Friday, 24 April 2015

ANZAC Day Centenary

The 25th April - ANZAC Day. It is a sacred date in Australia and New Zealand. It was the day the Ottoman Empire was invaded by the Allies in 1915, a century ago. So began an eight-month stalemate that militarily gained nothing except row upon row of glistening white headstones, not to mention a generation of broken survivors and grieving families. So why then is such an abject military failure so revered in the Antipodes? For me, a descendant of an Australian Gallipoli veteran, it is a battle that has shaped my family's history. It is also the battle that defined our larger “family” - our country.

My great grandfather James Cowey MC, or Jim as he was known, didn't land on the beaches that very first ANZAC Day. He enlisted in September 1914 after a call for volunteers whipped the young men of Australia into a frenzy. With unbridled optimism and a sense of adventure, they volunteered in their tens of thousands. It seems few of these fellows considered their ticket to see the world might be “one-way”. Stationed in Egypt since February, Jim was training with the troops of Australia and New Zealand in gruelling desert conditions when the ANZACs received orders to take the Dardanelles.

Jim's ANZAC Day was spent on tenterhooks- his battalion was in reserve - first witnessing the British Navy bombard Cape Helles from his troopship, then seeing the horror unfold ashore on Gallipoli, and all around him. As the hospital ships packed with casualties steamed away from the conflict, the decks of their ship were cleared to make way for more wounded. Jim, and his battalion, endured a sleepless night hauling the maimed on board, assisting the understaffed medics as best as he could. Witnesses said the ship was a shambles and the decks were saturated with blood. I can't imagine how alarming it was to witness the horrible aftermath of the fighting, knowing full well it was your turn tomorrow.
The 14th battalion ready themselves to land on the 26th April 1915
When they landed, Jim's battalion were largely unchallenged by the Turks, who had a much closer threat to contain. But when Jim moved up Shrapnel Gully, the heat of battle closed in. Digging in in the trenches around Courtney's Post, Jim and his mates fought for 40 hours without respite. My great grandfather was a part of deadly quid pro quo with bullets fired in such rapid succession the barrels of their rifles were red hot. At times the fighting crescendoed to hand-to-hand fighting, when the belligerents looked each other in the eye, whittled back to their animal instinct, as they fought for their very survival. Kill, or be killed. Before Gallipoli, Jim had never fired an angry shot - old tins and rabbits were his targets. Now he was shooting and bayoneting men. A week of intense fighting passed and Jim was severely injured. He was shot in the arm, fracturing his radius, but he was also stricken with double pneumonia caused by exposure to the freezing Turkish nights. Jim was evacuated to Blighty to recover.
Graylingwell Hospital, where Jim was treated for his wounds in May 1915
Later, Jim returned to Gallipoli and participated in the murderous battles of the August Offensive, where he was shell shocked when endeavouring to take Hill 60. After another stint recuperating, Jim returned to Gallipoli and, between illness, saw out the campaign. Before the evacuation in December, the ANZACs and Allies endured the worst blizzard on the peninsula for 40 years. Jim was company quartermaster by this stage and when the storm hit, he melted snow to make warm drinks for his men. Such simple acts of kindness belie the barbarous nature of war. It amazes me when at his lowest ebb, a man can still muster kindness to help his mates. At Gallipoli, our men were asked to do and experience so many horrid things in the name of their country, yet they were so utterly human in their experience; dignified and civilized in a hell on earth. It's difficult to reconcile such things can coexist. How my great grandfather didn't go mad escapes me. I marvel at the endurance and the tenacity of all the soldiers, the ability to live when surrounded by death. An example is when a Turkish Officer surveyed the litter of rotting dead in No Man's Land, after only one month of fighting, and he remarked “At this spectacle even the most gentle must feel savage, and the most savage must weep.
Jim, near centre, with the officers of the 46th Battalion
Gallipoli was the first chapter of my great grandfather's story. The Western Front was to come, a Commission, another serious head wound, two Military Cross recommendations and a Military Cross decoration all before the end of the conflict. After returning home, Jim married and had a large family. He struggled with his mental and physical health while he provided for his brood on his modest farm. Jim was deeply troubled and slept with a loaded gun under his pillow. My grandmother remembered placing her infant fist in the hole in her father's forearm, as a comfort as she lay on her father's lap. At night Jim would wake the house with his screams. When it all got too much, he left his family for days, living in the forest surrounding his home, searching for Germans he was convinced lurked there. My grandmother, Jim's eldest, had to step up and keep the farm running in his many absences. Yet despite his demons, Jim volunteered in his 50s to actively serve again in World War 2. He fought with and guided men less than half his age in New Guinea against the Japanese on the Kokoda Track. He saved the lives of 8 young Diggers and I have been honoured to speak with the veterans to hear stories of Jim firsthand. Again, Jim survived the war and returned home. 
Some phrases the veterans of the 39th Battalion used to describe Jim Cowey
In tragic irony, after serving his country in two world wars, Jim was ultimately powerless to save his very own son. Wallace Cowey joined the RAAF and the bomber in which he acted as tail gunner was shot down by the Japanese over Indonesia.

