It’s said that whenever Winston Churchill fell prey to the fits of intense depression he called Black Dog, he would dream about Gallipoli and the Dardanelles, of the dead soldiers in the water and on the cliffs. The Dardanelles campaign had been his idea, and it was a brilliant idea: if it had been successful it would have altered the course of the war, breaking the murderous stalemate of trench warfare on the Western Front. It would have stemmed the slaughter. But it wasn’t successful, the enemy was waiting, and all that was altered was the course of many young lives – and of those, too many belonged to us, to Australia and New Zealand, little dominions with not much population, and certainly none of it to spare.
There was a harvest of our tallest poppies. A bitter harvest. Recently – by commentators with their own, no doubt heartfelt and even admirable purposes – the notion has been encouraged that the Anzacs were fed into the battle to save British lives, as Imperial cannon-fodder. The cruel fact was that three times as many British troops as Anzacs went into that cauldron and never came out. But the British were counting their troops in millions anyway, and soon they would be counting their dead by the same measure. For us, young men dead by the thousand was a lot, an awful lot, and the same was still true in the second war, and always will be true if it happens again.
But nothing quite like those wars, not even Vietnam, ever has happened again, or is likely to, and that consideration, perhaps, is nearer the heart of this ceremony than we might easily realize. The memory is fading, even as the myth grows, and it is fading precisely because we have got the world our parents dreamed of. In our generation and probably for all the generations to come, the privileged nations no longer fight each other, or will fight each other. It is, and will be, the sad fate of the underprivileged nations to do all that. In the meanwhile the way is open for our children to misinterpret history, and believe that a ceremony like this honours militarism. Except by our participation in this moment of solemnity – the solemnity that always courts pomposity, unless we can forget ourselves and remember those who never lived to stand on ceremony – how can we convince our children that the opposite is true?
Militarism, in both the great wars, was the enemy. It was why the enemy had to be fought. Almost all our dead were civilians in peacetime, and the aching gaps they left were not in the barracks but on the farms and in the factories, in the suburbs and the little towns with one pub. The thousands of Australian aircrew who died over Europe, and are commemorated here by this stone, would, had they lived, have made an important contribution to Australia’s burgeoning creative energy after World War Two. We might have found our full confidence much sooner. But without their valour and generosity we might never have found it at all. Had Hitler prevailed, and Britain gone under, nowhere in the world, not even America, would have remained free of his virulent influence. Those of us who are very properly concerned with what the Aborigines suffered at the hands of Anglo-Saxon culture should at least consider what they might have suffered at the hands of a Nazi culture, as it would undoubtedly have been transmitted by the occupying army of Hitler’s admiring ally. They would have been regarded as a problem with only one solution – a final solution.
When we say that the lives of any of our young men and women under arms were wasted we should be very careful what we mean. We who are lucky enough to live in the world they helped to make safe from institutionalized evil can’t expect any prizes for pronouncing that war is not glorious. They knew that. They fought the wars anyway, and that was their glory. It’s obviously true that the world would have been a better place if the wars had never happened, but it’s profoundly true that it would have been an infinitely worse place if they had not been fought and won.
All our dead would rather have lived in peace. But there was no peace. Now there is, and perhaps, in our protected, cushioned and lulling circumstances, one of the best ways to realize what life is really worth is to try to imagine the intensity with which they must have felt its value just before they lost it. Sacrifice is a large word, but no word can be large enough for that small moment. The only eloquence that fits is silence – which I will ask you to observe with me as I fulfil my gladly accepted duty and unveil this plaque.
Battersea Park, 1988