ANZAC Day: 1918 - 2018


By Honor Auchinleck

General Sir Harry Chauvel didn’t write to his wife on Anzac Day 1918.  There is no evidence how he marked the occasion, if indeed he had time to do more than pay a silent personal tribute to the fallen and the wounded.  Two days before Anzac Day, on April 23rd from Dieran (Rehoboth) in Palestine, he wrote to his wife Sibyl explaining that he was about to move to be near the action.  So that my grandmother could work out where his new location was to be, he referred her enigmatically to his letter of 25th February 1918 in which he tells her is, ‘near the place to which we sent our horses on that occasion.’  On ‘Feb 25th,’ Chauvel had written, ‘I motored up to Jerusalem on Tuesday the 19th to see a battle in which some of my troops, lent to Chetwode, were to take part’.  Later in the letter he wrote, ‘We saw Shea’s[1] Infantry Division, after a bombardment by our own guns both heavy & field, take Tal’ at-ed-Dumm’ which he explained, ‘is about halfway between Jerusalem and Jericho.’


On 26th April from ‘Talaat ed Dumm’, Chauvel wrote to Sibyl, commenting on the dust, ‘& strangely enough it is pretty cold at night, but the view is perfectly beautiful, & from my tent door I can see the moon shining on the Dead Sea.  It would be hard to see anything more beautiful.’  By Anzac Day 1918, possibly while he was driven to his new destination, Chauvel might have reflected on the shifting fortunes of war.  On Anzac Day 1917 he might have been smarting from the Allied defeat at the Second Battle of Gaza fought between 17th and 19th April.  By Anzac Day 1918, success six months earlier at Beersheba might have seemed rather distant in the light of his perceived failure of the action between 2nd March and 2nd April at Es Salt on the eastern side of the Jordan River and his concern for the forthcoming action. Meanwhile on the Western Front, the spring offensive had brought news of more heavy losses.  Chauvel was not to know that the Germans were near exhaustion and many German civilians were suffering from starvation.  For Chauvel’s Light Horse the tough months in the heat and disease of the Jordan Valley lay ahead.  The eventual outcome of the First World War was by no means certain.


Given that acting Prime Minister Pearce officially named 25th April as Anzac Day in 1916, except for those able to mark the day by attending the first Anzac Day Service held in Westminster Abbey in London, or with a small service on the Western front or in Egypt, it is difficult to imagine how others would have felt. At home in the towns and cities across Australia, families would have been wondering how much longer they had to endure the anxieties and privation of what must have seemed an endless war. Possibly like Chauvel, many had little time for reflection, until later.  For some the significance of Anzac Day couldn’t have really achieved its full impact until servicemen returned home to Australia – they needed time to come to terms with their experiences over four years of warfare and the contrast between their lives as servicemen with those of their families on the home front. Such was the impact of the memories of the landings at Anzac Cove on 25th April 1915, the eight long months of the Gallipoli campaign and the subsequent campaigns on the Western Front and in Palestine that by 1923 Anzac Day was a public holiday throughout Australia.


In Reveille (Official Journal of the N.S.W. Branch of the R.S.S.I.L.A., 1st April 1934) an article ‘The Deathless Army’, H. G. Fyffe (who was six years of age at the outbreak of the Great War and at least eleven by the time of the first Anzac Day after the war describes an early Anzac Day):


‘A glorious April afternoon—bright, sparkling sunshine with the faintest touch of Autumn nip in the air; overhead a sky of brilliant blue.  The stately Collins Street Elms, having shed their Summer leaves, awaited the Winter months—tall, majestic, proud.


‘It was a splendid setting.  Aeroplanes in perfect formation droned overhead.  A huge crowd had for hours past lined the barriers.  Soon came a distant purring of cars.  The noise gradually grew louder.  Then what seemed to be an endless line of cars carrying disabled soldiers passed slowly between two great rows of people. 


‘Deep silence prevailed as war’s aftermath, in its saddest aspect, was slowly unveiled before our eyes.  Cot cases—men condemned to a living death.  Men crippled and bent—broken in the young years of their lives.  A man with half his face blown away.  Then the little band of marching blinded soldiers, too proud to be taken in cars—the old Anzac spirit still burning as fiercely as ever within them.  It was a real relief when they had all passed.’


