This year, Anzac Day is very different. No Dawn Service, No March, No Reunion. Because of the Corona Virus restrictions, local commemorations have all been cancelled with only formal services conducted at state and national levels. These are without public participation and were broadcast over the radio or Internet live streaming services.
As a veteran, I would normally attend the local dawn service, then march in the parade in the city and finally enjoy some time over lunch with old mates. In earlier, and younger days, we would also have included a couple of other afternoon activities and not arrived back at home until after dinner at night, but we are much too old for all that now.
This year, we were forced to commemorate Anzac Day in a different way.
For my overseas friends, Anzac Day, 25 April, is our equivalent to Veterans Day or Memorial Day. It is one of Australia’s most important national occasions. It marks the anniversary of the first major military action fought by Australian and New Zealand forces during the First World War. ANZAC stands for Australian and New Zealand Army Corps. The soldiers in those forces quickly became known as Anzacs, and the pride they took in that name endures to this day.
You may ask, why is this day so special for Australians? When war broke out in 1914, Australia had only been a federated nation for just 13 years, and its government wanted to establish a reputation among the nations of the world. When Britain declared war in August 1914 Australia was automatically placed on the side of the Commonwealth because we were still, at that time, British Subjects. Our action at Gallipoli, was seen as the birth of the nation. Although the Gallipoli campaign failed in its military objectives, the actions of Australian and New Zealand forces during the campaign left a powerful legacy. What became known as the “Anzac legend” with its focus on mateship and resilience, became an important part of the identity of both countries.
I distinctly remember participating in an Anzac Day dawn parade on the helipad in Vietnam in 1969 with us all feeling very proud that we could now consider ourselves to be ‘Anzacs’. It was a shame that the (non) welcome home that we received and the animosity of those who protested was such that it precluded many of us from feeling comfortable in participating in any form of recognition for many years. Now, I am intrigued as to how an experience that I never intended to be part of my life has become so significant in my life.
I decided that I would make this year’s commemoration different. Since we can’t leave home, I decided that we would try to recreate some of the spirit of the original Anzacs.
Someone had suggested that the most appropriate way to commemorate this day would be to stand at the top of our driveways with a candle (to light up the dawn) and listen to the streamed service from the National War Memorial. I letterbox dropped my immediate neighbours with an invitation to join me and was delighted that seven nearby families stood with me in their driveways at 6.00 am. A kookaburra laughed and a magpie was carolling as we listened to the dawn service from the broadcast service. I lost my steaming connection for some time but I could hear the sound of several versions of the Last Post floating around in the air, played by nearby people on various instruments. One was a trumpet, another a clarinet and the last one was a. violin. I thought they were probably more heartfelt than the formal on-air service anyway. It was a small gesture from some unknown people, but it had a big impact on me
The dawn service is always short and succinct. It replicates the ‘stand-to’ performed by all soldiers on active service. The half-light of dawn was one of the times favoured for launching an attack. Soldiers in the field were awake in the dark before dawn, so that by the time first light crept across the battlefield they were awake, alert, and manning their weapons.
I could hear the service on a neighbour’s radio and once it had concluded and I had thanked them for joining me, I was back inside for our own ‘Gunfire Breakfast’. This was the name given to the breakfast taken by soldiers prior to a morning battle. For us it was bacon and eggs on toast but during World War One, this may have consisted of biscuits and jam or tinned Bully Beef served with coffee laced with rum or condensed milk. I added rum to my coffee, as the Anzacs did, but not really to provide me with the courage to survive the day.
Jill had made some traditional Anzac biscuits based on an recipe she had in her old Nursing Mother’s Cookbook. They are delicious. She used golden syrup in her bscuits but my old mate Pete tells me that his family always used treacle.
We tried to create a lunch that replicated a traditional Anzac meal. Army meals in the field were never very exciting. In Vietnam, when we were out on operations (most days), we were issued with ration packs. The Australian ones covered 3 meals (24 hours) but the American ones, which we mostly had, provided just a single meal. We were generally back at our base overnight, so we ate dinner and breakfast in the mess. I found this photo that detailed the contents of the four varieties of Australian ration packs available in Vietnam.
To see a larger image click here
At Gallipoli, a standard meal consisted of bully beef (tinned corned beef), rice, jam, cocoa, tea, some bread and above all hard tack. also known as “ANZAC Wafer”. These hard tack biscuits continued to be eaten during the Second World War and I remember some similar type of biscuit in our ration packs at the Canungra training base where we completed our jungle warfare training before departing for Vietnam. The original biscuits were made by Arnott’s.
I found the original Arnott’s recipe and I baked a tray of these biscuits. They were not quite as aesthetic as Arnott’s very square ones. Mine only came out half-hard but still too tough to bite into. We had a big jar of strawberry jam to eat them with, although jam at Gallipoli would have come in a tin which was later improvised into a grenade filled with gunpowder and a wick protruding out of the top. I suspect that the most common jam in those days would have been either plum jam or apricot jam. The big thing we were missing (thankfully) were swarms of flies.
I found these descriptions of eating a meal at Gallipoli on the Australian War Memorial’s web site:
“We have just had dinner. My new mate was sick and couldn’t eat. I tried to and would have but for the flies. I had biscuits and a tin of jam. But immediately I opened the tin the flies rushed the jam. They buzzed like swarming bees. They swarmed that jam, all fighting among themselves. I wrapped my overcoat over the tin and gouged out the flies, then spread the biscuit, held my hand over it, and drew the biscuit out of the coat. But a lot of flies flew into my mouth and beat about inside. Finally I threw the tin over the parapet. I nearly howled with rage. I feel so sulky I could chew everything to pieces. Of all the bastards of places this is the greatest bastard in the world.”
“For supper we had nothing more than those tough square biscuits given to us as rations – they were so hard a man could break his teeth on them. I had three days provisions with me, but was warned that they might have to last for five days. So I took care not to dip too deeply into my provision bag. Someone offered me the bottom of a can of tea, which helped to wash those tough biscuits down.”
I bought a tin of corned beef in the supermarket as the closest thing that I could find to bully beef. I think the name “bully beef” comes from the French word “bouilli” (boiled), or perhaps it comes from the head of a bull depicted on the popular Hereford brand of canned corned beef of the day. The cans have a distinctive oblong shape and were opened by rolling a key around the can that removed a strip of metal from the can.
Our corned beef was very fatty and salty with the taste of corned beef, but the consistency of pate. It was not too dissimilar from the canned beef that I remember in the army. That came in tins with a ww2 date on it.I have to admit that we really only tried the hard tack and canned beef as an entree before moving on to a nice pizza with pear, prosciutto and Gorgonzola cheese.
The remains of the bully beef are now in the garbage can and the hard tack biscuits have been left outside for the birds. I hope they have strong beaks. We now have something of an appreciation for the minimal diet and privations that our original diggers endured.
We couldn’t have any form of reunion lunch, so we compromised with an on-line Zoom lunch with Cathy, Audrey and Violet who would have normally joined us at the pub.
I have enjoyed many phone calls and messages during the day with old friends. Thanks to them for keeping in touch and we are looking forward to seeing each other again when this crisis is over.