Reflection for the ANZAC Service: The Possibility of Reconciliation

Sermon for Williamstown Uniting Church

ANZAC Service – 21st of April, 2013

On the 25th of April, 1915, some 20,000 Australian, New Zealand, other British, and French servicemen landed at the Gallipoli Peninsula in Turkey. Russia, which was under attack by Turkey, had called for help from its allies, and it was also thought that attacking Turkey would help protect Egypt and the Suez Canal. But the strategy failed. In November 1915 one young woman, writing to her soldier fiancé who was overseas, said: ‘Things about the Dardanelles are coming out now and it is openly acknowledged a failure. And the details of the failure are appalling.’[1] In December 1915 the invading forces withdrew. About 120,000 men had died: more than 80,000 Turkish soldiers; roughly 8700 Australians; and approximately 2700 New Zealanders. Controversy has raged ever since over whether the soldiers were landed in the right place and whether the invasion at Gallipoli ever had a chance. But one thing is certain; the landing at the Gallipoli Peninsula was not a great military victory.

One of my colleagues in ministry, overseas-born, has told me how impressed he is that the 25th of April is the day on which Australia remembers those who have served in its wars. As the anniversary of a military failure ANZAC Day is not, and cannot be, a day of celebration. Admittedly, in an online discussion hosted by The Age several years’ ago a participant asked: ‘could someone please tell me how crucial the battle of ANZAC cove was to the war? If “we” had lost there, would our lives in Australia really be very different?’ But most Australians know that whatever we are doing on ANZAC Day, we’re not celebrating a victory. I hadn’t thought how unusual it was to choose April 25 rather than November 11 for commemoration until my colleague pointed it out to me. But it makes some sense. The ‘War to End All Wars’ ended any illusions people had about the nobility of war.

I’ve recently been reading a couple of books by and about John Buchan; the son of a Scottish manse who became the Governor-General of Canada; the author who wrote The Thirty-Nine Steps and hundreds of other books. Buchan wrote a twenty-volume history of the First World War while the war was actually happening. The first volume was published in February 1915, and in it, reflecting on the fall of Antwerp in Belgium to the Germans in 1914, Buchan wrote:

Fighting has its own decencies, and when it is done on conventional lines of attack and counter-attack by normal armies, our habituation prevents us from realizing the colossal unreason of it all. But suddenly comes some such business as Antwerp and unseals our eyes. We see the laborious handiwork of man, the cloak which he has made to shelter himself from the outer winds, shrivel before a folly of his own devising. All the sacrifice and heroism, which are the poor recompenses of war, are suddenly overshadowed, and etched in with bitter clearness we note its horror and futility. Some day the world, when its imagination has grown quicker, will find the essence of war not in gallant charges and heroic stands, but in those pale women dragging their pitiful belongings through the Belgian fields in the raw October night.[2]

The ‘horror and futility’ of war doesn’t end with the end of the fighting. John Buchan’s sister Anna wrote of the Armistice in 1918 that: ‘To many it was a day of hysterical joy and relief, to others it was the saddest of days … it made many of us realise, as we had not done before, how irrevocable was our loss.’ And she describes visiting a woman in her district who had lost two sons and who told her: ‘I was at the back beating my rug when I heard the noise. “What is it?” I asked. They told me, “It’s Peace.” I came in and shut the doors and the windows so that I wouldn’t hear the bells mocking me.”’[3] John and Anna Buchan lost their beloved youngest brother, Alistair, in France.

So today isn’t a time for celebration, but a time for commemoration; a time to acknowledge the pain of war. Is there a positive side to ANZAC Day? If there is, that positive side may be different for us as Christians than it is for some non-religious Australians. As you watch the television and read the newspapers over the next week you’ll notice that for some Australians ANZAC Day provides an identity and a reminder of the significance of sacrifice. That’s not what it provides for Christians, because we already have those things. Our identity comes from our baptism, as the Apostle Peter tells us: ‘Once you were not a people, but now you are God’s people’;[4] and for us the only necessary sacrifice took place on the cross almost two thousand years’ ago, ‘when Christ had offered for all time a single sacrifice for sins’.[5] So for us as Christians ANZAC Day is not about identity and sacrifice. What I think it can be for us is a reminder of the constant possibility of reconciliation.

In 1915 Sigmund Freud wrote about the First World War that it ‘tramples in blind fury on all that comes in its way as though there were to be no future and no peace among men after it is over. It cuts all the common bonds between contending peoples and threatens to leave a legacy of embitterment that will make any renewal of those bonds impossible for a long time to come’.[6] Freud was mostly right; the bitterness left by the First World War was one of the causes of the Second World War. But there were always a few examples of reconciliation even in the midst of that bitterness.

