- Watters, Andrew, Chaplain, RANR
- RAN operations, History - WW1, WWI operations
- RAN Ships
- None noted.
- March 2011 edition of the Naval Historical Review (all rights reserved)
Anzac Day was a solemn occasion – that is how I remember it from my childhood. As a child of the 1960s, this day was marked by the annual pilgrimage in front of the television with my mother virtually insisting that my younger brother and I watch the Sydney march. The highlight in viewing those grainy black and white images of old men was to watch for the banner of the 53rd Battalion – the unit that my maternal grandfather had served in from 1916‑17 until he lost his left elbow to a sniper’s bullet. I was also reminded of the service in the RAAF of my father, my uncle and my great-uncle in World War II.
It was a sad day – a day to remember men who had ‘given their lives for their country’. From memory there was little talk of ‘the Anzac spirit’ as it is freely spoken of today. The day was not about defining what it means to be an Australian, as it has become in our present commemorations. Nor was it about larrikin blokes who might be an undisciplined rabble but they made damned good fighters! Yes, there was courage and amazing stories of bravery. But, overwhelmingly, there was a sense of grief that so many had been killed.
Like everyone else of my generation – unless you happened to be born into a Navy family – stories of Anzac were always about the Gallipoli landing, Simpson and his donkey, the impossibility of the campaign succeeding, and the bloody slaughter. I was blissfully unaware that the Navy had anything to do with it – apart from the fact that you needed ships to get the soldiers to the Dardanelles. So I was ignorant of the justifiably proud history of the RAN in World War I. And I don’t think I was alone.
Fortunately, there is greater public awareness today of the role of the RAN in ‘the war to end all wars’. The sinking of Emden by HMAS Sydney (I) as the first convoy of the AIF was on their way to Egypt, the exploits of Stoker and AE2 successfully negotiating the Narrows and entering the Sea of Marmara early in the morning of the 25th to ‘run amuck’ until her luck ran out, and the work of the RAN Bridging Train which culminated in their being the last Australian unit evacuated from the Peninsula – these contributions are now regularly included in the narrative. Less effectively recovered for that narrative is the September 1914 campaign of the Australian Naval & Military Expeditionary Force in New Guinea. People remain genuinely surprised when they are informed that the first Australian casualty of World War I was not a soldier on Gallipoli but a sailor in New Guinea!
However, making sure that the communal narrative about things ‘Anzac’ (meaning World War I) is fully inclusive of the RAN’s contribution is one thing. Answering the question: what is the RAN’s contribution to ‘the spirit of Anzac’? is an entirely different matter.
First, that question begs another question: what is ‘the spirit of Anzac’? And I should say that I take the phrase to refer to what national, communal, familial and personal meaning we give to those past events of a now totally past generation – not forgetting the experiences of war of the following generations. Having allowed that question to dance around in my mind for a few months now, I am drawn to the conclusion that ‘the spirit of Anzac’ has not, is not and can never be something that is set in concrete. Each generation will need to answer that question for themselves. And I believe that I am on solid historical ground in making that assessment. One only needs to read the letters that the men wrote home, the books that they finally began to write in the 1970s and 1980s and compare them with what we emphasize today, to see that the meaning we currently invest in ‘the spirit of Anzac’ is not exactly the same thing that they did.
The task of responding to the challenge of ‘the Anzac spirit’ will not only require a commitment to being well briefed about the many stories within the big story of World War I and subsequent wars, peacemaking and peace keeping activities. It will also commit us to listen to the ways in which earlier generations have answered that challenge, and why they did it in the way they did. The meaning invested in the Anzac story by one generation will not necessarily speak with the same power or conviction to another generation.