What happens when those that are left grow too old?

It has long been the case that, following their return from war or warlike service, many veterans will become involved in ex-service groups. These organisations – many set up and run by the veterans themselves – provide support and comradeship for the years immediately following return from war. Regular reunions, typically based around ANZAC Day or other significant dates on the calendar, helped keep alive the close friendships that develop out of shared combat or other adversities. And of course they would also allow time for reflection and remembrance of those who did not come back. As Laurence Binyon wrote, “They shall not grow old.”

But of course there are more words that follow that line from Binyon’s famous poem, For the Fallen:

“..as we that are left grow old.”

Time, inevitably, marches on, and those that are left from WWII are now very, very old indeed. The last Australian to serve overseas in WWI died in 2005. It won’t be many more years before WWII veterans go the same way. Once they are no more, will the ex-service organisations carry on? Who will run them? Who will carry the banners? Who will remember them, at the going down of the sun, and in the morning?

Enter Melbourne’s Shrine of Remembrance. Reasoning that the earlier you get ‘em, the greater the impact, the Shrine runs a programme that as far as I know is unique in Australia. They match ex-service organisations with primary and secondary schools, usually with either a geographical or a historical connection. The Shrine facilitates and hosts initial meetings between the interested parties. It provides guidance on how to proceed. And then it steps discreetly out of the way, leaving the two bodies to continue and develop the relationship that has been cultivated.

Usually targeting a particular year group at the school, the history of the adopted unit is integrated into the school’s curriculum. As the Shrine notes on its website, this works nicely with the Civics and Citizenship part of the Victorian Essential Learning Standards (AusVELS) curriculum. Just this in itself is a good reason for becoming involved. But then they go further.

Many different ex-service organisations hold annual commemorative services at the Shrine (that for Bomber Command, of course, is in June each year). But as the veterans age, it becomes harder for them to organise, run or even attend the ceremonies themselves. For units that have been adopted under the Shrine’s programme, the solution is obvious. The school students, who have been learning about the unit at school, meet the veterans, become part of organising the ceremony and then play a role in actually running it. Because the programme is targeted at a specific year group (say, Year 9), different students are involved every year – and thus the unit’s legacy becomes, hopefully, self-perpetuating.

It’s a great idea and one that has already borne fruit. Some 33 schools are already taking part and there are a number of others in the pipeline.

Just imagine learning at school about a particular aspect of WWII, and then meeting people who were actually there. What a fantastic way to inspire an interest and bring the history alive. Wish they’d have thought of it when I was at school!


(c) 2015 Adam Purcell