A little voice broke the silence and asked: Papa, why are you so sad? I replied that I was not sad but happy. The voice said: Well, why do you have tears in your eyes? They are happy tears, I said, Happy that I am here and with you today. It was April 25, the one day each year we remember and honor those brave men and women, relatives, friends and all of the others who gave their lives so we could be free to live and enjoy an open democratic country. We also remember those whose lives were irrevocably and permanently changed by the many wars, conflicts and peace-keeping activities over the past century. Not for the first time I was struggling to explain the meaning of something to my grandchildren; and tears always come to my eyes when I hear someone solemnly deliver the ode:
They shall not grow old, as we that are left grow old: Age shall not weary them, nor the years condemn. At the going down of the sun and in the morning we will remember them.
We will remember them.
The tears rolled down my cheeks when the bugler played The Last Post and we stood silently for one minute to reflect before uttering the words: Lest we forget. Lest we forget. During the silence I remembered that on this day every year my uncle, who fought on the Western Front in World War I, marched with his few surviving comrades before joining them for a drink or more. He knew that he shouldn’t drink alcohol because of his ulcerated stomach, from mustard gas, but he didn’t care. It was only one day each year. I remembered my relatives who died 100 years ago at Gallipoli and Fromelles, and the sixteen year old boy who was killed by a high explosive shell at Pozieres. His body was never found. Twenty-five years later his nephew was killed in the defense of Tobruk. They didn’t live to marry and have children and grandchildren as I did.
The little voice returned, upset by my tears and puzzled by my inability to explain why this day meant so much to me. Searching for an explanation that could be understood I turned to a speech delivered a few hours earlier by a good friend at the Dawn Service in the country’s capital. His eloquence and ability to explain the meaning of this day to today’s generation moved many thousands of people to tears. It wasn’t just me. His story could have been told in many countries commemorating the loss of generations of men and women in the pointless wars of the past one hundred years. It would apply. He spoke from his heart, without referring to notes and said:
ANZAC Values Apply to Modern-day Australians:
(Speech by Dr Brendan Nelson, Director Australian War Memorial, Canberra at the Dawn Service, ANZAC Day April 25, 2016)
Australians all let us rejoice – for we are young and free.
With a sense of awkward humility, abiding reverence and overwhelming pride, we pause here at the Australian War Memorial – free and confident heirs to a legacy born of idealism, forged in self-sacrifice and passed now to our generation.
We gather in renewed commitment to one another, our nation and the ideals of mankind.
Young Australians and New Zealanders gave their all at Gallipoli, forging in bloody sacrifice the bond within which our two nations now live.
It heralded the cataclysm from which we emerged proud – but inconsolably mourning 62,000 Australian dead.
Witness to it all, Australia’s official historian Charles Bean wrote at its end:
What these men did, nothing can alter now.
The good and the bad.
The greatness and the smallness of their story.
It rises, it always rises … above the mists of ages, a monument to great hearted men, and for their nation – a possession forever.
Bean’s account of a Digger arriving at the front trench before the assault on Lone Pine says it all:
A voice rose from the fire step, “Yeah, right here Bill”.
“Do you chaps mind movin’ up a piece?” asked the first voice.
“Him and me are mates – and we’re goin’ over together.”
A generation later, Sergeant Jack Sim of the 39th battalion endured the desperate struggle on the Kokoda Track:
Some prayed, some swore with fear – but you couldn’t show it in front of your mates.
One of the boys got shot fair between the eyes right alongside me.
It was a perfect shot … terrible to be afraid.
Yet it’s the brave ones that are afraid and still keep going.
That’s what they did you know.
Scared bloody stiff and still kept going.
They were so young
They were so young
I loved them all.
It is tempting, human beings that we are, to settle for broad brushstrokes, headlines and shallow imagery of history. Our comfortable lives breed easy indifference to individual sacrifices made in our name and devotion to duty.
102,700 Australians are named on the Roll of Honour. Like us, each had only one life, one chance to serve others and our nation.
They chose us.
No Australians have given more, nor worked harder to shape our values and our beliefs, the way we relate to one another and see our place in the world, than those who have worn – and who now wear – the uniforms of the Royal Australian Navy, Australian Army and Royal Australian Airforce.
They have given us a greater belief in ourselves and a deeper understanding of what it means to be Australian.
They – and especially physically and emotionally wounded veterans amongst us, and the families who love and support them – remind us there are some truths by which we live that are worth fighting to defend.
To young Australians – your search for belonging, meaning and values for the world you want ends here.
Enshrined in stained glass windows sentinel above the Tomb of the Unknown Australian Soldier, are 15 values informing character:
RESOURCE CANDOUR DEVOTION CURIOSITY INDEPENDENCE
COMRADESHIP ANCESTRY PATRIOTISM CHIVALRY LOYALTY
COOLNESS CONTROL AUDACITY ENDURANCE DECISION
Our Australia enshrines principle above position and values before value.
Our responsibilities to one another, our nation and its future transcend and define our rights.
Charles Bean concluded that what made the Australian soldier so special, “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 spend the rest of his life haunted by the knowledge he had lacked the grit to carry it through, was a 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.
A century later, SAS Sergeant “S”, reflecting on the battle of Tizak in Afghanistan, said:
To fail would be worse than death.
To let down your mates in combat … would be worse than death.
I don’t (even) know why I’m getting emotional about this…
Yeah, that’s it – that’s the essence.
You don’t let your mates down.
That is the essence.
The most fragile yet powerful of human emotions is hope – belief in a better future, a better world.
Hope is sustained most by men and women reaching out in support of one another – “mates who go over together” and though gripped with fear, don’t let one another down.
Their spirit is here.
This place, this day is not about war.
It is about love and friendship.
Love of family, of country and honoring those who devote their lives not to themselves but to us; and their last moments to one another.
After the bloodbath at Fromelles, Sergeant Simon Fraser spent three backbreaking days bringing in the wounded from No Man’s Land.
A lone voice pleaded through the fog, “Don’t forget me, cobber”.
We never will.
For we are young, and we are free.
Lest we forget.
My grandchildren are too young to understand all of the speech, so I simply said: Today is about love and friendship. Everyone understands what that means.