Speech given at the 2018 ANZAC Day Commemorative Service by RSLWA State President Peter Aspinall AM.
Over the years, a simple yet profound message has been passed down through the ages.
And that message is: “The price of liberty is eternal vigilance.”
For all those who have served Australia, they did so to ensure that we are a nation that provides for a just society that respects the rule of law and the rights of one another. But upholding our institutions can be seen to be fundamentally about looking out for one another, and doing so with compassion, care and even courage. Doing what is right in these times takes courage to ensure to protect and care for what matters in our lives.
Service to the nation is also about community, your neighbours, and one’s mates. It is more than just about one’s self. Instead, it takes occasion such as this to solemnly acknowledge that the privileges of living in this great nation come through the actions of many. Cumulatively, in a nation such as ours, achieving greatness is not just for the “here and now”, but for future generations to be able to make the most of their lives in peace.
This year marks the 100th anniversary of the end of the First World War and the final battles in which Australian troops fought alongside their Allied comrades right up until the very end, whereupon at 11:00 am on the 11th day of the 11th month in 1918, the guns finally fell silent along the entire Western Front and delivered an end to the bloodshed.
One hundred years on, the memory of their sacrifice has not diminished. While many a black and white photograph or grainy film vision is what visually represents the horror all troops endured, however, their time spent serving alongside their mates against a determined enemy were anything but sepia-toned about it.
Their fear and horrors were real and in full colour. The noise, the chaos, the mud, the sheer uncertainty of their fate. As industrialised warfare weighed savagely down upon them, along a front-line that stretched from the North Sea down to the Swiss Alps, the troops continued the armed struggle without ever knowing when the end would come, nor the close of hostilities.
On ANZAC Day 1918, the finality of this war remained several months away. Australians served in the Middle East and on the Western Front, on sea, land, in the air, in clearing stations, hospitals and rehabilitation centres.
War did not provide many opportunities for a long enough pause in the battle to properly remember the fallen. As ANZAC Day 1918 approached, Australian troops from the 13th and 15th Australian Infantry Brigades were to find themselves in a position where their actions at Villers-Bretonneux could at least honour the actions of their mates who had served and died in the preceding three-and-a-half years of war.
On the eve of ANZAC Day 1918, Australian troops were required to mount a counter-attack against the Germans at Villers-Bretonneux, a village on a crest which lay just 10 miles west of the strategically important French village of Amiens. The importance of re-capturing Villers-Bretonneux was not lost on any of the Allies. Even at the highest level, French Generalissimo Foch “insisted that its immediate recapture was an urgent priority.” And so it came to be. An hour before midnight, Major-General Hobbs of the 5th Division, AIF, gave the order for the 13th Brigade to move south of the objective, and Pompey Elliott’s 15th Brigade move northwards.
This pincer movement was considered as badly conceived. The famous Australian war correspondent, Charles Bean, considered as an “informed observer” was pessimistic of their success and stated that “these operations of almost unheard-of difficulty”. Nonetheless, the hastily arranged night attack went ahead.
As the Australian troops moved forward in the dark and drizzling rain, they had to undertake many changes in the direction of their attack and had zero artillery support. As Australian author Ross McMullin wrote: “they would have to overcome a confident enemy in greater numbers who had accomplished a pleasing success and had benefitted (thanks to the British 8th Division’s dithering) from a welcome opportunity to consolidate during the day.”
The strain was felt not just by the soldiers, but by their commanders, who did display anguish and compassion for the fate of their men. As Pompey Elliott wrote immediately after the battle, “It is always a terrible decision, this launching of magnificent men towards death. One knows that every time it means a sentence of death to many, despite one’s utmost care and thought for such men – each one priceless indeed. Then when the plans are made, one can only sit and wait.”
McMullin described how “moonlight and a fire in Villers-Bretonneux mitigated the darkness” and how it was too dim for accurate shooting with rifles. What did transpire after the complex manoeuvres were the resultant savage bayonet charge by the Australian troops? Pompey Elliott gave all the credit for the victory to the “determination of junior commanders and the courage of the troops.”
ANZAC Day 1918 resulted in an Australian military success. They had dislodged the Germans and retaken Villers-Bretonneux. To this very day, the French town proclaims: “Do not forget Australia”. They continue to remember our troops and nurses who sailed half-a-world away to do their bit in the fight that brought eventual peace.
One hundred years on, the first global conflict of the twentieth-century gives us cause to remember the sacrifice and service of Australians that numbered in the hundreds of thousands, who served in campaigns on land, sea, and in the air.
And now, here in the peaceful and delightful settings of the Perth Concert Hall in which we find ourselves gathered today, at the 2018 ANZAC Day Commemorative Service, our thoughts are extended to the many men and women who have served since the end of that global catastrophe that was the First World War, as well as to all the men and women service personnel who are serving their nation as members of the Australian Defence Force.
Our gratitude and heartfelt thanks are sincere. The actions of both the past and present, conducted in the name of Australia and its people, allow us the good fortune to live in this great country.
It remains true that “the price of liberty is eternal vigilance.”