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?”


Approaches vary, but most capital city parades now allow marchers from groups other than Australian veterans. These include serving and ex-serving Australian military personnel, some ex-serving foreign military personnel, and descendants of Australian veterans. The Adelaide parade is a conservative one when it comes to ex-serving foreign military personnel, allowing (I understand from the Advertiser article) only foreign veterans who themselves served in a war in which their country was allied to Australia. The members of the South Australian Indian Defence Officers Club don’t qualify because, presumably, their own service came after the First and Second World Wars – whatever other Indians did in those wars, at Gallipoli and elsewhere.

What interests me most about the Advertiser article is not the Adelaide parade’s particular eligibility requirements, but the way in which the Club’s spokesman, Vikram Madan, makes the case for inclusion in next year’s parade: “There are many Indian people living in South Australia now and they want to also show their commitment to the Anzac Day tradition.”

This, I think, goes to the heart of one significant question about the Anzac centenary. How significant will it be to Australians of non-Anglo backgrounds?

Admirably, the Australian War Memorial’s Education team has developed the Anzac Diversity project to shed light on ‘other’ Anzacs: “nurses, Indigenous Australians, and Australians with British, Asian, Greek and Northern European heritage” who enlisted during the war. At time of writing, there are 16 Indigenous case studies available, 14 Chinese, 10 ‘Northern European’, one Indian, and one British (since 18% of the AIF were British-born, case studies for this last category won’t be hard to find! [1]). I hope the Anzac Diversity resource is well used in schools and the media, and not simply to tell a story of Anzacs (in the words of the project) “tied together by the aspirational qualities of loyalty, comradeship, devotion, audacity, patriotism, and independence” and “shared goals and experience of war – whatever their origins, backgrounds or beliefs”. I hope it will also be used to tell a story of the White Australia that discriminated against diverse Anzacs before, during and after the First World War, and of the very different Australia of 2014. In other words, to tell a larger national story that might befit an ‘Anzac centenary’ in place of a ‘First World War centenary’.

The members of the South Australian Indian Defence Officers Club want to march in Adelaide on Anzac Day 2015 as Indians and as Australians. Alongside the commemorative focus of the day, that’s surely something worth celebrating.

Postscript

The participation of the South Australian Indian Defence Officers Club in the 2015 Anzac Day parade in Adelaide is under review.

Notes

[1] Joan Beaumont, Broken Nation: Australians in the Great War, Allen & Unwin, Crows Nest, 2013, p. 23.

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2 thoughts on “Do you have a right to be on Team Anzac?

  1. Thank you, Ashleigh, for a very thought-provoking post.
    That poignant last line of Bogle’s poem encapsulates for me the heart of the issue – what is the purpose of the Anzac Day march? Is it just to honour those heroes of the past, or should it evolve over time to acknowledge what they won for us and build it into something worthy of their sacrifice?

    Australia is a land of immigrants – that was true when the first soldiers, settlers and convicts set foot on the shore, and has been true ever since. Over the succeeding generations, as each group of immigrants arrived, the nature of the colony/nation, their understanding of themselves, adapted to include what the new arrivals brought – experience, knowledge, fresh perspectives.

    Admittedly, this adaption becomes more challenging when the new arrivals are not ‘Anglo’ in background, or have perhaps been enemies of the Commonwealth in past wars. My own history as a South African, while strongly ‘Anglo’ in heritage, is still historically confused because I have ancestors who fought the British during the Boer War, as well as those who served in British Colonial units.
    We all have some cultural past when we become New Australians, but our commitment is to being an Australian with a different origin. We bring a richness to add to our life together here. So, what message is sent to New Australians, when on this culturally ‘sacred’ day we are excluded from participation? Are we being told that we can be ‘Australian’ in other ways, on other days, but on this one day we don’t belong?

    I am fortunate to be able to march in the Brisbane Anzac Day parade, as part of the South African Military Veterans Organisation of Australia (SAMVOA). As we march through the cheering crowds, there are two things happening in my mind.
    Of course I have particular names and events from my own military service in mind, as I honour the sacrifices made on distant battlefields from my particular history.
    But at the same time I am honouring the traditions and sacrifices made by my adopted country, Australia, sacrifices that have made my new life here possible. More than that, I strongly identify with those Anzac values – loyalty, comradeship, devotion, audacity, patriotism, and independence. Are these the heart of the Anzac tradition? If so, they are worth sharing as widely and inclusively as possible.

    As any South African can tell you, the adage ‘adapt or die’ is very true. We left it almost too late before the realities of our situation were accepted, and the return to a truly democratic society was made. History is full of examples of groups who fiercly protected their uniqueness, only to find that the world moved on, passed them by, and they became irrelevant. It would be a tragedy if the Anzac values became irrelevant in a fast-changing Australian landscape.

    • Thank you for taking the time to read my post and reply with such length and insight, Pierre; your perspective as a South African veteran who now marches on Anzac Day in Brisbane is a valuable one. I see on the SAMVOA website (http://www.samvoa.org/anzac.html) that organisation members who march on Anzac Day are granted a medal for doing so, which to me underscores the potential significance of Anzac Day to x-Australian identities – whatever the ‘x’ may be!

      Other readers of the blog might be interested to know that Pierre, a personal friend, has recently published a memoir, ‘Carry on Padre: Memoirs of an Army Chaplain in Apartheid South Africa’. My copy is on order; you can read more about the book at http://sbpra.com/pierrevanblommestein/.

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