The Australian War Widows ACT Field of Remembrance & Anzac Service

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Address given by Mr Matt Anderson PSM, Director, Australian War Memorial for the Australian War Widows ACT Field of Remembrance & Anzac Service, 21 April 2023.


I too would like to acknowledge the Ngunnawal people, the traditional custodians of the lands on which we meet, and I pay my respects to elders past and present.

I would also like to acknowledge our Master of Ceremonies, Richard Cruise, who served the Australian War Memorial with distinction for several decades.

Every night, at the Australian War Memorial we conduct a Last Post Ceremony, where we acknowledge those who have served, those still serving and the families that love and support them.

On Monday, we commemorated the 10th anniversary of our Last Post Ceremony.  10 years ago, at the first ceremony in its current format, we commemorated the life of a young Canberran killed in Afghanistan, Private Robbie, Poate. 

His mother, Jannie and father, Hugh, were present 10 years ago, and they were there again on Monday to lay a wreath. 

We have honoured 3,300 of our fallen this way. It will take 280 years to honour each of them individually.

To remember them not only for how and where they died. But who they were when they lived.

103,000 lives and, as Prime Minister Keating said, at the entombment of the Unknown Australian Soldier in 1993, ‘with them we have lost their love of this country, and all of their hope, and all of their energy’.

But we have lost so much more.

Last weekend I was overcome, when standing at the rear of the Commemorative Area with the Chief of Navy, Mark Hammond, at another LPC, this time honouring two brothers. Private John Thomas McCague and Corporal James Joseph McCague, both killed in action on the Western Front.

The sizeable family in attendance, covering three generations, were all descendants of the third brother, Hugh McCague, who survived the war.

I was struck with an image of those who weren’t there.

The ghosts of families that never were.

How much poorer are we as a nation for the loss of all of their love for this country, their hopes and their energy?

Historian Geoffrey Blainey asked the rhetorical: How can we measure the true cost of war? ‘The loss of all those talented people who would have become prime ministers and premiers, judges, divines, engineers, teachers, doctors, poets, inventors and farmers, the mayors of towns and leaders of trade unions and the fathers (and mothers) of another generation of Australians.

During the First World War, nearly 417,000 enlisted and 325,000 served overseas. More than 60,000 were killed and 160,000 wounded.  This Devil’s arithmetic meant that only one out of every three Australians who went to the war got through it unscathed.

At least physically.

There were those whose central nervous systems collapsed under the pressure of a sustained barrage, or simply the inability to comprehend the nightmare in which they had been forced to live, and to somehow survive against impossible odds.

And what we now call the moral injury.

When they came home, of course many were broken and in need of recovery. How could they not be with all they had endured? It has been calculated we lost almost as many men in the short decades after the war as we lost during it. Too many, too young.

All of their hope. All of their energy.

Lest we forget was not the problem. Trying to forget was the real challenge.

Those who brought the war home with them also brought with them a long shadow; an extra place at many a dinner table; an unwelcome and often violent guest in the middle of the night.

Families are most often conscripted into a service.

The families of those who returned in 1919 were simply unprepared to nurse the traumatised, lung-damaged and disabled. This task fell not only to fiancés, wives and sisters. Many were unmarried when they enlisted, and unrecognisable when they returned. So parents too were co-opted to look after their prematurely aged children.

Historian Joan Beaumont said: ‘They tended to their wounds, spoon-fed them, if necessary, endured their erratic and violent behaviour and bore the brunt of the alcoholism to which some succumbed.’

The Tomb of the Unknown Australian Soldier rests in the Hall of Memory, the sacred heart of commemoration at the Memorial.  Conceived by Mervyn Napier Waller, who was an artist before the First World War, had his right arm amputated after Bullecourt and taught himself to write and to paint with his left hand because, as he said, ‘an artist paints with his head, not with his hands’. Napier Waller imagined both the 15 stained glass windows to capture our essential values and qualities, and a mosaic, the size of five tennis courts, to honour our servicemen and women.

It would eventually comprise more than 6 million tesserae glass tiles to cover the walls and the ceiling of the Byzantine dome.  This mosaic was assembled offsite in one foot square panels by art students and war widows. 

The widows and the young would adorn the most sacred place where our nation gathers to remember.  Napier Waller understood we cannot honour those who have served without including the families that love and support them. 

The young and the bereaved.

If it takes a village to raise a child, it takes a family to serve a nation. If you’ll allow me a personal indulgence to make my point, my wife, Lou, was only 22 when we met. I was already in the Army. We’ve been married now for 31 years, and we have moved house 21 times. My children have had 10 schools in 5 countries.

Every family guards the record of their loved one.  The ones who were lost, the ones who returned home, the ones who brought the war home with them. 

It is my profound honour to be with you here today, at the Sir Leslie Moreshead Manor and El Alamein Village and this field of remembrance.

As the then Governor General, Lord Gowrie said, at the opening of the Australian War Memorial in 1941, ‘Australia gave unsparingly, ungrudgingly the best and the bravest…and it is in their honour that this Memorial has been created’.

We honour them here today, but we honour too the families who have always loved and supported them.

Lest we forget.

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