Anzac Day address
Speech, E&OE, (check against delivery)
25 April 2013
Citizens of France, fellow Australians.
At dawn a few hours ago, they gathered at the War memorials throughout New Zealand, and across the Australian continent.
There was a Dawn Service in Afghanistan, where Australian servicemen and women make no prouder claim than that they belong to the Anzac tradition.
At dawn on the Gallipoli Peninsula, thousands came to Anzac Cove.
Now we gather here, at dawn, in France.
All of us linked across the world by the same duty – to honour and remember.
And by the same sense of the loss and waste of war.
We are part of a world-wide commemoration like no other.
Why do Australians make the pilgrimage, in increasing numbers, to remember tragic events that happened nearly one hundred years ago, so far from home?
Part of the answer lies in other questions.
What manner of men were those we come to honour?
They were, of course, young, many in their twenties.
But they were all older than the nation itself, which had been created as the Commonwealth of Australia on the first day of the 20th Century.
“The terrible 20th Century”, as Winston Churchill was to call it.
About one-fifth of them had been born overseas, mostly in England, Scotland, Wales and Ireland.
The majority were Australia-born of the first or second generation.
The commander of the Australian Army Corps in France, the great General Sir John Monash, was a first generation Australian of German-Jewish parentage.
This serves to remind us that we were then, and remain today, a nation of immigrants.
That the more recent arrivals are part of our living history.
And that all the history of modern Australia, including the story of Anzac, belongs to them equally, wherever they were born.
In short, they – and their families – were a cross-section of the Australian people.
We know from abundant reports that they tended to be impatient of some of the traditional rules and regulations of the military system.
That they were great improvisers.
That officers had to earn their respect.
That they were instinctively egalitarian.
That they placed the highest value on “doing the right thing by your mates”.
They would not have articulated it in this way – but may we not say that they gave a very practical, down-to-earth and very Australian expression to the ideals of the French Revolution: “liberty, equality, fraternity”.
Above everything, they were all volunteers.
The more than 400,000 Australians who enlisted in the Australian Imperial Force, the Australian Army Nursing Service and the Royal Australian Navy, from a population of less than 5 million.
All our First World War dead, of some 60,000, more than 46,000 of them here in France and Belgium.
They all volunteered to serve.
It was by their decision, and indeed, by the decision of the Australian people, confirmed twice at the ballot box.
Why did they volunteer?
The inscriptions on the countless war memorials around Australia give the official answer.
“For King and Country”.
“For the Empire”.
These, unquestionably, were deeply felt motives.
But there is often a different emphasis in their letters home and the journals they kept, typically against regulations.
Early in the war, at least, there is the sense of adventure, wonder even, like the 21-year old from Queensland, in Egypt before setting off for Gallipoli, marvelling at the chandelier in the Great Mosque of Cairo, donated by Napoleon in 1798.
From Gallipoli on, they record their growing pride in the achievements of an untried army alongside the great British and French armies.
And running through their letters home, these are the constant themes:
“All my mates are here”.
“Look after one another at home”.
And again and again, as they witness the ordeal of France: “How lucky we are in Australia”.
Through their eyes and words, we may see the deeper meaning of the Australian idea that our national identity was forged in the battlefields of Gallipoli and France.
Not only by their prowess and bravery, but by the immensity of the human tragedy called the First World War.
The seminal catastrophe of our civilisation.
How could they not be changed in the crucible?
How could their young nation not be changed with them and by them?
Australia would never again be able to isolate itself from the affairs of the rest of the world.
The most heartfelt of the inscriptions on our war memorials is “Lest we forget”.
The English poem “The Recessional”, from which it is taken, is more than a call to the duty of remembrance.
It is also a warning against the arrogance of power.
Today, we bear in our hearts and minds both meanings, in this consecrated ground amidst the peace and beauty of France, when we say: “Lest we forget”.