2009 Remembrance Day commemorative address
Address by General Peter Cosgrove AC MC (Ret'd)
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Today marks the ninety-first anniversary of the Armistice on the Western Front. As we remind ourselves each year, at this hour on the 11th of November 1918, the guns fell silent. Four years of war had come to an end.
It became known as the Great War, and for good reason. Its scale was unprecedented. It sparked the mobilisation of 70 million people across many nations. Its violence shattered great empires. Its images have never lost their power. To a great degree those images of the muddy moonscapes of the Western Front have served to define, for succeeding generations, the horror of war.
It was the costliest conflict in history up to that time. Thirteen million people died, nine million of them combatants. Over one-third of all the soldiers killed were “missing”, or had no known graves.
Three hundred and thirty-two thousand Australians fought in the Great War with the First AIF. Sixty thousand died, 45,000 of them on the Western Front, and 152,000 were wounded. Those grim statistics meant that only one out of every three Australians who went to the war got through it unscathed, at least physically. With a population only of about four million, Australia had, proportionate to forces fielded, the highest casualties in the British Empire.
For the Australians at the front, the Armistice came as a reprieve. Not for them, though, the celebrations that erupted in the cities of Australia and the other victorious allied nations as the news spread. Too many of their mates had been killed. “One sits and ponders sadly of those many pals who are gone to that home from which no wanderer returns,” lamented Corporal Roger Morgan of the 2nd Battalion.
As the men of the First AIF had no home leave almost until the end of the war, they consigned thoughts of home and family to the back of the mind, and a man’s mates became his chief reason for being. “For all the dreadful implications of war, it is something to have known men as they truly are”, wrote Captain Edgar Rule of the 14th Battalion.
Men would rather die than let a mate down, observed the Australian official historian, Charles Bean. Mateship, and the deep loyalty it bred, gave the AIF the strength to endure the terrible ordeal.
It was embodied in the early days on Gallipoli by Private John Simpson Kirkpatrick, who brought wounded down from the line on a donkey until he was killed barely a month after he arrived on the peninsula. It was expressed by Trooper Humphrey Hassall of the 10th Light Horse. “Goodbye, Cobber, I don’t think I’ll be coming back from this one,” he said, before charging to certain death at the Nek.
On the Western Front, on Gallipoli and in the desert, the Australians encountered the mass killing power of modern industrial warfare. But in battle after battle it was not powerful enough to threaten the bonds of mateship that held them together.
At Fromelles, where over 5,500 Australians became casualties in a single night, their mates scoured no man’s land for days afterwards to recover the wounded. At Pozières, where the Australians withstood some of the heaviest prolonged shelling of the war, Private Edward Jenkins, a renowned troublemaker in the 3rd Battalion, brought in the wounded and gave them his water until an exploding shell obliterated him. At Polygon Wood, Captain Harold Wanliss of the 14th Battalion, whom many viewed as a potential Australian prime minister, was killed while trying to help a wounded man.
A famous biblical passage captures this spirit. It says: “A man has no greater love than this, than that he lays down his life for his friends”. Few would disagree with it. I think there is a corollary that few would disagree with either. It is this: “A man has no greater love for his country than that he lays down his life on its behalf”.
Australia’s First World War dead fell for a cause that some people today criticise as futile, as having little to do with Australia. The men of the First AIF knew otherwise. They knew that if the struggle were lost, then Australia would be a very different place. They knew that future Australians would not be able to rejoice that their country was free and its destiny theirs to determine. They knew that tyranny successful somewhere eroded freedom everywhere. Volunteers all, they fought and died to prevent that happening.
And through the pivotal role that the Australian Corps played in the advance to victory on the Western Front in 1918, Australia influenced the destiny of the world for the first time in our history, and arguably more than at any other time since.
The First World War was supposed to have ended all wars. The ninety-one years since the Armistice bear eloquent and sad testimony to how illusory that hope was. Those years have seen war after war, campaign after campaign, and thousands more Australian war dead. But, in every instance, those Australians held to the same twin ideals, mates and country – mates and country – as those who went before them. Let me mention a few.
Terribly wounded by anti-aircraft fire over Italy during the Second World War, Pilot Officer Rawdon Middleton, one mission way from completing his tour, flew his crippled bomber all the way back to England and held it steady while his crew parachuted to safety. He knew he could not escape himself. Middleton was awarded a posthumous Victoria Cross.
Lieutenant Tom “Diver” Derrick of the 2/48th Battalion had won the Victoria Cross in New Guinea and the Distinguished Conduct Medal in the Western Desert. Already well-known in Australia, he was withdrawn from combat in 1944 but insisted on returning to action with his mates in Borneo in May 1945. There, with the end of the war in sight, he was killed.
Leap ahead twenty years to 1965 and the jungles of Vietnam. Warrant Officer Kevin “Dasher” Wheatley of the Australian Army Training Team Vietnam refused to leave a wounded mate and died in action alongside him. “Dasher” Wheatley was awarded a posthumous Victoria Cross.
In the Korean War and the Malayan Emergency, and during Confrontation, Australians also gave their lives for mates and country. Like their forebears in earlier conflicts, they were determined not to let either down.
Our war dead are scattered across far flung lands. They lie in over a hundred cemeteries or are remembered on just as many memorials. Their names, more than 102,000 of them, are on the Roll of Honour that lines the cloisters of this hallowed building behind us.
Five names have been added today. Lieutenant Michael Fussell of the 4th Battalion, the Royal Australian Regiment (Commando), Private Gregory Sher of the 1st Commando Regiment, Corporal Mathew Hopkins of the 7th Battalion, the Royal Australian Regiment, Sergeant Brett Till of the Incident Response Regiment, and Private Benjamin Ranaudo of the 1st Battalion, the Royal Australian Regiment. These five Australian soldiers were killed in Afghanistan in the continuing fight against international terrorism. It is a war that we, and our allies, must win but the road to victory will be a long one. We remember today as well those currently serving on that road and the perils they face.
Other Australian servicemen and women have died in commitments that were not warlike, such as peacekeeping or humanitarian operations, or as members of post-conflict occupation forces. They are commemorated in the Australian War Memorial’s “Remembrance Book”.
Every one of the names on the Roll of Honour and in the Remembrance Book represents a husband, father, son or brother taken; a wife, mother, daughter or sister gone. Their lives were precious: to their families, to Australia and above all, to those who gave them. They never had the chance to grow old, or to watch those dear to them grow old.
Their loss is a reminder that there is nothing glorious about war. Those called upon to fight know that better than anyone. But they also know that, when all else fails, it is necessary to fight against the tyrannies that threaten liberty. That cause transcends the ages, and it is a noble one. So we also recall today those who have fallen for our allies in fighting for it with us.
It is highly appropriate that we should gather in this place at this time. In writing of our war dead, Charles Bean said of the Australian War Memorial, “Here is their spirit, in the heart of the land they loved”. It is here that we sense their presence. It is here that their call to us to build a nation worthy of their sacrifice is heard at its loudest.
In these days of great uncertainty, those words are clarion call for all Australians. Strengthened by those mighty pillars of mateship and country that sustained them, and led them, as ordinary Australians, to achieve great things, we must not let them down.