Thursday, April 23, 2009

Williams, Ellwell and Pockley

This is the ANZAC Day Post that I started last year… but never finished. It’s been tweaked a little to account for geography (I’m no longer in PNG), certain temporal events (the completion of a roundabout being one) and – importantly – a few changes in attitude afforded through a years more experience; but by-and-large it is as it was when first drafted.

Read on.

ANZAC Day is a special day. In a calendar now saturated with Specialty-Cause Days (World Town Planning Day is November Eighth every year… mark it in your diaries) our collective attention is generally stimulated only by those marked with public holidays (which lamentably, in 2009, ANZAC Day is not); and even then, I suspect, only a few hold any real meaning. Australia Day perhaps rates a controversial mention; but for me the ‘love Australia or fuck off’ sentiment that has enjoyed an unfortunate resurgence in the last few years is hardly cause for national joy. ANZAC Day stands alone as our true national day.

I’ve long had split feelings about ANZAC Day. I’ll always acknowledge the legitimacy in paying tribute to those who’ve fought in war, no matter what the circumstances (even in a conflict as morally ambiguous as the current cock-up in Iraq, the efforts of the service men and women should not go unrecognised; they are there in service to their government and therefore – by degrees – in service to the people of Australia… it’s not their fault we voted with surprisingly little common sense), but I can’t support the use of ANZAC Day to create a fast food version of Australian Spirit that gets consumed in a one day binge than shelved again till April 25 next. The attempt to marry the experience of the Somme with ads for beer or takeaway food chains somehow bleaches ANZAC Day of its meaning… and it’s not worth your while (or mine) to have me unleash my polemic on the ‘ANZAC Day at Gallipoli’ experience now offered to every Antipodean backpacker. ANZAC Day falls just on the right side of a very fine line between commemoration and glorification, a line which gets closer to being crossed each year as the less talented commentators, bereft of original material, resort to bragging about the exploits of ‘our’ diggers.

Last year I - along with a whopping contingent of about nine Australians, a Scot and a Kiwi – commemorated ANZAC Day at the Bitapaka War Cemetery, in the hills to the east of Kokopo (East New Britain, Papua New Guinea). It is a fact, unfortunate in that it is virtually unknown, that the first Australian casualties of World War One fell at Bitapaka. In the early stages of the conflict, before more familiar slaughter of our troops farther from home, a force of Australian soldiers landed in (what was then) German New Guinea to neutralise a radio base that was probably of limited strategic importance. A skirmish ensued, and the lives of a number Australian Service Men were lost. Williams, Ellwell and Pockley are (supposedly; it’s hard to find corroborating evidence) the names of the first Australian casualties of the conflict; they are remembered in the street names in the yet-to-be-completed commercial centre of Kokopo. (It is a disservice to the memories of Pockley and Williams that the intersection of the streets which bear their names is now home to a roundabout that is would go a long way towards winning the ‘worst piece of civil engineering in history’ award at whichever ceremony is held to celebrate such things).

When compared with the background of the war proper, the story of the first Australian casualties appears largely unremarkable; by the time the whole sordid affair was over there were far greater stories of suffering and heroism to linger in our collective minds. But while Gallipoli and the Western Front may be more firmly cemented in Australian lore as our birthplace of nationhood (a marketable notion, but perhaps a little naive), it could easily be argued that the action that claimed the lives of Williams et al had a far more significant bearing on Australian history, as it went a long way towards establishing Australia’s first – and only – colony (which itself was to become more ingrained in Australian wartime legend in the sequel to the war). The mandated territories that are now the independent nation of Papua New Guinea hold a special place in the hearts of many Australians. Many fortunes were made and lost here and many legends were born. Most of you (both of you?) reading will probably never set foot in Rabaul Town, but ask around your circle of friends and family and I’d be surprised if you didn’t find at least one who used to work or holiday there.

None of this would have mattered to Williams, Ellwell and Pockley of course, they were destined not see the fruits of their labours. They fought (the manner in which they fought we’ll never know, so we’ll assume it was with courage) and ultimately they gave their lives for a cause that – particularly at that early stage of the war – they most likely never fully understood. My guess is that they were probably just young blokes out for a bit of adventure when they first set off. What happened after their efforts would be a story that forever belonged to someone else.

Australia will long struggle with identity issues; in less than 110 years of nationhood, we haven’t really had time to work out exactly who we are. We cope with this in part by creating a collage of favoured historical snippets and presenting this as our national character. These snippets – in spite of the peaceful manner in which Nationhood was established – tend to disproportionately favour events of war. Gallipoli is one… so is Kokoda. Bitapaka isn’t, and never will be; which is probably disfavour to the memories of those that fell in the first skirmish… but the business of legend making has no need for pragmatic truths.

And this is not to say the efforts of Williams and company aren’t remembered. The site of that original battle is now the site of the Bitapaka War Cemetery, which is a beautifully designed and maintained monument to Australians that died in East New Britain in both the World Wars (the province also saw some Australia’s most tragic losses of World War Two). And each year a small but dedicated band of Australians will gather there to pay tribute, thus making sure the memories of those who made the first sacrifices are not forgotten.

Maybe next ANZAC Day you’ll pause to reflect a little on them yourself.

And thus ends my ANZAC Day missive. Like most things I produce, it’s long, late, a little disjointed, and not particularly relevant, but it meant something to me at the time of writing. You can probably guess through what’s written above that I’m not easily moved these days by the schmaltz that gets shovelled into the national psyche through TV… but I was moved by ANZAC Day at Bitapaka. I don’t expect any tears to be shed for a handful of men who died nearly a hundred years ago, but it’s nice to think that at least a few more people are now aware of who they were and what they achieved.

Hope you are well wherever you are,