Seventeen-year-old Paul Holland has marched on Anzac Day for as long as he can remember. When he started, he was perched atop his father Grant’s shoulders. Every year the father and son pair marched behind the rust and gold banner of the 7th battalion, the unit of their grandfather and great grandfather, Sir George William Frederick Holland.
Sir George served in Turkey, France and Belgium. Unlike his older brother Vernon, also a member of the 7th battalion, he survived World War I. He returned to Melbourne where he became state president of the RSL for 21 years from 1929. For a decade after that he was the national RSL president.
But on Tuesday, the descendants of one of the longest-serving state RSL presidents weren’t in the main Anzac Day parade down St Kilda Road. They were part of a group of about 80 descendants of World War I Diggers marching along Birdwood Avenue, on the boundary of the Shrine grounds.
The alternative Anzac Day march was organised after the Shrine of Remembrance told a group of eight battalion associations they could not accommodate a request to gather there on Anzac Day morning. Being the busiest day of the year, Shrine chief executive Dean Lee said the earliest the World War I descendants could be accommodated was after 3pm.
It followed a decision introduced in 2016 by the Anzac Day Commemoration Council to place descendants towards the back of the parade, separated from their battalion banners which remain placed in chronological order near the head of the march.
“Strategically, it’s a terrible move,” Mr Holland said. “Kids won’t march in decades to come because you will have lost that connection.”
At 17, Paul said he felt a strong connection to Anzac Day because of his involvement in the march, which began when he was three.
“Maintaining those connections and passing on the memories is an important way to form an emotional attachment to our history,” he said.
Descendants of the 14th Battalion Association president Chris Waters said not allowing descendants to march with their battalion banners on Shrine grounds on the morning of Anzac Day could have further consequences, as in coming years, World War II descendants could find themselves in the same boat.
“I’ve been in touch with a lot of the Second World War groups,” he said. “We can see that there is going to be a mass exodus of World War II descendants out of that main march if we can’t find some common ground between now and 2018.”
After two years apart, he said ultimately the descendant associations would like to be reunited with the main march.
“But we can’t do it under the rules that they are imposing on us,” he said.
Vice-president of the World War II 2/29th Battalion Association Grant McKay said if the RSL or Anzac Day Commemoration Council started to order battalion associations without a veteran to the back of the march, there could trouble.
“We will ignore them,” said Mr McKay, whose father Leonard William McKay served with 2/29th and was a prisoner of war in Malaya. “They are going to have to bring handcuffs next year, if they plan to introduce and enforce that rule.”
The RSL and Anzac Day Commemoration Council have maintained that the Anzac Day parade is about those who have served, not their descendants.