Anzac Day Breakfast Address

Craig Blanch
Anzac Hall
Thursday 25 April 2019

For more than two years, Dr Aaron Pegram and I looked closely at the lives of all 100 Australians who have been awarded the Victoria Cross; from Neville Howse in South Africa in 1900 to Cameron Baird in Afghanistan in 2013. The studies culminated recently with the release of ‘For Valour: Australians awarded the Victoria Cross’.

Our approach was to provide more than just stories of remarkable bravery. Heroism in war did not make them immune to its effects. While some were defined by their experiences; others were destroyed by them. Very few, if any, considered themselves heroes. For those that came home they were once again husbands, fathers, brothers and sons.  

Today it is timely to remember the stories of those who have rightfully been made exemplars of courage – not as members of an exclusive group, but as representatives of the many many thousands of Australians who have served in war. They were doctors, teachers, labourers, shearers, butchers, bakers, shopkeepers, solicitors, surveyors, clerks, professional soldiers and more, who put themselves in harm’s way because we, as a nation, asked it of them.

To look beyond the medal, the book could just as easily have been Australia’s experience of war in 100 stories. There are elements within these stories that we can all understand: love, loss, triumph, tragedy, legacy and remembrance.

But what can those of us who have never served possibly understand of the horrors that many faced? It is in the unguarded moments of those who were there that permit us a glimpse.

Harold ‘Pompey’ Elliott, one of Australia’s most exceptional commanders wrote to a close friend to try to explain war, stripped of its hubris and grandeur:

The weather was hot and the flies pestilential. When anyone speaks to you of the glory of war, picture to yourself a narrow line of trenches two and sometimes three deep with bodies - and think too of your best friends, for that is what these boys become by long association with you — mangled and torn beyond description by the bombs, and bloated and blackened by decay and crawling with maggots. Live amongst this for days …This is war and such is glory—whatever the novelists may say.

Pompey Elliott was speaking of Lone Pine. War correspondent Charles Bean added that as the men fought in the tunnels and trenches “the only respect which could be paid to the dead was to avoid treading on their faces.”

Seven Victoria Crosses were won at Lone Pine, 4 to Pompey’s battalion alone.

A posthumous Victoria Cross was awarded to Alex Burton, one of the bodies in the trenches. He was with a party of 10 men sent to defend a position against a heavy counterattack. They received and returned a tempest of bomb and rifle fire as they fought their own war of survival. Alex was one of three left standing when he was killed just as the post was secured. 12 months before he was a 21-year-old working with his shopkeeper father in the small Victorian town of Euroa.

He was fighting beside Fred Tubb when he died, the officer who had signed his enlistment papers and who lived just a few kilometres from the town. Fred survived the battle and was also awarded the Victoria Cross, but he did not survive the war. He was killed in France in 1917.

A third Victoria Cross from that single action went to Bill Dunstan. Bill’s war lasted for just 4 brutal days. A little over 8 weeks before Lone Pine he was a drapery store clerk in Ballarat. He joined the 7th Battalion on the day before the battle and was wounded and evacuated on the final day. His war was over.

His family knew that something terrible had happened on the peninsula. But what Bill witnessed at Lone Pine stayed locked within him. The war was a forbidden subject at home. It was as though he had never served - his medals stayed in a box under the stairs largely ignored. But once a year, on Anzac Day, he would drink a bit more than he should. He would get with his mates and make light of their time in the army, before the shutters would lock down again for another year. Anzac Day was the one day that his wife, Marjorie, dreaded more than any. Bill died in 1957 leaving his son to regret that he never had the courage to take his father aside and say “Dad, tell me all about it”.

Another name synonymous with Gallipoli is Alfred Shout. He died of wounds he received on the last day of the battle at Lone Pine and his Victoria Cross, along with a Military Cross and Mention in Despatches for earlier actions on Gallipoli made him the most highly decorated Australian on the peninsula. He became a legend during the 14 weeks he was on Gallipoli, but he took some of the secrets of his Victoria Cross action with him when he died. No recommendation or witness statements for his award have survived and a portion of the citation is at odds with the information that Aaron and I examined. To add to the mystery is a tantalising but brief reference to another Victoria Cross recommendation for his actions on the very first night of the battle, but there it ends. For Alfred anyway.

