My grandfather served in the Second World War as an engineer. I thought, all my young life, that he observed the passage of Anzac Day with some solemnity. Turns out he didn’t observe it at all. Abhorred the thing, actually. His chief critique was similar to one Wilfred Owen leveled at war propaganda in his most famous First World War poem: ‘The old Lie: Dulce et decorum est/ pro patria mori.’ It is sweet and fitting to die for one’s country.
Anzac Day is the equivalent of the United Kingdom’s Remembrance Day (something Australia observes but which is not distinctly Australian) or the United States of America’s Memorial Day. ANZAC stands for ‘Australia and New Zealand Army Corps,’ but the term has become so much a part of Australia’s cultural lexicon that capitalising it, in the form of an acronym, is rare. There is even a decades-old recipe for ‘Anzac Biscuits’ which I still enjoy following; in keeping with First World War suburban Australian kitchens, it is heavy on butter, golden syrup and rolled oats.
The day itself, every year since 1916 on April 25, marks the first major military action fought by Australian and New Zealand forces during the First World War. By the early 1920s it had become a commemoration of all Australian servicemen and women’s lives lost in the Great War. Today it commemorates all military casualties in all conflicts and wars since the day’s inception. It is a coverall, taken very seriously. Its timeless dictum, now an annual trending hashtag, is ‘Lest we forget.’
The day begins with the dawn service. Around Australia at various locations, lengthy commemorations are held in the crisp semi-dark. Speeches are given, bugle refrains are played, the names and statuses of the most important or famous people are taken and reported by local and national newspapers. This year it is heir to the British throne Prince William and his wife, the Duchess of Cambridge Kate Middleton.
Uniformed veterans of every war in which Australia was involved attend the major services in Sydney, Canberra and the other capital cities. The only exception is the First World War; Australia’s last surviving First World War veteran, John Campbell Ross, died in 2009, but children of veterans, even grandchildren and great-grandchildren, are encouraged to attend in their stead.
This is where I pictured my grandfather. Rising early, donning a pressed uniform that saw daylight only once yearly, standing stiff-backed among veterans with similar shocks of white hair and similarly unique, twitching grimaces, as though twigs of different shapes and coarsenesses were trapped in their cheeks.
The truth, which I learned only after he died, is he was at home, likely in his shed, making or fixing something, breakfasting with my grandmother, anything but attending the dawn service. But my grandfather’s private non-protest was not mine; it belonged only to him. Many others, tens of thousands, appreciate and patronise Anzac Day as it is rhetorically and symbolically intended, commemorating the dead, summoning to mind the tolls of war, and others again toe a less sombre line.
Every year on Melbourne Cup Day, one of the biggest horseracing events in the world, a bevy of op eds appear on progressive news websites around Australia bemoaning the cruelty of horseracing, contrasting the opulence and decadence of gamblers and socialites with the unromantic, cutthroat behaviour of horse breeders and racers, with the whipping, beating and less than occasional euthanising of animals in the pursuit of patrons’ entertainment. On the ABC, The Guardian, Online Opinion, Mamamia and The Punch, impassioned commentators draw thick, crude and bloody lines between the event and its poorly represented beasts of burden.
There are very few such op eds – understandably so, as it would entail waltzing onto a minefield – published on Anzac Day, connecting the solemn, commemorative intent of Anzac Day, the words ‘Lest we forget,’ with the questionable necessity of more Australian deaths in war.
The Great War, even more so the Second World War, was strategically and politically distant to an almost interplanetary degree from every conflict with which Australia has since been involved, and yet the tone of public rhetoric surrounding Anzac Day often borders on encouragement. ‘Lest we forget’ is hashtagged alongside sentiments such as these:
‘Anzac Day. To all who have served, and are currently serving… deepest gratitude and respect.’ – Hugh Jackman
‘And I think I have to say that I don’t think Anzac Day glorifies war. It glorifies the men and women who served, and they deserve no less.’ – Joel Rowan
Commemoration blends easily with a pat on the back of living, serving Anzacs, a tangible acknowledgment that theirs is a right and fitting life. ‘Should it?’ is not a question that gets asked. In the same way that America’s wartime catch cry ‘Support the Troops’ absolves service people of moral and political responsibility, Anzac Day becomes a whitewashed intermingling of retrospective solemnity and ongoing support.