The most famous is probably the Christmas Truce of 1914. On December 7, 1914, Pope Benedict XV suggested a temporary break in the war for the celebration of Christmas. The warring countries refused any official cease-fire, but on Christmas the soldiers in the trenches declared their own unofficial one. On Christmas Eve, German and British troops sang Christmas carols to each other across the lines. On Christmas morning, some German soldiers emerged from their trenches and approached the Allied lines across no-man’s-land, calling out ‘Merry Christmas’. At first the Allied soldiers thought it might be a trick, but soon they too climbed out of their trenches, and shook hands with the enemy soldiers. The soldiers from opposing armies exchanged cigarettes and plum puddings, and sang. Only last year a letter from a Staff Sergeant Clement Barker was discovered which described the day to his brother: ‘A German looked over the trench – no shots – our men did the same, and then a few of our men went out and brought the dead in and buried them and the next thing a football kicked out of our Trenches and Germans and English played football.’ In later years other attempts at holiday ceasefires were suppressed, but it remains as an example that peace and reconciliation is always possible.

One of the most unusual examples of the possibility of reconciliation comes from a story told by a British Conscientious Objector who had been imprisoned for his refusal to fight. One of the groups that we often forget to remember on ANZAC Day are the people, many of them committed Christians, who conscientiously refuse to fight in wars. It must have taken a great deal of courage to do that at a time when it meant imprisonment and punishment, and derision from a society that gave non-combatants white feathers and called them cowards. This Conscientious Objector’s name was Corder Catchpool, and on the afternoon of the Armistice, 11th of November 1918, he and some of the other COs were in the exercise yard in their English prison. He wrote: ‘An airman suddenly swooped down from 3,000 feet and skimmed over our heads, waving a black arm and an oily rag. I was deeply touched by this little incident. I took it as peace overtures from the Army to us – a message of goodwill for the future, by-gones by-gones, all recrimination and misunderstanding, all heart-burnings over, wiped out by that kind, dirty bit of cloth.’[7]

Perhaps the most immediate and obvious examples of reconciliation is the fact that in four days Australians will gather on the Gallipoli Peninsula to hold services commemorating the Australian dead. The Australian Government website tells potential travellers that: ‘The organisation of the Anzac Day services has only been possible with the assistance of the Australian and New Zealand Embassies in Ankara and through the cooperation of the Government of the Republic of Turkey.’ That is, the Government of the country that we invaded, a country that lost more than 80,000 people to the campaign, is willing to allow us to remember our dead along with theirs. I’m not sure that we ever think how gracious that is.

Later wars provide us with other examples of reconciliation among those on opposing sides. We remember Sir Edward ‘Weary’ Dunlop, who held a dying Japanese POW in his arms and tried to comfort him. Sir Edward said ‘the memory dwelt with me as a lingering nightmare … I was deeply conscious of the Buddhist belief that all men are equal in the face of suffering and death’. We honour the Vietnam Veterans who return to Vietnam to meet their former enemies and make their peace.

So today we gather to remember all those affected by war; to honour all those who were injured or killed; to mourn with all those who lost people they loved; and to recognise those who conscientiously refused to fight. We also gather to pledge ourselves to do everything possible to prevent war, so that future generations will not have to experience its horrors. We can do this because there have always been examples and stories of the other side of war, the readiness of people of goodwill to be reconciled. And we can do this as Christians because Christ is our peace; because in his body he broke down the dividing wall, the hostility, between all human beings.[8] As Paul told the Corinthians: ‘All this is from God, who reconciled us to himself through Christ, and has given us the ministry of reconciliation; that is, in Christ God was reconciling the world to himself, not counting their trespasses against them, and entrusting the message of reconciliation to us.’[9] Let us use today to commit ourselves to be agents of reconciliation. In the name of Christ, Amen.

[1] Quoted in Joy Damousi, The Labour of Loss: Mourning, Memory and Wartime Bereavement in Australia, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1999, p. 20.

[2] John Buchan, A History of the Great War. Volume: 1. Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1922, p. 310.

[3] Anna Buchan, Unforgettable, Unforgotten, London: Hodder and Stoughton, 1957, pp. 163-4.  The woman spoke, and Anna wrote her words, in Scots, but I’ve Anglicised it so I can quote her orally.

[4] 1 Peter 2:10.

[5] Hebrews 10:12.

[6] Quoted in Damousi, p. 1.

[7] Quoted in Adam Hochschild, To End All Wars: A Story of Protest and Patriotism in the First World War, London: Pan Books, 2011, p. 342.

[8] Ephesians 2:14.

[9] 2 Corinthians 5:18-19.

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3 Responses to Reflection for the ANZAC Service: The Possibility of Reconciliation

  1. Bob Faser says:

    A sensitive reflection for a day loaded with contrasting and conflicting emotions.

  2. RK says:

    Thanks, Avril, this is great. My first ever public speaking experience was an address to my grandfather’s battalion at their annual march, eighteen months after his death. I was sixteen and a wonderful English teacher helped me to articulate my pacifist vision while saying ‘I am proud of his participation and I honour his contribution’. After that year the RSL continued to invite school children to speak but they provided the content. Many important lessons learned! Peace to you.

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