For his wife Rose, it was just the beginning. Rose was informed of his death, but despair turned to joy when another telegram arrived telling her that he had not died but had survived his wounds and was on his way home. It was a cruel twist made from an administrative blunder. The original telegram had told the truth.

Also stepping ashore at Anzac on the 25th of April was 51-year-old doctor, Neville Howse. Neville was Australia’s first VC, won during the Boer War in South Africa for saving a bugler’s life. He then established himself in the town of Orange, where he married Evelyn, and enjoyed a comfortable life. His medical practice thrived, and he was even elected the town’s mayor in early 1914. But Evelyn, and Neville’s practice partners, were soon to learn that to Neville, to think was to act. At the outbreak of the First World War, and much to Evelyn’s distress, he offered his services. Whether his business partners knew of his plans is unknown, but a fair indication can be supposed by a note that he left at the surgery: “I’m off to the war, you can do what you like with the practice.” Evelyn and Neville’s partners had experienced his resolute determination – by war’s end, the British and Australian governments had withered under the same stare. After his experience on Gallipoli, he was in no mood for diplomacy when he told the British commission into the conduct of the Gallipoli campaign that ‘under no conceivable conditions should Australia trust the medical arrangements made by the Imperial Authorities for the care of Australian sick and wounded’. The point was made - the Australian Army Medical Corps was restructured under Neville Howse – and his influence is felt to this day.

His stamina, and his sense of humour it seems, never faulted. Responding to a letter from a relative at home he wrote –

Last week in France I was on my feet from 3 am to 10 pm at night and must have walked over 20 miles, a little mud and plenty of shells, the first to retard my progress, the second to hasten it. 

Following Neville’s death from cancer in 1930, Sir Brudenell White reminisced how lucky they were that “this quiet but strangely persistent Fellow of the Royal College of Surgeons practically appointed himself staff officer to the director of Medical Services when the Australian Imperial Force was being formed.”

Not all legacies were as nationally significant as Neville’s, but profound in their smaller ways, nonetheless. Paddy Bugden was killed in his Victoria Cross action in France at Polygon Wood in 1917 but not before he rescued a captured mate, Alex Thomson. For two decades after the war, the Thomson family inserted newspaper in-memoriam notices on the anniversary of his death “in grateful and loving memory of Paddy Bugden VC”. Paddy’s mother kept his Victoria Cross close for over 30 years. In 1949 she was killed in a car accident and the medal was found in the grass beside the road where she died. 

Harry Dalziel should have died at Hamel on 4 July 1918. Armed only with a revolver he captured an enemy machine gun that was holding up the battalion’s advance and killed or captured the entire crew. He was seriously wounded in the hand but instead of seeking aid, he exposed himself to heavy fire to ensure a supply of ammunition for his gun crew. It ended quickly when a bullet smashed into his skull and exposed his brain. Against all odds he survived. He returned home and tried in vain to put the war behind him. The head wound healed but its effects remained permanently in the form of severe headaches, impacting on his ability to hold down permanent employment. 

During the Second World War, Harry heard that a migrant dairy farming couple in Queensland, Jakob and Christina Mayer, had been deemed enemy aliens under wartime provisions and had been separated. Jakob had fought with the Germans in the First World War and was placed under house arrest so that he could continue with his essential industry – Christina’s views were considered far too pro-German so she was interned in a camp in Victoria. Unknown to them, Harry contacted the attorney general Dr Herbert Evatt and offered his own reputation in return for Christina’s release, which he accepted.

Harry died in 1965 and at his funeral was Reinhardt, the son of Jakob and Christina. He told the assembled mourners that Harry “would have had far more reason to turn away from us. After all, he and my father fought against each other in World War l, yet he was the one who had compassion on us and reached his hand across the barriers of enmity and put his own status and integrity on the line for us.”

It was not the first time that Harry had reflected on his former enemies. His most haunting and vivid memory of the war was the sound of a Turkish soldier dying by his hand on Gallipoli in 1915.

