25 April 2016

As The Last Post breaks the dawn silence today, we renew our national promise to remember young Australians who never grew old. 

60,000 young people, lost in the First World War, in service of their young nation. 

In her famous work The Anzacs, Patsy Adam Smith said the worst part of reading soldiers’ diaries was “all the empty pages”.

“You turn the pages quickly: perhaps he’s only wounded, he’ll write when he gets to hospital.  

But you are on the back cover before you see his hand again:

“In the event of my death I wish this book to be sent to my dear wife to let her know that my last thoughts were of her and Essie my darling daughter”.

The First World War dealt our national story a generation of empty pages.

In his book, Farewell Dear People, Ross McMullin writes of the exceptional Australians lost in the carnage and chaos of the Gallipoli campaign.

At 31, Clunes Mathison was already an internationally acclaimed medical researcher.

He died at Gallipoli in May, 1915.

At the time, one British professor wrote:

for the science of medicine throughout the world, the loss is irreparable”.

Robert Bage survived Douglas Mawson’s expedition to Antarctica, leading a 300 mile sledging expedition in the windiest place on earth – the ‘home of the blizzard’.

Another scientist in the party said:

“Bob Bage … is the best liked man on the expedition and personally I think he is the best man we have”.

Bage was killed in the first fortnight’s fighting at Gallipoli.

Both their bodies lie there still, alongside their comrades.

Empty pages in lives of potential and possibility, unfulfilled.

Beyond the famous Australians who had already made their mark, were thousands of ordinary people, of extraordinary courage.

Lost to the people who loved them and those they loved.

I had the privilege of attending the centenary of Anzac commemorations in Turkey.

The week before I left, I was at a family christening and a member of the extended family there, Brian, told me about his two uncles who had died at Gallipoli.

William Burgess, 23, who was killed on the 26th of April, 1915.

And his younger brother Nathaniel, 21, who was killed in November that same year and is buried at Embarkation Pier cemetery.

Brian said “the family never recovered”.

The parents never recovered, the marriage disintegrated after the war. The mother couldn't care for her surviving daughters.

The two young sisters – one of them Brian’s mum - were placed in foster care.

Two moments in seven months, on the other side of the world, damaged a family for two generations.

When I visited the cemetery at Lone Pine, on the wall recording names of over 3000 Anzacs whose bodies were never recovered, I found the name of William Burgess, 16th battalion AIF.

Placing a poppy next to those letters, mutely carved in stone, moved me in a way I could never have expected.

This is one story among 60,000.

A generation of children who never knew their parents, young widows who grew old with their grief.

Hundreds of thousands more, home but never whole again. Forever changed by the hardship they had faced and overcome.

The wounded, unable to return to the jobs they left behind.

The soldier-settlers ground-down by unyielding lands.

All those who carried the invisible scars of trauma – the husbands and fathers who could never find the words to fill the silence, to explain to the people they loved the reality of what they had endured.

All of us know country towns and coastal villages where the list of names etched into the white stone of memorials seems impossibly long.

We have all driven along avenues of honour, where the number of trees vastly out-stretches the homes in the community.

We have all paused in front of honour rolls in RSLs and community halls where the surnames come in pairs, or threes.

Brothers joined forever in untimely death.

A century ago this year, allied forces had left the Dardanelles.

It was a withdrawal as strategic, as co-ordinated and calculated as the invasion had been chaotic, ill-informed and ramshackle.

By April 25 1916, much of the boundless optimism and nationalism which drove the first recruiting boom had dissipated.

Yet still Australians signed up to serve their nation.

The recruitment posters of the First World War give us some insight into those times.

Britain had Lord Kitchener, urging soldiers to join up for King and Country.

The United States had Uncle Sam, saying ‘I want you’.

Many of our posters implored Australians to join up and help their mates.

The first loyalty called upon was not to Crown, or Empire – but to community. The duty we owed each other as neighbours, as friends, as fellow citizens.

It is a quality Australia has always upheld, even in the hardest of times.

Kindness to mates in trouble, faith in friendship, loyalty to those in need.

A caring arm and real support for the families of the fallen.

It is that spirit we celebrate, we commemorate, we revere and salute today.

It is the truth at the heart of the words we say at the going down of the sun and in the morning.

Lest We Forget.