice in the Sydney Morning Herald of 2 June 1917 announcing the death of a ‘Lieutenant Peter O’Reilly’ on the Western Front.

What? How? I soon realised that this was a different Lieutenant O’Reilly: the one who had died was Peter Benedict, while my great uncle was Peter Dominic. There seemed barely a whisker between them, the tiniest trick of time deciding that one would live and one would die.

In my own strange shock, I could sense the panicked heartbeat of my great grandmother, and my grandmother (who’d have been only fourteen at the time), as they read the paper that day, scanning the pages for news, and for one awful moment thinking their Peter had gone.

Lest we forget those who wait and worry at home.

Lest we forget those who will never return home because home has been destroyed.

Lest we forget those who might come home but will never be the same. The shattered who will never be put back together again. The men who fell in love with each other among the terror and the mud, returning to a home that called them criminals. The Murri warriors of the Light Horse who returned to be told they couldn’t get their jobs and homes back because they were black.

Lest we forget the several thousand homeless and hurting veterans in our midst today, neglected by the governments who sent them away to fight, those who are dying slowly of their wounds right now.

Lest we forget that peace in Europe is still to be won.

Maybe peace anywhere on earth is the greatest myth of all. Or maybe we haven’t yet learned to value its gentle, wiser power. Peace, compassion, kindness, creation: these are the brighter and more challenging storylines I want follow, and the only tales of daring I really want to tell.

Poppy photograph: Stefan Katrandjiski

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