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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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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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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Performing the eulogy for the Unknown Australian Soldier

Last week many people around the world observed Remembrance Day, Remembrance Sunday and Veterans Day, marking the anniversary of the armistice that concluded the military conflict of the First World War. In Australia, Remembrance Day has long been a war commemoration of secondary significance to Anzac Day, the anniversary of the landing of the Australian and New Zealand Army Corps at Gallipoli. Anzac Day is observed with a public holiday, dawn services, morning marches, ‘pilgrimages’, and much rhetoric about the supposed ‘baptism of fire’ of a young nation on 25 April 1915. Remembrance Day is a much quieter affair, not least because its focus is a minute’s silence at the hour of 11 am, when the armistice came into effect.

But this year’s Remembrance Day in Australia was a bit different. For the first time, the eulogy for the Unknown Australian Soldier was performed.

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Reshaping the Tomb of the Unknown Australian Soldier: Dr Brendan Nelson’s National Press Club speech

This week the Director of the Australian War Memorial, Dr Brendan Nelson, gave a speech at the National Press Club [video | transcript]. As befits someone with such a varied career – Nelson has been a medical practitioner, a politician and an ambassador – it covered a lot of ground, including the place of history in society, the Australian relationship with Europe, and his plans for the Memorial on the eve of the centenary of the First World War.

Of special interest to me are Nelson’s plans for the Hall of Memory and Tomb of the Unknown Australian Soldier. Continue reading