Remembrance Day 2017: commemorative address
Today we stop to mark 99 years since the end of the Great War.
Today we pause for the 99th time to remember the over 60,000 Australians who never returned.
Today we remember the countless more Australians whose lives were changed forever by war.
It is a day created from a conflict that the World hoped never to see again.
The loss, the devastation and the tragedy of the First World War remains with us ninety-nine years after it came to an end.
In 1917, the men whose names and legacy we remember today had endured the darkest of years.
Generations of men were lost to Bullecourt, Messines and Passchendaele. The distant memory of Gallipoli had been replaced with mud, blood and with more sacrifice.
Australia’s sacrifice in 1917 was the greatest our country would ever pay in wartime. More than 76,000 Australians were killed, wounded or missing on the Western Front in 1917. Over 40 percent of Australia’s casualties in the First World War occurred that year.
More than this, for the soldiers this was now a war without respite or redemption.
Looking forward from their struggle, only their bravery drove them on while not knowing their fate. Looking back from the peace they gave us, we can see today how close they were to its end.
In Belgium, around 13,000 Australians paid the ultimate price. It is a price that those who lived there and their descendants have not forgotten in the last one hundred years.
In the country of my birth, Australians marched to defend and to die for the land of my family.
At the town of Ypres, Anzacs would pass through the town’s gate to the fight on the front. As they went through the gate, they would pass two lions. Statues set to guard the town and its people.
Walter Downing witnessed the effort of these men. As a sergeant with the 57th Battalion, he had marched with the Australians who passed through the gates to Polygon Wood.
At the oncoming of dawn the sky behind flamed like the Aurora Borealis… In that instant came a roar as of the dissolution of the universe – the guns... Six thousand guns, wheel by wheel, firing thirty thousand shells a minute, flung a thunderous ribbon on the German lines, weaving to and fro like the shuttle on a loom, combing the country with intersecting that passed and repassed. The battles of 1917 saw some success but were no less in sacrifice. At Polygon Wood, Australians would fight a brief and clear victory. Yet they would lose over 5,500 men.
The machine of war that had developed was unlike anything that men had seen. Bean remembered the battle of Polygon Wood as being one of unrelenting artillery and destruction: Roaring, deafening, it rolled ahead of the troops “like a Gippsland Bushfire”.
Each man walking into this hell had his own story that had brought him to this place. For one Anzac it was a story that had brought him home.
Private Cyrille Knockaert was born in Ostend West Flanders. A labourer before the war, he had emigrated to Australia in 1911, hoping to establish a new life in a new country half a world away.
When war broke out, Cyrille was still in the process of becoming an Australian. In August 1915, only several weeks after becoming a citizen, he enlisted in Adelaide to fight for his new home.
His service would take him back across the globe to the Western Front. Fighting with the 27th Battalion, he would see the death and loss first hand at Pozieres and Mouquet Farm in 1916. He would be wounded near Flers in one of the mud-soaked and bloody battles of the Somme.
He would return to the front to see action at Bullecourt and Broodseinde – a battle that took place only a short drive from the town of his birth.
With many other Australians, Cyrille Knockaert marched through the Menin Gates and passed its lions to defend Ypres at the Battle of Menin Road.
Born in Belgium, now an Australian, Cyrille Knockaert fought for the country of his choice to defend the country of his birth.
On 9 August 1918, Cyrille Knockaert was wounded in the side during the Battle of Amiens.
Two days later he died. He was 23.
His remains are buried at Vignacourt British Cemetery in France.
The people of Belgium never forgot the service and sacrifice of those who came to defend them. Cyrille Knockaert was born one of their sons but in that war all those who fought to defend their freedoms became their own.
In 1936, the town of Ypres gifted these lions to the men and women of a country that had come to defend them. Since its construction, they have stood here at the entrance to the Australian War Memorial. They now guard the memory of those who fell and of those who have fallen since.
In this centenary of the First World War, the Australian War Memorial has returned these lions to the people of Ypres and Belgium. For a time they have gone back to the gate that guarded their people alongside the Australian soldiers.
In their time, the duty of the Anzacs was to fight and to die for the values and freedoms we enjoy today. They were volunteers who answered the call of their country, a country that will be forever grateful.
In the years since, the men and women who put themselves forward to defend their county, our country and their loved ones, our loved ones have known sacrifice just as great. Today they are still volunteers who answer the call of their country to serve selflessly.
In our time, our duty is to guard the legacy of the sacrifice and service of every man and woman who defends us, our freedom and our values.
On their return to Australia and to their families, we must ensure that the values and principles they fought to defend are not eroded.
As a nation we must ensure that the foundations of our freedom, such as the rule of law and the presumption of innocence, are extended to them.
The men and women of our Australian Defence Force – from those stationed in Australia to the SAS and all of those brave men and women who serve in Special Operations Command abroad – deserve nothing less.
Today we remember the service and sacrifice of all men and women who have fought for us.
Those who bear physical and psychological wounds as a result of their service to our nation and the families who love and support them;
It is only on the back of their legacy that we enjoy peace.
Lest we forget.