Dissenters generally have the sense to keep their dissension to themselves, though exceptions do exist.
Jonathan Green questioned the blanket of ‘zeal’ that descends over Australia on Anzac Day, the spending of the government on commemorative services, the equivalences drawn between sportspeople and Anzacs, and the unremarked disconnect between what the World Wars represented and the questionable ends to which Australia now employs Anzac Day.
Michael Brissenden used John Howse, the grandson of Australia’s first Victoria Cross recipient, to question the political opportunism of the Howard Government, letting Howse propose that Anzac Day risks becoming a ‘circus,’ but Brissenden himself only closed with a half-hearted assertion that the day might need more historical complexity.
Neither of them is exactly hammering down the door of convention, but again this is understandable. Nuance, not antagonism, wins hearts and minds, yet even nuance is in short supply.
Part of the problem with these critiques is that they neglect the social element of Anzac Day. Focusing on the photographed centrepieces – the dawn service, the buglers, the momentarily silenced armband-donning sportspeople, the flyovers, the uniformed descended children – they overlook the quintessentially Australian comings-together that characterise the remainder of Anzac Day.
In Returned and Services League’s clubs (RSLs), Labor clubs and Football clubs, the vast majority of Anzac Day is spent drinking beer, conversing, playing Two-up and honouring that vague but vitally defensible tradition, mateship. Critics who go after any part of Anzac Day will likely face the greatest opposition from the very corner of Anzac Day they find least notable.
This Anzac Day, I decided to involve myself in that side, the convivial side of Australia’s day of military commemoration. I had never attended a dawn service, never played Two-up, never even set foot in a Returned and Services League’s club on April 25. This year there were twelve venues in the ACT offering Two-up, and therefore a decidedly pro-Anzac environment, and I went to one.
The first thing I noticed, besides how crowded the club was, was the plastic cups. Every drink in the club – wine, beer, mixed drinks – was being served in them. When we visited the function room set aside for Two-up, the reasoning became apparent.
Two-up is a form of gambling illegal in all but a very few places in Australia. It first sprung up during the First World War, played by Anzacs on the front, and is therefore legalized, for a short period of time and with a chorus of nostalgia, in designated areas on Anzac Day alone.
The reason it was banned is that it offers momentous loss without even a shade of complexity, and though it purports to foster mateship, is capable of provoking unholy vendettas, as no limit bets are made on a player vs. player basis.
There are two forms of the game. The original is played with two coins, traditionally pennies. A ‘spinner’ tosses the coins with a purpose-built paddle, and players forming a ring around the spinner take bets on whether they will come up two heads or two tails. The bets the players make, and the exact amount they bet, have to be matched by an opponent. In either case, two heads or two tails, one person’s money goes straight into the hands of another. If they come up odd, the coins are re-tossed while the existing bets stand. You can get a reasonable sense of a traditional two-coin game of Two-up via this game, courtesy of the Canberra Times. More common in the ACT is the three-coin, or sudden death ‘swy’, version of the game. In this variant there is never an odd throw. Two of the three coins will always present a majority, and therefore the game moves rapidly whilst still living up to its name.
In the function room, sixteen or so trestle tables had been set up in a large square corral, roughly eight by eight metres. Seated and standing around the outside of the tables were two hundred people, maybe more, at a ratio of twenty men to one woman. On the inside of the corral, club employees were striding around matching bets – ‘Forty on tails! I’ve got forty on heads, I need forty on tails!’ – and a member of the crowd stood ready with the three-coin paddle.
The noise of the crowd was thick, somewhere between the hum of a food court and the roar of a mob, but when the coin toss approached it became a charging battalion. The punters seated at the tables began smashing their fists down, upsetting their own beers and others’ and knocking to the floor the empty cups already littering the tabletops.
The first coin toss, by a young blonde woman, was greeted with a chorus of boos. The coins had hit the roof of the function room – toss disqualified. Another toss went the same way. When she did throw cleanly she was booed again, although this time by only half the crowd, the half displeased by the club employee’s gesture, a quick tap of his head, indicating that the coins had come up heads.
