Stuart Campbell, despite his Scottish name, is the Deputy Consul General for Australia in Chennai. A man who loves many things Indian, he is a heritage enthusiast, being a regular at walks and such events, notwithstanding the heat, which makes his face turn a bright shade of cerise.

Anzac Day at the Madras War Cemetery
Anzac Day at the Madras War Cemetery

ANZAC (Australia and New Zealand Army Corps) Day commemorates men and women of those countries who laid down their lives in war or conflict. This is observed each year at dawn on 25 April the world over. The tradition began with WWI for it was on that day in 1915 that the Anzacs landed at Gallipoli as part of an Allied attempt at driving the Turks back. This year marks the beginning of the centenary of that landing. The Allied losses at Gallipoli were huge, Australia and New Zealand alone losing 10,000 people.

Last week, Stuart invited me to the Madras War Cemetery (cementry in local parlance), Nandambakkam, to participate in ANZAC Day 2014. The Cemetery holds the graves of 857 soldiers who sacrificed their lives in the Second World War. Each stone has the name of a soldier, his regimental details and also his age at the time of death. Behind these is a large block that commemorates around a thousand men from India who were killed in the First World War. They are buried elsewhere and their names are carved here. There are 14 Australian and 6 New Zealanders, all killed during WW II, buried at Nandambakkam. All of them bar one, who served the navy, were with the air force.

There is another connection to Madras. The Emden here is a hallowed word, remembering the German ship that shelled the city on 22 September 1914. Considered unsinkable, it was destroyed in a naval battle with the Australian ship HMAS Sydney near the Cocos (Keeling) Islands on 8 November. This year marks the centenary of the Emden shelling Madras and later being sunk by the Sydney.

ANZAC Day was a moving experience. Representatives of various countries and the three armed forces of India laid wreaths at the white stone Cross of Sacrifice. Abide with me was sung and the Reverend Kruba Elizabeth of St Mary’s, Fort St George read a prayer. Sean Kelly, Consul-General of Australia welcomed everyone.

What followed was even more interesting – a ‘diggers’ gunfire breakfast’ at The Hilton. Apparently, the Anzacs were renowned for digging trenches and were hence referred to as such. Gunfire refers to early morning army duties and the breakfast that precedes it got its name that way. The bill of fare included Anzac cookies. These are long-lasting biscuits originally sent by the wives to their husbands at the front.

The Madras War Cemetery is worth a visit. Constructed in 1952 and maintained by the Commonwealth War Graves Commission, its noteworthy features are its art deco entrance, the immaculate lawn, the neatly laid out graves, and the two monuments – the white stone cross and the wall commemorating the WWI casualties.

This article appeared in The Hindu under the Hidden Histories column