The year has rolled around again to the most sacred day in Australia’s civic calendar – Anzac Day. This is the day on which we commemorate the sacrifice of Australians who have served and died in their military service to the country.
Last year, because of Covid-19, we could not hold any community commemoration services. You might remember me writing about my ‘Light up the Dawn’ activity with my neighbours, where stood in isolation at the end of our driveways with a candle. It was wonderful that this year, in 2021, we could again hold some of our traditional activities. I was up early to dress and get going to the Dawn Service at the Box Hill RSL (Returned Services League) Club.
As I was looking in the mirror while doing up my tie at 4.30 am, I had a fleeting thought of my grandfather getting dressed for his day while in the trenches at the Somme in WW1. Most likely, he would have slept in his clothes, only getting to change and clean them after many days when back out from the front line. As I did up the button on the collar of my dress shirt, I could see him buttoning the top button on his own rough wool serge tunic to keep out the cold and get ready for his ‘ stand to’.
Each dawn, the usual time for an enemy attack, soldiers woke to “stand-to,” guarding their front line trenches. Afterwards, if there had not been an assault, they gathered for inspections, breakfast, and a daily rum ration. The modern dawn service is a brief reconstruction of this daily event.
I picked up my good friend, Ken, at 5.00 am and drove to the RSL for the Dawn Service that began at 6.00 am. We joined a group of around. 400 people who stood sombrely in the park around the cenotaph as prayers were said, wreaths were laid, poems were read and the national anthem was sung. After the service a hundred, or so, veterans were able to enter the club rooms for a ‘gunfire breakfast’. Normally this would be open to a larger group of people with a buffet meal of some sort. Our Covid-19 rules not only require reduced density of numbers of people but also that food is served individually and cannot be shared. Accordingly, individual breakfast boxes were provided; each containing a warm roll, croissant, muffin and a little pot of yoghurt. My coffee was laced with a dash of rum and was quite warming after being out in the cold morning during the service.
After the ‘Stand To’ in WW1 the soldiers life would consist of inspection, and breakfast,. Soldiers undertook any number of jobs, ranging from cleaning latrines to filling sandbags or repairing duckboards. During daylight hours, they conducted all work below ground and away from the snipers’ searching rifles. In between work parties, there was some time for leisure activities. Soldiers read, kept journals, wrote letters, or played ’two-up’.
Most veterans did not attend this year’s Anzac Day March in the city. It was a complete stuff up. In order to create contact traceability it was limited to four thousand participants, later increased to eight thousand. We could not march behind our own unit banners but only as an amorphous group. We had no interest in doing this. Most of us veterans felt cheated to have our numbers so limited while at the same time, the government approved a crowd size of 85,000 at today’s football game. (The largest sized sporting crowd anywhere in the world since the outbreak of the pandemic).
Instead, a few uf us decided to join together with our families for lunch back at the RSL. I was so pleased that my two granddaughters wanted to join me and I wished that my family in Perth could have also been with me.
An unexpected highlight during lunch was the arrival of a full pipe band who marched through the bistro and then played a number of tunes on their bagpipes. A medley of Australian soings including ‘I Still Call Australia Home’ and ‘Waltzing Matilda’ created a big lump in my throat.
Tomorrow (Monday) I get my first Covid shot at the Melbourne Exhibition Building mass vaccination centre.