Remembrance Day Commemorative Address

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Address given by Mr Kerry Stokes AC, Fellow of the Australian War Memorial. 
Australian War Memorial Chairman 2015-2022 and Australian War Memorial Council Member 2007-2022

We pause here in silence. We reflect on this day when the guns finally fell silent on the Western Front in 1918.

Immersed in the spirit of those who have given their all, their lives for us in war, in peacekeeping and in humanitarian assistance. We pay tribute and ponder what we have been given.

Conceived in the blood they shed for one another, for us and the ideals of mankind, the Australian War Memorial speaks to values. Our values.

Australia’s official First World War correspondent was Charles Bean. From the Gallipoli landing, Pozieres to Passchendaele, Mont St Quentin and the Hindenberg Line, he was witness to it all.

But on the day of the Armistice, Bean chose not to celebrate. Instead, he took a photographer and drove to Fromelles to the site of Australia’s worst day ever - 5,533 casualties: 1,917 dead. He wanted to be with the men who had dreamt of the day they would never see, but for which they had given their lives.

In emotional silence he walked the battlefield:

“We found the old no man’s land was simply full of our dead. The skulls and bones and the torn uniforms were lying about everywhere.”

On this day, Bean wrote:

“It is over. The enormous effort of the men – yes, and women and children is finished we are free to be happy again.”

But this happiness came at the cost of 60,000 Australian lives with 152,171 casualties and thousands more who would die in the decade that would follow.

Reflecting on the death of his much-loved cousin, Lieutenant Leo Butler at Mouquet Farm in August 1916, Bean’s anguished diary note asked:

“Was there anything in this war or any other, to justify such sacrifices?”

Years later, writing the official history he pondered that question over and over, prompting him to ask, what was so special about the Australians?

His answer was: “The answer lay in the mettle of the men themselves. To be the kind of man that would give way when his mates were trusting to his firmness….to live the rest of his life haunted by the knowledge that he lacked the grit to carry it through, this was the prospect with which these men could not live. Life was very dear, but life was not worth living unless they could be true to their ideal of Australian manhood.”

Bean understood he had observed and recorded the revelation of an emerging Australian character.

Only a generation later, a small group of Australians defending our vital interests on the Kokoda trail, conquered first a brutal terrain to then suffer, fight and die in the midst of great loneliness. Their legacy stands etched in four granite pillars at Isurava.

Four values informing our national character:

Courage - that spirit that challenges doubt, imposes will and inspires us to break through fear.

Endurance - never give up.

Sacrifice - a life of value is ultimately one given in the service of others.

Mateship - coined by Henry Lawson, adopted by Charles Bean and passed to us by those who came before us, that spirit that binds us as Australians in the face of adversity.

Our nation’s most highly decorated soldier of the First World War was Lt Colonel Harry Murray - Victoria Cross; Companion of the Order of St Michael and St George; Distinguished Service Order with Bar, Distinguished Conduct Medal; Mentioned in Dispatches four times.

Although Murray never spoke of the War, in 1933 he wrote that it was ‘discipline’ that got him through:

“The discipline not to give into natural instincts like fear. You could feel fear, it was inevitable, but you must not succumb to it. You had a duty. You must look after your mates.”

A century after Harry Murray’s description of mateship, observed by Bean and enshrined at Isurava, we see it today. SAS Sergeant ‘S’ emotionally reflecting on the Afghanistan battle of Tizak in which he saw another Australian awarded the Victoria Cross, said:

“To fail would be worse than death. To let down your mates in combat would be worse than death. I don’t know why I get so upset about this but yes – that’s the essence, you don’t let your mates down.”

We now see that tradition passed down in civilian acts of courage motivated by the concern for others. From bushfires to floods to pandemics and those other extremes which will always affect our country and rock our foundations.

We see it in civilian acts such as the 28 year-old Adelaide nurse, Kirsty Boden, who ran through the panicked melee toward the terrorist carnage on the London Bridge in June 2017. Fatally stabbed in seeking to care for others, her last words: “I am a nurse. I have to go.”

We need to come together as Australians fulfilling that tradition that has been passed down to us.

Kirsty was dubbed ‘the Angel of London Bridge’ and posthumously awarded the Florence Nightingale Medal by the International Committee of the Red Cross. It is the highest international honour for bravery shown by a nurse.

Facing new, emerging and increasingly threatening horizons, what we need most is one another. National mateship – caring for each other.

We remember those who have given us what we have and made us who we are. We remember men and women who have worn the uniform of the Royal Australian Navy, Australian Army and Royal Australian Air Force.  We remember our 103,000 dead. We remember the wounded and traumatised. We remember families, their love and their silently endured hardships.

After the bloodbath at Fromelles, Sergeant Simon Fraser spent three backbreaking days bringing in the wounded from no man’s land.

A voice rose through the morning mist, “Don’t forget me Cobber!”

He didn’t. We won’t. We never will.

We recommit ourselves to being a people worthy of sacrifices that have given us a greater belief in ourselves and a deeper understanding of what it means to be an Australian.

All these values are the spirit of the Australian War Memorial.

Thank you.

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