What happens when the last veteran dies?

And the band plays Waltzing Matilda,

And the old men still answer the call,

But as year follows year, more old men disappear.

Someday no-one will march there at all.

– Eric Bogle, And the Band Played Waltzing Matilda

Once again Anzac Day approaches. Once again I will board an aeroplane and fly to Sydney. Once again I will pin my great uncle Jack’s medals to the right side of my chest. Once again I will hoist the 463-467 Squadron banner high, and once again I will march.

But for how much longer?

I’ve been struggling to write about the future of the Anzac Day march – or specifically the future of my part in it – for several years now. At around this time each year I’ve grappled with it, starting something but failing to come up with a coherent argument. So I’ve put it off. Chickened out. Relegated it to the ‘too hard’ basket. But sure as eggs, once again here I am. And the question has become more urgent. So this year I’m going to finish it.

I’ve been involved with the 463-467 Squadrons Association in Sydney for about a decade now. Long enough that I now consider friends many of the veterans, friends and family that make up the group. This is why, despite living in Melbourne for the last five or so years, I still prefer to go to Sydney for Anzac Day: it’s one of only a handful of chances I have each year to catch up with them.

As time has passed, so too has a fair number of veterans I knew. Men like Reg Boys, Rollo Kingsford-Smith and David Walter, among several others, have all gone to the Great Crew-Room in the Sky. In the last year or two however, as those who are left have grown very very old indeed and as age wearied them more and more, the trickle has turned into a flood: George Douglass. Harry Brown. Hugh McLeod. Albert Wallace. And now Don Huxtable. And these are just Sydney-based 463-467 Squadron Association veterans I knew personally.

As year follows year, more old men disappear.

In 2014 just three veterans started the Anzac Day march with the 463-467 Squadron banner. That was the first point at which I began actively wondering about the future of the Squadron banner in the march. One of the three that year was unable to complete the course – and the other two have since died. Improbably in 2015 numbers actually grew to eight, including two riding in trucks and two in wheelchairs, but given the numbers who have died in the intervening year that is likely to have been an aberration. Don Huxtable’s recent passing has further focused minds on a difficult but inevitable truth.

There are now very few 463-467 Squadron veterans left who remain capable of marching behind the banner on Anzac Day. One day, sooner than we all would like, they too will pass.

Someday no-one will march there at all.

And what then?

There’s been a fair bit of controversy in recent years about marching on Anzac Day, and specifically how descendants of veterans, such as myself, fit into it. Originally, of course, it was only the veterans themselves who were allowed to march – and that was highly appropriate. But those were the days when there were a significant proportion of veterans of conflicts like WWI still alive. Those first Diggers are long gone now, and descendants have begun marching in their place. But as the WWII Diggers now slowly fade away, the few who remain sometimes seem in danger of being swamped by the ever-increasing crowds of descendants.

In 2008 it all got too much for the RSL in Sydney. They began politely suggesting that descendants go to the back of the parade instead of marching with their ancestors’ units. In more recent years that polite suggestion has become more assertive, and changes have been made to the traditional format so that WWII veterans are given more prominence at the front of the march (with a strict limit of one carer each allowed with them). Instead of the WWI banners leading the march, they now bring up the rear. This year it’s spread to Melbourne, with similar adjustments on the cards for the southern capital’s march.

Far be it, of course, for me to criticise the involvement of descendants in the Anzac Day march. I have, after all, been one of them for several years now. There’s no doubt that it’s been a special experience. The noise made by the crowds that lined George St during last year’s march during the Centenary of Anzac was, genuinely, quite exhilarating. But at the same time I’ve felt a little uneasy. The applause and the cheering from the crowd is for those original veterans we have marching with us. Once they can no longer march, then what?

The answer, I think, is that once we no longer have any originals capable or willing to march, the time has come to bring down the curtain. The fellowship evident at the 463-467 Squadrons Association luncheon each year – and indeed the increasing numbers seen at that and other functions in the last few years – shows that there remains a place for events of that type. And of course other Anzac Day traditions such as the Dawn Service must also continue. But the March should be for the veterans themselves. While we still have veterans marching with us, I’m very happy to carry the banner for them.

But on the day the last 463-467 Squadron veteran in Sydney dies, it’s time to retire the banner.

And the band plays Waltzing Matilda,

And the old men still answer the call,

But as year follows year, more old men disappear.

Someday no-one will march there at all.

(c) 2016 Adam Purcell



4 thoughts on “What happens when the last veteran dies?

  1. Very interesting, and a question that becomes more relevant each year. As the numbers dwindle what are we to do? I guess that’s why many of us blog, to keep their memories and history alive. Personally I hope the marches and remembrance days never end that way their sacrifice will live on.

  2. The words say it all “Lest We Forget” March or no march we lose a part of ourselves and who we are as a country should we ever forget. Your web site is one way to remember and pay respect to those who lost their lives. A new generation of soldiers is with us now. We owe it to them to show respect for what they do for their country. I am sure that the present young generation feels something about the sacrifices of soldiers, airmen and sailors from WW1 and further conflicts. Anzac day is the one day this country is really united in sentiment and for no other reason. Yes….We will remember them.

  3. Hi Adam,

    it’s been a good while since my last correspondence. I am writing to send all my good wishes and to thank you for your wonderful blog!

    I read with engagement this last blog (such a fan of Eric Bogle) and could feel the conflict and the sadness in your words.

    You have invested a lot of your life in this wonderful search and honour of not only Uncle Jack but all of the comrades in that Division.

    While you and I never met him, Uncle Jack looms large. He was my dad’s (cousins) hero and vicariously became mine, and through me, my sons brother and grandchildren. Our frequent visits to the National Memorial always includes a poppy for Uncle Jack.

    I don’t know what the RSL has planned for the future…I just know the privilege of standing with others at the Sydney ANZAC March is something that has to be experienced for an other to understand….or is it so personal that each of us not only contributes but takes something from that event to build our own understanding of the effort and sacrifice those people made all those years ago?

    None of this is to take away from our latter day defence people….their engagement brings new and fearful understandings.

    Throughout history there have been wars. It is our human shame that we fight each other through greed and avarice or some slight that escalates to something unspeakable.

    I am reminded of Henri Dunant who established the Red Cross; he did this because of the injured and maimed left on the fields of war to suffer or die agonising deaths…he remains my hero, alas after more than 150 years we still need the Red Cross and Red Crescent because we as a species continue to believe that war is an answer.

    I am sorry to digress,

    again, thanks Adam for all of this wonderful work….and I am sure whatever decision you make it will be a wise one.

    With lots of love


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