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Lest We Forget

As the sun rises on April 25 each year, and today, at Dawn Services across Australia and New Zealand, the ANZAC Dedication is read:

At this hour, on this day, ANZAC received its baptism of fire and became one of the immortal names in history.

We who are gathered here think of the comrades who went out with us to battle but did not return. We feel them still near us in spirit.

We wish to be worthy of their great sacrifice.

Let us, therefore, once again dedicate ourselves to the service of the ideals for which they died.

As the dawn is even now about to pierce the night, so let their memory inspire us to work for the coming of the new light into the dark places of the world.

It is, always and ever, a deeply moving moment in what is a deeply moving commemoration.

This ANZAC Day is no more special than every other ANZAC Day, but it is the centenary of ANZAC Day 1918. That day a century ago would mark a very different engagement to the landing at Gallipoli three years earlier.

As Peter Fitzsimons wrote in a recent Sydney Morning Herald article:

“See, 100 years ago, it was no exaggeration to say the entire war effort of the Allies hung in the balance – and the Australians were instrumental in saving the day. A month earlier, the Germans had unleashed their all-or-nothing Kaiserschlacht – Kaiser’s Battle – throwing all their forces straight at the exhausted British forces, who held that part of the Western Front that protected the key French railway town of Amiens, through which 60 per cent of British materiel and troops moved.

“If Amiens fell, the likelihood was that the Brits, and then the Allies themselves, would fall with it. The Brits fought bravely, but collapsed, as the Germans kept advancing, including right to the edge of Villers Bretonneux, the small town on the plateau that overlooks Amiens. If the Germans could get their artillery onto that plateau, they could plaster Amiens with shells, destroying the railway, and it would be nearly as good as occupying it.”

“Over the next five weeks, the Australians, fought the Germans in pitched battles 12 times. They did not cede an inch.”

“The most intense battle came in the early hours of Anzac Day 1918 itself. Despite the Australians having held Villers-Bretonneux on April 5, they had been moved to other duties, and the town fell to the Germans on  April 24, 1918. The Australians were sent for.

“Their task was to make a pincer movement around Villers-Bretonneux in the early hours of April 25, join up on the other side to cut off the German supply line, and then clean the Germans out.

““It’s Anzac Day,” [Australian War Historian Charles W.] Bean, again, records the Diggers muttering to each other, as they move forward ’neath the moonlight.”

““The die was now cast,” one of the Diggers, Walter Downing, would recount of the mood. “It seemed that there was nothing to do but go straight forward and die hard.” Many did die hard, but the battle was a brilliant success. By morning Villers-Bretonneux had been cut off, and the Germans cleaned out. They never did get to plaster Amiens.”

I have never been asked to fight for my country. I’d like to think I’d bravely accept the call, and serve valiantly. I hope to God I never have to find out, for fear I would be found wanting.

But 100 years ago, to the day, and almost to the hour, those incredibly brave Australian soldiers heeded their nation’s call, staring death in the face. Just as many thousands did before and since. Many were spared. Many others paid the ultimate sacrifice.

Those soldiers were the brothers-in-arms of our servicemen who went ashore at Gallipoli. Who fell at other battles on the Western Front. Who served their nation with distinction in World War II, in Korea, Malaya and Vietnam. Those who fought in Iraq and Afghanistan, and served in East Timor and many other wars and warlike engagements.

Many of them, and their comrades through the years, fell and are buried on foreign soil. Many others came home, irrevocably changed. Many still suffer, today, from ailments physical, mental and emotional. As folk singer and veterans’ advocate John Schumann sings in his song ANZAC Biscuits :

“I’ve seen tremendous courage,

I’ve seen grown men cry in shame.

And the terrifying prospect is I’ll never be the same,”

I try to imagine what those men were thinking, feeling and facing at this moment, a century ago. A cruel lottery that would decide who lived, who died, and who survived, but would never again be the same. It is unimaginable.

But I can understand and respect that courage and that sacrifice. I can honour those who, in our name,  served, suffered and died. I can uphold our sacred duty; to remember.

 

They went with songs to the battle, they were young,

Straight of limb, true of eye, steady and aglow.

They were staunch to the end against odds uncounted,

They fell with their faces to the foe.

 

They shall grow not 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.

 

Lest We Forget

 

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