Aussies generally consider themselves to be winners. Why else would yawn-inducing sports such as swimming and netball be given huge and in my view disproportionate coverage in the media?
Australians are good at it you see, world champions no less, in the game played almost exclusively by female PE teachers; therefore it commands plenty of exposure and the public duly goes ga-ga for it.
All the more strange then that, in a week or two it will be Anzac Day and the entire nation will commemorate The Battle of Gallipoli, a campaign in which the allied forces were well and truly gubbed, with the Australian Corp in particular suffering nearly 30,000 casualties, an astonishing 65% of the total fighting force.
Despite the undoubted tragedy and carnage, Anzac Day is respectfully and meticulously observed by Aussies of all ages and not just because it’s a national Public Holiday.
Ask any schoolchild – even the ones I teach – and they’ll be able to give you a reasonably accurate account of the Gallipoli campaign, although they’ll almost certainly fail to mention that, in addition to the antipodean victims, more than 73,000 British soldiers were also killed or injured in the bloodshed.
The nation of Australia was barely a decade old in 1915 when its young men answered the call to do their bit for the ‘Old Dart’ as Britain was known.
Designed to engage the Ottoman Empire with a view to establishing a sea route to Russia, the Gallipoli Campaign goes down in history as one of the biggest military blunders of World War One, a huge statement when you consider the disgraceful cock-up’s which occurred in the battlefields of France in which literally hundreds of thousands of soldiers perished in a conflict famously – and accurately – characterised as lions led by donkeys.
Somehow, despite the fact that Australia was ostensibly fighting for the Mother Country, Gallipoli helped define and shape the nature of the new, youthful nation, a country where the qualities of mateship, courage and fortitude are acknowledged and celebrated, even – especially perhaps - in defeat.
Anzac Day itself is no dreary, solemn event. Although it starts with a respectful dawn service remembering those who made the ultimate sacrifice, the pubs and clubs open early and most everybody starts to celebrate in the traditional fashion, drinking and playing ‘2-up’ – an old army game, a bit like pitch and toss.
In the afternoon, in Melbourne at any rate, there’s the traditional Anzac Day match between Essendon and Collingwood Australian Rules Football teams in front of a guaranteed full house of 100,000 at the MCG.
I was reminded of the manner in which Australia commemorates its war dead this week when I realised that it’s now 30 years since The Falklands Campaign, Mrs Thatcher’s War, in which the British Army sailed thousands of miles to give the message to Argentina over a tiny enclave that only dedicated geography students would have been able to readily locate on a world map.
In particular, I read of a local Council which was resisting attempts to include the name of a young soldier killed in The Battle of Goose Green on its Civic War Memorial.
I was at school with two fellows who fought in the Falklands. Both were paratroopers and both were hard cases with whom you simply would not mess.
One, as outlined above, was killed at Goose Green; the other returned, safe and well, or perhaps I should say, ostensibly uninjured. Although he exhibited no physical injury, he returned a far more bitter, cynical and cruel character then when he left, an opinion shared by all of us who were witness to his Saturday night ‘party piece’ of showing off the rings and the other pieces of jewellery he’d taken from a dead Argentinean on the battlefield.
No better example it seemed then, of how war coarsens and brutalises. And maybe, I think now, of how a traumatised individual copes with the naked ugliness and realities of death, killing and survival.
I don’t know where he is now, we’ve lost touch, but I’d like to think that the years and the distance have mellowed my old chum and that maybe he’s found a level of understanding and contentment.
No such luck for my other schoolmate of course and although I’m sure for his family, a name on a council commemorative plaque is scant consolation for a life ended before it had truly begun, a tribute, in the style of the upbeat Anzac Day observations will serve to remind us that in war, there are no winners, only those who have lost less.
Old soldiers are often characterised as being loath to talk about their experiences and I’m sure this is for them, a coping mechanism, one we all use to burrow bad memories in the mists of the past.
On an Anzac Day some years ago, not long after I first came to Oz, I was in a Returned Serviceman’s Club, an Aussie version of the British Legion, in a small town called Dorrigo on the Northern New South Wales Coast.
An author called Peter Fitzsimons was there, promoting a book he’d written about another military campaign Australia had been involved in at Kokoda, in the dense jungles of Papua New Guinea during World War Two, where, quite inexplicably, a rudimentary army of Aussie conscripts had defeated the far greater in number, precision trained and dedicated Japanese Imperial Forces.
I was drinking with Eric, an old grazier who’d served with the Australian 7th Division and who, in time honoured tradition, ‘never spoke about it’.
Fitzsimons, the author, a onetime rugby union international and maybe a little bit up-himself, was told about Eric’s experience and sought him out – declaring – ‘You ought to read my book, Eric, ‘How We Won at Kokoda’.
Dry as a dingo’s donger, Eric replied, without missing a beat. ‘Yeah? You ought to read my book. ‘How to Shove a Rugby Ball Up Your A**e’.
Dry, dignified and defiant. And funny.
That’s my idea of a memorial.