The cold seeps into me through the heavy navy coat that reaches my ankles. The morning is pitch black but the crowd is growing at the roundabout in the heart of town. This is no place for cars today. It’s a place for people and memories. I shuffle close to the coats and scarves in front of me, not quite touching but hoping for warmth.
Between the shoulders of the people who got here before me, I glimpse the stone plinth of the memorial, but can’t see the statue of the soldier that I know stands on top. There is movement off to the side. A young Country Fire Service volunteer in her orange uniform replaces a Scout. It’s her turn to keep vigil until 6am. I wonder what’s going through her mind, or is she too nervous or too cold to think?
I pull the scarf closer round my throat, find my gloves scrunched into the bottom of my pockets and slip them on gratefully.
As I watch and wait the inky sky softens, becoming opaque before sunrise.
I look around. All five approach roads and the roundabout are crammed with people, silent, waiting. Amongst them are some in uniform, mostly young men with short, neat-cut hair. One wears a suit with a row of medals fastened to it. The rest are like me, ordinary. Now and then a mother silences a child with a hushed “shhh”.
I look forward again, towards the memorial. To one side is a marquee. Under it are two ancient men in wheelchairs, their medals pinned to their jackets. Multicoloured crocheted rugs lay over their laps but I’m sure the cold is sinking into their bones as it is into mine.
A solitary magpie’s melody from the nearby church garden heralds the final changing of the guard.
And then the ritual begins. As the words are spoken, the same ones as last year and the year before, I wonder about the people around me.
I wonder what they’d think if they knew my father was a soldier in World War II. Not an Australian, nor a Kiwi, or even British. No – but a German soldier.
Even worse he didn’t believe all those Jews were killed. Somehow my gentle, intelligent father was amongst those taken in by the propaganda that brainwashed most of a country and more. I was mortified when he told me years ago, and still am, that he could believe such things. And my mother mindlessly repeated the same words.
Why am I here amongst silent people paying tribute to the Anzacs, the Vietnam Vets and more? It isn’t my choice. I am here as a mother, my daughter chosen to sing a hymn at this service. Not a very noble reason, I reflect.
Nonetheless I stand amongst the others and listen to the words. For me this is not about fallen Australian soldiers – those who lie in the cemeteries and those never brought home, left behind in the craters and quagmire of Flanders, or other Allied soldiers or those from other theatres of war, even though that’s what this ritual is about.
To me this is about all soldiers who have died or been maimed – in body or mind. And the nurses and doctors, ambulance officers and pacifist priests who went into war zones out of the goodness of their hearts or to ‘do their bit’. And those conscripted who never wanted to go, or chose to go because it promised regular food and money to send home to family, more than they could otherwise provide.
As the bugle plays The Last Post and a sob threatens to erupt from my chest, I pay my respects to all soldiers and others caught up in war regardless of nationality, race or religion, regardless of whether they chose to go or went against their will. They’ve been cannon fodder for governments or individuals who wanted to reign supreme, to be the victors and control a nation, a continent or the world.
It’s for greed and power that millions have died and continue to die today, whether from mental wounds inflicted upon them in past duty or in the Ukraine.
As a descendant of German soldiers, not only my father but my grandfather too, I commemorate Anzac Day for all lives wasted and broken through war. And the lives those wasted, broken lives have impacted, including my own.
I want those I stand amongst to understand that most of those seen as the ‘enemy’ are human, like me, like those around me. Perhaps some have been brainwashed by a leader or given no choice but to go to war.
I want those around me to understand that I and many others, even whole countries, have learnt that what happened was wrong and are remorseful. And I want them to understand the Allies are not blameless in all that went on.
We are the same. Human, fallible, imperfect.
When you next hear The Last Post, I beg you do not think of heroism or the ‘glory of war’ – I am sure there is no such thing. Instead think of those who did not return to their families and those who returned changed, broken, silent. Also the victims: the raped, the brutalised, those displaced from their homes and families, those sent to gas chambers because of race or beliefs. Consider how you can be the change, the instrument of peace that stands in the way of atrocities which continue to this day.
© Rosemary Argue 2022
Rosemary Argue is an emerging author who usually writes historical fiction, both short stories and novels. Her work often develops out of the places she visits. She’s curious about the natural environment and weaves it into her stories. She grew up with English as her second language. Her mother sent her to Kindergarten at age four to learn English. She grew up in two cultures which gives her a different perspective of the world: that the most obvious view is not the only one. She is working on two young adult historical fiction novels set in Western Australia and works for a not-for-profit conservation organisation.