What a difference a year makes. Last year, pouring rain, today a balmy 12 degrees.
This was the scene at 5.20am at Melbourne's Shrine of Remembrance, the silhouette reflecting the heads of thousands of people, already gathered and standing quietly, waiting for the Dawn Service to begin at 6am.
Last year at this time I wrote of my concern that we were presenting Australian history as if everything began at Gallipoli in 1915. This morning was very different. We heard a moving rendition of the poem 'In Flanders Fields' and two very inspiring addresses, delivered by three very impressive young Australians. The two short speeches spoke of emotional current day experiences (a trip to the site of the Sandakan death marches in Borneo, a tour of duty in Afghanistan), were not at all jingoistic and carried far more impact than usual because they were not mouthed by platitudinous politicians. The latter were present in large numbers in the official party but thankfully were silent (apart from a few words from the State Premier).
This large, respectful crowd of 45,000+ got me thinking about why so many people find this ceremony so meaningful. Afterwards my neighbour and I discussed the level of psychological damage underlying so much of Australian cultural life.
WW1 had a devastating impact on virtually every family in this country, including my own. Large numbers of women (including most of my grandmother's friends) never married because the young men of their generation had been killed. My grandmother's brother, Lieut Stephen Boulton, was an artillery man and is buried in France. Her husband, my grandfather Engr Lieut Cleon Dennis, RAN, died young as a result of his war service, leaving her to raise five young children alone.
WW2 created a baby-boomer generation many of whose fathers returned home as damaged individuals, without the benefit of post-traumatic-stress counselling. More recently our community is coming to terms with the horrors of the forced adoption of children in post-war years and the widespread abuse of children by clergy and others in positions of authority.
With so many fractured families within our community, and secularism replacing religion, we increasingly seem to find comfort and meaning in the uplifting, almost spiritual nature of the Dawn Service. Today we come together in a shared moment, paying tribute to qualities of character(bravery, loyalty, stoicism) beyond the norm of our daily lives.