The symbol of Anzac
THE good Sisters of St Joseph are responsible for my awakening to the Anzac legend and the story of the man with the donkey.
Those primary school history lessons in the ’60s were filled with tales of heroism at places with romantic names like Gallipoli, The Somme, Kokoda and El Alamein, which sparked a young boy’s imagination.
It took a few more years to discover how much blood was soaked on those foreign fields.
Of course, Sister didn’t fail to inform us the donkey man’s real name was the Irish-Catholic ‘Jack Kirkpatrick’, rather than the Anglo-Protestant ‘John Simpson’, firm evidence the old bigotries and ideologi- cal squabbles between Prime Minister Billy Hughes and Archbishop Daniel Mannix were still alive 50 years later.
(And was that donkey really called Murphy, rather than the English-sounding Duffy?)
Recent research shows before the last three weeks of his life spent at Anzac Cove which turned John Simpson Kirkpatrick into the most iconic Australian ever, he’d used many names in his scallywag early days and ‘liberated’ many donkeys from the Indian troops.
You don’t need to know the story behind that famous tableau to understand the symbolism.
Whenever I walk past the Cenotaph in Vernon Street or see an image of the ambulance bearer, the donkey and the wounded soldier on its back, something inexplicable grips the throat.
Had things turned out differently, Anzac Day might have been nothing more than a gathering of old veterans which fizzled out by the time the last one joined his brothers-in-arms in the here-after.
When HG Wells coined the expression ‘the war to end (all) wars’ in 1914, little did the world at that time realise this four-year conflict would lead directly to something worse three decades later.
Followed by the Cold War, South-East Asia, post-colonial massacres and tin pot dictatorships in Africa, ethnic cleansing in the Balkans, the seething hatreds and instability in the Middle East,
and countless continuing squabbles around the world.
War has now travelled further than border disputes and political sabre-rattling to racial and religious intolerance, drug trafficking, organised crime and every type of unforgiving, petty hatred imaginable.
The remembrance of sacrifice has waxed and waned like the moon.
Its significance was temporarily lost in the national shame of how our returning Vietnam veterans were scorned and spat at in the street.
Sundry politicians have found an advantage by appropriating the symbolism for personal gain, wrapping themselves in the flag, thus devaluing the significance of the Anzac culture which, to be perfectly honest, probably can’t be defined exactly.
Some question the concept, which is right and proper, whenever another life is lost in the War On Terror.
And the Anzac story will change again, the moment our first female soldier is killed in action, as current trends suggest will happen soon.
There is no one, definitive Anzac legend.
It’s an interpretation for the individual.
Take your family and kids down to Vernon Street and let them spend a few quiet moments looking at the statue of the man with the donkey.
Words of explanation won’t be necessary.
The spirit of Australia is there in front of you and a lesson we need to re-learn every single day.