The 25th. April is Anzac Day, which originally commemorated the Australian and New Zealand troops landing at Gallipoli in the Dardanelles in 1915. In years past, a handful of people would brave the chilly autumn pre-dawn and ‘stand to’ in the centre of our small town on Anzac Day. Over the past few years the idea of standing around in the freezing cold has taken on, this year 400 people, mostly out-of-towners turned up. This has a lot to do with a current resurgence in Australian national pride, but I like to think it is also the result of hard work done years ago by a dear friend the late Milton Watson, an eccentric and patriotic local pith helmeted restaurateur who started the whole dawn service thing in Jamieson 25 years ago with a gun fire breakfast and cannon salute. The Australian flag is at half mast. Those with relatives who served place white crosses at the foot of the memorial.
The last verse of Laurence Binyon’s ‘For the Fallen’ is read.
‘They shall grow not old, as we that are left grow old …’
There is a minute’s silence. A latecomer in a blue station wagon with a hole in the muffler drives through the crowd. A mobile phone goes off, a baby cries, and then the silence is broken as the Last Post and Reveille are blown by whoever has a bugle. The Woods Point gun club rifle enthusiasts let off a few rounds into the still air, managing to dislodge a mob of cockatoos still snoozing in a nearby oak tree. They take off squawking into the still inky dawn sky. The dingos on the hill start to howl, and then the congregation retires to the old Baltic-pine hall for a breakfast of Carmel’s beef stew, tea, coffee, and—for those who have the stomach for it—a glass of dark Queensland rum.
There are few dry eyes in the crowd of spectators when the returned servicemen march down the main street at 11 o’clock and stand to at Gerrans Reserve. Even given that the autumn light has plenty of glare, sunglasses seem to be overly popular. I can’t help but think of the gangland funerals.
In the hall, local Tony Dennis gives a moving speech about his experiences in Vietnam where he served as part of a Centurion Tank crew. After the official ceremony is over, the locals repair to the pub for free beer, a fine spread of food (ladies, please bring a plate), and a game of two-up out the back, where fortunes are won and lost on a game of chance involving two coins. Jane usually does pretty well out of it, this year she came home with a couple of hundred in her pocket.
Standing shoulder to shoulder in the bar with the old war heroes, one hears extraordinary stories. An old bloke from Benalla who came every year once related to me how, as a prisoner of war building the infamous Burma Railway, he had been crucified by the Japanese. He survived—and after three days they cut him down. He gave a laugh. ‘I’m the only bloke who ever had three days off on the Burma Railway!’ He hasn’t been back for a few years now. Most of the World War Two veterans have passed now.
As part of the World War I war effort, women baked Scottish oatmeal cookies at home and they were sent to the soldiers fighting overseas. After the war, they were named Anzac biscuits and sold as fundraisers for returned soldiers. Get the recipe here.