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Wednesday, April 26, 2006

ANZAC Day

It’s not bad this not drinking thing, really. I haven’t become a gibbering wreck, temptation hasn’t yet got the better of me and I haven’t succumbed to the truly awful nature of the world. Even despite the fact that it was ANZAC day yesterday and drinking is the favoured pastime.

ANZAC stands for Australia and New Zealand Army Corps and the day is set aside for the commemoration of Australia and New Zealand’s war dead. This primarily means remembering the horror that was the Gallipoli campaign in World War One. A grossly simplified version for those not familiar with Gallipoli:

Winston Churchill, first Lord of the Admiralty at the time, ordered the ANZACs and a British & French force to land on the Turkish coast and go about the business of ending Turkey’s involvement in the war. The day one objective for the landing party was a hill that it was believed had a view over a tactically important stretch of water named ‘the narrows’ which artillery would then be placed on to prevent Turkish use of the channel. After 8 months this objective was still not achieved. Like elsewhere in the first world war trenches and infantry were seen as the way to fight. This meant mining under or into enemy positions to blow them up. Unlike the Somme however the temperatures were scorching, the ground was hard limestone and the water ration 1 pint per day, one fiftieth of what would be provided to troops in those conditions today. Personal hygiene was impossible and dysentery killed as many as bullets and bombs (many of these being from the dread fate of falling into the latrine and not having the strength to climb out). Australia lost in the order of 26,000 men and about 20% of New Zealand’s male population was lost. The hill they were still fighting for at the end of the campaign has no view of the narrows, but it does have a particularly fine view of anyone attempting to approach the mainland from the coast.

Gallipoli caused Winston Churchill to resign from the government and has been attributed with triggering of his profound alcoholism. It is commonly thought of as one of the most disastrous campaigns of the First World War but could equally be seen as a tactical masterpiece from the Turks. The Turkish, for their part, do not distinguish between their own dead (220,000) and the Allies and ANZACs (180,000) and commemorate Gallipoli on the battlefield with Australia and New Zealand. Gallipoli is extremely important to the antipodean identity and is about the only day that kiwis and diggers don’t mercilessly take the piss out of each other. ANZAC day is for all ANZAC war dead and whilst it was particularly resonant last year as the 90th anniversary of Gallipoli it is more interesting this year as the last Australian World War One veteran to serve overseas died late last year. Kokoda is also commemorated on this day though it took place in August, as was Private Jacob Kovco, Australia’s only casualty of the Iraq conflict who, amongst the chaos of car bombs all around, rather tragically managed to shoot himself whilst cleaning his gun. He was apparently ‘an elite sniper’.

Very solemn commemorative services begin at dawn in Australia and marches take place until lunchtime when everyone goes to the pub to get pissed and plays 2up. 2up is a gambling game played with 2 coins and necessarily simple rules. You shout out your bet, "Ten dollars on heads!", and find someone who will take it. They hold the money and if you win he gives you twenty back, if it came up tails you lose it, if it comes up head and a tail you both bet again. This game must be played with as many people as possible, as loudly as possible and with as much beer as you can tolerate and still stand up. As far as I can tell it is designed to try and recreate the chaos of war in a pub setting, a good thing it is legal only on ANZAC day.