Photo: AAP Image/Mick Tsikas
PRIME MINISTER: Silence. At last, silence. A silence from that day to this that beckons a prayer for a dawn of peace, and a lasting peace.
On this day a century ago, as citizens across the Allied nations celebrated the end of war, Australia’s official war correspondent, Charles Bean, chose to mark the Armistice solemnly.
Returning to Fromelles in northern France where two years earlier Australian soldiers had fought their first major action on the Western Front, Bean walked in silence over the trampled battlefield.
“We found the old No-Man’s-Land simply full of our dead,” he wrote.
“The skulls and bones and torn uniforms were lying about everywhere.”
On that day, perhaps Bean reflected on the unfulfilled dreams of the almost 2,000 Australians who had fallen at Fromelles in a single day, or the suffering of the more than 3,000 who had been wounded.
Perhaps he thought of the tens of thousands of our war dead lying on the steep hills of Gallipoli, or on the blood-soaked fields of Flanders, and the searing deserts of the East.
Perhaps he dwelt on the grief of families who would never again embrace loved ones, or on the loss to communities across the nation of a generation that had made victory possible.
As we commemorate the centenary of the Armistice and cast our minds back over the years, we know too well the deep scars of war and long to prevent them from touching an Australian soul.
Our human predisposition, our Australian predisposition, is for peace.
It is to be in accord with family, friends, neighbours, community. To love, to live.
That’s why war is always a failure of our humanity.
Yet we know there are times when even the most peaceful of men and women are called upon to defend the beliefs they live by, and there have been too many such times over the course of the past century.
This is not to say that our reflections on those conflicts must be unquestioning.
But the sacrifice demands that we reflect, ponder, and learn from every conflict because that’s what free societies like Australia do — to learn from the past so that we can better navigate the changing currents of our own times, for our own children and for the next generations.
Over this past century, I believe the tenor of our conflicts has tended towards upholding the highest ideals of humankind – to preserve freedom, to safeguard democracy, to stand against tyranny.
And we have done so at a great cost.
It is easy from the vantage point of a century to lose sight of the sacrifices made in our name.
Much harder to cross the span of generations and put ourselves in the boots of someone landing at ANZAC Cove, or charging into Beersheba, or struggling against the rattle of death on Flanders Fields.
Those who fought in the Great War had the same and normal flaws and frailties of any other Australian of any other generation.
Yet their selflessness at the darkest of times has set them apart for eternity in our nation’s consciousness.
Andrew Gillison, a chaplain, heard cries coming from No Man’s Land while in a trench at Gallipoli.
Despite having been warned about the snipers, he tried to crawl out to rescue the wounded soldier, calling.
He did know what the risk was, but he did know what it was to do the right thing, and he lost his life for it.
Alice Chisholm, a mother of five, sailed to Egypt to be near her son who had been wounded.
She stayed to set up food canteens and shelters for Allied troops serving in the Middle East, and after the war she supported our diggers by establishing a Returned Soldiers’ Club in Goulburn.
William Rawlings, a horse trainer from near Warrnambool, risked his life to clear a path for his fellow infantrymen during an attack at Morlancourt on the Western Front.
He was one of a thousand Indigenous Australians who volunteered when their country did not properly recognise them or their people, and he would die just a few months before the Armistice. They saw our country not just for what was then but what they dreamed it would become.
We often say that men and women like this were fearless; but I actually don’t believe that.
Because bravery is not the absence of fear. It is the choice to commit to a purpose greater than your fear. That is the moment when fear is conquered.
They feared greatly but acted nonetheless, and it is this that embodies our highest aspirations as a nation and as people – to live for others even when to do so is unimaginably hard and the cost extreme.
Tragically, the hardships continued even for those who rode out the storms of war.
Many suffered the physical marks of battle; yet more, the deep emotional scars of memory.
Thousands of our servicemen and women would die from injury as well as despair within a decade of coming home.
Their struggles were as much an act of patriotism and love of our country as their enlisted service, and that is true to this day for those who wrestle daily with these memories.
Despite hopes that it would usher in a lasting peace, the Great War was sadly not the war to end all wars.
By the time this memorial here to the Great War as was originally proposed was opened, another war was upon us.
The Australian original ANZACs who left our shores for Gallipoli have been followed by those who fought in the jungles of Kokoda, and struggled in the mud of Long Tan, and battled in the dust of Uruzgan, and risked their lives in the skies over Germany and in the waters of the Mediterranean and the Pacific.
To all who have served our nation in wars, in conflicts and peacekeeping operations, to those of you who serve to this day here or all around the world, we owe you a debt of gratitude as a nation and as individual Australians.
Through it all, we can’t avert our gaze from citizen-soldiers of the First World War though, who defined so much of who we are as a people today.
They believed in country over self.
They believed in each other, when all seemed lost.
They respected the chain of command, but it was their character that drove their actions, as it is today.
They laughed, they smoked, they told stories, they wept, they were as earthy as the land in which they were born from.
And though it was hard to see during the fog of war and even harder to appreciate the scale of their sacrifice, they nevertheless changed the world, together.
As Charles Bean did one hundred years ago, today we solemnly commemorate the Armistice.
In silence, a silence that beckons and prays for peace, we honour the 102,000 Australians who have lost their lives in war for us.
For our tomorrows, they gave their today.
In silence, we commit ourselves to standing by those who have returned home.
In silence, we honour the great leadership of General Monash.
And in silence at the hour when war subsided, we resolve to sustain the peace today and beyond.
So that when the bugle calls, we will in the words of our great Australian poet:
“Stand four-square to the tempest,
whatever the battering hail,
No foe shall gather our harvest,
Or sit on our stockyard rail”.
Lest we forget.