Anzac Day National Address

4 mins read
His Excellency General the Honourable Sir Peter Cosgrove AK MC (Retd) Governor-General of the Commonwealth of Australia

For some here attending this moment in the national capital and others like this elsewhere around the nation, this will be your first Anzac Day service. Some of you are youngsters, some are new to this nation.

For all of those newly come to this national ritual we expect that you will all be eager to understand what it is that draws us as a nation to gather so solemnly more than 100 years after an event in a war so very far from our shores.

On this day 100 years ago, the Great War had been over for about five months. This great Memorial campus here in Canberra had not yet been created but all over Australia in communities great and small, people gathered to rejoice the deliverance of the remnants of the flower of our youth from history’s most terrible war. Equally so, probably more so, those gatherings mourned the dreadful loss of life in faraway places, the loss of innocence in hearth and home.

In a nation of 5 million or so, around 420,000 of our men and women served in uniform in World War I. When the guns drew silent in November 1918, there were 95,000 Australians in France and another 60,000 in Great Britain. In the Middle East there were another 30,000.

Of course, I have not included the more than 60,000 lying in graves or whose remains lay unrecovered on the battlefield. Still, it was over, “the war to end all wars” had drawn to a close and nations could now argue about the peace! Our men and women could come home!

Imagine the excitement when the first contingent arrived back in Australia on 3rd December 1918. But the process must have seemed agonisingly slow to both the troops and of course their loved ones – the final troop convoy didn’t arrive in Fremantle until late September 1919.

While the fighting had stopped, before the AIF was eventually disbanded, another 2200 of those men and women succumbed to wounds, illnesses and accidents. The grief those families back in Australia felt is unimaginable.

Every family in Australia that suffered a loss or received home a family member ruined by their war experience must have asked “Why did they go? What was it for? Was it worth it!” These questions were always justified then and they are justified now. The Australia of 1914 was bursting with energy and optimism and innocence and the exuberance of liberty. Although we had the most profound historical, cultural and even legal ties to the mother country - Great Britain, nonetheless there was a sense here of growing independence and of precious democratic freedoms.

Setting aside the rising jingoism associated with threatening events in Europe, there was a natural foreboding in Australia that our peaceful future was inextricably linked to the balance of power over there. The growing threat of hegemonism invoked deep unease within Australians, from our national leadership to ordinary families. Of course, there was a veneer of naïveté – there always is with the complex motivations of nations contemplating war. But afterward those bereaved families, those shattered individuals returning to their homeland Australia, could cling to, did cling to the notion that Australia stood up for what was right, even when the cost was awful.
Let it be always thus.

So for those who wonder why communities assemble on this day every year at dawn and later in the morning, as Governor General I say that in the gamut of motives from the profoundly philosophical to simple curiosity, there is a fundamental reason: it is by our presence to say to the shades of those countless men and women who did not come home or who made it back but have now passed, and to say to their modern representatives, the ones around the nation who today march behind their banners, “you matter, what you did matters, you are in our hearts.”
Let it be always thus.

And now perhaps an insight as to why we veterans gather and march proudly behind those banners, in our ranks of old: for the camaraderie of course and to honour those who have faded from our ranks – gone but not forgotten, while there’s breath in any of us. But also because it symbolises for each of us that part of our lives which was once characterised by ‘service before self’ - when we put aside personal safety and the comfort of hearth and home for the needs of our duty.

You know, when we march, we like to look at those gathered to watch and wonder, young and old, family, friends and strangers and to catch their gaze and convey our silent message – “we did it for our nation, for what Australia stands for, we did it for you.”
Let it be always thus.

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