Re-reading Seymour’s “The One Day of the Year”: Another Anzac Day dawn

Today I’ve been re-reading Alan Seymour’s controversial play centred on Anzac Day, The One Day of the Year. First performed as an amateur production in 1960 after being rejected by the Adelaide Festival of Arts as anti-military, and later the target of a bomb threat, the play depicts the conflict between a working-class, first-generation university student, Hughie Cook, and his family. Anzac Day provides the flashpoint. For Hughie’s father, Alf, a Second World War returned serviceman, Anzac Day is ‘the one day of the year’ on which he enjoys some kind of status in society: “Boys I’ve known all me life. Went through the Depression with me, then the War. They’re nothing much either. Nothin’ much… But for one day they’re someth’n'” (p. 100). For Hughie’s Mum, Anzac Day is a time to be wary of Alf’s drinking: “I know how much you’ve had when you get to this bloody stage… You can go the whole year without hardly touchin’ a drop and up comes April —” (pp. 12-13). And for Hughie, Anzac Day is for “a screaming tribe of great, stupid, drunken no-hopers” (p. 95). This year, Hughie and his girlfriend Jan plan to expose Anzac Day as just this in their university newspaper.

Nearly 60 years since it was written, The One Day of the Year still some raises valuable questions about how we commemorate (or, increasingly, celebrate) Anzac Day.

Here’s a moment in the play I especially like. It takes place early on Anzac Day morning, after Alf has left home to attend the dawn service, march and reunions. For the first time, he does so alone. Alf’s best friend Wacka, a 25 April Gallipoli veteran and returned serviceman of both world wars (“What I did I put me age up to get into the First World War and down to get into the Second” [33]), in deference to his age and gammy leg, has elected to watch the march on a rented television at the Cooks’. (“Comfort,” Alf has stormed. “I dunno what this country’s coming to. If I ever thought I’d see the day when people’d think of their own comfort on Anzac Day —” [53].) Hughie has refused to attend, and will go out later to photograph the drunken revellers.

But Mum, Wacka and Hughie do observe the Anzac Day dawn, in another way.

[Steps are heard approaching. The front door opens, WACKA is silhouetted against light from sky spilling through door. He comes in, leaving door open to give himself some light. Crosses to lounge windows, quietly pulls up blinds. Dawn light comes in. He looks around, moves quietly back to door.

[He is about to close it but a sudden quickening of light all through the sky stops him. He takes a step outside, looks up at the sky. It is dawn. He stands very still as though listening for something. 

[WACKA turns, comes back to door. Stands another second or two then shrugs, laughs quietly to himself. But still he stands, looking out and up. There is absolute silence.

WACKA [to himself, so quietly it can hardly be heard]. It was now. [He stands still, remembering.]
[And out of the silence comes, soft and distant, the sound of a trumpet playing “The Last Post”. 

[WACKA stands as though paralysed. As it plays through, the bedroom door opens and MUM stands there without putting on the light. She is fussily wrapping gown about her but the sound stops her. She sees WACKA’S face, the dawn gradually lighting it, and she does not move. They both stand listening. The last notes die away.
[For a moment neither one moves.
[Shakes his head, comes back to earth.] Where’d that come from?

MUM. Hughie’s room, I think. [HUGHIE switches the radio off.] He must’ve put the wiless on to hear the service” (pp. 57-58).

– A quieter, more personal form of remembrance.


All page references are from Alan Seymour, The One Day of the Year, Angus and Robertson, London, 1962.


‘In the heart of the land they loved’: The Anzac centenary in the locality of Reedy Flat, Victoria

“It’s a bit out of the way; do you need directions?”, the local RSL sub-branch president asks. It’s the night before Anzac Day and we’re ringing to confirm arrangements for the dawn service. New to this part of Gippsland, five hours east of Melbourne, we gladly take the directions, and a good thing, too. They require a left-hand turn at the pub, veering right at a fork, turning left onto a No Through Road… Our destination in the early hours of 25 April 2015 is the Reedy Flat war memorial, which bears the names of 33 townsmen who served during the First World War. The town is gone, but the names remain.


Some descendants remain as well. In a fitting speech, Carey Mudge sketches the stories of six of his relatives listed on the memorial. Three died and three returned. Mudge thanks the members of the nearest RSL sub-branch, Ensay-Swifts Creek, for their efforts to retore the memorial and hold the first service in living memory here: these men, too, are remembered today. Early media reports this Anzac Day suggest record attendances at the central capital city services, especially at Martin Place in Sydney, the Australian War Memorial in Canberra and the Shrine of Remembrance in Melbourne. But how many other war memorials, I wonder, stand alone?