The lives of many were caste by their memories or experience of war. Like the First World War’s Jack Leak. Jack was a recognised hero with a Victoria Cross for his actions when he ran at an enemy bombing post alone and silenced it, and despite the incredibly heavy fire he covered his party’s withdrawal, preferring to jeopardize his own life than that of his mates. There are less Australian names on the Roll of Honour thanks to Jack.

But later, like many soldiers in conflict, Jack simply reached the limits of his endurance. He could no longer stand the constant crashing of the shells. He sought help to no avail, so Jack just walked away. He was arrested for desertion and sentenced to life in prison, but this was later suspended so that he could return to the fighting until he was gassed in March 1918. Jack returned to Australia, but the war memories of this brave man never diminished. It was not until much later in life that he opened up to his children. He told them of a life grieving not only the loss of mates, but of the lives that he was forced to take. He kept his Victoria Cross in a box in his bedroom. It was a token from a war that, according to his children, destroyed him.

There were those who found fear to be the first enemy to be conquered, while others adapted eerily to a life of war. For Joe Maxwell, Australia’s second most highly decorated soldier of the First World War, fear was a companion he knew well. He was terrified by his first taste of combat on Gallipoli. In France he earned the Distinguished Conduct Medal, second only to the Victoria Cross for lower ranks, and two Military Crosses, before his Victoria Cross in 1918 for rushing machine guns single handed that were taking a toll on his men. Joe wrote of the final action “if I was the bravest man during that day then God help the man who was most afraid.”

Not so William Joynt. William arrived in France in 1916 and over the next 2 years fought in all but one of the 8th Battalion’s major battles. In fighting in August 1918 at Herleville Wood not far from Peronne he took up the mantle of his dead company commander. Through sheer guile and courage he defeated a well-entrenched enemy force with his own depleted troops and the shaken remnants of another shattered battalion. He later wrote of the hours leading up to the action: “I had become so used to war … I was not at all excited at the prospect of in a few hours being engaged in heavy battle and as zero hour was not until 4.45 and we were not to move off to the start line until 4 o’clock, I decided to get some sleep and stretched out under the stars.” He was the last surviving Australian First World War Victoria Cross winner when he died in May 1986, aged 97.

For those who were killed, of course only memories of who they were remain. Like Bill Kibby. Bill’s initial contribution to the Second World War was to fall into a trench and break his leg, leaving him with one leg shorter than the other. He received a medical downgrade that meant he had little chance of seeing any fighting. But somehow, he managed to talk his way back into re-joining his battalion.

On the 23rd of October 1942 at El Alamein Bill’s platoon commander was killed and he assumed the role. Over the next 7 days when he was not inspiring his men or fixing communication cables under fire, he was attacking enemy positions singlehanded and killing and capturing enemy troops and guns that were holding up his unit and causing casualties. He was in the process of silencing the final enemy position when he was killed.

But Bill was not the warrior of legend. Bill liked to paint watercolours. His daughters had never even heard him raise his voice. ‘All I want out of life”, he said, “is to be back home at Glenelg with my wife and daughters and my garden.’ Bill thought gardening was ‘the greatest game in the world’.  

The Vietnam War’s Peter Badcoe was an enigma. He was a quiet and gentle man, short and stout with horn-rimmed glasses, who neither drank nor smoked. Peter would not have been out of place in the halls of learning. He preferred to read his history books and study Vietnam’s ancient cultures than to join his men in the rowdy mess tent, but he loved the army.

But Peter was also fearless to the point of recklessness. He was known to drive alone in his jeep along unsecured roads ignoring any risk from snipers – and he really liked his guns. A corporal remembered the first time he met Peter in Vietnam:

An old, bright red beret sat jauntily on his head. His drab jungle greens were almost hidden under the most amazing collection of weapons I have ever seen on one man. A Swedish submachine gun, his favourite, hung over one shoulder. It was balanced on the other side by a snub-nosed grenade launcher. On his belt an Australian pistol hung heavily and in one hand he heft an American machinegun. He lowered the armament to the floor, crossed the room, shook hands, refused a drink and talked about his boys.

His actions over a 6-week period between February and April 1967 were recognised with the Victoria Cross. During that time, he saved the life of a seriously wounded American advisor while under heavy fire, rallied troops and led a number of devastating frontal attacks when all hope seemed lost. He was killed by machine gun fire on the 7th of April while fighting far in advance of his support troops.

