Poppies at sunset: my complicated thoughts on ANZAC

imageThis is a rather personal essay I have to write up in the lead to a project I’ll be returning to in 2017. So bear with my rambling but I have mixed memories of Anzac Day. I remember my first one at nine or ten years old, I marched with the other students of Manilla Central School and sneezed the entire way from the school because of the rosemary pinned to my uniform’s collar to the town square and ach-chooed til the Last Post. I developed a severe dislike for the herb after that for awhile and the Last Post eventually became a sign of relief. Now, I’m Aussie as they come with roast lamb with gravy and garlic too and onions. I love a Sunday roast. Actually a roast any time. Not good coffee drinker…working on that cultural goal so I’m a real Italian descendant of successful migrants of the 50s.

Not long after I joined the Manilla Central School’s concert band as a clarinet player around 11 – it vaguely had less to do with a love of music and more to do with sitting in chairs at events and assemblies instead of on the ground and being stung by ants. Such is the world of children, we selfishly looking inwards and those chairs were awesome relief to a child with insect allergies. Later on, I did really learn to love music later on but playing “Abide With Me”, “God Save the Queen” and other dull hymns felt morbid and frankly duller every song we played through the service. Again, I adored the Last Post because it was finally over. It was only years later, when I did Anzac Day not long being back from the UK, did I feel the full weight of the Last Post. 

I was not invested because I didn’t feel really Australian before 2004 in so many little ways: in the small country towns my parents choose to live in, being the child of European migrants was not as celebrated even though my grandmother taught herself English and worked as cleaner of churches and hospitals in rural Australia and my grandfather planted the pink and red roses that used to climb the railway bridges in Armidale NSw. But I wasn’t worth the same as a kid with a convict heritage. Sorry first settlers, unless your ancestor was a criminal, you too weren’t Aussie enough either. 

I wasn’t connected to ANZAC unless we are talking about how good my cookies were and I embraced my European identity to the extreme despite my ancestors fighting on the right side of history. I was a quiet introverted child until I joined Guides Australia as a preteen and learned life skills, camaraderie and leadership. They changed how I saw Anzac Day and community service. I proudly marched as banner woman for my town’s guides in the parade and later fire cadets for around 7 years. The years I didn’t, I wreath laid or played in band.

From them, I was inspired to some sort of idealism and desperately wanted to join the Air Force until I found out I would be a wheel in a cog not the patriot I wanted to be. Before then though, I marched several years as a banner bearer and both a wreath layer for both the Guides and Bushfire Brigade cadets. Yet that all changed when we moved from New England in year 10 and it was senior years at Coffs Senior College  I started studying ancient history and questioning why modern warfare was important to someone who wanted to be an Egyptologist and study Latin and Greek (cos at 16 years where I was going to choose my whole life path). 

I hadn’t paid attention to any of the modern history of either World Wars (despite 10 years of education). And to be honest I was pretty bored by and resented with Australia’s long prehistory and history to as opposed to the mysterious Celts and Vikings (I was a new age hippy). I actually said that as I soon as I was old enough, I was going as far from Oz as possible. Too soon for a love of Gallifrey but in the mean time there was William Shakespeare, the Italian Renaissance and European medieval history until I went abroad. The intriguing dark ages. I didn’t need to know how wanting to live in France, I’d still have an Anzac connection. For a smart teen, I was dumb. I even made a Darcy approved Austenesque reading list and *educated* myself with *the classics* in literature. Thanks Emma. 

When I was in my two senior years of high school, after reading Herodotus, Father of Lies & History, and then learning about Hiroshima in geography because eew modern history elective, I decided not only was modern warfare “too easy”because all you had to do was push a button to kill a bunch of people.  And the Great War and World War II were irrelevant and Vietnam was America’s problem. Until the end of my first year of university in Newie – where only arts and literature mattered – historical reenacting only went to the medieval period (16th century) and was just dress-ups, socialising with cute geeky guys and dancing. 

History was my hobby -not scholarship -and I was still in denial about Anzac having any meaning for me – I was young and stupid like those very same young guys sent to trenches who had no idea either. My biggest problem was a tequila written essay that got me a distinction and French reflexive verbs. I never saw myself as a real Australian but still identified as a person of European descent and was looking at going on student exchange to France and live out my Audrey Hepburn fantasy. I have family that fought on both sides of the World Wars. In my mind then and now, I’m descended from the Romans on one side, so I saw it as evening itself out for all the soldiers in the war because the Romans were supposed to be bigger than that. My ancestral people created the modern world. If it was only that easy. 

I took no pride in the Anzac Day marches and saw no need to observe once I was at uni and after 9/11. Or go to church services where I was famed anyway as the wrong denomination (is there ever a right kind?). And I was going to meet a French man or woman and never go back. I used to be the cut, run and scorch from my life issues type- still am but with a better therapist that Dr Pims. I was planningon deserting   (without being shot for cowardice). I was ready to blame ANZAC for my social isolation and my inappropriate life choices, prolonged adolescence and wandering academic transcripts that will drive admissions units to tears at universities for the next 3 decades.