Russell Adams, the Ensay-Swifts Creek RSL Sub-Branch President, says at the end of the service that he’s ‘overwhelmed’ by the turnout. The sub-branch has only about 20 financial members, and they’d expected fewer than a third of the dawn service attendees at the end of this No Through Road. Later, as indefatigable country women cook sausages, bacon and eggs in frying pans at the Ensay war memorial hall, he worries he’s frightened people off by cautioning that the breakfast may be under-catered. “It’s alright,” he’s reassured. “Everyone’s probably just having a chat out there.”


Chatting they are: about the great-uncles and grandfathers and great-grandfathers listed on the memorial; about school; about the weather. A community that has offered its quiet contemplation, and now goes about its day.


The title of this post is drawn from CEW Bean’s words about the Australian War Memorial:  “Here is their spirit, in the heart of the land they loved; and here we guard the record which they themselves made.”

Where are contemporary veterans in the Anzac Centenary’s ‘Century of Service’?

One of the most striking aspects of Australia’s Anzac Centenary in comparison with other countries’ First World War centenaries is the number of anniversaries that will be commemorated.

In the United Kingdom, the First World War Centenary is shaped around six key dates; in Canada, 100 Years: First World War 1914-1918 will mark 12 centennials [1]; and in New Zealand, WW100 consists of 12 national commemorations.

Meanwhile, Australia’s Anzac Centenary will mark no fewer than 36 significant commemorative dates, so that a commemoration will occur, on average, once every 43 days.

Only ten of these ‘significant commemorative dates’ relate to the First World War. The others are drawn from the Second World War, Korea, the Malayan Emergency, Indonesian Confrontation, Vietnam, the First Gulf War, and Somalia. This is in keeping with the Anzac Centenary theme ‘Century of Service’, which “has been developed to give Australians the opportunity to commemorate their fellow countrymen and women who have fought and served, and continue to fight and serve, in all wars, conflicts and peacekeeping operations.” The ‘Century of Service’ recognises “the more than 100 years of other [non-First World War] service since the Boer War to the present day and how this continues the Anzac tradition” (my emphasis). [2]

If we accept the premise that all servicemen and -women since Federation have served in “the Anzac tradition” and must be recognised during the Anzac Centenary, it becomes difficult to explain why the last ‘significant commemorative dates’ chosen are the 25th anniversary of the end of the First Gulf War in February 2016 and the 25th anniversary of the arrival of 1RAR task group in Somalia in January 2018.  Continue reading

Do you have a right to be on Team Anzac?

It’s quite possible that my first exposure to Australian war history was through music. As a child, when I was bundled into the car for family road trips, there was one sure companion: my Dad’s mix cassette tape collection, with liberal sprinklings of Eric Bogle’s 1971 song And the Band Played Waltzing Matilda, a story told in the voice of a wounded Gallipoli veteran. Whenever I read something about Anzac Day parades, like last month’s article in the Adelaide Advertiser about Indian-Australians seeking permission to march next year, I can’t help but remember Bogle’s concluding verses:

And so now every April, I sit on me porch,

And I watch the parades pass before me.

And I see my old comrades, how proudly they march,

Reviving old dreams of past glories.

And the old men march slowly, old bones stiff and sore,

They’re tired old heroes from a forgotten war.

And the young people ask, ‘What are they marching for?’

And I ask myself the same question.

But the band plays Waltzing Matilda, and the old men still answer the call,

But as year follows year, more old men disappear.

Someday no one will march there at all.

“Someday no one will march there at all.” Bogle wrote in the context of the Vietnam anti-war movement and well before the resurgence of interest in Anzac of the 1980s and after. I don’t think he could have imagined the transformation of Anzac Day parades we’ve seen since, when the question of young people and others hasn’t been “What are they marching for?” but “Can we march too?”

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Guns for boys, gender for girls in the First World War classroom

One thing I’m intrigued to watch during the First World War and Anzac centenaries is how the war is taught in schools. Especially in the context of new curricula in England and Australia, will the 2014-2018 centenary invigorate or enervate (or distort?) learning about the conflict? In May, Ann-Marie Einhaus and Catriona Pennell released their excellent report The First World War in the Classroom, which considers this and other questions in the context of England. As a researcher keen on public engagement, I was particularly interested in Einhaus and Pennell’s observation that while many resources incorporating the latest academic research are now freely available, a challenge for time-pressed teachers is to find their way amongst them: “Participants in our focus groups voiced concerns about the sheer range and wealth of sources as overwhelming”.[1] I was therefore eager to read the latest addition to The Guardian’s “How to teach…” series, How to teach… the first world war by Alex Ogg.

