Another year has come and gone but this year, my Anzac Commemorations were a bit different. Anzac Day on April 25 commemorates the first actions by the Australians and New Zealanders in their initial entry into WW1 at Gallipoli in the Dardanelles in Turkey. This was the first time that we had fought as true Australians after the federation of Australian states in 1901. It was a sort of coming together as a nation.
On April 24, the day before Anzac Day, I attended a service at the shrine that was conducted by the Friends of the 15th Brigade to commemorate the liberation of the little French village of Villers Bretonneux by the Australians on April 25, 1918. It was a nice service, held under the tree in the Shrine grounds that commemorates the 58th Battalion – one of the five battalions of the WW1 15th Brigade.. It was good to see a number of children there from Strathewen Primary School. They have a ‘sister’ relationship with the school at Villers Bretonneux. That school was rebuilt by the donation of pennies from Victorian children after the First World War. Similarly, after the little town of Strathewen, here in Victoria, was destroyed by bushfires eleven years ago, their sister school in France assisted them with their recovery. What a nice relationship to have!
The main speaker at the service was Ms Danielle Green the Member of the Victorian Parliament for the region in which the school at Strathewen is located. Unfortunately, she was uninformed of the correct history of the Battle of Villers Bretonneux getting a number of important facts wrong (the date of the battle as well as the details of the commanders involved in planning and executing the battle) . I would have thought that someone who was also there to officially represent the Minister for Veterans at this service would have made sure that she had her story straight before looking silly in front of a group that was very knowledgable about this action.
I began Anzac Day itself by attending the local dawn service with my old mate Ken Wriedt. A similar service would have been held in every city and town across the country. Ken and I have known each other now for over 50 years, having first met on the first day of recruit training after we were called up for National Service in 1968. At the service, we met up with another friend, Peter Taylor, who was a bandsman in the army and saw some time in Vietnam when the Army band was sent there to play for some ceremonial events. The three of us enjoyed breakfast together at a local cafe with our wives before heading into the city for the annual Anzac Day march.
This year is the fiftieth anniversary of my deployment to Vietnam. (I have no idea where all those years have gone). I arrived in Vietnam on April 16 1969, just six days before Anzac Day. I remember having a formal parade at dawn that Anzac Day on the parade ground (which doubled as a helicopter pad) with lots of drill, rifles and fixed bayonets. I struggled to remember all the drill that I had learned in recruit training some ten months earlier.
The big difference for us this year was that we Vietnam veterans were marching at the front of the march, stepping off a little after 9.00 am. Normally, the first and second world war veterans and their unit banners march before us to the Shrine of Remembrance along St Kilda Road. Our early start enabled us however, to watch some of the official units forming up to go before us. The boys from the Royal Victoria Regiment formed up near us and they looked very impressive indeed. After we had finished our march at around 10.00 am, we had time to watch some of the WW2 units march up to the Shrine. The pub where would have lunch was not able to open until 12.00 noon (by law), so we had some time to fill in. One of the units we saw was the 2/2nd Pioneers which was led by our old friend Colin Hamley. He is 97 years old now and still going strong, although he was pushed in a wheelchair for the 2 kilometre long march this year.
Actually, my old mate Ken was also having some trouble with his mobility this year, so he elected to travel in one of the official vehicles that are available for anyone with a disability. I reckon that it’s better to participate in any way possible rather than to miss this important event for us veterans.
My old unit was a part of the Royal Australian Army Service Corps. In more recent years this corps has been transformed into the Corps of Transport and the supply functions that were originally part of its responsibility have been handed over to the Ordnance Corps. My friend Peter was quite happy to be an ‘honorary truckie’ for the day. This was the first time he had ever marched in an Anzac Day parade and he enjoyed it very much. He was quite touched by the number of people in the crowd who thanked us for our services. I also remember finding that touching in the first march in which I participated, and it was hard to avoid having a big lump in my that every time that someone thanked us.
We had a few less participants in my old unit than in past years. I think that some of the country boys elected to march in their home towns this year, rather than coming to Melbourne. We only had about a dozen of us behind our ’85’ banner, but I am looking forward to seeing many more old mates at our reunion in Port Macquarie this August.
Our lunch was at the Emerald Hotel in South Melbourne and we are very grateful for the way that the staff there look after us. It originally began as a reunion lunch but over the years it has evolved into more of a ‘Family and Friends lunch’. There were about 12 Vietnam mates there and most of us had children and grand children join us which I really enjoyed.
Back home, I was very pleased to watch the recorded video of the march on the ABC’s web site and noticed that one of the members of the Friends of the 15th Brigade was carrying the 57th Battalion banner in the WW1 section of the march. This was the unit in which my Grandfather fought in France. There are obviously no WW1 veterans still alive (and precious few WW2 veterans still living) so the unit banners behind which hundreds of men and women would have marched fifty years, or so, ago are now carried by a small number of their descendants who keep their name and memories alive.
All up, I had a wonderful day and was in bed by 9.00 pm, absolutely stuffed.