The dawn service on ANZAC Day has always held a special significance for me. I was first taken to this uniquely antipodean commemoration of war when I was very young by my grandfather, whose own father had served with the Australian Imperial Force in the First World War. I traveled to northern France last year to follow in his footsteps through the battlefields of France and was greatly moved by the experience. It filled in the blanks of my imagination, seeing the ground where so many Australians had been killed which I only previously knew of from the pages of history books.
I moved to London from Perth four years ago and as a history buff I landed in the right spot. There is a statue or memorial for just about everything in London – it must be a tour guide’s nightmare trying to tell its history! The suffragette Emily Pankhurst stands immortalised in a garden next to the Houses of Parliament where statues of Oliver Cromwell and Winston Churchill are frozen reminders of past glories. Nelson’s Column, the Wellington Arch, The Monument; the weight of metal memory in London’s streets is often so heavy you learn to ignore it as part of the background. But I’ve never been able to look away from the Australian War Memorial on Hyde Park Corner.
The memorial itself is unspectacular. It sits in the shadow of the very grand Wellington Arch at the bottom of a gently sloping hill on what is essentially a traffic island. It’s made from stepped sections of dark grey Western Australian granite etched with the names of 47 battles Australians fought in during the First and Second World Wars and over 20,000 towns from which the soldiers came. In the middle is a place for wreaths to be laid on ANZAC Day. It’s very simple compared to many of the memorials in London, but I think that gives it great power. 102,000 people from Australia died in the two world wars. It’s a sobering figure that does not need a triumphal arch to hold significance.
It’s said that during the First World War the rumble of the guns in France could be heard in London. The streets of the city were awash with ANZAC soldiers on leave and they sure as hell lived it up as much as they could. Australian soldiers were better paid than their British counterparts and for the vast majority of them the war was their first and only chance to go overseas. You could imagine the havoc they wreaked in the pubs! I’ve read accounts that the Aussie servicemen loved hanging out in Hyde Park (right next to the memorial) and near Horse Guards Parade to watch the mounted troops practice their horsemanship. They would applaud the skill of the riders and take bets on who’d be the next to fall off while they chatted up the ladies.
Nearly 100 years later and the ancestors of those men gather every year at Hyde Park Corner to hold a dawn service on ANZAC Day and remember. It’s a solemn affair, waiting in the cold and dark in front of the glowing memorial for the sun to rise above the horizon. Prayers are read, oaths spoken, wreaths laid. At my first dawn service there were stooped veterans of the Great War paying their respects. They are all gone now, replaced by straight backed serving officers doing their duty. The last post is played by a bugler, then there’s a minute’s silence. London never pauses though. The traffic rushes around the memorial, engines gunning and horns blaring. But in the middle of the ceaseless chaos a couple of thousand people stand still to remember the dead and the horror of war. Lest we forget.