Ogg’s piece is a handy roundup of both traditional and newer literary and historical resources, mostly British, for teaching the First World War. But it also contains something of a gendered sting.

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Reflecting on ‘The Long Way Home’

In 2014 the Sydney Theatre Company collaborated with the Australian Defence Force to produce The Long Way Home, a play based on the experiences of, and largely starring, Afghanistan and Iraq veterans. I saw the play at the Malthouse Theatre, Melbourne in March.

As the lights come up so do we, the audience, in a standing ovation. The Long Way Home has been a powerful performance. Next to me in the front row, a man reaches up to the stage and grasps the hand of the actor at the centre of the curtain call. “Thank you,” the man says. Actually the actor is a professional Australian soldier, a wounded professional Australian soldier, who might in some times and places be thanked for his service. But the man isn’t saying thank you for that today. Instead, I think he’s saying, “Thank you for telling my story.” The soldier is an Afghanistan veteran and the man looks as though he’s Vietnam vintage, but for all the references to Call of Duty, Generation Kill and The Hurt Locker, The Long Way Home has in many ways been a timeless story of war and homecoming. A returned serviceman of the First AIF would recognise it.

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Soldiers’ names, children’s voices: The Australian War Memorial Roll of Honour Soundscape project

This week Honest History published a piece by Dr David Stephens (@honesthistory1) about the Australian War Memorial’s Anzac centenary project Roll of Honour Soundscape. From early 2014, the Memorial will invite Year 6 students from around Australia to record the names and ages at death of the 62,000 Australians who died during the First World War. The recordings will then be broadcast in the Roll of Honour cloister during the centenary years. As heard in the Memorial’s video about the project, below, “Thomas Noonan, age 23… James Ashton Taylor, age 23… James Ellaby Abbott, age 18…”

Stephens’ piece is a valuable overview of the Soundscape project and asks some important questions about the context, purpose, and ethics of the primary school students’ involvement. I am also interested in the impact the project will have on visitors’ experience of the Memorial, in particular of the Roll of Honour. The project brings to mind my own experience of a similar undertaking at Tyne Cot Cemetery in Belgium.

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Cake dishes, jam jars, salt ‘cellars’ and… C.E.W. Bean?

Cake dishes, jam jars and salt ‘cellars’ aren’t objects usually associated with the Australian First World War official correspondent and historian, C.E.W. Bean – or, for that matter, with the sport of cricket. But thanks to the wonders of Trove, we know that they’re precisely the prizes Bean donated to the Tuggeranong Cricket Club in September 1926 for, respectively, the best batting average, best bowling average and most catches taken during the 1925-1926 season.[1] Bean and the official history team had been residents of Tuggeranong Homestead in the Federal Capital Territory between 1919 and 1925, usually working ‘war hours’ with breaks only to eat, sleep and play tennis or cricket – the cricket with “neighbouring farmers”. Bean’s donation of the trophies continued his association with the club even after the official history team relocated to Sydney, mostly for Bean’s health.[2] More particularly, given their very domestic nature, the trophies probably also continued the association of Bean’s wife, Effie, with the cricketers’ wives she had socialised with in the still frontier-like national capital. View images of the Federal Capital Territory in 1926 here.

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C.E.W. Bean’s Passchendaele – Upcoming conference presentation in Singapore

Next week I’ll be attending the conference The British Empire and the Great War – Colonial Societies / Cultural Responses, which is being held at Nanyang Technological University, Singapore, from 19-22 February 2014.

I’m excited to be presenting a paper titled “C.E.W. Bean’s Passchendaele”, which is drawn from a chapter of my forthcoming PhD thesis. When I responded to the call-for-papers in July last year I gave this abstract:

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At altar of secular religion of Anzac, Australian parliamentary year begins

New traditions abound at the Australian War Memorial under the directorship of Dr Brendan Nelson.

Last February, then Prime Minister Julia Gillard and Opposition Leader Tony Abbott participated, at Nelson’s urging, in what was assumed to be a new ritual: the laying of wreaths at the Tomb of the Unknown Australian Soldier to mark the beginning of the parliamentary year. In conversation on the ABC week-in-review program Insiders , photographers Mike Bowers and Andrew Meares reflected on some of the images captured during this “moment of unity” – in, what has to be said, was an especially hostile political climate. “It was a very powerful visual,” Bowers commented, “because it matched the metaphors of battleground, ceasefire, truce… before hostilities commenced during Question Time.” But symbolism aside, the ceremony was a relatively simple one, taking place before the Memorial opened for the day.

Not so this year.

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