"Greater love has no one than this, than to lay down one’s life for his friends."

Have you ever wondered why there is a huge resurgence of interest in the ‘Anzac Spirit’? I believe it is because it touches the heart of every red-blooded Aussie. When I speak at schools, churches and so on, I ask the young people what could we learn from these young men (and women) who lay down their lives for us. Two things come to mind immediately, the first is courage, the next is their wonderful unselfish spirit of mateship, both of which are Christian virtues.

THE ETERNAL FLAME: Remembering those who sacrificed their lives at a war memorial. PICTURE: Ajupp (iStockphoto.com)

"I prayed a lot. I believe in prayer. I knew my parents and grandparents were praying for me so that helped a lot," wrote one Australian on the Kokoda track. "And, of course, I had my mates. When you have good friends, good mates you don’t leave them. It was a brotherhood."

Courage is part of the Anzac Spirit.

It’s sad to say but most Australians are completely unaware of how courageous and effective our soldiers were. It was our Light Horsemen who were largely responsible for the liberation of Jerusalem from centuries of Muslim rule. The first defeat of the mighty ‘Desert Fox’ - Erwin Rommel in World War II was by ‘The Rats of Tobruk’ - comprised mainly of Aussie Diggers. 

Likewise, during the Korean War, almost a million Chinese troops poured over the border and swept the United Nations forces before them. The US Army was in full retreat and desperately needed some breathing space. It was the 3rd RAR (Royal Australian Regiment) - along with some Canadian troops who were ‘selected’ to hold the line. Our young men were told that they would have to hold the line against a hundreds of thousands of Chinese troops. Now work those odds out, yet these magnificent young Aussies held their ground for three days, thus buying the UN forces valuable time to regroup. The Regiment was awarded a US Presidential Citation for their heroic efforts in that battle. 

But one of the most heroic achievements of our young Aussie Diggers was their magnificent efforts on the Kokoda Track in World War II. Japan had destroyed the powerful American fleet at Pearl Harbour - and conquered much of Asia - now suddenly the undefeated Japanese Army was right on our very doorstep. With most of our soldiers fighting in the Middle East the nation was vulnerable. All that stood between us and the horrors of invasion by the hitherto invincible Japanese were a few hundred young Aussie Diggers. 

Despite what some would have us believe, the first defeat inflicted upon the Japanese land forces - who had swept down through Manchuria, Malaysia and Singapore - was by Aussie Diggers, mostly militia. These were 17 to 18-year-old young men who had never been trained in warfare or who had ever fired a shot in anger. Nicknamed ‘chocos’ - short for ‘chocolate soldiers’ as they thought that they would melt in the sun. Patrick Lindsay wrote in The Spirit of Kokoda:

"The battle for the Kokoda Track is Australia’s Alamo. If Gallipoli symbolizes the Anzac Spirit in World War I, then Kokoda is its World War II equivalent...They died so young. They missed so much. They gave up so much: their hopes, their dreams, and their loved ones. They laid down their lives that their friends might live. Greater love hath no man than this."

"These were not the tough campaigners of the AIF (regular army). In fact they were little more than kids. The average age was eighteen...Few had ever fired a shot...They were a rag-tag lot the 39th, the rejects from many companies. There was a chap named Matt Binns - he only had one arm. The bugler had one arm too - he played a marvellous reveille. There was a chap with one eye and another one who was knock-kneed - he’d had polio when he was young. Our platoon leader was night-blind...They had joined up to defend their country...The young men were treated poorly...They were almost shanghaied. Given no time to train - many not given leave to farewell their families - they were rushed on board the ship and embarked."

To get some idea of the incredible odds these young men stood against, just a mere 77 Aussies (who had not slept in three days) withstood an onslaught of 1500 crack Japanese troops. In fact at one stage of the campaign only 110 young Aussies were all that stood between their loved ones in Australia and 6,000 merciless troops from the land of the Rising Sun. 

One young Aussie digger wrote: "I prayed a lot. I believe in prayer. I knew my parents and grandparents were praying for me so that helped a lot. And, of course, I had my mates. When you have good friends, good mates you don’t leave them. It was a brotherhood." "We got a message from Port Moresby that...we had to stay there and fight to the death. That was horrifying. I thought, ‘Well, I won’t see my family again, I won’t see Australia again.’ But I was prepared, like the rest of us, to stay there and fight to the finish."

"The mateship that bound these young Diggers together can be gauged by the actions of the walking wounded. After one ferocious battle, they heard their mates were still trapped at Isurava and in dire straits, everyone who physically could, turned around and struggled back up the track to the hell-hole from which they had just been delivered. Of the 30 wounded, only three couldn’t make it back - one had lost his foot, one had a bullet in the throat and one had lost his forearm." (The Spirit of Kokoda)

Possibly just one Aussie Digger saved Australia from invasion by the Japanese. The action taking place at Isurava. Let me quote Patrick Lindsay again from The Spirit of Kokoda

"There are turning points in battle - as in life - critical moments in which the course of events is frozen for an instant, waiting for someone bold enough to seize a fleeting chance at immortality. At that moment the Japanese were poised, ready to make a final triumphant charge through to battalion headquarters. It would have been the terminal blow...Bruce Kingsbury saw his chance. Firing from the hip, he charged straight at the stunned attackers. Alan Avery watched in awe: ‘He came forward with the Bren and he just mowed them down. He was an inspiration to everybody else around him...he just went straight into ‘em...as if bullets didn’t mean anything...We all got a bit of the action, you see. When we saw him, when you see a thing like that you sort of follow the leader, don’t you?...I reckon he almost gave his life away...there was nothing scared about him. He did a marvellous job."

