Anzac Day 2011: Dawn Service commemorative address Chaplain Mark Willis

Not too many people know that the tradition of the Dawn Service began in WA and by an unassuming Priest in 1923. In a small cemetery just outside Herberton, Nth QLD, is a marker beside a grave that says, ‘Here … lies the grave of the late Reverend Arthur Ernest White, a Church of England clergyman and Padre, 44th Battalion, First Australian Imperial Force. On 25th April 1923, at Albany in Western Australia, the Rev White led … the first ever observance of a Dawn parade on Anzac Day.’

Eighty-eight years of Dawn services; and we continue to gather to honour, as my boss Air Chief Marshal Angus Houston recently said, ‘… not only the original Anzacs … but all Australians who have served and died, not only in combat but in peace-keeping, disaster relief and humanitarian assistance missions’.

As a serving member, who has been to war a couple of times now, may I express my thanks to you, on behalf of my brothers and sisters in the Australian Defence Force for taking the time to remember, not only those who have served but those who currently serve their nation on operations.

It goes without saying, ‘war is not a nice thing.’ Even victory is hollow. So why do we come here? It has been said that ‘the Anzac legend has helped to define us as Australians’; it espouses characteristics to which we hold dearly—determination, courage, compassion, and resourcefulness, to name a few.

We do not come to glory in war, nor to celebrate and certainly not to gloat over our enemies. We simply come to remember the ordinary person and to pay tribute to those who put freedom for others before their own interests. We call it selflessness, something I am afraid is mostly missing today.

Mal Garvin in his book, ‘Us Aussies’ says, that you can learn a lot about a country from the people or events they celebrate in their monuments. In the USA there is a great bronzed statue of Abraham Lincoln sitting in his mighty marble temple. Down the street is a thirty foot statue of Thomas Jefferson.

In Paris, Napoleon is alive and well.

Go across the Channel to England and you’ll find Westminster Abbey filled with a pantheon of British gods. Throughout London and the country are the monuments of Wellington and Nelson.

But, when we come back to Australia and look for our great monuments, what do we have?   .... A dog sitting on a tucker box. Apart from that, there are very few monuments that have much meaning for us. There is one important exception though, and today millions of Australians will gather around one. It is of course the cenotaph, central to every Australian country town, and if there is a figure on the monument, it will not symbolise or represent any great politician, general, or philosopher. No, it will be a statue that represents the ordinary serving member.

Everybody who left our shores to fight has their name hammered out in stone. Those who did not return have a star beside their name.

Just ordinary people doing their job. Ordinary men and women who were prepared to make personal sacrifices for the freedom and quality of life that we enjoy today. They believed strongly in a cause—freedom—and so they gave up their ordinary lives in the peace and quiet of the bush and cities of pre-war Australia because they felt it was their duty.

Our two latest VC recipients have both echoed the sentiment of the first World War digger who said, ‘It’s a dirty job, some mug has to do it, so let’s get into it and clear out as soon as we can’. A popular song of the World War One Digger confirms this ordinariness about them:

            We are the rag-tag army, the A-N-Z-A-C,

            We can’t shoot, we won’t salute,

            What bleedin’ good are we?

            And when we get to Berlin,

            The Kaiser he will say,

            ‘Mein gott, what a rotten looking lot, the A-N-Z-A-C.

The trouble though with ordinariness is that it can be easily forgotten.

So how do we remember them? This A-N-Z-A-C? How can we keep the memory of their sacrifice relevant for the next hundred years?

I have a suggestion and it is illustrated by a Jewish feast. I could have talked about the Lord’s Supper and how it is a remembrance of Christ’s sacrifice that humankind might have true freedom, but no, I have chosen this particular feast, The Feast of Purim, because there is a unique aspect to it.

The feast of Purim celebrates the Jews deliverance from a pending holocaust in the time of Esther, it celebrates their freedom to worship God and the freedom to live in peace. It is a wonderful piece of history, which I will not go into today, suffice it to say, that out of this terrible situation came the Jews most cherished ideals, that of their integrity as a nation and their relationship with God.

The events remembered at Purim took place, roughly 2500 yrs ago, yet since that time this feast has remained a central part of Jewish life.

Why is it so?

Simply this, the legend is passed onto the children—a great feast, a party where gifts are exchanged, dress ups and role plays are acted out, the story is retold with great gusto, it is a happy and joyful time. No wonder the memory lives on as they grow older.  

My plea today is that we continue to give the Anzac story to the young ones, young adults like Mark McInnes; young children at school Anzac services; and littlies like my grand-daughters, Ava and Scarlett, who are awake and here this morning.

But, we need to pass it onto them in ways they will understand, and if we do, then the ordinary person will not be forgotten.

Oh, I almost forgot to tell you, Rev Arthur White, a humble ordinary person; his tombstone is simply a cross with only two words, ‘A Priest’ written upon it. Almost forgotten, but for some friends who years later made the effort to place the marker beside his grave.

As we remember him and all others, and honour them for their courage and sacrifice, let us pray that God would also give us the desire and courage to serve Him and our country until life’s end.

May you enjoy your freedom and may God bless our troops.