Tomorrow in Australia it is ANZAC Day. Without a doubt, it is Australia's defining national holiday. Marked by dawn services, parades and ceremonies held around the nation, it is a day of full of honour and respect that celebrates the true-blue Aussie spirit of our country's fallen heroes.
What is Anzac Day?
Held on April 25 each year, ANZAC Day marks the anniversary of the first major military action fought by Australian and New Zealand forces during World War I. It was on this day in 1915, when Australian and New Zealand troops faced the supreme test of courage landing in the dark under heavy fire in Gallipoli, Turkey. Through their bravery the legend of the ANZACs (Australian and New Zealand Army Corps) was forged; the spirit of which endures to this day. Although ANZAC Day began as a commemoration of Gallipoli, with the coming of the Second World War it was broadened to honour the lives of Australians lost in this war too. Today, commemorative services are held at dawn – the time of the original landing – right around the nation.
The Rats of Tobruk
While many Australians make the pilgrimage to Gallipoli in Turkey to mark ANZAC Day, with my grandfather one of the last remaining Rats of Tobruk, last year I decided to travel to Colonel Gadaffi's Libya to pay my respects.
Like Gallipoli, Tobruk is a name that means much in the war annals of Australia's short history. Yet for many Australians it's a place we know exists but is so far from our shores that it's nigh impossible to imagine much less visit.
Some 1500km east of the Libyan capital of Tripoli, Tobruk was the scene of one of the most ferocious sieges of the 20th century when more than 24,000 Allied troops (including 14,270 Australian soldiers) were surrounded by German and Italian soldiers. The 9th Division, of which my grandfather belonged, was ordered to hold Tobruk for eight weeks to await supplies and reinforcements.
In what turned out to be the longest siege in Allied military history, the largely Australian force, dubbed the 'Rats of Tobruk' by a German radio announcer, held out from April 10 until December 10, 1941 – lasting an astounding 240 days. The cost to the Australian forces, however, was devastating with 650 dead, 1597 wounded, including my grandfather, and 917 captured.
As part of my ANZAC Day journey, I attended a small informal dawn service at Tobruk's Commonwealth War Cemetery and delivered a speech written by my grandfather who on that very same day presented it at a ceremony back home in Australia. You can read about my experiences in the article I wrote, Tears in Tobruk, for Ninemsn.
Sadly, my grandfather passed away before I was able to see him again and tell him about my trip. So in his honour and in honour of all those who have lost their lives in any war, no matter which side, I offer the words of Laurence Binyon from his poem For the Fallen:
They shall grow not old, as we that are left grow old;
Age shall not weary them, nor the years condemn.
At the going down of the sun and in the morning
We will remember them.
In loving memory of my grandfather Private John Joseph Alman; may your spirit and that of the Anzacs live on.