Sermon given at a Service of Commemoration and Thanksgiving to mark ANZAC Day

25 April 2010 at 09:00

The Very Reverend Dr John Hall, Dean of Westminster

Readings: 2 Kings 6: 8, 15-23; Matthew 5: 38-48

The Times reported ‘stirring scenes’. On 25th April 1916, it said, Anzac Day was ‘celebrated in London and throughout the Dominions.’ King George V and Queen Mary ‘were present at an impressive service in Westminster Abbey, in remembrance of a great deed by those of our brothers who died at Gallipoli … in the high cause of Freedom and Honour’. Billy Hughes, the Australian Prime Minister from 1915 to 1923, was here, accompanied by senior members of the United Kingdom government. The service commemorated the almost 3,000 New Zealanders and 9,000 Australians who had lost their lives. Here at the heart of the capital city, a few months after the end of the campaign, was honoured New Zealand’s and Australia’s contribution to Gallipoli, within 15 years of the formation of the Commonwealth of Australia and nine years of the Dominion of New Zealand. The then Dean of Westminster said of their troops, ‘All these fought most valiantly. Their deeds will be remembered evermore. Their memorial is already inscribed in men’s hearts. In future ages the sons of our Empire will seek to emulate the imperishable nature of their daring and bravery. We are resolved that, by God’s gracious favour, our brothers shall not have laid down their lives in vain.’

95 years ago today saw the beginning of the Allied land offensive against the Ottoman Empire at Gallipoli. An earlier naval offensive that was intended to open an Eastern front for the Allies had failed. Now, the Australian and New Zealand Army Corps landed at what has since become known as Anzac cove, whilst French and British troops landed at Cape Helles. The land offensive proved impossible to sustain. Determined Turkish defence, most powerfully led by a then little known colonel Mustafa Kemal, prevented the allied troops from breaking out of their beachhead. The cost, to allied troops and defenders alike, was great. On both sides, there were nearly half a million casualties. Eight months later, the remaining allied forces being evacuated with little additional loss was seen as the most successful part of the campaign.

Almost a hundred years later, we continue to remember. This day in Westminster Abbey has become indelibly Anzac Day. Every year, since the resumption of the annual commemoration in 1954, a service has been held here on the day itself. In 1992, a proposal that it should be moved from a Saturday to the day before was met by a general outcry. In response, the Dean changed his mind. Now, be it as this year the day of the London Marathon, or as next year Easter Monday, the Abbey, in association with the Australian and New Zealand High Commissions, will maintain this commemoration on the anniversary day itself.

This is my fourth Anzac Day as Dean. I feel it a privilege to have been asked to give the address. I remember vividly my impression when first receiving four flags to offer up at the altar: the Australian and New Zealand flags with the Union Flag but also, to my wonderment, the Turkish flag. Then I heard for the first time the words of that little known colonel become the leader of the Turkish Republic, Mustafa Kemal Ataturk, posted at the Gallipoli war cemetery and read today by the Turkish ambassador: ‘There is no difference between the Johnnies and the Mehmets to us here; they lie side by side here in this country of ours. You, the mothers, your sons are now lying in our bosom and are in peace.’

Today we celebrate the reconciliation of one-time enemies. Reconciliation is a godly virtue. We heard of it both in the Old Testament and the Gospel reading today. 25th April always falls within the Christian season of Easter, when we celebrate the God and Father of Jesus Christ, who so longs to reconcile alienated people to himself, that in his Son he shares our human condition and offers his own life to break down the barriers. The raising to life again of the crucified Christ on Easter Day offers the prospect of new life and gives us both an instruction and the power to work for reconciliation between people.

It would be easy to forget that today we also celebrate a defeat. The historians assure us that the strategy was misconceived and its execution faltering. Even so, we recognise the boldness of the strategic aim and the heroism of so many who committed their whole being to its achievement. So perhaps we should say that today we celebrate the ability of the human spirit, in the power of the Spirit of God, to bring triumph out of disaster. The crucifixion was a defeat. The message of Easter gives us courage, as today we hear afresh the call to offer ourselves in unstinting and generous service.