As a boy I would don my Uncle’s medals and sit glued in front of the television to watch the ANZAC Day March, followed by the array of old war movies across the various channels. For a young lad who always aspired to be a soldier, it was the best day on the calendar.
After 43 plus years of professional soldiering and two sons serving proudly in the Army, I’m now looking back on ANZAC Day’s past. I’ve been fortunate enough to spend two ANZAC Days at Gallipoli, which is definitely one for your bucket list. I’ve remembered so many ANZAC Days in my various postings and most of all, enjoyed them with my sons, mates and family. However, one of my most memorable was ANZAC Day 2007.
I was deployed as a Coalition embedded soldier to Kirkush, Iraq. Myself and the other Australian Warrant Officer Class One, were supplemented by three attached members of the Australian Army Training Team – Iraq (AATT-I) and a handful of U.S soldiers. Our mission – to train Iraqi Recruits and NCO’s to take their place in the fight against the insurgency. We had other Coalition teams on base on other similar missions and although our environment was somewhat Spartan, we made it as comfortable as possible, but most of all we made it as professionally rewarding as possible.
Due to the leave rotation plan in the lead up to ANZAC Day, our Australian numbers were cut from five to three, but we were intent on going the extra yards to make this ANZAC Day memorable. Not only for us but also our Coalition partners who had never experienced such a ceremony.
In the lead up period we scoured the base for all the trimmings we would need on the day. Wood was a key resource, so we scrounged some old pallets from around the unit compounds. For a packet of Tim Tams we swapped the Yanks for a tin of white paint, a can of black spray and some borrowed stencils. Paint brushes and turps were non-existent, so rolled up rags would have to suffice.
Another packet of Tim Tams, secured us a second hand pipe and some rope from the local civilian contractors which would become our flag pole.
Selection of our venue was challenging as we needed to have the opportunity to make use of the sun rise but we needed to be ever mindful of our operational security. We chose an area on our nearby weapons range which would to be ideal, so long as the location remained secure and everyone kept below the compacted sand redoubt.
Thankfully, our Sri Lankan Catering Manager was a cricket nut and we were able to ensure our ‘Gunfire Breakfast’ with the promise of a personally signed cricket ball from one of the Australian cricketing legends, who happened to live next door to me back in Australia.
Sourcing a bugler was our biggest hurdle. We asked everybody we knew if they had any musical talent. We had drummers, organists, guitarists and even a flute player from the U.S. Combat Team on offer, but no bugler. The CD we brought over would have to do once we could secure a CD player. Same for the Padre, our local American was unavailable due to a scheduled operation therefore I was thrust up into the role.
As for our programs, we wanted these to be a memorable keepsake for our invited guests. Luckily one of my attached Warrant Officers – Gavin, was an old and trusted mate and assured me that he had this part all in hand and that we even had enough Army badge lapel pins for each invited guest.
In the days leading up, we allocated two hours a day to breaking up the pallets. With the saw blade on our ‘Leatherman’ tools and the recovered nails, we made the planks into metre high crosses. We painted these in bleached white, then stencilled all the major conflicts from the Sudan through to the International Coalition Against Terror (ICAT) onto their own individual cross. The words Lest We Forget was given its own cross, holding a special place as the centrepiece.
We pre-filled 100 sandbags with the one commodity we had plenty of – sand! The sandbags were to hold the crosses in place with their own individual sandbag plinth. Lighting would need to be provided by torches, mag lights and glow sticks, illuminating each cross, lectern, national flag and flagpole.
For the three days leading to the big event we did pre-dawn lighting checks, timed set ups of the area, sound checks and rehearsals, as we wanted to leave nothing to chance. Personal invitations numbering over 50 were individually delivered to maintain strict security.
With just the three of us, our tasks would be varied as best possible. I had the task of Master of Ceremonies, CD operator and stand in Padre. Gav was security, guide/usher and flag orderly. Whilst Russ, was the ‘lone sentry’ and in his Slouch Hat and Plume, marching on and taking his place on the ‘Rest on Arms Reversed’ position in front of the flagpole.
As we sat down for dinner on ANZAC eve the unbelievable happened. By some mix up one of our personal invites appeared on an insecure notice board and detailed timings, locations, parking areas etc, – in short a potential security and operational compromise.
We had two options – cancel or relocate. The first was discounted immediately with the second to be the only sound option. Following a hurried dinner, we were again on the prowl for a suitable location. We found a secure corner of a compound which, with the correct use of our lighting, would disguise the adjacent cyclone wire. Next getting everyone to the alternate venue, so whilst two of us setting up, Gav put together a snap Vehicle Check Point (VCP) and briefed individuals on arrival. He organised them into a convoy and led them to the new location. To the guests, it was seen as all part of the mornings arrangements, to us it was fast thinking on the run.
With the subdued lighting setting the scene, the poignant words spoken in hushed and reverent tones and the shrill notes of the Last Post and the National Anthem echoing across the desert, it made for me the most moving and relevant ANZAC Days that I had ever experienced and one that is etched forever in my memory.