Only 14 years prior to Gallipoli, Australia the nation was born from peaceful federation of the former colonies. However, there is a real sense in Australia that ANZAC was the true birth of our country, where we stood up on the world stage and earned its respect. How ironic then, that this birthing of Australia came from the loss of so much of our future. How many inventors, innovators, discoverers were wiped from our country in their prime? For me, ANZAC Day always has an element of the bittersweet – the sheer waste of life, the lost potential, individuals and families forever changed; it almost seems too high a price for the greater good of our world.

A century on in the digital age, the understanding of the ANZAC's courage and fortitude in the face of a living hell is in danger of fading away, not unlike the pages on which their records are kept. It should not. The legacy of remembrance was started by the returning servicemen themselves. Men who fought and came home proceeded to build monuments to their fallen mates, as they simultaneously attempted to rebuild their lives. From majestic Shrines in the cities to humble cenotaphs and halls in every small town all over Australia they honoured their fallen comrades. They marched every ANZAC Day, not for themselves, but for those who could not march, the ones who never came home. They vowed to never, ever, forget their sacrifice. But of Gallipoli, unusually and perhaps uniquely, that sentiment is without a scrap of animosity towards the enemy. Instead, a special bond between the Turks, Australians and New Zealanders emerged from the deaths of so many thousands of men. Even during the war, they fought each other with respect and seemingly bereft of hatred. It seems very clinical, but the ANZACs were there to do a job. The opposing soldiers did not hate each other, instead they threw gifts and messages to each other across No Man's Land. The Turks screamed “Don't!” to the Australians as they continued to charge in waves to certain death at the Nek. They respected each other as fellow human beings, thrust together in a conflict where it was not logical for them to be enemies. There seemed to be more animosity towards the architects of the conflict rather than the foe in the opposite trench. Today the Turks welcome the ANZACs, their old enemy, with open arms. Turkey protects the sacred ground and final resting place of our dead. Their president even declared: You, the mothers, who sent their sons from far away countries wipe away your tears; your sons are now lying in our bosom and are in peace. After having lost their lives on this land they have become our sons as well.” Yes, ANZAC Day is as much about Turkey as it is about Australia and New Zealand.

The legacy of ANZAC is not easily defined and I cannot put my finger on one thing that matters most. I certainly feel a personal pride in my great grandfather's strength, his fighting spirit. But I'm also amazed at his vulnerability, and his love for his mates in situations devoid of any notion of humanity. More broadly, ANZAC matters because it's a nation's genesis, our history, and a huge loss of innocence. It's a bond; it's a spirit of mateship. It's doing every thing you can in the face of incredible odds.

We are a loyal mob, we Australians. We stand by our mates and are the first to put our hand up to help. We are largely optimistic but we're pretty quick to call bulldust if we don't agree with something. We like a scrap, we always want to win and we get pretty dark if we don't. The Diggers themselves were ropeable they had to evacuate Gallipoli and leave their fallen mates behind. It may seem contradictory then that we hold ANZAC, a military failure, so dear in our hearts. But it wasn't a failure. The history books were wrong; we actually won. Our men fought and gained a prize far greater than any battle honour. We grew up, became a nation, and in the end we found ourselves.

1 comment:

  1. James Cowey Was my great,great grandfather i am from mcervale family