On Sunday I will be apeaking at Citipointe - Mansfield (8.30 and 10.15 am) on the subject of What ever happened to the Anzac Spirit? To true blue mateship? For a long time I have believed that as Australian males we were not only in danger of losing our manhood, but also our identity as well. The words of John Williamson’s song ‘True Blue’ seem to be proving chillingly accurate in modern Australia.
"Hey True Blue, don’t say you’ve gone, Say you’ve knocked off for a smokoh and you’ll be back later on, Hey True Blue,
Give it to me straight, face to face. Are you really disappearing, Just another dying race,
Hey True Blue. True Blue, is it me and you?
Is it Mum and Dad, is it a cockatoo?
Is it standing by your mate when he’s in a fight? Or will she be right?
True Blue, I’m asking you... Hey True Blue, ‘Is your heart still there?
If they sell us out like sponge cake, Do you really care? Hey True Blue. True Blue, I’m asking you... *Words and Music by John Williamson
Fortunately, one of the brightest stars in our heaven is the resurgence of the ‘Anzac Spirit’. One only has to observe the number of young Aussies flocking to Gallipoli on Anzac Day to see how much alive the ‘Anzac Spirit’ is in this great country. In fact even the threat of terrorism failed to deter thousands of young men (and women) from making their ‘pilgrimage’ to the battlefield where our young nation passed its ‘rite-of-passage’. We were just 13 years of age as a nation at the time WW1 broke out.
One of the most heroic achievements of our young Aussie Diggers was their magnificent efforts on the Kokoda Track in WW11. Japan had destroyed the powerful American fleet at Pearl Harbour - and conquered much of Asia - now suddenly the undefeated Japanese Army was right on our very doorstep. With most of our soldiers fighting in the Middle East the nation was vulnerable. All that stood between us and the horrors of invasion by the hitherto invincible Japanese were a few hundred young Aussie diggers. This story means a lot to me, my Uncle Alf Atkinson – my mother’s brother was one of these young men – he won the Military Medal for bravery at the battle of Gona.
Despite what some would have us believe, the first defeat inflicted upon the Japanese land forces - who had swept down through Manchuria, Malaysia and Singapore - was by Aussie ‘Diggers’ mostly militia. These were 17-18 year old young men who had never been trained in warfare or who had ever fired a shot in anger. Nicknamed ‘chocos’ - short for ‘chocolate soldiers’ as they thought that they would melt in the sun. Patrick Lindsay wrote in ‘The Spirit of Kokoda’:
One young Aussie Digger wrote: "I prayed a lot. I believe in prayer. I knew my parents and grandparents were praying for me so that helped a lot. And, of course, I had my mates. When you have good friends, good mates you don’t leave them. It was a brotherhood. e got a message from Port Moresby that …..we had to stay there and fight to the death. That was horrifying. I thought, ‘Well, I won’t see my family again, I won’t see Australia again.’ But I was prepared, like the rest of us, to stay there and fight to the finish."
"The mateship that bound these young Diggers together can be gauged by the actions of the walking wounded. After one ferocious battle, they heard their mates were still trapped at Isurava and in dire straits, everyone who physically could, turned around and struggled back up the track to the hell-hole from which they had just been delivered. Of the 30 wounded, only three couldn’t make it back – one had lost his foot, one had a bullet in the throat and one had lost his forearm." (‘The Spirit of Kokoda’)
Two things stood the young Anzacs in good stead, their great sense of humour under almost any circumstances and their great sense of "mateship". Let me quote Ion Idriess again as he relates about those magnificent Light Horsemen in "The Desert Column’:
"No doubt we are a queer lot, a scatter-brained, laughing lot. Last night, the whole crowd were trying to sing comic songs. They made the oasis hideous with choruses of the most idiotic songs I’ve ever heard ......But the dearest memory, the one that will linger until I die, is the comradeship of my mates, these men who laugh so harshly at their own hardships and sufferings, but whose smile is so tenderly sympathetic to other’s pain."
This account in the book "The A.I.F. in Sinai and Palestine" sums up the young Light Horsemen’s attitude towards their beloved "mates":
"…no wounded man should be permitted to fall into enemy hands. To a singular degree this noble pledge was observed. After two and a half years constant fighting only 73 Light Horse prisoners had been taken by the Turks, and most of these were wounded before capture. Not a single Light Horse officer was captured by the enemy. During the same period the light horse captured 40,000 to 50,000 Turks...." To sum it up - you never left a mate!
This ‘mateship’ is a distinguishing feature of the Aussie Digger, always has been! During WW11 Australian prisoners of war survived the horrendous Japanese prisons at almost twice the rate of the Americans and Brits. How come? No one is suggesting for a minute that these young Anzacs were physically superior in any way. So obviously there must be some other explanation. I saw a documentary on TV recently dealing with this very subject, and the answer came from an Aussie doctor who had been there himself. He said whenever he visited the ‘hospital’ in the Japanese prison camps he would find a dying American or Brit often accompanied by a mate or two, but more often than not he would be dying alone. But not so with the Aussies – rarely would he find such a scenario. The doctor said that it was an honour to watch an Aussie Digger die, because he was always surrounded by a bunch of his mates!
The doctor added that these mates would be bathing their friend, spending hours keeping him as cool and comfortable as possible during their bouts of malaria or dengue fever. If the sick needed help or water there was always a mate there to lend a hand – day or night. Another thing was the verbal support they gave each other, urging their sick mates on, that they were going to make it. I can imagine some of the blokes: "Come on Bluey mate! You have to make it back to Aussie, you still owe me 10 quid and I ain’t gonna let ya cop out on us!" I believe it was this support that would have pulled their mates through those tough times. The documentary also talked about how many of the Australian Diggers would risk their lives to sneak out to steal food (and medicine) or buy it on the black market for their sick mates. One old Digger interviewed broke into tears and said. "It was my mates that pulled me through. If it wasn’t for those blokes I wouldn’t be here today!"
Many of the men formed bonds that lasted a lifetime. It was this mateship that resulted in a survival rate of almost twice that of other Allies. This quote from ‘The Spirit of Kokoda’ sums up mateship: "I emphatically believe in looking after number one. But number one is not yourself – it’s your best mate .....The feeling mateship gives you – when you are at the bottom of the barrel and along comes those mates of yours. Often they don’t say anything, they just sit with you. It’s like a husband and wife holding hands on one another’s death beds – in time of crisis words aren’t necessary."
Numbers of Christians - both men who have served in the Australian armed forces have told me that they have never found the level of 'bonding' or commitment within the church, that they found while serving together in the military. Yet Jesus himself says; "Greater love has no man than to lay down ones life for his friends." That my friend is True Blue mateship - without all the religious trimmings!
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