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Lest we forget - when they were old

COVID-19 has halted this year’s Anzac Day services in Australia, but 30 years ago nothing could stop a group of adventurous old men - all in their nineties, one turned 103 on Anzac Day – from putting their lives at risk again by visiting the battlefields of their youth.

Not frail limbs, dicky hearts and any number of age-related risks for sudden death prevented the 58 veterans - dubbed 'the oldest tour group in history' - from returning to the place where 75 years earlier a new nation had fought the first major battle against its Great War enemies.

Those men, along with a number of widows and former nurses, their carers and media, went on a punishing 10-day ordeal in April 1990 that included a Dawn Service at Anzac Cove, then at Lone Pine and the main Turkish memorial, and a cruise on the Bosphorus. For many of the nonagenarians it was a last hurrah. Most would be dead within a few years.

Today, the PM Scott Morrison says we are in a war, against an invisible enemy, the virus, requiring a national strategy of deprivation, isolation and sacrifice. The federal government has also brought back adventurous young Australians from foreign shores, rather than send them out.

A generation ago Bob Hawke, the PM who accompanied the Gallipoli veterans, was keen to visit the most dangerous place on the peninsula, Quinn’s Post. There, in 1915 young men crouched in trenches separated from each other by a narrow no man’s land of bullet-blasted scrub and decomposing bodies, and exchanged explosives – jam tin bombs thrown by Australians, cricket ball grenades from the Turks. Many of those who survived were sniped, bombed, bayoneted or carried off by dysentery or cholera, when water was scarce, food was atrocious, and the lice, flies and human remains were appalling. The survivors went on to fight in France or the Sinai and Palestine where conditions were often worse.

Today we are separating ourselves from our vulnerable old folk, in an attempt to avoid putting them in harm's way, and as a reflection of their value and contribution to society.

It’s tempting to note the differences - and similarities - between those young men who went to war and the young folk of today who broke the social isolation rules imposed on our beaches. What springs to mind is a certain shared naïveté, a lust for adventure, a larrikin streak, and a refusal to heed authority, irrespective of the risks to themselves and others. It’s also worth recalling that in 1990 the majority of people attending the 75th ANZAC commemorations were young - thousands of backpackers who had slept overnight in or around the cemeteries to be on hand bright and early for the Dawn Service. Many told me how special it was to share the moment with the old men visiting for the last time.

The character of those veterans of Gallipoli was never more evident to me than in that brave return to Turkey. One vet, Bill Bevis from Western Australia, who’d fought in both world wars, made up a song, which he sang loudly for us including the PM, ending with the line “we were not too old at all.”

Bill took along his swimming trunks hoping to swim at Anzac Cove, where ‘Beachy Bill’ the Turkish artillery had lobbed shells at Anzacs bathing in the Aegean. He didn’t get to swim, but later joined us at a crowded Istanbul night club where a young belly dancer invited him up on stage. Bill, a lanky 94-year old, didn’t hesitate - and brought the house down with his dance with her. When I put it to him that he’d been the perfect gentleman, Bill replied “Well, before a couple of thousand people, what else could you be?”

That dance has always struck me as a fine metaphor for peace, sociability and good humour. Those old men were the original custodians of our Gallipoli, an archive of first-hand experience and war-weary wisdom about an event that has since morphed into legend and myth.

Unlike the defeat at Gallipoli, we appear to be winning our battle against the virus. Beating the curve reveals that Australians can still summon the national will to act together in a crisis.

I suspect the old men would approve.

(Note: I was one of an ABC team of reporters that accompanied the veterans on the 1990 ANZAC pilgrimage to Gallipoli.)

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