Kingsbury’s gallant charge completely demoralised the enemy. His sweeping fire cut down perhaps 30-40 of the enemy and sent the remainder diving for cover. For his inspirational valour, Bruce Kingsbury was posthumously awarded the Victoria Cross - the first ever on Australian territory.

The Japanese were impressed with the young Aussies bravery
Just so the reader does not think that I am exaggerating the courage of Anzac Diggers, let me quote Paul Ham, author of the book Kokoda. Ham journeyed to Japan to interview some of the survivors of these savage battles, in an article entitled Looking For The Enemy (The Weekend Australian, Nov 20-21 2005, page 30), he writes: 

"Then a little queue formed at my table: first three, then six, tiny stooped, skinny old (Japanese) men supported by a son or a grandson, hobbled up and one by one loudly toasted the ‘very, very brave Australian warriors’. One old man said that he had not seen an Australian since the war and I watched him apprehensively. Another declared: "Never, not in the entire war, had we encountered fighting men as brave as your Australians." 

What was the motivation, what turned these young ‘teenagers’ into courageous fighting men? Men who inflicted the first defeat on the hitherto invincible Japanese Army? To answer that question let me quote the young men’s officer Phil Roden, from the book The Spirit of Kokoda:

"If these young men with the Anzac Spirit could stand up for their homes and families and nation why not the men of the Church? Imagine what we could achieve if we could get that same spirit into our Christian men today."

"I’d like them to be remembered as a group of men who stood up to be counted when the chips were down, and who fought to save their country from what was deemed then to be a threat. And they didn’t think twice about doing it. Some gave their lives doing it. I’d like them to be thought of as good parents, good fathers, good husbands and as good Australians who were there for the welfare of all people in Australia." 

If these young men with the Anzac Spirit could stand up for their homes and families and nation why not the men of the Church? Imagine what we could achieve if we could get that same spirit into our Christian men today. The Bible talks of ‘first the natural and then the spiritual’. The battle we are facing in the spiritual realm for the nation today is no less real than the one these young diggers faced. What enabled them to overcome against such horrendous odds was the Anzac Spirit, something we desperately need again today. 

The Anzac Spirit of Mateship 
Two things stood the young Anzacs in good stead, their great sense of humour under almost any circumstances and their great sense of "mateship". Let me quote Ion Idriess again as he relates about those magnificent Light Horsemen in The Desert Column:

"No doubt we are a queer lot, a scatter-brained, laughing lot. Last night, the whole crowd were trying to sing comic songs. They made the oasis hideous with choruses of the most idiotic songs I’ve ever heard...But the dearest memory, the one that will linger until I die, is the comradeship of my mates, these men who laugh so harshly at their own hardships and sufferings, but whose smile is so tenderly sympathetic to other’s pain." 

This account in the book The A.I.F. in Sinai and Palestine sums up the young Light Horsemen’s attitude towards their beloved 'mates': "...no wounded man should be permitted to fall into enemy hands. To a singular degree this noble pledge was observed. After two and a half years constant fighting only 73 Light Horse prisoners had been taken by the Turks, and most of these were wounded before capture. Not a single Light Horse officer was captured by the enemy. During the same period the light horse captured 40,000 to 50,000 Turks..."

This ‘mateship’ is a distinguishing feature of the Aussie Digger, always has been! During World War II, Australian prisoners of war survived the horrendous Japanese prisons at almost twice the rate of the Americans and Brits. How come? No one is suggesting for a minute that these young Anzacs were physically superior in any way. So obviously there must be some other explanation. I saw a documentary on TV recently dealing with this very subject, and the answer came from an Aussie doctor who had been there himself. He said whenever he visited the ‘hospital’ in the Japanese prison camps he would find a dying American or Brit often accompanied by a mate or two, but more often than not he would be dying alone. But not so with the Aussies - rarely would he find such a scenario. The doctor said that it was an honour to watch an Aussie digger die, because he was always surrounded by a bunch of his mates!

The doctor added that these mates would be bathing their friend, spending hours keeping him as cool and comfortable as possible during their bouts of malaria or dengue fever. If the sick needed help or water there was always a mate there to lend a hand - day or night. Another thing was the verbal support they gave each other, urging their sick mates on, that they were going to make it. I can imagine some of the blokes: "Come on Bluey mate! You have to make it back to Aussie, you still owe me 10 quid and I ain’t gonna let ya cop out on us!" I believe it was this support that would have pulled their mates through those tough times. The documentary also talked about how many of the Australian diggers would risk their lives to sneak out to steal food (and medicine) or buy it on the black market for their sick mates. One old digger interviewed broke into tears and said. "It was my mates that pulled me through. If it wasn’t for those blokes I wouldn’t be here today!" 

Many of the men formed bonds that lasted a lifetime. It was this mateship that resulted in a survival rate of almost twice that of other Allies. This quote from The Spirit of Kokoda sums up mateship: 

"I emphatically believe in looking after number one. But number one is not yourself - it’s your best mate...The feeling mateship gives you - when you are at the bottom of the barrel and along comes those mates of yours. Often they don’t say anything, they just sit with you. It’s like a husband and wife holding hands on one another’s death beds - in time of crisis words aren’t necessary." Is this not what exactly Jesus taught us, after cutting away all the 'religiosity' - "Greater love has no one than this, than to lay down one’s life for his friends." (John 15:13).

The Anzac spirit of courage and mateship are something that has been part of the Australian male psyche since we became a nation, sadly they are also principles that are fast being lost in our self-centred - me first - selfish world. Am I glorifying war? No, the Bible says that we should give honour to whom honour is due. But as I said in my first few sentences, these Anzac principles of courage and mateship are Biblical principles which we desperately need taught in our churches, homes and schools - again.

Col Stringer is the author of '800 Horsemen'.