Today marks 105 years since the ANZAC landing at Gallipoli. This morning I stood, bleary-eyed, outside my home with my neighbours to take part in the yearly ritual now adapted to suit social distancing rules of COVID-19.
For those first few seconds of waking after my alarm, I had forgotten why I was awake so early. But when I heard my housemates shuffling through the house, I remembered. Today I would sacrifice a few minutes of my time to remember those who have given theirs, and much more.
I trudged to the front of my house, bare feet in damp grass. A few candles lit up the cul de sac. My neighbours, who were already listening to the Anzac radio service, stood just enough apart from each other on the street – we can’t forget why we’re limited to only our driveways in the first place.
I was struck by the oddities of the experience, realising that I’d probably never again experience a Dawn Service held within the confines of my street, knowing that many other streets like mine were also in the midst of their remembrance.
As The Last Post echoed out across my neighbourhood, I took a moment to reflect on the sacrifices in war that Indigenous people have made across generations. It is truly tragic that so many have given their lives to countries still held tight in the grip of their bloody colonial pasts.
Anzacs and the Battle of 42nd Street
A while ago, I came across the story of Reg Saunders, the first Aboriginal man to be a commissioned officer in the Australian Army. He belonged to the 2/7th Battalion, and on the 27th of May 1941, he fought alongside other Australian and New Zealand soldiers, including the 28th Battalion (or Maori Battalion) of the New Zealand Army. On this day, the Battle of 42nd Street took place, near Chania, Crete.
In this battle, Australian and New Zealand soldiers fought in what is known as ‘the Anzac’s bloody last stand’. It was an affair that involved bloody bayonetting of German soldiers, and astonishingly, the abandonment of Anzac soldiers on Crete for 11 months before rescue. Anzac soldiers, one being Reg Saunders, were forced to either surrender to the Germans or hide out on the island, in which they received tremendous help from Cretan locals. It’s truly an intense battle worthy of further investigation.
The number of Indigenous Australians who served in the Second World War is unclear to this day, with estimates settling on soldier numbers between 3,000 and 4,000; up to 6,000 in more extreme estimates. Maori involvement in WWII is numbered at almost 16,000 soldiers.
It hit close to home for me at one point while researching Reg. I don’t know too much about my own family and relatives’ service in the war. However, I came across an account of a soldier fighting at the Battle of 42nd Street, naming another soldier, Sam, or Hato O’Brien. He was from my hometown of Te Puke, Bay of Plenty, New Zealand. It’s a fascinating coincidence that Hato, from my little hometown – a man my own family members could have known – was fighting alongside the esteemed Reg Saunders, a proud Gunditjmara man, in this battle.
Our fight, continued
Such stories as O’Brien’s and Saunders’ are just a couple of examples of many contributions of Indigenous Australian and New Zealand soldiers. They sacrificed themselves despite the systemic racism they faced, even after returning from war.
I spent my moments in the chill before dawn standing in my driveway because of this virus. Some say we’re fighting a ‘war’ against COVID-19. But human conflict, war between human and human, still deserves recognition for what it is.
We fought together at Gallipoli on the 25th of April 1915.
We fought together in Crete on the 27th of May, 1941.
And today, we’re still fighting together. For recognition of Indigenous sovereignty by governments, for recognition of contributions to our country, and for the preservation and continuation of our cultures in the face of modern colonialism, an age-old enemy still on our horizons.
ANZAC Day is an important date for many Australians and New Zealanders. How have you commemorated today in the midst of the challenging COVID-19 pandemic?
Header image credit: Soldiers shelter amongst olive trees on Crete, Ministry for Culture and Heritage.