As half the cash in the room was redistributed or kept, punters turned to each other to make side-bets, spilling beer onto shoes and yelling. Across the corral, a petite blonde with ombré-styled hair, wearing a revealing, fluttering green blouse, stood up, pointed at someone, bared her teeth, growled loudly and pumped her fist under her arm. Beside me, a man pulled fifty dollars from his wallet, shouldered his way to the front, slapped the note to his forehead, indicating a ‘heads’ bet, and began shouting for a taker.
Meanwhile, a club employee had picked up a large white bucket, like the ones in which pickles are delivered to fast food chains, and was walking around presenting it to the crowd. Coins flew, most making it into the bucket, many more onto the floor. ‘For charity,’ someone explained, although which charity they weren’t sure.
Another coin toss, another bouquet of cheers and boos, another changing hands of cash, and the game goes on like that for five to seven hours every Anzac Day, the crowd waxing and waning until the final hour crescendo.
‘It wraps up at six,’ a man explained, ‘and make sure you’re here for the last half hour. It gets fucking mad.’ It turned out the man had a lifetime ban from the club in which we were standing, and had entered via the use of a fake California driver’s licence purchased in Bangkok. Fourteen years prior, at 5:50pm on another Anzac Day, he and some friends had been smashing their fists down on the same tables when a sizable number of glasses spilled onto the floor and smashed. During their ejection from the club, a bouncer hit a female friend of his in the face. The ensuing brawl turned an ejection into a set of lifetime bans.
In one anecdote, the man had justified plastic cups and validated something a security guard once told me: ‘Anzac Day is the single worst day of the year to work a club.’ And yet, the same man had decidedly clear views on several issues at play beneath the ritual of Two-up.
‘There are places in Sydney, and I think one or two on the south coast, where you can play Two-up every day of the year. That’s bullshit,’ he said, frowning and poking the air. ‘Two-up was played by guys in the trenches, betting their salaries. If they won they’d pack it up and send it back home to their missus and kids because they might hop outta that trench and die the next day. Playing it every day soils the memory. It’s important that it’s a tradition that honours the way the diggers lived, not just another game.’
His was the only notable display of sentiment that day. The rest of the club was taken up by crowds fixated on other games – AFL, NRL and the pokies. Veterans, not to mention thoughts spared for them, were in short supply.
Three naval officers in winter uniforms, their pins slightly askew, wandered between the pokie machines and the bar, but they seemed oddly alone, and despite being the only representatives of the armed forces in sight, ventured nowhere near the Two-up game.
I had expected to see members of the armed forces, but theirs was not the image I’d anticipated. There was no off-duty easiness of the kind that glows warmly out of First World War-era photographs, nor did anyone seem inclined to pay for their drinks or flatter their cause.
In fact, the greatest show of emotion for the traditions of the day came at 5:30pm, when the club announced that they were closing the Two-up game half an hour early.
Quoting a need to prepare for an evening function, staff were met with a caterwauling of abuse. It was all too apparent that, function or no, the club was savvy to the turn the game tended to take in its last half hour, when depleted or ballooning cash flows led to dangerous bets and worse behaviour.
‘We don’t want anyone doing anything silly,’ one member of staff said. ‘The game’s about mateship, and we want to be able to come back here next year and have a good time with no hard feelings.’
The soused crowd broke up, griping loudly to the bar.
I don’t know that I learned anything from that other side of Anzac Day. Perhaps an RSL would have been more textured, but the Labor club I went to probably represents a common denominator, and it was a piss-up with a novel gambling twist, nothing more. It didn’t glorify war or its participants; it seemed not to think about them.
‘Lest we forget,’ my grandfather’s private non-protest, the sea of tweets and Facebook posts, the nervously restrained critiques – none of them have a place there. That’s probably why people like it, and why criticisms of Anzac Day fall on many, many deaf ears.
It’s not ideal that one half of Anzac Day pays no mind to the other, but it seems natural; a whole day of solemnity is a lot in a Western nation, and observing the first half to celebrate the second allows punters to shrug off the suggestion that anything’s the matter with either.
‘Have a bet, have a beer,’ is Australia’s incarnation of an Orwell masterstroke – ‘War is peace … Ignorance is strength’ – and the Anzac Day tradition is as peaceful at dawn and strong in the afternoon as ever.