Wednesday, 25 April 2012

ANZAC Day: Abide with me

There is something very Catholic about the celebration of ANZAC Day, for it is a remembrance not of a great victory, but ultimately of a seemingly devastating defeat.

The Gallipoli campaign

On 25 April 1915, Australian and New Zealand Army Corps and other allied troops landed at Gallipoli Cove in an operation aimed at capturing Constantinople (Istanbul) from the Ottoman Empire. 

Over the course of the subsequent nine month campaign, nearly half a million troops died on all sides from wounds or illness, including more than 8,500 Australians.  And it was a disastrous failure that had an enormous political fallout and consequences for the course of the war at the time.

Yet it was also defeat that gave birth to a sense of nationhood; gave birth to a realisation in particular, that Mother England could not be relied upon to provide competent leadership  or to give adequate consideration to the interests of any nation but itself!

Time - and the realisation that though we won the war, English failures in World War I wiped out almost an entire generation of that country, resulting ultimately in the loss of an Empire - have largely healed those wounds, and Australia now enjoys an adult relationship with its former colonial homeland.

Australian nationalism

Still, Australian nationalism traces its realisation to that battle above all.

While it is not nominally Australia's national day, both in Australia and New Zealand, it has long been observed with a great deal more fervour than our actual national days, in part perhaps because both the signing of the Treaty of Waitangi in New Zealand, and the landing of the first fleet in Australia, have rather mixed associations!

And the fervour associated with ANZAC Day is growing not diminishing. 

Many are making the pilgrimage to Gallipoli and other battle sites each year.

Thousands arise in the cold morning air to attend the traditional dawn service. 

Many attend the requiems traditionally celebrated on this day for the souls of all who have given their lives in war for their country.

And of course many more indulge in the other traditional events of the day viz drinking, gambling (two up is legal for the day) and football: Australia has never been a nation of puritan wowsers!

Our native traditions....

ANZAC Day then is a day with its own well developed secular and religious rituals.

So in the light of all the above, there is a certain irony in the rumour passed on to me that one of Australia's 'traditionalist' communities is planning to use not the traditional 'Abide with me' as a recessional at its Requiem today, but instead 'I vow to me my country'!

Don't get me wrong, I Vow to Thee my Country is a great hymn - wonderful words and great music (adapted by the composer Gustave Holst from Jupiter in the Planets).  And the English author of the original poem did specifically adapt it to reflect World War I, hence its association with Remembrance Day (November 11) in a number of nations.

But the two hymns reflect quite different messages: I Vow to Thee one is about the virtue of patriotism and unflinching service, even unto death, certainly not inappropriate to the day.  But Abide with Me asks God to help us in times of trial, such as those endured by those first brave ANZACs.

On the face of it, substituting in I Vow to Thee seems like a bit of a resurgence of that cultural imperialism Australians explicitly rejected in adopting ANZAC Day as our own.  But of course, maybe that is the very reason for the choice of hymn: perhaps the sub-text is a counter to all that republican nonsense, a bid for a return to a Menzies-era view of our proper relationship to Mother England, mass immigration from many other sources not withstanding?!

Of course, I could be reading too much into it, but I really do think those who claim to be traditionalists should stick with those small t traditions rather than trying undertake a little aggiornamento!

Lest we forget

In any case, whatever our agendas and views on the nature of that original campaign and our nations subsequent trajectory, let's take the time today to remember the sacrifice of all who have died in the service of this country.

Here are the words of the traditional hymn for the day:

Abide with me; fast falls the eventide;
The darkness deepens; Lord with me abide.
When other helpers fail and comforts flee,
Help of the helpless, O abide with me.

Swift to its close ebbs out life's little day;
Earth's joys grow dim; its glories pass away;
Change and decay in all around I see;
O Thou who changest not, abide with me.

Not a brief glance I beg, a passing word,
But as Thou dwell'st with Thy disciples, Lord,
Familiar, condescending, patient, free.
Come not to sojourn, but abide with me.

Come not in terrors, as the King of kings,
But kind and good, with healing in Thy wings;
Tears for all woes, a heart for every plea.
Come, Friend of sinners, thus abide with me.

Thou on my head in early youth didst smile,
And though rebellious and perverse meanwhile,
Thou hast not left me, oft as I left Thee.
On to the close, O Lord, abide with me.

I need Thy presence every passing hour.
What but Thy grace can foil the tempter's power?
Who, like Thyself, my guide and stay can be?
Through cloud and sunshine, Lord, abide with me.

I fear no foe, with Thee at hand to bless;
Ills have no weight, and tears no bitterness.
Where is death's sting? Where, grave, thy victory?
I triumph still, if Thou abide with me.

Hold Thou Thy cross before my closing eyes;
Shine through the gloom and point me to the skies.
Heaven's morning breaks, and earth's vain shadows flee;
In life, in death, O Lord, abide with me.

1 comment:

Andrea said...

I agree, "I Vow to Thee, My Country" is a beautiful hymn.

But personally, I would feel a bit cheated not to sing "Abide With Me" on ANZAC Day. And that is what we sang at our EF Requiem this morning.

It is a bit odd that "traditionalists" would try to change this particular tradition.