When I was a boy, the school held a church service each Anzac Day. As I remember it, the cadets presented arms in the sanctuary of the chapel, and at the end a bugler played the Last Post. It was dramatic and moving. It also encapsulated the intertwining of churches and arms, of Anzac Day and religious symbolism.
These connections are natural. Like other battles in which many young people died, the military action at Gallipoli left relatives, friends and fellow Australians to find meaning in what had happened. They sought it in many places: in Stoic acceptance of the absurdity and folly of war, in the classical tradition of the patriotic warrior, and in religious traditions.
Many of those affected by the Great War struggled to make sense of what they had hitherto taken for granted about their world. The young men who passed on to the next life had lived long enough to show promise and to be loved, but not long enough to give shape to their life’s path. In their dying, they broke a web of relationships to family, to mates, to friends and lovers, to their local communities, and to their nation.
This is true of all wars. But aspects of the landing at Gallipoli made death particularly poignant and challenging. The soldiers died not in defence of their own land but in someone else’s war, far from home. The action in which they died was of doubtful wisdom, and was inadequately planned and executed. In the event, the soldiers died to hold for a short time a few hills, a few valleys, and a tiny stretch of beach.
In response to the defeat some simply wept for the folly and the waste of the enterprise. Others looked for a higher meaning. Some drew inspiration from the bravery and generosity shown by so many of the soldiers. Others identified in Gallipoli a particularly Australian contribution to the war, and saw that it gave a distinctive shape to the Australian people.
Many people sought in the Christian tradition a way of understanding the significance of Gallipoli. This tradition is based on reversal. Both the Jewish stories that Christians inherited and the story of Jesus Christ find hope and meaning in catastrophic events that seemed to destroy hope. The people of Judaea were sent as exiles to Babylon, and Jesus was executed as a criminal. Yet these events became a seedbed for hope and meaning.
The meaning found was not simply personal, but also public. Out of the Exile came a people with a stronger sense of divine purpose and calling. From Jesus' death came a community united by a common faith in his saving death and rising. The events shaped a people.
Religious traditions also represent a worthwhile human life. Jewish, Christian and Muslim stories highlight the lives of martyrs. They die as witnesses to the truth of their faith and to the large hopes it holds. The martyrs are the foundation stones of a renewed and purified community.
When we are dealing with war, these religious themes of reversal, of community founding, and of the virtuous life offer resources. They allow the suffering and death of young men in a lost battle to be seen as an event that is life-giving. Their lives and war service can be seen as examples of faithfulness and virtue. The journeys and deaths of unnamed soldiers can be seen as the foundations of a renewed nation. From there, it is a short step to make their nation’s cause God’s cause, so that they died, not only for king and country, but for king, country and God.
These are the possibilities offered by Christian symbols. How far are they drawn upon? In the personal tributes to the dead, such as epitaphs on graves, they were sparingly used. In public rhetoric, their implicit use was more expansive.
Many of the graves at Gallipoli carry simply the soldier’s name, the date of his death, and the details of his service. Many also bear an epitaph chosen by the family, and of these epitaphs, most are religious texts.
Some texts express simple grief and resignation. "The Lord has given, the Lord has taken away", for example. Other texts display hope in life after death, either through personal immortality, or through continuing memory.