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August 27th 2015 print

Peter Ryan

Some Belated Anzac Reflections

A nation worthy of the name can have but one authentic day to celebrate and affirm its unity. Here's a heartening impression drawn from the last time I marched:  Asian families whose little kids, with colourful crayons and sheets of white card, were printing messages. 'Thank you' was what they said.

anzac paradeThis year, in the weeks leading up to Anzac Day, I watched rather more than my accustomed meagre daily ration of television. There was so much Anzac-related material, swollen largely from the centenary year, that it had grown tedious by the end of the day—a problem that probably won’t occur in 2016.

I had been a keen marcher for some years, along that famous route to Melbourne’s Shrine of Remembrance. The odd nature of my New Guinea active service (largely alone in the bush, behind Japanese lines) did not produce any specific unit affiliation which automatically entitled me to a place amongst the Melbourne marchers. To tell the truth, I was a bit of a “ring in”, an orphan hospitably housed in a blank file created specially for me by the Commando Association of Australia. I had actually enjoyed some shadowy jungle contacts with a few of its men long ago—what—good God—over half a century ago! Now the Commando Association itself has disbanded.

Then, a few years ago, the axe fell. To my inexpressible chagrin, I was forbidden to march again, doubtless on somebody else’s estimation of antiquity and decrepitude (both mine). Motor transport was readily on offer. But it didn’t appeal to me. Since then, my participation in Anzac Day has been vicarious and from the sidelines, but not a whit diminished in enthusiasm.

A nation worthy of the name can have but one authentic national day to celebrate and affirm its essential and enduring unity; our day is Anzac Day—make no doubt about that. (I believe we can disregard the exceptional character of this centennial year.) On the last occasion I did march, I saw all sorts of signs that Anzac was not faltering. Here’s one: Asian families were thick along the verges of the march. As we swung by (perhaps “hobbled” in my case) their little kids, with colourful crayons and sheets of white card were printing out messages to hold up as close as they could to our passing faces. “THANK YOU” was what they said.

* * *

Horses were not used extensively in the Papua New Guinea fighting; no cavalry charges there! My impression is that the Japanese relied on horse (and mule) pack teams for transport far more than we did.

General Horii, senior enemy commander in the Kokoda phase, was portrayed as a tubby little man with spectacles, who might well have felt that being in the saddle of his splendid white charger added to his dignity and authority. But this imposing martial couple was rarely far behind the front line of his advancing troops. Horii was in fact a brave and effective commander, whose troops were seriously threatening Port Moresby. When the fortunes of war changed direction, Horii stuck to his now well-known handsome white mount; in mid-November 1942, horse and rider drowned in the retreat.

No such disposition to “command from the saddle” seems to have affected the Allied leaders. Without even five minutes serious research, I’d bet a handsome sum that not one commanding general in Papua New Guinea, from Douglas MacArthur downward, got as far as pointing a toe into a stirrup. (Nor should have.)

Nevertheless, for many a problem at lower levels, a horse offered the only practical solution. As always, patient, strong, wise and discreet, he helped us to his utmost; but sometimes he must have had his private doubts about the sanity of the humans who got themselves into so many ridiculous difficulties.

We used saddle horses in the audacious raid that stole a whole mob of beef cattle from under Japanese noses at Madang, and drove them up to Wau to help feed our isolated garrison. Later, after the army’s (mistaken) scorched-earth torching and the abandonment of the goldfields towns, the cattle were ordered to be driven right up over the central range and down into Papua, if necessary. This little lark was assigned to Charlie Blake and me, a drive of how many days we could only guess.

Charlie, a coconut planter, was a respected New Guinea citizen, who had won the Military Medal in the First World War. In the pub, if the locals sensed that he was suffering one his black moods, they left him quietly to himself until it passed.

In the 1930s, the reigning matinee idol and Hollywood heart-throb, Australia’s Errol Flynn, made a spectacularly ill-judged visit to Rabaul. Proceeding promptly to the pub, he found the bar empty, save for Charlie nursing a solitary pot in a corner. Flynn’s first offer to buy a drink was declined civilly enough, the second overture rather more firmly, and the third drew a curt “No!”

Flynn assumed a boxing stance, shaping up to Charlie. “So you think you’re too good to drink with me, do you? Well, just let’s see, shall we?”

Charlie rose with a sigh, and waited for the Australian to make another pass. Then he hit him. Once. Down Flynn went, jaw broken, a job to be wired together by “Tremmy” Trembath, New Guinea rifleman and Rabaul’s dentist.

Under a leader so decisive, I set out in rather thoughtful mood, into the balmy climate of the New Guinea uplands: no mosquitoes, no irritating mosquito nets; freshwater streams every few miles for stock watering; splendid grass all the way for cattle and horses; our worst hazard was possible interception by a Japanese patrol.

All this was accustomed stuff to Charlie, but new to me. “Just let your horse go. He won’t wander far. Drop your saddle on the ground for a pillow.” And indeed, at least three times each night I can remember my horse’s warm muzzle snuffling around me as he checked me out.

Three (or was it four?) days later, when we handed over our cattle (not one beast lost along the trail) no enemy intervention had spoiled the tranquillity of what might have been a vacation jaunt.

That horse—the same one that carried me on my first droving venture up into Wau—would have to be called “one of nature’s gentlemen”. Seldom properly groomed, he never bit, nor caught you with a sly kick at mounting. He wore no shoes, which was no hardship to him, as the ground was mostly soft, but it obliged me to keep the edges of his hooves trimmed. If ever he stumbled, you knew you were in really rough going.

Watching all the splendid horses I saw during my pre-Anzac television viewing orgy I mentioned earlier, it dawned on me that I couldn’t remember my old bloke’s name. That isn’t in the spirit of Anzac; and I remain ashamed …

* * *

In May there was a fierce outburst of concern about “human rights”. They included the “rights” especially of schoolboys not to be buggered by their priests, and the rights of gays (of either sex) to be married “all in white” and to be “joined together” in public, if not necessarily holy, matrimony.

By all means try to read the brilliant article by the regular writer for the Times Matthew Parris (reprinted in the Australian of May 26). He demonstrates what futile and nugatory concepts human rights are: “dissolving into a blur of conditional clauses” as soon as an actionable formulation is drafted.

Whenever a political leader makes an appeal, tear in eye, on human-rights grounds, you know what is being attempted is a snide lurk to procure some more general political advantage. The less that governments get their sticky fingers into the fine detail of our human rights, the more liberal our society and the freer we shall be.

In the nineteenth century, when Oscar Wilde and his friends and his enemies were creating social consternation in London, mature civic wisdom came from a highly unexpected source: Queen Victoria’s rather slobbish son, the Prince of Wales, later King Edward VII.

“Whatever are we to do, sir? This latest dreadful business between that fellow Wilde and the Marquis of Queensberry?” wailed a courtier.

“I don’t care what the people do, as long as they don’t do it in the street and frighten the horses,” was the royal pronouncement.

Peter Ryan’s account of his experiences behind enemy lines in New Guinea, Fear Drive My Feet, first published in 1959, has just been published in a new edition by Text, with an introduction by Peter Pierce.