Most of us Australians left sacred sites on the other side of the world – the River Jordan, the Ganges, the Thames. Our ancestors who came from overseas brought the stories with them, but many of us still hold a yearning for the places. Ancient stories, the myths that bind us to the earth, are always attached to places.
Indigenous Australians who know their sacred places and the stories that go with them have a feeling of deep belonging that might elude the rest of us, no matter how much dust in our hair or dirt under our fingernails, or how many generations of our ancestors have lived here.
The mythology of Australia that we, as a nation, have taken most to our hearts is based on stories of foreign places: Gallipoli, and the battlefields of France and Belgium. In Canberra last week, I went to see the sixty-two thousand knitted red poppies that are flowing across the lawns surrounding the Australian War Memorial. It’s a beautiful sight, just like the poppy-strewn fields of France. The poppies stand for the Australians who died.
This striking display is there to commemorate 11 November 2018, the one hundredth anniversary of Armistice Day.
No one who fought in the First World War is alive now, and few who fought in the Second World War. My father was a prisoner of war in Changi and on the Burma Railway, and after he came home, he always attended the ANZAC Day Service at the Nambour Cenotaph. For him it was personal. He remembered the faces of the men who’d died and suffered around him.
The War Memorial at Kranji War Cemetery in Singapore overlooks the countryside Dad and his battered company fought across, in 1942, in the last days before the surrender. That story is not often told.
Now, for Australians, the iconic story of Australians in World War Two is the story of Papua New Guinea’s Kokoda Track.
In Australian culture, these foreign places – Gallipoli, the battlefields of France and Belgium, the Kokoda Track – symbolize all our deaths in war. The people who served in these places have become a source of inspiration – the embodiment of courage, toughness, sacrifice, and a dry and cheeky humour that we regard as our own.
These foreign places have become our own iconic places. Huge numbers of Australians make pilgrimages overseas to visit them; and at home, every town has its local equivalent: a war memorial. Here the ceremonies take place year after year, with symbols and rituals, music and costume, and the re-telling of uplifting stories.
For veterans and their families, war memorials and ANZAC Day commemorations are personal, not matters of mythology; and on most war memorials there are lists of names. In the Australian War Memorial in Canberra, there are more than one hundred thousand names on the bronze panels of the Roll of Honour, all of them people who have died as the result of war service.
The Western Queensland town of Roma has trees for memorials. Wide-trunked, beautiful bottle trees line the streets. By 1920, ninety-three had been planted to commemorate ninety-three local men who died in the First World War. Each tree had a plaque with the name of a soldier, date of his death, and the words “Lest we forget”. Most of the trees still stand, giving Roma’s streetscapes a unique dignity and charm.
The War Memorial in Barcaldine is restrained and elegant – a granite and marble clock tower, standing in the middle of an intersection. It has four clock faces, each surrounded by a marble wreath, and the names of the two hundred and ninety-two locals who went away to fight in World War One. My grandfather’s name is among them. He was one of the lucky ones; thirty-eight died overseas.
I remember Dad’s few stories of the war, mainly funny ones. I also remember when, in his seventies and suffering from Parkinsons Disease, barely able to articulate anymore, he suddenly spoke clearly. He said, “It’s hard to burn bodies with wet wood.”
His mind had gone back to the days on the Railway, when cholera struck the camps and men who helped burn infected bodies in the morning could themselves be dead and burned by evening.
Stories. I remember them when I see his name on these memorial walls.
We can’t spread our thoughts over all of the suffering of Australians in time of war. Instead, we focus on the battles of World War One. When we take part in the events of ANZAC Day and Armistice Day, when we stand before eternal flames and war memorials, they symbolize the pain of all the wars. The stories and the familiar rituals bring us together, not to go shopping, or to eat or drink or surf, but to think about something bigger than the individual, something that encourages higher aspirations.
We should never let this degenerate into flag-waving, patriotic theatre, the glorification of war, or divisive, bitter discourse. We shouldn’t let politics or the marketplace intrude. They intrude almost everywhere else.
We should also acknowledge the wars on our own soil – the Frontier Wars that happened here in Australia from 1788 onwards, as Indigenous people fought for their land and lifestyle, and suffered the heart-breaking loss and destruction of their own ancient, sacred places.
My favourite memorial stands among trees, looking out over the sea, in a sandy park in Cardwell, Far North Queensland. It’s the memorial to the Battle of the Coral Sea, which happened right off this coast. This was a crucial sea and air battle of 1942, fought with bombs and long-range guns. People living in the North listened in awe to the rumble of artillery far out at sea.
This battle was fought in defence of our own place, our own stories. And not a poppy in sight.