Last week I visited the “Spirit of the Anzac” collection that has been travelling the country, courtesy of The Australian War Memorial. It was a very moving experience which steered my attention to the 61000 Australian men who gave their lives for a cause that had little to do with Australia at all. Naivety is a wonderful thing, or is it?
As I walked through each area of the display, I became absorbed in the drudgery, death and destruction of each battle as it played out around me and through the headphones I wore on my ears. Of course we have all grown up hearing the words “Gallipoli”, “Anzac Cove”, “Beersheba” and the “Western Front”, but I now have a new appreciation for what transpired in those foreign lands one hundred years ago.
Each Anzac Day we witness the tragedy that took place on 25th April 1915, however, I knew little about the other battles of the First World War. When I stumbled onto the trembling quagmire of the Western Front, I found myself transfixed to the spot, watching the scene unfold before me. Through the periscope lens, each bombardment shuddered the earth as it decimated what was left of the desolate wastelands of France and Belgium. It was industrial warfare that left no trace of life in its path. In the few minutes that I stood watching history unfold, I experienced the constant bombardments and shelling that sent men both deaf and mad. We all know of the Gallipoli horrors, however, it has been said by veterans that “Gallipoli was a beach holiday compared to the Western Front”.
Of course, one can only try to imagine those soldiers’ reality. How can one truly understand the fear, the shredded nerves, and the effects of the constant bombardments that seemed to never end? How can we as observers of history, a century later, know or begin to imagine life in the trenches flooded with water, mud and rotting body parts? How could those poor men who survived the inhumanity of those times, make the transition into normal life as they once knew it?
Often the truth is in the eyes. Have you ever paid close attention to old military portraits? Those staring eyes are the windows to a damaged soul, and many damaged souls who came home after the war could never talk about their experiences. What was there to tell? How could folks at home understand? My Great Grandfather was no different. He rarely spoke about his experiences. When I spoke to his Granddaughter Norma, she remembered him talking about superficial things like the food at Gallipoli being full of maggots. However, he spared even Grandma of the more horrific details of his war experiences as he deemed them “too horrible for a woman’s ears”.
So, how did those old diggers survive after the war? Life for many, including my Great Grandfather, was a challenge. Unlike today’s soldiers, there was no counselling to help them assimilate into normality. Many became alcoholics and perhaps were written off as hopeless. There are many stories that have been bandied around by my family about William Lyons. One could accuse him too of being a hopeless alcoholic, however, I choose to say that his drink of choice was his medication. It helped deaden the pain and wipe the bad memories from his brain. He, like thousands of others, volunteered to fight for freedom in the world. Admittedly, most of the volunteers had no idea of what they were in for. There were no television crews to film the daily happenings on the war front and newspapers were censored.
It is by attending exhibitions like “The Spirit of the Anzacs” that we learn to appreciate the sacrifices made by all men of our Armed Forces, both of yesteryear and today. And, by bringing my Great Grandfather out from the obscurity of those old cupboard doors, I am honouring the sacrifices he made during the two wars in which he fought. The next time you see an old Digger sitting on a bar stool at your local pub, spare a thought for what he has endured. Instead of dismissing him as a drunk, salute him as a hero. God knows, he has earned it.
Lest We Forget.