Anzac Day popularity stronger a century after it all began

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Crowds gathering together to celebrate Anzac Day at the Suburban commemoration, Brisbane 2018 (Image supplied)

Whatever impels the growing turn-out of Australians at Anzac Day services worldwide the organisers get some success insisting on it being a day of remembrance not glorification of warfare. Lee Duffield, media correspondent, says you would not put it past large sections of the population to glorify war, but these would-be glorifiers are up against the commemoration of the day as a time of bereavement in families. Lee adds a family story in this despatch.

ANZAC DAY became a media carnival with the advances of technology, live television presentations queuing across the world time zones, interspersed with the documentaries and podcasts — but it has almost always been so, with good reason.

Since at least the Second World War, the ABC extravaganza – the traditional live broadcast in the capital cities – realised the “made for media” potential of the emotion and colour of the occasion.


Moreso in 2018, as publicity surrounding the centenary of the First World War has been a catalyst for bigger turn-outs, but some well-worn, simple mathematics provides an explanation for the enduring support of the crowds.

In the First World War, Australia had five million people, over 300,000 of them took part in the war in Europe alone and, overall, 60,000 lost their lives across all theatres. Because it was a tragedy where almost every family had somebody who went and usually somebody killed or wounded, it became real and carried over, so that you see continuing, the children and grandfathers together out on parade.

The audiences are there because it is a strong product, people of a society looking at themselves; it’s always hard to promote a weak product, that would never happen with the same force.

Among millions of family stories, I respectfully submit this true story about two diggers a hundred years ago as a part of the formative life of Australia and New Zealand as we know them still.

Future generations are coming together each year to commemorate our fallen soldiers (Image supplied)


Arthur, as a serious young man of his time, went to the First World War as a duty, although it also gave him his only clear chance to learn and see the world. He said the Great Depression would later kill off his last hope of travelling again. Not one to recount the bayonetting and bombardments, the nightmare story he kept telling about the Western Front was the “Winter of 1916”, the bitterest winter of a century endured in muddy trenches under fire. He marvelled that they brought the beer up to the trenches for Christmas in metal dixies — warm, because were it cold it would freeze.

He gave an unexpected grimace of contempt at the mention of comfort parcels from home, with the hand-knitted woollen socks.

They did not know. You could not wear socks; they would get wet and freeze off your toes”.

He did interest himself in discovering what he could that might be worthwhile. Back from a year in France in the 1970s, I went to visit and he started speaking French, which he had studied during stays behind the lines. The war was never out of memory, though he would live into his eighties.

I remarked once, it could get hot in France during summer. “Especially when you are on a twenty-mile march, with a forty-pound pack, a ten-pound rifle and ammunition”, he replied.

He could not speak highly enough of the Salvation Army, who were there with a mug of coffee as his unit came out of a battle — exhausted and in a bad way. When leave eventually came, he deloused, washed down and put on a new uniform, checked himself into Claridge’s London Hotel, ordered a hot bath in the room, got himself a guide book and “went to see the sights” of the great world capital. That was his cherished memory.

Families and friends gathering at a suburban commemoration, Brisbane (Image supplied)


Arnold, from age 16, was part of a Naval Volunteer Reserve guard on guns defending Townsville Harbour during the scare over German naval raiders in the Pacific Ocean. He even found himself standing-to against the “Wobblies”, the Industrial Workers of the World, what with rumours that in proletarian solidarity the “one big union” planned to blow up a train on the harbour wharf — no such plan, if any existed, was ever brought to fruition, .

Later, after the German raider squadron was found and defeated, and Australian Prime Minister Billy Hughes had lost his referenda for conscription, volunteers for Army reinforcements were called for and Arnold, now 19, put his hand up.

Embarking on a steamer for the trip to Sydney and mobilisation near Liverpool, he found himself temporarily and ineffectually in charge of a group of volunteers down from the west. They boarded the ship blind drunk escorted by the police and a gang of wharfies. These would be the larrikin soldiers of Australian folklore: rough, mostly useful, comrades in battle.

Making for England, they ran a gauntlet of U-boats, the troopships zig-zagging and towing heavy beams to try and break up their trailing wake. They then ended their war at the Sutton Veney army training camp in England, quarantined against the pandemic, “Spanish flu”. Each day, waiting for the doors to open on Armageddon across the Channel, more would die from the disease. A local history identifies 31 Australian graves on the site near Salisbury Plain. In dismal Winter, they buried them at the bottom of the camp and would be marched back at the double singing Tipperary, to keep up their spirits.

Arthur was my uncle and Arnold was my father. They were, by every account, conscientious and good-hearted young men. Whatever was done to them, or they were caused to do, they survived as men with a mild and tolerant disposition, two of those who escaped damaged but not broken, not themselves turned into bastards, all worthy of remembrance.

Media editor Dr Lee Duffield is a former ABC foreign correspondent, political journalist and academic.

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