Sunday, 13 January 2013

2012 ANZAC Day in Melbourne

2012 was a special year for the 39th Battalion.  It marked the 70th anniversary of many of the conflicts the 39th were involved in in World War II, including the battles Jim Cowey actively took part in:  Kokoda, Isurava and Eora Creek.
39th Battalion (WW2) Banner as we are forming up ready to march to The Shrine
I took the train down to Melbourne, making the most of my time and absorbing the spirit of ANZAC by reading the history of Jim's first unit, the 14th battalion.  Jim was in D company along with the most famous member of the14th, Australia's first WW1 Victoria Cross recipient Albert Jacka.  Amazingly, Jim was Jacka's Sergeant for a time.  The majority of the 14th battalion landed on Gallipoli on the 26th April 1915, the day after the very first ANZAC Day.  The 14th were in reserve for the landing, and the battalion boasts the battle honour "Landing at Gallipoli".  My great grandfather was an original ANZAC!

I arrived at Southern Cross station around 8am, greeted by terrible weather.  Cold wind and heavy showers of rain sent shivers over me, but that may also have been exacerbated by a case of nerves.  For some reason the importance of ANZAC Day was particularly affecting me this day and thinking about it now, it was probably a combination of the 70th anniversary year, me being a first time marcher, and the possibility that it was the first time Jim Cowey MC was ever represented in the main Melbourne ANZAC Day March.  I am not even 100% sure if Jim Cowey himself marched when he was alive.  The 39th Diggers I have interviewed couldn't remember Jim marching under the banner of the 39th, although his comrades believed he marched with one of his WW1 units.

As the rain pelted down, I was reminded of what I was doing on the previous ANZAC Day.  Then living in the nation of our WW1 cobbers, New Zealand, I was pounding the tracks around Auckland in similar rain (albeit in wet weather gear) training for a trek along the Kokoda Track.  I was then shaping up to be the fittest I've ever been.  Training that day seemed a long way from the solemn atmosphere of St Kilda Road, almost a year after I walked across the Owen Stanley Range in my great grandfather's footsteps.

As we marshalled, ready to set off to the Shrine, I was happy to meet a few people connected to the 39th due to their fathers or grandfathers or great uncles fighting alongside my great grandfather.  Jim was much older than the majority of Australians fighting at Kokoda, being 52 at the time of the conflict.  I was positioned at the rear of the 39th group next to the daughter of an esteemed member of the 39th and she spoke to me about her father's opinions surrounding the march.  He was a stickler for order and had the highest respect for the occasion of the March, as it was a reminder to him of the ultimate price paid by his comrades.  He held the opinion that the soldiers didn't have umbrellas to shield themselves from the rain, so why should the marchers?  No hats, no walking - march in time!  I thought about this, and remembered what my grandmother told me about her upbringing, and remembered what my Dad and other family members experienced regarding Jim Cowey's sternness and strict house rules.  I didn't think Jim would abide an umbrella!  So I decided a little rain (or a lot!) would not hurt me and gave a thought to the men and boys that couldn't march because they never came home 70 years ago.  It was almost time to start. I had a quick picture with 39th veteran John Akhurst who was riding in the jeep ahead of us with 3 other veterans including Rev Peter Holloway, both having a connection with Jim's story.

39th Battalion veteran Mr John Akhurst with me before the start of the March. Rev Peter Holloway is left of John.
The March itself was a surreal experience for me.  As I walked to the Shrine, people along the route clapped and were quite jovial.  Part of the poem "Suicide in the Trenches" reverberates around my mind when I think of the March:
"You smug-faced crowds with kindling eye, Who cheer when soldier lads march by,
Sneak home and pray you'll never know, The Hell where youth and laughter go."
I knew the people weren't clapping for me, but I felt a little self conscious all the same.  I kept looking ahead at the old diggers in the jeep, seeing them smile and wave back to the crowds.  A few veterans have said they don't march for themselves, they march so those who never came home are represented and remembered.  One veteran told me he never wanted to march again after leaving the army, and only started marching when he saw the numbers were dwindling.  Another veteran said every April 25th (and reunions) stirred up his nerves so much that he suffered badly for a fortnight afterwards.  But I wonder what the diggers experience when people clap, how it makes them feel when people applaud their war service?  I imagine ANZAC Day must be a bittersweet time for veterans - they fought for their country including the people clapping, they also had to fight and kill to survive, but they saw their mates cut down in their prime.  There must be a part of their soul tucked away, some deeper than others, devoted to their war experience that only other diggers can relate to.  I can't even begin to imagine what that is like.

After Eyes Right at the Eternal Flame, we congregated together in the gardens around the Shrine for more catch-ups.  I was delighted to chat with Lorraine Cochrane, daughter of well-known 39th veteran J.D McKay, and her husband Peter.  Our families are connected because of Kokoda - J.D. always credited Jim Cowey for saving his life at Kokoda during the withdrawal when Jim rounded up about 8 or 9 lads who had been cut off from the main body of A Coy in the confusion.  It was Lorraine and Peter's first ANZAC Day since J.D. passed away.

Afterwards I explored the Shrine and surrounds and then had a beer at Young and Jackson's before heading to Southern Cross to catch the train back to Ballarat.  It was a day to remember.

Lest We Forget

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