Some how by the way of rather forgetting, in my second year of university in 2002, I transferred to Flinders University to study archaeology in Adelaide. My eyes were firmly in the ancient Middle East and Mediterranean when I began archaeology and followed it like a star and with three wise men, a camel and fermented camel milk which is why we were chasing the star I’d imagine. The classes I took at Flinders opened my eyes to the plight of Indigenous Australians through the work of Claire Smith and her husband Jacko.  This is also when I discovered the rest of world existed through an English guy who studied industrial archaeology where the wars had changed entire landscapes, created untold human misery and created the need for human rights to be enshrined in international law.  I was a naive crybaby til then and thanks Dan for straightening me out. I’m better from knowing you. 

These issues became even more evident as I saw the after effects of 9/11 as more than an inconvenience to fly out and see the wrong guy in 2001. We will see I have a history of grand gestures because once I was a romantic and picking the wrong guy repeatedly turned out to be the right decision that led me to Lonely Archaeologist. Except the guitar, no talent for that but that particular Guy, I wish him well and will stick to torturing my pets with my clarinet.
In mid 2003, I ran to England as a Study Abroad exchange to Leicester University . I saw how the rest of the Western Europe  views the world in the newspaper, The Guardian, and realised we antipodeans are very naive, sheltered and the modern wars did matter but those generations didn’t speak for me or my beliefs in the present, I would be an idealist, a pacifist and functional vegetarian who studied the Iron Age Roman Britain as a contact experimental archaeologist. The previous year, I’d asked myself what ANZAC meant to me and I decided I would not support a day that glorified modern wars after and a failed invasion of Galliopoli as its undefined national holiday because war, what is it good for. It was a failed invasion of Turkey and our national day was a successful one that displaced entire nations of people from their country. Getting my head around this, I would be a quiet conscientious objector and also look for a better holiday than January 26th for Australia Day. *Yeah that’s going well too.

Undecided, I realised was looking at things in an entirely wrong perspective until April last year because in one 2013 maritime archaeology class I actually referred to modern warfare as the age of the analyst, that defense analysts were human, there would always been human collateral damage in warfare. I actually shudder when I quote myself in saying to an entire packed room of students: “You need to break eggs to make an omelette.” About human life.

Then last year at an Adelaide University Research Tuesday forum I had an epiphany that I had this all wrong for so long, a historian – Robin Prior -explained that while that Gallopli was a failure as an invasion in military terms and debunked the myths around Gallopli (I’ll let you research it yourself and make up your own mind about his claims), it was Australia’s first outing on a world stage as a commonwealth democratic country and it was a war we needed to ideologically take part in as part of a world wide freedom movement. But at the end, when an audience member asked about modern terrorist warfare such as with ISIS/L which is urban environments like cities rather than in the fields and trenches, where it’s getting harder to tell the civilians from the soldiers, Prior said perhaps it’s time we looked at warfare where we should be ideologically and morally questioning why we are fighting it. And I’m asking this too. I’m still undecided but I did get to Glenelg yesterday and lay a small wreath because our freedom is worth fighting for, not just celebrated.

And that is how a side project I’m working on in my own time, I’m with my co-researcher, Danny, came about last year. We want to look at what Anzac Day means beyond the obvious war memorials and the stories we were taught at school and in the pop culture of each generation. Both of us were curious to know how it became a quiet commemoration, then a glorious celebration of nationalism considering we are spending around $40 million to revamp the Sydney Anzac Memorial in Hyde Park and with a total of $80 million pledged for Anzac celebrations noted in 2015.

I remember Australiana became a thing as a child in the 1980s and now going to Gallopli in Turkey, or the Kokokda trail is a right of passage for young and old Australians.  When I stepped off the plane in January 2004, I knew once and for all I was Australian when I saw the brilliant blue sky and golden light. But I was ambivalent on Anzac and tried to understand a post 9/11 world where we all live in a state of constant mutual annihilation from climate change alone.

My thoughts on Anzac Day now? It was morally necessary but we humans still haven’t learned whatever it is that will let us achieve space travel and the United Federation of Planets, I actually don’t think it was a coincidence that Jean-Luc Pickard was a trained archaeologist. I love modern English & academic popular culture and from writing a thesis about ‘Buffy the Vampire Slayer’ teaching me about chosen family in the face of adversity and that monsters can be human too. So it is strange how I started with an interest in the tradgey tourism of dark sites. Why do we go to the camps of Austerwitz or the fields of Villers-Bretonneux? That’s what I hope to study in archaeology and cultural tourism, what brings us back to these sites time and time again but we still make the same mistakes. I don’t think I’ll find an answer but it’s in the seeking we finding unexpected solutions such as looking at the urban legends and fictional histories that have grown these sites into cult venues. [I’ll talk leave talk about ISIS/L, the Taliban and indigenous site destruction as a method of policing belief well alone as it’s not my research gig.]

In 2017, Danny and I will be looking for people interested in contributing to the project which started as a paper for a conference and is morphing into a full project. It’s something worth pursuing and if this was long and to/dr: the Anzac memory is worthy of preserving but how do we define its spirit?

Clara Rose Santilli



Author: lonelyarchaeologist

I'm an archaeology grad student with an interest in gothic archaeology, tragedy tourism and dark sites. Most of my friends don't appreciate my interests so I've taken it into my own hands and I'm going I've established this blog to chronicle my solo adventures and hopefully give you a look behind the scenes at cultural heritage and the local arts.

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