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Painting of the Anzac Day march in Perth, WA, 1988, by Marcus Beilby. [AWM Copyright ART29417]
A self-labelled "Pom"*, Peter King, who'd visited Australia for ANZAC Day 2000 with his family, gave his permission for this article to be published in '3 Squadron News'.
Remembering? It's different down under.
Most of my medals arrived over fifty years ago. Nothing glorious, they signify service with the BEF, Western Desert, and the 8th Army, through Combined Ops, to beaches in Sicily, Italy and Normandy, and the terrible path that led through Falaise and northern France, Belgium and Holland, across Germany to discover the depth of human degradation at Belsen. An average soldier's "full house". In the following thirty years, lives had to be rebuilt after six lost years. Medals stayed in their boxes, and most of us stayed pretty quiet about it. When the sixties brought the new wave of super-confident youth, who wanted it all and wanted it now, mention of the deeper values of our own youth brought sneers of "Old muck and bullets". The ridicule was so painful we shut up again.
But as the years pass, many of us have come to realise the true legacy of times that we would not wish to pass again. Civilian friendships seem, in the mind, pale copies of what we knew as "comradeship". Some of us were hardly shining specimens of manhood, as Kipling said, you wouldn't look in barracks for plaster saints, but whenever we had looked around for courage, we could be sure that the profane drunkard we had got to bed many a time would be there - no matter what was flying - at our shoulder. After a few decades you miss him, because no civilian ever quite filled his great clod-hopping boots. So I was 70 before I mustered on Horse Guards Parade. Our numbers dwindle every year: few of us can now stand for 90 minutes of prayer and ceremony, each prelate in his chosen denominational devotions, and still make our old legs work to honour our dead in this march-past. One prayer to one God used to be enough.
The day has moved to the nearest Sunday for convenience; churches now decline to sing the fighting man's hymn "Oh Valiant Hearts" and sensitive parsons advocate a white poppy. Red, and in quantity, was enough at the time.
Just as "the past is another country: they do things differently there", I have to tell you that there is a happy land far, far away, where the values of my sort are still held. My son has become an Australian, and we were together this year on Anzac Day in Sydney. He tried to hire a wheelchair to push me all the way. A man from the Returned Servicemens' League put us in touch with the ABC Cab Co. "No worries, we'll pick you up at 7.25, police escort to Pitt Street for basket breakfast and rum, and we're yours for the day. Put your wallet away soldier, you can't spend any money today."
A group of old men were looking at snapshots of teenagers in Navy rig. When they showed Toby, my son, he went quiet. For the first time, he said, he realised that the war had not been fought by old men with medals, but by kids.
We did the drive up to the War Memorial with crowds cheering us all the way; and then on a seat at a bus stop, a very large blind man smelled my cup of coffee (courtesy of ABC Cabs) and Toby fetched him a cup. His name was "Lucky" Watson, and he'd had three HM ships shot out from under him. When I said there was a strong smell of heroism about this morning, he suggested the rum in the coffee might be more likely. That's the Navy for you - Giants.
Later I went to the RSL, near Manly, to thank them. By the car park there was a sign saying "TWO UP" and a great roaring crowd of about three hundred. About fifty years before, in Tobruk, I had lost my spare pair of boots to a digger at "Swy" - the other name for this wild gambling game. It is by law forbidden in Australia. "Not on Anzac Day mate - come on in. Listen up, we've got a Pommy spinner".
"Two-up" 1942. Sketch by Albert Tucker.
[Who became a very famous modernist Australian post-war painter. AWM Copyright ART29697]
Nothing had changed. Three pennies on a flat stick. Cornermen hustling side-bets around the ring: "Looking for two hundred on a head .. all done now... COME IN SPINNER" and the roar rises as the coins spin as high as my hopes had been when I lost my boots.
This time I came out about fifty bucks up (sent to ABC Cabs for next year's Rum Fund), and I was sitting with a cuppa when the next astonishment happened. A lady stopped at the table, said "Excuse me," and kissed me. I asked why. "Thanks for giving us today," she said, and joined her friends. I bolted for the 'Gents'. Later, as I left, a really lovely younger woman stopped me in the car park and did the same thing. "Walk proud old man," she said. I made it to the car, but sat a long time totally overcome. Later watching great waves break at Harbord Point, a young chap, Toby's era, asked me what sort of a day I'd had. "Like no day I ever had before," I said. I told him about it and asked him why.
"This is the lucky country, mate, and you blokes won it for us. We're never going to forget you."
After years of indifference I find that sort of thing a bit rich for my blood, and anyway, at 77, a slight stroke has put an end to marching. But I have a son who knows the words of that great hymn, "O Valiant Hearts".
I leave my medals to him because he's a proud Australian and they have one more endearing tradition ... when the old man falls away, their wives, or sons, or daughters pin their medals to their right breast and march, shoulder to shoulder, with the survivors.
In Oz, no matter how many John Brown's bodies lie moldering, most go marching on. Even if not all of us are heroes, we were, perhaps, Valiant Hearts.
Editor's Note: *"POM", or "POMMY", a century-old Australian slang term for "Englishman", derives from a play on words: "Immigrant"/"Pomegranate"
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