On this day that marks 100 years since the armistice that ended the first world war, can I begin by acknowledging the Jaggera and Yugumbir peoples, and pay my respects to their elders, past and present, and of all the first Australians and New Zealanders.
Can I thank Ken Heard OAM, and the men and women of the Logan and Districts RSL, for what you do for our veterans, and for organising today’s event to honour them.
[Acknowledgement of other dignitaries here]
I’d also like to acknowledge the local schools, community organisations, and sporting groups who have come together today and all the local people here marking an important occassion.
And most importantly, I’d particularly like to acknowledge our military men and women, those who are serving and those who have served, including those who are here in the crowd today.
We gather – as we do each year on the 11th hour of the 11th day of the 11th month – to honour you and all who have served and sacrificed for our country.
We pause to remember those who have died or suffered for Australia’s cause in all wars and armed conflicts.
Centenary of Armistice
Of course, this year has extra meaning as we commemorate the 100th anniversary of the Armistice which ended a horrible war.
One hundred years since the guns fell silent on the Western Front, after four years of unimaginable bloodshed.
One hundred years since the whistling of mortar fire ceased, the smoke clouds and the haze cleared, and the cannons laid still like statues.
At home in Australia, crowds flocked to public squares in capital cities, erupting in cheers and waving flags to celebrate the news.
But we know from the stories of those on the front line that the mood was far more sombre there.
Many spoke of a numbness that descended over the battlefield.
As Colonel Percy Dobson wrote:
“It was hard to believe the war was over. Everything was just the same, tired troops everywhere and cold drizzly winter weather- just the same as if the war were still on.”
The armistice was signed, but it still took days for that to sink in for those in the trenches.
The realisation that they had survived, while many of their countrymen –62,000 of them – did not.
That they would soon return home to Australia to their loved ones, but that too many of those they fought alongside – who they’d come to consider brothers – would rest in those fields forever more.
And we know that, of those who returned home – in the Great War, and all of the conflicts Australia has been a part of before and since – they’ve had to endure the burden of physical and mental scars they brought back with them.
Cleaning the Tomb
In remembering, and recognising, their remarkable feats we also acknowledge how truly unremarkable they are as well – ordinary citizens from towns and cities and suburbs like our own, who were called upon to do something extraordinary.
I thought about this when I had the immense honour of cleaning the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier at the Australian War Memorial before the Canberra dawn recently.
As I polished the plaque that marks the place where he now rests, I couldn’t help but try to imagine what he might have gone through.
The horrors he might have witnessed.
The loved ones he might have left behind, and whom he never saw again.
As former Prime Minister Paul Keating put it so eloquently in his now-immortalised eulogy to the Unknown Soldier in 1993 –
“He is all of them. And he is one of us.”
We’ve spoken here before about Pope, and Knox, and Briggs.
And many of your families have stories too.
My relative, Norman Sim, was known by his mates as Snipper.
Like the Unknown Soldier, it is not known how Private Sim died in October 1917.
But we have learned he was buried on a breezy ridge on the Western Front, and reinterred at Tyne Cot.
Angus Briscoe, another relative, made it home to Australia in April 1919.
He was awarded the Belgian Croix de Guerre medal for his courage and skill under heavy machine gun fire during the Battle of Amiens in 1918.
A fellow soldier, a Gunner J.R. Armitage, described the scene faced by Private Briscoe and his comrades-in-arms. He wrote:
“The world was enveloped in sound and flame, and our ears just couldn’t cope. The ground shook.”
Today, we rededicate ourselves, like we do every year, to make sure the memories of those who have come before us, live on.
We do this by sharing the stories of our own relatives, like I have today.
And we do it by passing on the stories and lessons to our next generation.
An offering, I’m proud to say, that is enthusiastically accepted by the youngest members of our community.
To commemorate the Centenary of the Armistice, this year I organised to have school students in our local area take part in a video reading lines from Paul Keating’s eulogy for the Unknown Soldier.
Dozens of students from 33 local schools took part.
All of them were eager to honour our service men and women and took on the project with an overwhelming sense of respect.
It was, if nothing else, a timely and welcome reminder that the stories of the sacrifices of our service personnel are in safe hands.
So today, 100 years after the armistice was signed that ended the war that was supposed to end all wars, we remember our service men and women in every conflict before and since.
We reflect on their selflessness and sacrifice.
We do this so it might inspire us to meet the standards they have set.
To build a community, and a country, into something worthy of their sacrifice.
Lest we forget.