In the early hours of 25th April 1915, the first waves of the Australia and New Zealand Army Corps (ANZAC) landed on beaches midway up the Gallipoli peninsular. Over the next eight months, more than 11,000 of these men were killed and nearly 25,000 were injured. The British, French, Indian and Newfoundland forces, as well as those of the Ottoman Empire, suffered awful losses, but the Gallipoli Campaign was particularly devastating for the nations of Australia and New Zealand. Not only were thousands of young soldiers dead, but the first foray of the fledgling states into international warfare had been a disaster.
Gallipoli had a deep effect on the population at home. There was sadness and no doubt anger, but the battle also gave rise to a national consciousness and sense of identity. Having been dominions of the British Empire for 13 and seven years respectively when war broke out in 1914, Australia and New Zealand were now, in their own name, bravely playing a part on the world stage.
A year after the conflict, the first ANZAC Day commemorations were held on 25th April 1916.
In 2012, Royal Australian Navy veteran Steve Wright was working as a chief engineering officer on board a yacht in the port of Antibes. Unable to be in Australia for the memorial, he decided to travel to Bullecourt in Northern France to attend its ANZAC ceremony. During the Battle of Arras in spring 1917, Bullecourt to the south of the city was the site of another tragedy for the Australian nation: up to 10,000 soldiers were killed or wounded, many among them survivors of Gallipoli two years earlier.
“Despite terrible windy, wet winter conditions, there was an incredibly moving turnout not only of Antipodeans from far and wide, but also from the locals and many elderly who came to pay their respects to our honoured (French, Australian and New Zealander) dead,” says Steve, who, following the ceremony, headed into the town with newfound English, Irish and American friends. “The suggestion to organise ANZAC services in Antibes came about over some beers. ANZAC Day is not just about Australia and New Zealand, but for Aussies and Kiwis, it is the one day of the year where we remember our nations’ heritage, the legacy of our forebears, where we come from, why we are different from other nations, and the reason why we are damn good at what we do when we put our minds to task.”
The Dawn Service, which will be held at 5.30am on Wednesday 25th April at the foot of the Poilu statue (the informal term for a French WWI infantryman) of the Fort Carré, is a traditionally intimate affair.
“It is a time to think and reflect,” says Shelley Ward, a British expat who has lived in Saint Paul de Vence for the last 30 years and has been a part of the team of volunteers who have organised the annual ANZAC Day in Antibes since 2013. “It is a very special moment as we watch the sunrise over the Mediterranean. We have had tremendous support from the mairie of Antibes, with a team getting up at 4am to help us prepare for the Dawn Service. ANZAC Day is now an official date on the city’s calendar, which shows a great deal of respect for some-thing that wasn’t started by a local French group.”
If ANZAC Day pays testament to the mateship and bonding demonstrated by the Australian and New Zealander personnel, this certainly shines through in the involvement of local French veterans’ associations and dignitaries from across the south of France. In 2017, these included: Lieutenant Colonel Gerald Lacoste, representing the Mayor’s Office of Antibes Juan-les-Pins; Christian Giampetri, the president of the Anciens Combattants association; Daniel Ratoret, the regional president of Combattants Volontaires; and Jean Pascal Dey, the president of the Fédération Nationale des Anciens des Missions Extérieures for the Alpes-Maritimes and also a representative for the United Nations’ Soldiers of Peace International Association. Other key participants include: event founder Steve Wright in his role of representative for Australian Peacekeeping and the Peacemaker Veterans Association; Royal British Legion representative and Commander of the Royal Navy Simon Jackson; and New Zealand Defence Forces representative Lance Corporal Cameron Hansen.
“I’m always impressed by the willingness of young people of join in,” continues Shelley, who acts as Mistress of Ceremonies. “I was extremely touched during last year’s ceremony when two little boys – Kieran and William Hansen – joined me on stage wearing their grandfather’s medals and delivered a speech that questioned war and its reasons… To hear something like that out of the ‘mouths of babes’ was very poignant. This year coming, we’ll be joined at the ceremony by a class of schoolchildren from New Zealand, who are visiting Nice on an exchange!”The Main Service also takes place at the Fort Carré, but at 11am, and is well-attended – an estimated 150 people participated last year compared to 30 during the first edition.
The Order of Service is formal and according to the elements set out by the first ANZAC Day commemorations in 1916. In addition to poems and letters read aloud by family members of soldiers who fought in military operations during and after WWI, there’s a wreath-laying ceremony by officials and members of the public, and one minute of silence is observed. Those attending often wear a sprig of rosemary, which was growing wild on the Gallipoli headland, and enjoy ANZAC biscuits made of oats and syrup, a souvenir recipe of those sent to the front by family members back in the homeland.
“The Ode – Laurence Binyon’s 1914 For the Fallen – is read by our treasurer Simon Jackson,” says Shelley, who recently discovered that the poem was written by its author on a clifftop in Cornwall she visited every summer as a child. “Then Steve plays The Last Post on the trumpet.” The flags are raised to The Rouse and the five national anthems of France, Australia, UK, Ireland and New Zealand are sung ahead of a closing speech and a bagpipe rendition of The Water is Wide.
“The strength of national identity that comes through during the ceremony is admirable, even enviable,” says Shelley, who recently returned from a visit to the Australian Embassy in Paris with her fellow volunteers. “There is an immense feeling of goodwill among all who attend, which highlights the positives that came out of Gallipoli – the good that was born out of the bad. The legacy of characteristics such as courage, endurance, mateship and good humour are very much in the national fibres of Australia and New Zealand.”
By Elsa Carpenter