Anzac should be mostly private. It should be about the quiet, within-family, remembrance of – and caring about – people who have suffered in war, those who have been killed and not come home, those who have come home injured in body or mind, and those who live with the memory of the dead and the reality of the living.
I wrote that for The Honest History Book (NewSouth 2017). I contrasted Anzackery, sentimental, shouty and jingoistic, with a useful Anzac, quieter, more honest, more about the effects than the practice of war, and more aware of the effects of war on people other than Anglo-Celtic Australians.
In writing those words, I had my own family’s experience in mind. There was, first, my great-uncle, Sydney James Campbell, medical officer of the 8th Light Horse at Gallipoli. He was swimming in Anzac Cove when a Turkish shell took off both his legs below the knee. He died shortly after and was buried at sea. I have had since childhood the Dead Man’s Penny (or King’s Penny) sent by a grateful King George V to bereaved families. ‘He Died for Freedom and Honour’, Sid’s says, as they all do. I doubt that Sid believed that for, in his last letter to his sister, Hettie, he wrote ‘one wonders whether any quarrel between any nations is worth bothering over to the extent of killing even one human being’. Sid’s will left two hundred pounds to a Christian pacifist group.
There was also my great-uncle on the other side, Corporal Sutton Henry Ferrier, also known as Sid. This Sid, a Victorian, had been working in Western Australia and enlisted with the 10th Light Horse. In one night at Gallipoli’s Hill 60, he tossed back at the Turks some 500 of their bombs. The inevitable happened and Sid’s arm was blown off. He contracted tetanus, died on a hospital ship, and was buried at sea off Portugal. His lieutenant, Hugo Throssell, received the Victoria Cross for Hill 60, was wounded and was with Sid when he died. He wrote to Sid’s mother that ‘the last word I heard him say was “Mother’’’. We recently found a photo from the English press of Sid’s burial, with Throssell looking on. There was a move to get Sid a VC also but nothing came of it. Throssell killed himself in 1933.
Moving on to the next war, my school teacher uncle, Private Hector Charles Stephens, was in the Australian 2/29th battalion, sent out from Singapore in January 1942 to try to hold up the advancing Japanese. On the eve of the Battle of Muar, Hec wrote to his father, ‘I have no fears for the future, whatever may befall, and, God willing, I hope to be back with you soon’. Hec survived Muar (3100 Australians, British and Indians, and 700 Japanese killed) then was trapped with a few companions behind Japanese lines for 16 months, before dying of disease. I was named for Uncle Hec (David Hector Stephens) and I remember being teased at school about the middle name. Born in 1949, I was 45 years old before we found out the details of how Hec died. My father, Hec’s brother, wrote of him that he was the ‘quietest of quiet Australians’.
Another uncle, Flying Officer Hugh John Munro Campbell (known as Cam), was a handy Aussie Rules ruckman in the bush leagues, but struggled a bit to find his wartime role. His picture on my desk suggests shyness, rather than fly-boy bravado. He made little progress in the RAAF, but found his way to Northern India on attachment with the RAF, flying transport planes over ‘the Hump’ into China, being twice mentioned in dispatches. His plane was last seen on 31 January 1943. He was ‘missing’ for a while, then ‘deceased’. His file contains a letter from the wife of an English planter in the Assam Hills, who passed on to Cam’s fiancée, Brenda, a report that a plane had been found with signs that those aboard had walked away. The Air Ministry in London eventually determined that the woman had been spreading gossip.
Four relatives, four simple stories. I used to know Rudyard Kipling’s Recessional off by heart, we sang it so often at school, at Anzac Day, Remembrance Day, and in between. Kipling’s refrain ‘Lest we forget’ has been extracted, given capital letters (‘Lest We Forget’), and often misused to mean something like, ‘Do Not Take in Vain the Service and Sacrifice of Our Anzacs, Or Else There Will Be Consequences’ (as Yassmin Abdel-Magied found out).
Kipling’s hymn was not even about remembrance but about the dangers of Imperial over-reach. Indeed, the last verse leaves out the familiar words and ends like this, ‘For frantic boast and foolish word/Thy mercy on Thy People, Lord!’ Australian Anzac Days have become notable for ‘frantic boast and foolish word’, boasts about how well Australians have fought and how nobly they have died, foolish and exaggerated words about the Australian contribution to winning the wars we have fought in, and very little consideration of the much more important questions of why we did it, what it did to us, especially our families, and whether it was worth it.
Kipling’s second verse captures better the quieter, private commemoration I am looking for: ‘The tumult and the shouting dies/The Captains and the Kings depart/Still stands Thine ancient sacrifice/An humble and a contrite heart.’ If I get to the Australian War Memorial on or about Anzac Day, I’ll go to the Roll of Honour, find the names of those two great-uncles and two uncles and stay for a moment. But that’s all. From what I know of them they would not have expected any more.
David Stephens is editor of the Honest History website (honesthistory.net.au), co-editor of The Honest History Book and a member of Heritage Guardians, a community committee campaigning against the proposed $498m extensions to the Australian War Memorial