Centenary of the Hobart Soldiers Memorial Avenue

Commemorative address

The Hon Dr Brendan Nelson AO
Director Australian War Memorial
3 August 2018

 

Australians all let us rejoice, for we are young and free.

First line of our national anthem.

We will sing it shortly. We sing it often. We hear it sung often.

Less often do we pause to reflect on what it really means.

Therein lays life’s great paradox.

It is often those things most important to us that we have a tendency to take for granted. The magic vitality of youth, the value of which is unknown until finally gone; families who love us, giving meaning and context to our lives; Australian citizenship – whether conferred by birth or by choice, bringing with it political, economic and religious freedoms; to live in a society where faith co-exists with reason, free academic inquiry, a free press and independent judiciary.

We are Australians.

We are defined so less by our constitution and the machinery of a democracy given us by the British, than we are by our values and our beliefs; the way we relate to one another and see our place in the world.

We are shaped most by our triumphs and our failures; our heroes and our villains; the way as a people we have faced adversity and how we will face the inevitable adversities that are coming and respond to emerging, unseen horizons.

No events changed us more than those that bring us here today.

Charles Bean was Australia’s official First World War correspondent. He landed with the Australians on Gallipoli shortly after Tasmania’s 12th battalion had come ashore. Witness to it all, he remained at the front through the entire war, refusing evacuation when he was wounded.

In Anzac to Amiens, Bean wrote:

"Many a man laying out there at Pozieres and in the low scrub of Gallipoli, with his poor tired senses barely working through the fever of his brain, has thought in his last moments, well….well….it’s over. But in Australia – they will be proud of this."

And we are. We are damned proud.

Millennia of rich indigenous history, custodianship and culture were devastated by the arrival of the British Fleet in 1788. But from that event and all that would follow, the origins of the Australia we now are and the people we have become.

We finally federated in 1901 and gazetted our flag in 1903. But until the cataclysm that unfolded late in 1914, we regarded ourselves as British.

Our young nation overwhelming embraced the war. We were 4.5 million people, Tasmania barely 200,000. From one million men eligible to enlist from a nation that twice said ‘no’ to conscription, 417,000 did. Aboriginal Australians denied their Aboriginality and kinship to serve, fight and die for the young nation that had taken so much from them. We sent 333,000 overseas including 13,000 Tasmanians.

A series of largely catastrophic military battles ensued until the stunning leadership of the Australian Corps by General Sir John Monash in 1918.

We emerged victorious, but inconsolably mourning 62,000 dead. In mourning its 2,700 dead, Tasmania like the rest of the nation was deeply divided, more so than at any time in our history.

We lived with another 60,000 who would die within a decade of returning to Australia.

Yet we remained true to our young, brittle democracy.

In doing so we emerged with a greater belief in ourselves and in time, a deeper understanding of what it means to be – an Australian.

It is tempting, human beings that we are, to settle for headlines, broad brushstrokes, popular imagery and mythology of our history. Our modern, comfortable lives breed easy indifference to sacrifices made in our name, devotion to duty and to our country.

On Monday morning 20 August at 3.02 am, ten letters a metre high will be projected onto the front of the Australian War Memorial, immediately below the byzantine inspire dome of the Hall of Memory. Within it is interred the Tomb of the Unknown Australian Soldier.

That name along with all our 62,000 First World War dead, is being projected to remind us to never allow the past to become a distant stranger. It also reminds us that we are Australians and there are truths by which we live. The names can be read down Anzac Parade.

Ivor Stephen Margetts was born and educated in Launceston. He trained to be a teacher at the University of Tasmania here in Hobart. A great footballer and well respected, he was teaching at the Hutchins School when the war broke out.

A lieutenant, Ivor Margetts was amongst the first ashore at the Gallipoli landing. He wrote of narrow escapes, including one in which every officer in his company was killed or wounded, his own clothes riddled with bullets.

The 12th battalion went in on the attack at Pozieres just after midnight on 23 July 1916. Briefing his men the night before, he said:

"Remember lads, it’s not hard to die."

He was leading his men forward on the 24th after the capture of the village. At 10 pm they were hit by shellfire.

Ivor Margetts was struck in the chest with a shell fragment and died within minutes. He was 24 years old.

Wounded himself, Private G.A McKenzie a stretcher-bearer and a fellow Hobartian, wrote to Margetts’ father:

I stayed with him to the end when he said, “McKenzie – if you get through this stink lad - which I hope to God …you do, let my people know how I got hit - and died thinking of them”.

He caught my hand and passed away

….I got him buried and put a cross over his grave…I was all through the Gallipoli muck with your son... I am only a private myself…..but there was never a better Officer living than Capt. Margetts…..any one of us would have gave their life for to save his little toe.

McKenzie told the Red Cross: 

"The men loved him. I cried like a kid when I found he was dead…I think he went because he was too good for the beastliness of war."

Margetts’ grave survived the battle, but not the war. We have a photograph – a desolate, small white cross on a Pozieres moonscape.

His tree and plaque is here – number 430, in the heart of the home he loved.

There are voices who argue that resources invested in Memorials and acts of Remembrance should instead be spent on veterans.

This and similar memorials around our nation play a diverse and vital role.

They are repositories of love and ennobled memory, lending meaning where there was none.

They remind us from where we came, those who gave us what we have and made us who we are.

They remind us of the truths by which we live and of the values that define and bind us.

Much is said in public discourse of our ‘national interests’

In walking this memorial avenue, we are reminded that transcending all else are our values. 

Our interests are our values and our values are our interests. 

Values of courage – both physical and moral; endurance, sacrifice, honour, integrity and mateship – the spirit that binds us as a people.

This memorial reminds and challenges every one of us to strive to be people worthy of such sacrifices.

We honour them best by the way we live our lives and shape our nation.

Every nation has its story. This is our story.

For we are young, and we are free.