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On interviewing the last surviving Anzac

The Bugle App

John Stapleton

19 April 2024, 10:45 PM

On interviewing the last surviving Anzac

After decades in mainstream journalism, and having written literally thousands of stories, there aren’t too many things I haven’t written about.

But there was one story about the world’s last survivor of the Gallipoli campaign, Alec Campbell, that has stuck in my memory all these years. 

Alec lied about his age in order to enlist in World War One, claiming he was 18 years and five months old. 

Throughout his extremely colourful life, Alec used to joke that because he was in fact only 16 when he went to war, he could become the oldest surviving Anzac. But thus it came to pass. He passed away in 2002 at the age of 103. 

I was working at The Australian as a general news reporter when, on the occasion of Alec officially becoming the last surviving Gallipoli veteran, I was directed by the Chief of Staff to do a phone interview. 

Most people, particularly the elderly, are pretty chuffed if the national newspaper rings them up over one honour or another. Not Alec.

In the first instance, Alec’s protective wife said she wasn’t sure if he would feel like talking. 

An old carpenter, he was way down the back shed “banging away at things”, as she put it, and didn’t usually like to come to the phone.

Alec took his time, that was for sure. He hung on the phone for a good 20 minutes or so. And when Alec did finally make it to the phone, he wasn’t honoured. He was grumpy that he had been disturbed. 

My generation grew up during the Vietnam War and many of us are decidedly anti-war. As a young reporter, I was very reluctant to interview old soldiers. I didn’t want to hear their war stories. 

But the opposite is true. There is no one more anti-war than a returned soldier. They have seen their mates die in front of them in often pointless conflicts, and do not want to relive the moment, or see anyone else go through the harrowing times they themselves have endured. 

I found Alec well, taciturn; utterly dismissive of politicians, proud of his union background, “up the bosses”, and contemptuous of the military commanders who had sent his comrades to their deaths in their thousands, the terrible slaughter he had witnessed firsthand.

Alec refused to march on Anzac Day until very late in life because he didn’t want to glorify a lie: that war was a noble enterprise. He almost never spoke about his experiences at Gallipoli. There were better, more positive things in life.

He joined what was then known as the Australian Imperial Force in July of 1915 and promptly earned the nickname “The Kid”. He arrived at Anzac Cove in November that same year and was wounded in the fighting at Gallipoli. He caught a fever and suffered facial paralysis as a result. He was invalided home and discharged in 1916, a veteran at the age of 17. 

Unlike many Australian veterans, who never recover from their wartime experiences, Alec got back to his home state of Tasmania and simply got on with life.

Alec worked many different jobs, as a stockman, carpenter, railway carriage builder and, in his later years, researcher and historian. He gained an economics degree at the age of 50. His love of life extended to an enthusiasm for sailing, and he also circumnavigated Tasmania.

On his deathbed, Alec pleaded: “For God’s sake, don’t glorify Gallipoli. It was a terrible fiasco, a total failure and best forgotten.”

He was survived by nine children, 30 grandchildren and 32 great grandchildren.

On the occasion of his death in May of 2002, I was also drafted to write a story headlined “Tributes and praise pour in for an ordinary hero”.

Then Prime Minister John Howard’s media office had done a fine job of polishing up the Anzac myth for public consumption: “On behalf of the nation, I honour his life. Alec Campbell was typical of a generation of Australians who, through their sacrifice, bravery and decency, created a legacy that has resonated through subsequent decades and generations.

“All Australians will forever be in debt to the Anzacs. Not only for what they did for us, but for the legend, for the tradition, for the stoicism under fire, sense of mateship and all those other great ideals that, increasingly, young Australians see as part of their Inheritance.”

Then Governor-General Peter Hollingworth said Alec’s death was an occasion to reflect on the passing of the generation that helped give us our identity and character as a nation.    

“Having recently returned from Anzac Day at Gallipoli and Anzac ceremonies in France, I have a renewed sense of the utter futility of war, which was such a constant message of the Anzacs like Alec Campbell.” 

Veterans Affairs Minister Danna Vale said Gallipoli held a unique place in the hearts of Australians.   

“With Mr Campbell’s passing, we have lost our last living link to the birthplace of the Anzac spirit, which is a great loss,” she said. “Mr Campbell and his fellow Anzacs fought with the kind of courage, integrity and honour that we will never forget. It is a legacy that will live on.”   

Alec, it is fairly safe to say, would have been contemptuous of the political sycophancy that accompanied his death, and disapproved of Australia’s involvement in America’s endless wars, including Afghanistan, Iraq and now Ukraine. 

Lest We Forget.