On that same day he had written to his wife revealing his growing cynicism at the conduct of the war. He wrote “it’s time I came home”. If he had come home, it may have been to a very different and intriguing life. He and an American intelligence officer had discussed the possibility of bringing water to Australia’s dry outback. They had planned to meet up after the war. 

This year will mark 50 years since the Victoria Cross actions of Ray Simpson in Vietnam. Ray and his siblings were put into care as children when his single father could no longer cope during the Depression years. As soon as he was of age, he joined the army, perhaps it was the influence of the First World War soldier settler he went to live with at age 11. Whatever the reason, he loved the life.

Ray is one of only two recipients to have been invested with the Victoria Cross in Australia by a reigning monarch. Queen Elizabeth II invested Ray with his medal at Government House in Sydney on the 1st of May 1970. Keith Payne had been invested on the royal yacht Brittania, two weeks earlier.

But Ray’s investiture almost didn’t take place. He was adamant that his Japanese wife Shoko be present at the ceremony. If she would not be flown to Australia for the event, he asked that the army send the medal to him in the mail.

Ray always had his own way of doing things. He may or may not have had a problem with authority – either way he was happy to ignore it. His colourful language was said to “blister the barrel of an armalite rifle.” When confronted by a brigadier about his language, he set about proving the point in no uncertain terms. He despised the spit and polish of the parade ground but was one of the most revered soldiers ever to wear the uniform. He was awarded the Victoria Cross for 2 separate incidents in the same operation in 1969. American Peter Holmberg was a witness to one of the incidents where a wounded Australian was being recovered from the field of fire:

The whole area was sprayed. Warrant Officer Simpson’s area caught the full burst and the tree he was beside was ripped apart … By this time most of the indigenous troops had taken off back to the hill. Warrant Officer Simpson stayed behind in contact alone until we could get Warrant Officer Kelly out of the machine-gun fire.

Like Badcoe, Ray became disillusioned and he told a friend in his own inimitable style:

The villagers know the real situation and he has copped the shit from Charlie, his own officials and us and now I believe he just doesn’t give a damn who wins. He just wants the whole thing to stop. The bastards have beaten us, mate.

The names of thirty four of the 100 recipients of the Victoria Cross are on the Roll of Honour.

Including our last, Cameron Baird, the first posthumous Victoria Cross for almost half a century. 

Cam should never have been a soldier. His dream was to be a professional AFL player. He was certainly good enough and there was interest from more than one major club. He could have had his choice of any number of sports if the 60 odd trophies in his room was any indication. But an injury at the worst possible time put an end to his dream. He could have waited and tried again, but instead he turned to the army. He was at first rejected due to his football injury but this time he was having none of that. He sought medical advice and lodged a successful appeal. He then disposed of all his trophies and closed the door, permanently, on his old life.

In 2013 he was killed in a desperate attempt to work his way to a wounded mate trapped in a village compound in Afghanistan. As usual he was at the forefront of the charge. In 2007 Pte Luke Worsley was killed storming a doorway while part of Cam’s team. Luke’s death had had a profound effect on him. For the action in which Luke was killed Cam was awarded the Medal for Gallantry, an award that he accepted reluctantly and after much soul searching.

Cam’s parents Doug and Kaye learned of his death when three uniformed soldiers arrived at their door on the evening of the 22nd June 2013. They endured two funeral services, a private ceremony when his body was cremated, and a larger more public service when his memorial marker was changed to reflect the award of the Victoria Cross.

Growing up, Cam was modest and often dismissive of his achievements. He had a soft spot for the vulnerable, and in sport was known to present his own ribbons to other kids who had missed out. When I interviewed Doug and Kaye, I asked them to try and sum up Cam in a single sentence. Kaye thought briefly and said simply “he was a good soldier and a good person.”   

These are just some of the stories of the men behind the Victoria Cross. They all had just one thing in common – they were awarded a small, rather plain medal that is one of the world’s most recognisable symbols of courage and inspiration. But to really appreciate what they did, it is important to know who they were.

To those of you who wear or have worn the uniform, I thank you and your loved ones for your service. It has been a privilege to have been with you here this morning. Thank you.