Think Piece: How the Anzac tradition gave a little ‘new Australian’ girl a chance
It was a typical hot summer’s day in Houghton in the Adelaide Hills. The primary school playground was abuzz with children playing cricket and throwing balls around. One little girl however, was getting a hard time from a boy named Jack. He didn’t like the look of her lunch box (it had strange looking cheese in it) and the fact that she had a funny name and a weird accent. Only being in grade 3, she was frightened of the tall grade 7 boy, plus the odds were stacked against her – Jack was a good cricketer and played well in the local junior competition, and she had surmised, was probably good at footy too.
“Why don’t you go back to where you came from you dirty Dutchy” Jack snarled menacingly. This young school bully was unaware that this little girl’s dad Leo, had won the Dutch Bronze Cross for Bravery and Valour for fighting under fire against the Nazi menace, serving as he did, alongside the Allies. Leo was presented with this award at Buckingham Palace in 1943, by the late Queen of the Netherlands – Queen Wilhelmina – while she was living in exile there with the British Royal Family.
Her dad had been very impressed with his Australian comrades. He had nothing but praise for them because of their brave sorties behind enemy lines dropping food parcels and other supplies to the Dutch people, who in WWII were being systematically starved to death by the Nazis. There is actually a vague legend in his family that one of these planes was shot down, landing in Venlo in the southern part of The Netherlands, and that some members of her father’s community saved and protected two Aussie Allied pilots who survived the crash and hid them in cellars from the enemy.
When he travelled to Whitehall in the United Kingdom for an intelligence briefing not only did he meet his English sweetheart, Betty (who also worked in intelligence) but (apparently) his intelligence colleagues told him “Adelaide was the safest place in the world that he could possibly bring his family to.” A few years later, Leo and Betty (who herself had lived through the London Blitz) set a course for South Australia arriving in 1953, joining Leo’s younger brother who had arrived here 18 months earlier. Together they worked and managed an apple orchard at Paracombe as Leo’s intelligence and medical credentials proved non-transferable at this time.
But on this day, some year’s later, when Leo’s only daughter was in the playground cowering to avoid some rubbish being thrown at her by Jack, she felt very small and vulnerable. Suddenly a loud voice boomed across the playground – “What do you think you are doing Jack? That is no way to treat a young lady! And do you realise that men have fought and died for this country so that we can live in peace! Listen carefully children…” Twenty five boys and girls gathered round this craggy faced man – our School Principal (Mr William H Cropley) to learn what he considered to be an important life lesson.
“Boys and girls we are going to hear about the bravery and the story of the ANZACs. They were this amazing group of men who, despite the odds, fought bravely and did their best for their mates in terrible circumstances. This form of mateship is what makes Australia special.” Then he added in a very strong, firm voice – “Now we have a new mate here at our School. She is from another country and speaks another language, but she wants what you want – a safe place to eat and play in the school playground. Our Anzac tradition shows that when things get rough and the situation is deadly, we can rely upon the Anzac way of dealing with it; strong and powerful help, provided to those who are in need of it”.
The Principal went on to tell the story of Simpson and his donkey. He also described the concept of international cooperation between allies, and how Australians, fighting on the other side of the world, had travelled, at great cost to those at home and to themselves, to help defeat the enemies of the British Empire in WWI and the Axis forces in WW2. He related his strong views about the Australian Government’s call to our country’s people to help build a strong and peaceful Australia in post WW2. He believed this could not happen without our new mates from other countries coming to Australia to support and help build our nation. What a gem this man was, particularly, as you may have guessed it, that this little ‘new Australian’ girl was me. He was an inspiration to me and many others; firm, fair and fiercely intelligent.
The “Anzac Book” written by Charles Bean and the men of the AIF at Gallipoli, became the focus of our history lessons for the remainder of that term. This tiny primary school in the Adelaide Hills remains so special to me because of this man’s intervention on that day. His actions showed me that one person can make a real and important difference to another. Because of those Anzac lessons, I have been inspired to attend an Anzac Day Service and the march every year since. Plus over the years I’ve become a proud member of the defence family, finding ways to serve the defence community in my civilian life as my way of paying forward what this man and this country have done for me.
During this Anzac Centenary I think it is very important that we stop and take the time to thank all the Anzacs from across history and from across time who have served this country, and who have inspired others in our community to honour the Anzac tradition and legacy.
Our Anzacs did so much more than go to war and fight alongside our allies. Indeed the Australian Defence Force (ADF) is often the first responder when our neighbours and allies need help in times of disaster or catastrophe. Think of the wonderful men and women in uniform who were part of RAMSI (Regional Assistance Mission to the Solomon Islands). They upheld the Anzac tradition there by helping to build the Solomon Islands nation from the ground up. There is the support our ADF provided for Timor-Leste – one of the World’s newest nations. Or the devastating tsunami that ravaged Indonesia and the islands to our north, to which Australian forces deployed to assist our mates in trouble there.
These actions exemplify what the Anzac tradition really represents – supporting mates when they are in need. Many may not know that since Federation, in addition to our full time forces, over one million Australians have volunteered to serve in Australia’s Reserve Forces (formerly known as Civilian Military Forces) and that they too are significant members of our country’s defence force capability.
Sure this story is about a school principal who we might have expected to do what he did in standing up for me that day. But that does not diminish the way in which he chose to do it. He used the Anzac values to instil in me and the other children, a lifelong pride in the Anzac tradition, and I have no doubt, in many other children who passed through that school.
There are many examples of this sharing of Anzac values across our nation. Teachers and Principals alike, members of our community, volunteers, ex-servicemen and defence force personnel, families who have servicemen and women who have or have not seen active service, been injured or not returned; all these Australians honour and share the Anzac tradition in their own particular way.
For me, it is the act of communicating the Anzac values and the way in which this is done, that has ensured that the great tradition of Anzac continues. The phrase “Service above self” encapsulates this. It is something I learned from both my father and from Mr Cropley. It has been reinforced in me by my defence colleagues over the decades. And by the many veterans I’ve been honoured to meet in my time in the defence family, not least of which was the recently deceased South Australian Air Force Ace, Bob Cowper, and the late Major Maurie Hurford who was a WWII Z Special Unit veteran.
Their stories have nothing to do with the glorification of war, but everything to do with honouring service and mateship, and putting a hand out to pull up those who are in need. I’d be curious to know what happened to that school yard bully Jack, and whether he was similarly inspired to change his ways that day? I wonder too if he now enjoys any of the ‘strange’ things in my lunchbox, such as Dutch Edam or Gouda cheese and Dutch liquorice.
I most certainly hope he went on to become a great sportsman and contributing member of our community as Jack and I both learned something significant that day.
Lest we forget.