ANZAC Day at Mawson

ANZAC Day at Mawson Station

Tomorrow marks the most significant day in the calendar for me. ANZAC Day carries with it a depth of meaning few other national days do — and personally is a day of strong and mixed emotions. 

I understand that it will be difficult across Australia right now to commemorate with friends, colleagues or community. We are fortunate here in Antarctica of being able to stand side-by-side with our friends, in our small communities, to reflect and honour our heroes. Given this, I thought I would dedicate our Icy News this week to this special day. 

At Mawson station we invested a great deal of energy and personal effort in marking this day uniquely and respectfully. We made everything ourselves — constructed a new (temporary) flag pole, welded copper wreaths and decorated them, crafted an obelisk to set the ceremony, made a two up paddle and coins, knitted poppies to wear on our clothes and drilled a place in the sea ice to hoist the flagpole and set the ceremony amongst a uniquely Antarctic setting. 

The photos I attach are of our set up and rehearsal days — to enable you to picture the solemn occasion and share in our experience. 

And to explain a little more of the significance of this special day through my eyes, I copy the text of the speech I will be delivering in the dawn light.

Enjoy the day knowing we are too! 

Anzac Day Speech — by Matt Williams, Station Leader

Today is the most important day of the year to me. And its purpose is as grand and complex as anything worth marking as a National day.

April 25, 1915 is of course the anniversary of the day Australian troops landed at Gallipoli, in the then Ottoman Turkish Empire.

It was not the first time Australians had been in battle. Australians had previously fought in the Maori wars, deployed to Sudan in 1885 and fought again in my homeland of South Africa during the Boer War between 1899 and 1902. … and while it carries amongst the most heroic of our wartime tales it was not the greatest of our victories — if that were your litmus.

What made this date different for Australia was that it was the first major battle we Australians fought as a nation — you can see our very character in its events. Soldiers from every state of the newly federated Australia volunteered, and fought.

We lost 7600 young men and all their potential… their futures. Many times more bore injury to body and mind for years after. What seared itself into our national soul was the sheer scale of sacrifice and heroism of our men. But these facts do not capture the depth of this day.

I hope to shed a little light on why this day, of all days, we pay such tribute and offer such deep, solemn national reflection.

I think there are three fundamental reasons we continue to look back to this day to commemorate all our heroes and their sacrifice in war — and through it, the character of our nation.

The first reason is about character — character we showed on the shores of Gallipoli and have in every battleground since.

I stand here today on the ice of Australia’s Antarctic Territory. But what seems several life time’s ago, I stood in the Dust of Afghanistan as bullets whirred and rockets percussed the very air that touched my skin.

I stood on the fertile banks of Iraq’s great rivers at night as the gentle arc of tracer light decorated the sky with ghostly silhouettes masking thousand year old temples.

I stood on humid hilltops of the Solomon Islands as villages still smouldered with the charred blackness, contrasting the deep green of the rainforest.

In East Timor I stood in sparsely vegetated shores of shallow crystal blue waters, littered with shiny copper casings catching the reflected light of the moon on their wet metal — as if a constellation below my feet.

I have walked in the footsteps of destruction all over Africa as disaster shrouded in blood and broken bones, gave way to new disasters echoing with the almost silent cries of hunger and loss.

And in all of these places I have seen to the last layer of the onion, behind every last wall — to the essence of who we are, who Australians are.  

Yes I saw the dark side of men… in the eyes of men intent on extinguishing my own flame in those foreign lands…but also in the eyes of those I now treasure as friends…men who have had to do unthinkable things…seen horror inflicted on their mates…and have been called on to make choices we all hope those we love would never have to make.

But most profoundly, in all of these places — places to some that may say seem as hell — I have stood beside the most magnificent and joyous of human beings I have ever met — sharing an uncertain fate, but still willing to share what they had left of their broken selves to show me true love and absolute joy — they shared that of themselves with me…someone, until just months before was a total stranger…just imagine finding the strength of character to share this love and joy, there…then.

In these places, in horror, they showed me what it is to be truly human — to be Australian through anything. Mateship, love, honour, sacrifice. This is the engine room of our famous heroism and also the character of our people.

That is the first hint to me about the value of commemorating this day. It is about our Australian character — its beauty — through anything. ANZAC Day is about the very character we bore as a new nation, and still preserve today.

The second reason, as well as the third, can be found in response to the questions I get about war most often.

What is it like?

What is it all for?

And for me, the answer to both of these questions shines a light on the essence of this day for Australia.

This day is commemorated because there should not be an answer you can understand to the question of ‘what it was like’ — their sacrifice has been so that most of us may never need to know. So a nation can stand in innocence and hope and look forward towards prosperity.

Some offer decades of life’s potential experiences through an early demise; some offer years of good health; and some offer peace, innocence, stability and joy of mind. They do all of this, so most don’t. It is because some sacrifice that other don’t need to.

This is the second reason to honour those involved in this battle, and every other, in our name.

And now for the third reason — probably one of the more difficult for people to understand. Why this battle? What, after all, was it all for?

Some choose to focus on the outcome of war in binary terms — other nations do. For me the choice of this day goes miles towards highlighting our character as a humble nation. While we honour heroism, the Australian character and sacrifice…We do not glorify war, or even success in battle. Of course those things have a value, but they are not the glory we seek to honour on this most important of days. We do it because our very survival and the character of our nation is built on the backs of immense sacrifices of life, physical and mental health…all the while knowing that this sacrifice may not always result in glory.

Imagine for a second a nation that glorified only the battles won, the glory of war… only heroism with success… only valour as victors? That is not the nation we are. It never has been. And I hope it never is.

ANZAC Day is, first, about the reality of our humanity and what it is to be Australian, even in the toughest of situations — stripped bare with no walls of myth and culture to conceal — we are a beautiful people who show love, mateship and humour even in the darkest of times. While these traits are the engine room of our heroism, they are also the characteristics we value of ourselves as Australians — for good reason.

Second it is because YOU do not know the horror of war, that we commemorate the reason for THEIR sacrifice. We must embrace the opportunity given to us by these brave souls and prosper, find joy and maintain our innocent hope of the good in humanity. It is about the hope they offer.

And importantly, it is about sacrifice and heroism with honour… without the need for the promise of victory. It is sacrifice for your mates, it is sacrifice for the heart of your nation. That is the glory of the men, and women, we commemorate.

It’s a tale of all this. It’s the story of all of us. It’s about the character of men and about the character of a nation. It is about honouring these deeds and these heroes publicly, proudly and as a nation — so we preserve them.

It’s a tale of all this. It’s the story of all of us.

May we all forget war. But lest we forget the sacrifice of the few heroes that allow us to stand proud, strong, happy and humble as a nation.

And through this honour that we preserve for them, may we preserve for ourselves in our character and ability as a nation, to weather any storm together and prevail a better stronger country.

Matt Williams, Station Leader

Mawson research station