Anzac Day: remembering family, their stories and reality’s challenge to idealism

Geoff's hat

The views expressed in this article are my own and do not represent views held by any other family member or organisation.

I guess I am an idealist yet this idealism is always tempered by the realities of the world in which we live and our history, which includes the ghastly side of human behaviour and conflict.

My father also was an idealist.  His family had moved to Indonesia when he was two.  At eighteen he was conscripted for twelve months into the Dutch army (Royal Indonesian-Netherland army) as were all men his age.  He returned to the army for retraining for active service in 1940 and was called up the following year to fight the Japanese when they invaded Indonesia.  He was soon captured and spent three years in Japanese prisoner-of-war camps, as were all his family in different camps.  Part of that time he spent as an assistant in the camp hospital treating other prisoners. [1]

Upon release he was again called up by the Dutch army; this time to fight the Indonesians who were claiming independence from their colonisers.  My father was aghast.  His childhood and adolescence was spent playing with Indonesian children on and around the estates where he lived.  He viewed them as brothers and sisters.  Fortunately for him he received an honourable discharge for health reasons and was not forced to fight again.

Peck in Singapore on release from POWphoto taken after liberation from POW

My mother’s family were drawn into the patriotism which spread through Australia during World Wars I and II.  I think it was viewed as part of our duty to Britain, the ‘mother’ country, and the proper thing to do.  As far as I am aware she and her family had no problem enlisting.

Hats cropped

Her father and uncle were first off the rank to enlist for World War I.  The next generation enlisted for War War II.

13e. The Army years - Geoff, Joyce and Madge - Madge cropped 2Mum applied to the Australian Women’s Army Service (AWAS) in 1941 and was accepted in 1942, ending up being based at Victoria Barracks.  She was proud of her army years and responded well to the regularity and discipline which was part of it.  She felt she was doing an important job for her country.  Some of her closest long-term friends were made during that time and every now and again they would meet up, attend reunions, or special events at the Barracks.

The ‘war years’ was a focal event, or series of events, in the lives of both my parents.  My father requested that the Last Post be played at his funeral and interment because of the significance of hearing it in the camps when one of the prisoners had died.  My mother, when television arrived in our household, would turn it on immediately on waking up on Anzac Day and it would remain on until the public events of the day were complete.  Their need signifies the importance of ritual acts which mark, honour and remember.

I’m not sure how many of my family saw active duty.  As far as I am aware only mum’s cousin was killed, and that was an accident.   He had become a pilot and a Canadian pilot flew into his plane during a training exercise in England in 1943.  Both pilots crashed and were killed. He is buried in Annan, Scotland.  His parents donated a stained glass window to St. John the Baptist, Mudgee.  Two months before his accident he had written a letter to mum and the family commenting on letters he had received, thoughts of family and friends at home, his experience of R ‘n R in Cambridge, and, ‘Next time I write I hope to be flying spitfires.  Should be only a couple of weeks in fact now….So long for present….till next time.  luv….’  I am sure many families have similar poignant stories.

13c. Memorial to Peter Clark in St. John the Baptist Church Mudgeememorial at St John the Baptist, Mudgee

The dating of Anzac Day links it to Easter, thematically as well: death, being killed for a cause, and the promise of remembrance and possible resurrection and salvation, but not resurrection in the literal sense as far as ‘our sons and daughters’ are concerned.  Both stand as memorials to young, and not so young, men and women who died for ‘us’.  The interesting thing about Australia’s wars is that they have been fought, on the whole, for someone else, although the Japanese did begin to invade Australia and surrounding islands.  My uncle was based at Darwin, where my mother had initially wanted to be posted as well, so he was part of the contingent which was defending our shores.

Of course the first defenders of Australia were the First Nations peoples here.  They fought us;  the British colonisers.  War leaders like Pemulwuy, with the Eora and Darug clans around the Sydney basin, and Windradyne with the Wiradjuri clans around Bathurst, led guerrilla armies in attempts to reclaim their territory and food sources and in retaliation for atrocities committed by the invaders and their accompanying armed forces.  These were Australia’s first wars, enacted on our own shores.[2]

Yet I don’t think that descendants of these First Nations peoples have been invited to march on Anzac Day, let alone lead the march.  The reality of this omission challenges the idealism of who we include under ‘Australian armies’, ‘fallen soldiers’ and the limits of this designated memorial day.  I imagine there must be a constant reinvention of meaning and purpose by the organisers to justify this omission or accommodate change.  It took a long time to recognise and include the Vietnam War and its veterans.   I hope that one day we are mature enough to include this earlier truth.

2022 Update.  The opening up of the Anzac Day march to Vietnam veterans has paved the way for Afghanistan veterans to lead the march this year.  There is still no mention of an invitation to First Nations peoples to represent their ancestors killed during the Frontier wars.


[1] After  release my father’s (known as ‘Peck’) parents sent him a letter, dated 13th September, 1945, letting him know that they were all safe.  Translated from Dutch, this is part of the letter

Dear Peck,

Maybe we are lucky in a mysterious way so the letter will reach you. ………

You did some good work as well, I heard from a nurse of Geel Gildemeesters (?).

Bye my dear son!….for sure no lost time and I have learned a lot.

I am good my little son and hope that all turned out well for you. It would be a miracle if the five of us would really pull through.

Be brave.


[2]  For an introduction to Australia’s first frontier wars – Grassby, A. & Hill, M.  Six Australian Battlefields.  St. Leonards, Allen & Unwin, 1998.  There is also a regularly updated Map of known massacres of tribes in Australia available online.  For Wikepedia’s summary of the wars involving British forces up to Dyarubbin (1794-1816) – Hawkesbury and Nepean Wars.

Wingaru Education offers a number of teaching resources for Anzac Day, including ANZACs – Indigenous Veterans, to open discussion on Indigenous veterans in all Australian wars, beginning with the first internal wars against the British as well as Indigenous support as part of Australian defence forces overseas.