Tuesday, April 25, 2006

Anzac spirit alive and well at RSA

This year's Anzac Day has a special significance for the organisation that set the tone of the annual commemoration and, through thick and thin, has overseen its development into this country's most revered occasion. Almost 90 years ago to the day, what is now the Royal New Zealand Returned and Services' Association was formed. Its immediate aim was to help the first soldiers coming home from the bloody slopes of Gallipoli. But its ambition soon prompted a public holiday on the anniversary of the landing in Turkey, and a commemoration centred on public services, not church-bound remembrances that would have scattered returned soldiers among a variety of congregations.

Some things have changed since then, but much remains the same. The RSA, contrary to the views of the occasional doomsayer, has not only endured but is flourishing. It serves as the umbrella group for more than 200 local associations and branches. In most towns, and in the suburbs of large cities, RSA halls stand as a visible reminder of the sacrifices of this country's servicemen and women.

The organisation has survived in large part because of its willingness to embrace the wider community. RSA membership is no longer reserved for those who have served in wars or war-like situations overseas. There are also the service members who are currently in the armed forces, and associate or social members. Public interest in such membership would have been minimal if the association had been viewed as an irrelevant relic of 20th century conflicts. Perhaps out of design, perhaps out of necessity, that is not the case.

The RSA welcomed the changed emphasis that will again be apparent at today's commemorations. Much of this revolves around the presence of a large number of young people. No longer are services the domain of row upon row of returned soldiers, their medals jingling in the thin dawn light. To a certain degree it must be this way. No survivors of World War I remain, and the ranks of those who fought in the 1939-45 war are dwindling. But the services today are impressive in their own way as a cross-section of the community remembers the sacrifice and sense of duty of those who so willingly served, and died for, their country.

In the past decade or so, Anzac Day has developed new layers of meaning and symbolism. Most of all, it has sponsored a sense of national pride and heritage. There is now a greatly increased interest in those who went to war. How else to explain the huge interest in the fate of Charles Upham's Victoria Cross and bar. Or the debate that ensued when a new book dwelt on the fact that Clive Hulme wore German paratroopers' clothing during the action which won him a VC on Crete. Hulme's mode of operation had been known for many years, and had attracted virtually no comment. It is a mark of our deeper interest in New Zealand's history, and the men and women who shaped it, that it should do so now.

For those who have returned from war, Anzac Day is a celebration of mateship, self-sacrifice and togetherness, as well as a commemoration. The RSA halls that sprang up around the country in the wake of World War I offered the opportunity to honour those values without the intrusion of people who could not know the horrors of war. A closed shop could still be the consequence. Fortunately, it is not. The RSA has been able to shape a role in the community while not only preserving but increasing the reverence accorded Anzac Day. That, like the achievements of those we remember today, is no small feat.

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