Remembrance Day Commemorative Address
100 years on, here in one life is a measure of our loss.
At the 1912 Olympics in Stockholm, the great American swimmer, Duke Kahanamoku, the man who would later introduce surfing to Australia, and his fellow US swimmers failed to turn up for the semi-finals of the Men’s 100m event because of confusion about the race start time amongst the American team officials. The Olympic Committee directed that the race be run without the US swimmers.
Cecil Healy, the Australian swimming champion, and likely gold medalist in the Duke’s absence, refused to swim and boycotted the semi-finals demanding that the Olympic Committee re-instate the American swimmers.
After a standoff between the Australians and the Committee, the Americans were permitted to compete. In the resulting final, the Duke beat Healy for the gold medal.
Knowingly surrendering the likelihood of an Olympic gold medal by demanding that your faster opponent’s disqualification from racing be overturned is rightly described as one of the greatest acts of sportsmanship in Olympic history. Fortunately, Cecil was to win a gold medal in the men’s 4 x 200m relay.
In September 1915, Cecil, despite his reservations about the causes and justification for the war, enlisted in the AIF. Given his age, 33, and his commercial experience he initially served behind the front line as a Company Quarter Master Sergeant. He was always organising activities to help troops survive the effects of homesickness, the stresses of the battlefield and the drudgery of waiting for the next action or ‘stunt’.
In May 1918 he could no longer accept that he was not bearing his share of the risks on the battlefield and undertook officer training to become an infantry platoon commander, a position with one of the shortest life expectancies in the First World War. Three months later, on 29 August 1918, Cecil was shot and killed leading his platoon during the Australian attack on Peronne.
Major Sydney Middleton DSO OBE, an Australian Olympic gold medal oarsman, captain of the Australian rugby team before the War, and a combat toughened soldier, knew Cecil and wrote to Cecil’s father and brother:
‘By Cecil’s death the world loses one of its greatest champions, one of its best men. Today, in the four years I have been at the front, I wept for the first time.’
Cecil Healy remains the only Australian Olympic Gold Medalist to die at war.
Immediately after the War, Australia was discovering the full measure of its loss – both in the human cost and in the social trauma inflicted on its people, communities and institutions. Joan Beaumont in her book ‘Broken Nation – Australians in the Great War’ writes ‘not for nothing did Manning Clark call the 1920s in Australia the age of the survivors.’
One of the benefits of the past four years of commemoration of a centenary of service that we have conducted in Australia and overseas is that we have reconnected on a personal level with that First War generation and hopefully have gained a clearer understanding of the price they paid for us today.
Having that understanding, we come again, like pilgrims, to this site today to acknowledge and thank that generation, both those that served and their families that supported them, for the influence they have had on the development of our nation and its character.
That influence, that legacy, was evident in the manner in which Australia responded and committed to many other conflicts following World War 1 to the present day, the cost of which we also remember in this ceremony.
Linda and I experienced the reality of that legacy last Saturday when we attended a combined anniversary event to mark the opening of the Greta Military Training Camp eighty years ago and the Greta Migrant Camp seventy years ago. Near a small village in the Hunter Valley from 1939 - 1949 over 60000 men were prepared for war in the Mediterranean, New Guinea and later for the Occupation Force in Japan. At that one location we could see how a national commitment to defend ourselves, and democracy, from fascism and militarism enabled over 100,000 displaced persons from Europe to migrate to Australia to Greta from 1949 to 1960 and help create the Australia we have today.
Service and sacrifice liberating people and enabling a new Australia to be built.
Although we are a much more blended people today, the spirit of those generations, and the spirit of Cecil Healy and many others like him since, is writ large in how we navigate and respond to the many issues and opportunities that we face as a nation today.
Cecil Healy had no love of the military, no desire to fight but he recognised that his values and his freedom were threatened. Reluctantly he chose to serve, fully understanding the risks contained in that decision.
In that, he is an example to us today. In that, we should be forever grateful to the thousands of men and women like Cecil who we remember today.
Lest we forget