by Sarah Juggins,
It was early morning, still dark and pouring with rain. But silently, in their twos, threes and small goups, they gathered. Old men in uniform, medals shiny under the street lights, old women in macs with their umbrellas pulled low over their faces. A father, holding a toddler in his arms, a mother anxiously wondering if the kids she left sleeping soundly would remain peacefully unaware for the next half an hour.Teens in sloppy tee shirts, ignoring the fact that they were getting soaked to the skin, curious tourists, the ubiquitous cameras around their necks.
All gathered together under the few trees, just a few metres from the war memorial and the four young guards who were standing stiffly to attention on each corner of the cenotaph. On a road, just away from the main crowd a mini tourist train had pulled up with the inmates from the local care home, wrapped in blankets and half hidden by a tarpaulin to keep out the rain, but nonetheless determined to pay their respectsA murmur suddenly went through the crowd.
A lone bagpiper could be heard. People nudged each other and all heads turned towards the sound. Eerily, the sound broke through the dark and then, from around a corner, the marchers came.Leading the way was the commander, proudly aware of his duty. He called orders, perhaps without the snap of earlier days but still with the authority that age brings. White-haired, ram-rod straight of back and carefully memorising the order of events, he led the assembled group of navy, army, airforce, firefighters, scouts, cadets and school children through the procession.The vicar – a small, matronly woman, who unleashed a powerful singing voice when it came to singing the anthem, said prayers. The commander stumbled over a couple of words as the service moved on but regained his composure quickly. As the prayers remembered the fallen New Zealanders, the familiar names of the theatres of war rang out across the blue-black sky – France, Italy, Crete, Africa, the Pacific, Korea, Vietnam, Iraq, Afghanistan and of course Gallipoli, the most tragic event in Anzac history.
The crowd stood silently, heads bowed. The soldiers gazed stoically ahead, one young female cadet raised her eyes skywards, fighting back the emotions. A woman in the crowd dabbed her eyes, an old man turned and slowly walked away.
The haunting sounds of the ‘Last Post’ played out and the rains continued to fall. One-by-one people stepped forwards to lay their wreaths – the Commander called out the names of the regiments or organisations they represented, except in the case of one man, who quickly popped his wreath down and with a shake of his head and a small smile signalled that he wanted to remain anonymous.
The national anthem broke the sombre occasion. People sang with gusto, united in their determination to remember the dead or those serving with an uplifting tune. And then, as the Reveille played out, the crowd dispersed – going back to their breakfasts, their runs on the beach, or just back to their beds. Pleased to have paid their respects but carrying the slight guilt that they would never, really be able to repay the debt.
And six hours later, as they gathered at the local pub, the laughter replaced the sadness, jollity rang out across the still wet streets and there was almost an embarrassment that once again they had become part of a pathos and ritual that has not diminished in the last ninety years.