It was those early Anzac Days after the war that must really have revealed the true and shocking trauma and cost of war.  Fyffe added, ‘For everyone who marched this day three other comrades in arms would forever rest on foreign shores.’ This would also have included those who died of disease, most notably the Spanish Influenza.  And yet, those of us who had parents or grandparents who served in some of the last hundred years’ conflicts remember remarks that those who died were the fortunate ones – for many survivors peace brought anguish rather than peace of mind. Furthermore, the war years had imposed new hierarchies on society distinguishing those who had served and those who remained at home working in protected industries; those who had served on the Western Front and those who served in Egypt and Palestine; and there were other divisions too between arms of service, rank and units. Different wartime experiences divided some families, according to service and they divided one generation from another. Some families battened down the hatches as they coped with their own particular experiences. Coming just less than twenty years after the end of the First World War, the Second World War had its own impact on Australians, as have the subsequent conflicts in which Australian Forces have been involved.  


It is not surprising that the loss and hardship during the First World War reduced many to silence, only to be broken with those who had shared and understood the real meaning of war. All too often, gatherings were marked by silent understandings interspersed with enquiries after each other’s health and family and friends.  Returned servicemen have often spoken how these gatherings have opened wounds, regrets and losses – above all they wanted to maintain their dignity.  Talk therapies had been pioneered by Dr William Halse Rivers Rivers at Craiglockhart War Hospital in Edinburgh – Wilfred Owen was one of Rivers’ most famous patients.  As Owen was killed on 4th November 1918 on the Western Front, just before the Armistice, he scarcely had time to reflect on the efficacy of these therapies. Arguably his poetry was his most effective therapy and his gift to his generation and those that followed. For all that, the First and Second World Wars were catalysts for advances in medicine and psychiatry.


For Chauvel after his return to Australia, military service gradually translated itself into a wider community service. In his roles as Inspector General of the Army, Defence Council member and Chairman of the Senior Officers’ Committee and later as Chief of General Staff, he pressed the Scullin government on defence expenditure and on the preservation of the Armed Forces, arguing for Australia’s need for greater independence.


Beyond Australia’s strategic defence needs, Chauvel recognised the power of human kindness in doing whatever he could to assist returned servicemen and others in the community. Hardly a week passed by when he didn’t telephone the Defence Department regarding some urgent aspect of soldiers’ welfare.  Recognising the importance of remembrance in the post First World War world, Chauvel served as Chairman of Shrine of Remembrance Trustees and until his death Chairman of the War Memorial.  Recognising the suffering and needs of others Chauvel was Chairman of the Victorian Blind Soldiers' Welfare Trust, Senior Patron of Legacy Club, actively associated with Toc H, YMCA and Red Cross Society.  Being a deeply religious man he was a Member of the Synod representing Christ Church, South Yarra, and Parochial Nominator of Christ Church, South Yarra.  Chauvel was not alone in his service to returned servicemen and the community. Almost every town, village and city throughout Australia formed committees to raise funds to build memorial halls and memorials where returned servicemen and their families could gather, commemorate, talk to friends or just sit quietly with their memories. Little is written about those who mobilised their communities to commemorate and remember. Yet it is those efforts that effectively passed the stories of how the Australian nation and their families served their country and looked after one another.

Anzac Day 2018 is a chance to reflect on the future that faced Australian servicemen on the Western Front, in Palestine and Egypt and their families who strove to keep things together while their men were away.  Stories abounded from the home front, yet only ever found expression in letters: ultimately those stories were overshadowed by the stories from the front.  The centenary of the last Anzac Day in the Great War is a chance for us to consider how we can make a difference and carry the spirit of Anzac into the second century after the end of First World War.   Importantly central to the Anzac Spirit is holding out a helping hand to our returned servicemen with a sense of gratitude that they have done for us something that either we ourselves are unable, or not trained, or not prepared to do ourselves.   

[1] General Sir John Stuart Mackenzie Shea commanded the 60th Division in 1917-18