Thursday, April 14, 2011


This morning, spontaneously, I decided to make some Anzac biscuits for some friends who were visiting. I don't make them often, but they're pretty easy, and I didn't have much else to offer for morning tea.

As my two-year-old helped me stir the flour and rolled oats, Mr 5 asked why we were making 'porridge biscuits'. I started to think about the Anzac tradition and realised it would be Anzac Day soon.

My great-grandfather (my maternal grandmother's father) went to war at 16, lying about his age as many boys did at the time. He was raised Catholic but came back from WW1's Battle of Passchendaele an atheist. Obviously my grandmother was born well after his return, but she felt the effects of war for her entire childhood (and I would say, life).

Although she adored her father, he was a stern, stoic man who didn't show much emotion, and could be incredibly harsh. She spoke of him with great sadness and affection. Most of his battalion, and many friends, died at war. There is a photo of him around a campfire in the trenches on display at the War Memorial in Canberra.

Poppy, as he was known, died in a car accident when my nan was in her 30s - to have survived such a cruel war only to die in a run-of-the-mill automobile accident seemed an unkind irony. And although it was many years later (40 or so) he was not yet an old man, and although I don't have much to go on, I think it's fair to say that the impact of the war coloured the rest of his days - in some ways it was like he had died in that battlefield in France. (Sebastian Faulks' Human Traces is an excellent book about psychiatry in its infancy that includes a fictionalised account of Passchendaele. Birdsong is another of his novels that deals with world war 1 and its affects in more detail)

I don't believe in war. I'm a pacifist through and through - but then I have the freedom to be, and have never been put in a situation where I've had to choose between 'fight' or 'flight', if the option to fly means to give up the freedom and rights I consider mine. I know some people feel uncomfortable commemorating Anzac Day because they worry that it may glorify war. I can understand that. I am not into flag-waving patriotism.

I think about that young man lying about his age back in 1917, and I wonder what that was all about. Did he do it because every one else did, because he wanted to be brave, and fight for his country, to be a hero, because he believed himself to be immortal, because he couldn't grasp the concept that death is for all eternity? Did he do it because he had a point to prove, to his parents, friends, society? Did he think it would be an adventure? There is no way any of those young men could have had any clue about what they were getting themselves into. There was no tv, movies, internet - there hadn't even been a world war until that point so they couldn't turn to history books. It was so far removed from the world we know today. How must his mother have felt, watching him go? Did she have a clue? How did she feel when he returned, so relieved he was one of the lucky few to escape with his life, so happy to have her boy back - but knowing that the boy who came back to her was not the same one that had left?

I think about the threat of an army marching in to take over the peaceful little city where I live, and I can't imagine that. I don't know how I would respond if some one walked into my house and tried to hurt me or my children - would I run and hide? Let them take over without protest? Or would I fight back? I suppose instinct would take over. I'm pretty sure I would want some one there who was on my side, who was prepared to fight for me. And I think there is a way to commemorate what those people (including my great-grandfather) did for us, what they gave up, and what it all represents, without in any way glorifying war.

I won't be marching, or flying any flags, but in stopping and baking some Anzac biscuits with my children, I will be pausing to think. And remember.


  1. Beautifully told Sarah. There are so many hidden tales in war that hearing any perspective is important. Flags as capes have no place on a day like ANZAC Day. These people, often unwittingly, took the ultimate sacrifice. When we remember them there's acknowledgment it was not in vain.

  2. I love your perspective here and so agree. I was a flag waving pacifist in my youth (where did that go!) and while I haven't turned my back on the basic principles I tend to look at things now in a less black and white manner.
    You are right, impossible to comprehend what it must have been like to be a young person in those times making a decision to go to war. Although as you point often fiction or personal tales like yours are the best way of getting to a true understanding rather than dry textbook history.
    So glad I finally made the time to have a read.
    Michelle x

  3. A lovely thoughtful post. I'm revealing my age to say that both my actual grandfathers were Anzacs, although they died years before I was born. My mum's dad died of TB, picked up in France after he'd survived Gallipoli, when she was only 2 years old. My dad's dad suffered ongoing psychological problems and probably died as a result of these in the 1950s. War can take its toll in many different ways. I have a wonderful letter from my dad's dad, written in England in 1915 when he was recuperating from wounds sustained at Gallipoli. He writes about landing and Anzac Cove at night and life on the battlefied.It's actually quite funny in parts. Magical stuff.

  4. I agree with Michelle, I was also a flag wagging pacifist in my youth and I think that clouded my feeling towards soldiers. I now (20 years on) have enormous respect for anyone in the services.

    I'm so glad Benison sent me over here, I also wrote a piece about Anzac Day today. Your piece was really touching.