On the morning of the 25th April 1915 Australian soldiers stopped ashore at Gallipoli Cove and into the pages of our national history. Over and over again other soldiers, sailors and airmen and women in other wars, on other shores and at great personal cost, have followed them. Their story and stories have been told and retold at occasions like this ever since.
We gather once again to hear those stories retold, some faded and a little rusty now, others as new as last year some, but the stories all have a familiar ring to them. They are the stories of ordinary young men and women who found or find themselves called upon to survive and overcome in extraordinary conditions.
When I read details of the landing at Gallipoli, the mud and stench of the Western front, the barbarity of Kokoda, the survival at Long Tan, I find my self asking: what was it that kept these soldiers going when giving up would have been so easy? Late last year I walked the Sandakan to Ranau Death March trail. A total of 2,434 men died at Sandakan, on the trail or at one of the various camps along the way. Only six survived.
As I trudged through the ankle deep red mud in extreme humidity, up steep jungle infested hills, I thought about what kept them moving forward when it would have been so easy just to walk over the edge or sit down and be shot? On one climb, which took little over an hour t9 men perished in a climb, which took them 5 hours, most completed it crawling on their knees. Why?
The answer is hope. Not hope that they would win or that it would get better. But the hope perhaps one, just one would survive to tell their story. They worked together to make that hope a reality. Pte Richard Murray and 5 others stole some rice from the cookhouse. They shared it around and hid the bag. Unfortunately their crime was discovered and they were taken away. As they stood while the Japanese officer questioned them, Keith Botterill whispered in Murray’s ear, “Don’t move or say anything, they can’t shoot us all.” Murray, sensing that they could and probably would, stepped forward and admitted to stealing the rice but said his mates had nothing to do with it. He was taken away and executed.
We know this story because one survived – Keith Botterill. Hope keeps us going forward when giving up would be so easy. Hope is doing it for your mates, being prepared to place yourself in danger so others will survive. Hope is not a wishy washy dream, a wish for something better, it is a concrete action building the future for others. We only know the story about Sandakan and the Death March, one of if not the greatest single loss of men in war by our country, because Keith Botterill lived to tell it.
Richie Murray was not a religious man, as far as I can tell, but he compares well on that score with another man who gave up his life for others and whom we remember at this time – Jesus of Nazareth.
On Richie Murrays’ grave at Labuan War Cemetery are the words:
He stepped forward to sacrifice his life for his mates.
The challenge of ANZAC Day to each of us is, could we, would we do the same?
Lest we forget.