The haunting notes of the Last Post cut through the lifting darkness at Strand Park. In the minute that followed, Darryl and I stood in silence, heads bowed, as is the tradition of an Anzac Day Dawn Service. A sense of calm spread its wings over the crowd; the only audible sounds were the twitter of birds, soft intermittent whispers, and the gentle lashing of waves on the beach. It seemed natural during that short interlude to reflect on the lives of those young men who landed at Anzac Cove at dawn on 25th April 1915. My thoughts that morning were also with my Great Grandfather, William Lyons, a local resident, an ordinary person who happened to be thrown into the arena of that extraordinary event.
The solemnity of the occasion formed a lump in my throat as the school choir sang hymns of old and various dignitaries spoke of death, sacrifice and Peace. That was my very first Dawn Service experience. For many years, Anzac Day came and went, along with my intentions of attending the Dawn Service on the Strand in Townsville. Each year brought with it a new resolution on my part to carry through with my good intentions, however on the eve of each Anzac Day, I gave in to the luxury of a couple more hours of sleep. I had no personal connection to the events of Gallipoli, or so I thought, to urge me to attend.
As a child, the Anzac Day parade in my home town of Giru was all about the ice-creams and soft-drinks we received in the park at the end of proceedings. I can remember marching with solemn old men dressed in dark suits, wearing bands of medals that glistened like gold. They strode along heads held high, their arms and legs driven by a purpose that a child could not possibly understand. I had no idea that my Great Grandfather had been one of those old men in dark suits; that he may have boarded the troop train with them at the tiny Giru Railway Station in 1914.
The violent winds of Gallipoli brought change to many lives; to those who experienced it first hand; to their families; to Australia as a nation. I must say that those same winds swept change into my own life on the day I read my Great Grandfather’s war records. I had stirred those angry currents of long ago and kindled a fire deep within. The decisive moment which drove me to sacrifice my precious sleep and attend my first dawn service was the moment I read the words “Anzac Cove” on those records. Those two words have driven me to each and every Anzac Day Dawn Service since.
In 2013 I was asked to give an address at the Dawn Service in Giru. Specifically, I was asked to speak about my Great Grandfather because he was a local World War One Veteran. Normally, I would baulk at public speaking, however on this occasion and much to my own surprise, I agreed without hesitation. It was as if William Lyons himself was urging me, giving me permission for his story to be told. I also felt driven by the importance of preserving his story, particularly for future generations.
Standing before the lectern that morning, I managed to deliver my address to the invisible congregation that stood in the shadows of pre-dawn. Afterwards, people approached me with their own ancestral stories to tell. The telling of my own story had indeed opened a conversation, it provided hope that those who endured the horrors of war on those distant shores one hundred years before will indeed be remembered.
Later that day a very strange thing happened. Words, sentences and rhymes began to stream into my head. The only way to stem the flow was to record them on paper. Within ten minutes this poem had been formed.
THE SPIRIT OF AN ANZAC
I stood to attention in full military dress
And watched the young woman deliver the ANZAC address.
She may have inherited my Irish blue eyes,
But she cannot see the broken bodies, blood and flies.
She spoke of Gallipoli in the Dardanelles;
She could never imagine our months of living hell;
How we cowered in trenches dug against the hill,
Trying to dodge the bullets of Beachy Bill.
I listened with pride as she spoke of my career.
She couldn’t know the horror I’ve lived with for years.
Even in heaven, my memories remain;
My memories of death and despair bring me unrelenting pain.
I listened to her voice tremble as she honoured lost lives;
I couldn’t hold back the tears that welled in my eyes.
As the haunting Last Post cried out across the park,
I silently moved to where she stood in the dark.
With an outstretched arm, I gently drew her near,
As I whispered “thank you” in my Great Grand-daughter’s ear.
Perhaps William Lyons was standing watching me that morning. I would like to think so and I would hope that I did him proud. He is in my thoughts each Anzac Day and I often wonder whether any other living relatives spare him a thought as well. His children are long gone, however I wish I could sit with my Grandfather and talk to him about his father. What thoughts rang through his mind as each Anzac Day came and went during his lifetime. Perhaps it was a dreaded time for the family; a time best pushed to the back of the cupboard along with their father’s belongings. Perhaps they did not need to be reminded of the changes they endured from the moment their father left for war. Would they have been thankful that Dad sealed those cupboard doors; that he kept the lid on painful memories that had been buried along with their father in 1955?