25 April is Anzac Day, that day of the year, when as Dave Warner once said, we march our march and we drink our beer. The day has grown strong in the past ten years or so. People have rediscovered Anzac Day, returned in pilgrimage to Gallipoli and attended the dawn service in greater numbers as the original Anzac’s has dwindled to zero.
Its so familiar now we think we known the full story, but there is always something hidden under the surface. Before the first Anzac Day, on Valentines Day 1916, recruits at Casula camp near Liverpool decided that they needed a break from their increasing level of training. Protesting against an extra hour and half of training per day they marched from the camp; 5000 troops headed to Liverpool. They were soon joined by 10,000 more and rushed the hotels in Liverpool. As the mutiny spread, others commandeered trains to take them to Sydney, where drunk and on the rampage they spilled out into the city. Some were confronted by military and civilian police at Central.
Shots were fired, one killed and six wounded. A bullet hole remains in a sandstone gate pillar on Platfrom 1 as testimony to this day.
The rabble, for they were not yet Anzac’s, was eventually calmed by the threat that if they did not return to base camp they would be discharged with no chance for re-enlistment and their names published in disgrace. The pull of the great adventure that was the war and the chance they might miss out was enough to stop them. Maybe if they knew what was coming they may not have been so keen. A lasting effect was the closure of NSW pubs at 6 o’clock from then on, bringing with it the 6 o’clock swill.
As soon as the landing at Gallipoli was reported in Australia the legend began to grow, but so too did the mourning. Brave soldiers so often go hand in hand with widows. No Australian soldiers who were killed were returned for burial in Australia during WWI. People felt there was no closure and used the Anzac day as a substitute.
In Sydney at the first anniversary of Anzac Day the widows, mothers, sisters and sweethearts of lost men gathered together to mourn collectively. They became known as the Women in Black.
However, the authorities saw the day as an opportunity to recruit. Opinion was divided and the day was split between the recruitment drives and military marches and the public mourning of the Women in Black. Throughout the war this remained the same. Anzac day parades in Sydney and other cities often included black carts and buggies filled with floral wreathes like a funeral procession, with the numbers of women in black growing every year.
As official memorials began to appear in suburbs all over Sydney, the women had their own installed. A drinking fountain opposite the gates of the Woolloomooloo wharf where so many of their boys had embarked for service. The water of the fountain was meant to represent ongoing life. The gates themselves became the focus for their own public display, as each year floral wreaths and messages to those who did not return were pinned to the gates through which they had left.
The Women in Black were an unofficial feature of the day through the 1920s until the state got its act together for memorial sites. The unveiling of the Cenotaph in Martin Place in 1927 and later the Hyde Park War Memorial in 1934 made these places the centre of the official memorials. The Women in Black were slowly marginalised and they faded into the background.
Their grief didn’t fade though just the public memory of it. Lest we forget.