The scale of the homage this country pays to its men and women who served in times of war is deservedly huge and seems to grow with each successive Anzac Day commemoration. It is a very public tribute, but made up of millions of personal stories. There would probably be few Australian families who do not have a link in some way to a relative who served in one or another of our wars, in particular the First and Second World Wars which involved by far the greater proportion of young men and women. It is a collective message of gratitude and respect that the nation offers on this day, but simultaneously an opportunity for individuals to honour and remember grandfathers, fathers, uncles, and other distant or close relatives who fought not just for their country, but for us, their descendants.
In my case I remember first my grandfather who fought in the horrors of the trenches in France in the First World War. I don't remember him well as I was still a child when he died, but I'm told he suffered from shell shock, so he returned with his body intact but his mind and spirit unalterably changed.
My father, a quiet self effacing man in person but a towering presence in my life, served in the Australian Army in the Second World War from July 1940 to January 1947. He was a Staff Sergeant in the 2nd 48th Australian Infantry Battalion, Australia's most highly decorated unit of the Second World War. The battalion trained at Woodside in South Australia and then sailed to the Middle East. They fought memorably at Tobruk, then in El Alamein, returning to help staunch the onslaught of the Japanese in New Guinea where they battled in the mud of the infamous Kokoda Trail. They later served in the jungles of Morotai, Borneo and Tarakan, before being disbanded following the Japanese surrender in 1945.
My father saw action therefore in conditions of searing heat, desert, tropical jungles, mountains and God knows what other hostile and unforgiving terrain. As a result, being a fair skinned man, he bore a permanent legacy from this time, which was skin damage, ultimately manifesting in a melanoma which killed him, but not until the ripe old age of 92, so he was nothing if not tough.
He never spoke much about the war, despite our curious questions as children, provoked occasionally by coming across faded and tattered old photographs of skinny young men in khaki, usually laughing and looking like they were having a jolly good time. Opportunities for laughs were probably all too few, but the camaraderie that existed in the Australian troops was legendary and the fierce loyalty these old soldiers sustained towards their mates all through their subsequent lives is testament to that. Several of them, although clearly frail and weakened by age and illness, were there at my Dad's funeral and moving as the playing of "The Last Post" was to us, I can only imagine the memories it must have stirred in them.
In looking through some old photographs recently, I came across this one of my Dad as a young soldier in his uniform. I suspect it was one he sent to my mother, as they became engaged and were married while he was still on active service. On the back in his distinctive handwriting, which never varied throughout his life, he has written"This is me (underlined). Not at my best but near enough."
He is a serious looking young man, wide, guileless blue eyes in an open freckled face. Above all, he looks vulnerable - so young, so boyish but obviously so steadfast in his determination to live up to what he sees as his duty - to do his best for his beloved country, his mates, his family, his sweetheart, and his as yet unborn children. We, his children, are middle aged now and he and most of his comrades are gone, but we bear an unpayable debt of gratitude to him and all the others like him.
Let's not ever allow the memory of war to be glorified in any way, because there is no glory in killing. Let us always remember though, those who fought and suffered and died that we might have a chance of living in peace.