Coming to terms with the First World War. Reflections on ANZAC Day

Last week Australia paused on ANZAC Day to consider what that day meant and why it is so important that we recognise it. Fresh in the minds of students across the nation will be their study of the Gallipoli campaign, but the purpose of ANZAC Day goes far beyond the anniversary of that fateful landing on the Gallipoli peninsula, in the Dardanelles Straits, in 1915. On ANZAC Day last week we remembered all Australians who served and died in all wars, all conflicts, and all of the many peacekeeping operations in which our armed forces are involved around the world.

And as we did so, we all remember that we should never forget the horrors of war, the dreadful destruction, and the terrible impact that war has on families and on our world.

I recently read Testament of Youth, by Vera Brittain; written in 1933, it is probably the book for which she is best well-known, although she wrote many other works, including poetry, and became a significant feminist and pacifist. What is significant about this book, however, is that it details her autobiographical journey through the First World War, and how this affected not just her, but her entire generation.

Vera Brittain was born in 1893 to a middle class family – comfortable, well-off (although their notions of comfort were of course very different from ours). She went to a private school in the south of England, and she was just coming of age, going up to Oxford University – in an age where women still couldn’t gain degrees – when the war broke out. She volunteered as a nursing orderly as was sent to various parts of Europe to work in hospitals in dreadful conditions. And what she describes in detail – if you have read it, you will know this isn’t a short book, by any means – is nothing less than the ripping apart of a generation.

The First World War was a shock of seismic proportions in our civilisation. We can look back with the wise eyes of history and see how various elements had contributed to it happening, and how so many people died, and think “wasn’t that dreadful?” … but in doing so we miss the huge personal impact that the war had on individuals and families. Each soldier or civilian who died had a family who mourned, who was never, ever the same again.

It is estimated that around 20 million people died in the First World War. EACH ONE of those 20 million people – each one – was a precious life which stopped – there and then – no more successors, no more children, no more grandchildren. We are the lucky ones, because our grandparents, great grandparents and great-great grandparents survived. We are surrounded, even today, by the shadows of those who never existed, because of the First World War.

The First World War shook civilisation because it challenged the values that had underpinned society until that point – values that we have struggled ever since to recover and blend into something more valuable, more precious, more equal, more human.

The spirit of ANZAC lies in its human qualities of courage and sacrifice, and the importance of supporting one another, of being a good ‘mate’. These are central human elements which have real meaning and relevance for how we conduct ourselves today. But let us also commit never to forget what war does. It is within our power to work together to prevent wars. And when we remember what war does, we will do this so much the better.



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