A significant moment in the life of our nation occurred with the interment of the Unknown Soldier at the Australian War Memorial on November 11th, 1993. At the service, then Prime Minister, Paul Keating, began his speech with the following words:
We do not know this Australian's name and we never will.
We do not know his rank or his battalion. We do not know where he was born, nor precisely how and when he died. We do not know where in Australia he had made his home or when he left it for the battlefields of Europe. We do not know his age or his circumstances – whether he was from the city or the bush; what occupation he left to become a soldier; what religion, if he had a religion; if he was married or single. We do not know who loved him or whom he loved. If he had children we do not know who they are. His family is lost to us as he was lost to them.
We will never know who this Australian was.
Yet he has always been among those whom we have honoured. We know that he was one of the 45,000 Australians who died on the Western Front. One of the 416,000 Australians who volunteered for service in the First World War. One of the 324,000 Australians who served overseas in that war and one of the 60,000 Australians who died on foreign soil. One of the 100,000 Australians who have died in wars this century.
He is all of them. And he is one of us.
One hundred years ago this Sunday, at 11am precisely, the guns fell silent ending the “war to end all wars”. Those that survived the 55 months of slaughter somehow had to make sense of the carnage and destruction they had lived through, and mourn the loss of those that did not. With what we know now about trauma and the effects of battle, it is hard to imagine what many went through as they returned home and attempted to get back on with life.
For many the war never ended! Of those who returned to Australia, 60,000 died within ten years of their return because of ‘… the maiming effects of poison gas, what was termed shell shock and other serious physical disabilities. Then there was the insidious toll taken by alcoholism, violence, broken marriages and suicide’.
The sheer scale of death, meant that death lost its individuality. Yet we should not let the anonymity of the numbers take away from the courage, dedication and sense of duty of our fellow Australians and the sacrifices they were prepared to make for the good of our country. Each volunteer had their own hopes and dreams, fears and doubts, and were motivated by high ideals and ultimately a vision of a better world.
Lest we forget.
Fr Peter Brannelly, Administrator