Silent, sombre reflection
MELBOURNE journalist Edward Honey had a simple idea: silence. Quiet reflection. A moment to remember. Time to give thanks. To put aside everything and to focus the mind, to pay respect and contemplate the sheer scale of sacrifice given and of lives taken.
“Can we not spare some fragment of these hours of Peace, rejoicing for a silent tribute to these mighty dead?” Honey wrote in a letter published in the London Evening News, May 8, 1919, under the pseudonym Warren Foster.
It was barely six months since the final shot in anger had been fired, and the world was still shuddering.
Honey proposed “five silent minutes of national remembrance. A very sacred intercession”.
Months later, South African politician Sir James FitzPatrick wrote to a UK cabinet member, also calling for a period of silence to mark each Armistice Day. The suggestion reached King George V, who embraced it, issuing a proclamation: “that at the hour when the Armistice came into force, the 11th hour of the 11th day of the 11th month, there may be for the brief space of two minutes a complete suspension of all our normal activities … so that in perfect stillness, the thoughts of everyone may be concentrated on reverent remembrance of the glorious dead.”
Tomorrow, 100 years since the end of World War 1, it is time again for that sombre silence.
In 1917 and 1918, the Western Front, across France and Belgium, had become a muddied and cratered factory of death, an alien landscape transformed by the first mechanised war. The 19th century industrial revolution had gifted mankind technology and, at the start of the 20th, every means possible was adapted for conflict, from mustard gas and high explosive, to aircraft, armoured tanks, powerful battleships and rapid-fire machine guns, to make the business of killing more efficient than war had ever known.
For Australia, then a nascent federation of just 4.9 million, the war was to be devastating. At the outbreak in 1914, such was the rush by Australians to enlist that recruitment officers were initially forced to turn men away. As the conflagration wore on with its horrendous toll, two referendums on conscription were defeated, and Australia, together with South Africa and India, remained the only nations with a volunteer-only force.
From our small population, 416,809 Australians enlisted and 60,284 were killed, with 159,000 wounded, gassed, or taken prisoner.
Death haunted entire streets of working class suburban Melbourne and other capitals, ripped apart country towns and decimated the societal fabric of the entire country.
For Australia, the war was driven by solidarity and in defence of mother England and the Commonwealth.
From the calamity of Gallipoli, to the hell at Fromelles, Passchendaele and Bullecourt, our independence was born in the crucible of a war fought 15,000km away in Europe, the Middle East and across the Ottoman Empire.
After enduring heavy losses with little gains from 1915-17, Allied forces finally began to turn the tide. By mid1918, the five divisions of the Australian Corps had been at the forefront of the advance to victory.
Diggers, under the command of Lieutenant General John Monash, achieved stunning success at the Battle of Hamel at the Somme. The Australians then went on to critical success at Amiens, captured Mont St Quentin and Pèronne, and finally broke through German defences at the Hindenburg Line.
The cost, in young lives lost, brothers, fathers, sons — and the unknown potential each individual carried — was immeasurable.
The Armistice was signed at 5am in a railway carriage in the Forest of Compiegne, France on November 11, 1918. Six hours later, at 11am, fighting ended.
The war had mobilised more than 70 million and left up to 13 million dead — one third of whom remain missing, in unmarked sites.
Memorials throughout the Commonwealth and France list the names of those who never returned home.
But even today, the fields in which those soldiers fell are speaking through trauma and time. On Monday, at Queant Road Military Cemetery, France, the families of two Victorian soldiers, together with the Governor-General and other dignitaries, will gather to pay their respects. Private Hedley MacBeth, of Kensington, and Lance Corporal James Rolls, of Prahran, will be buried with full honours after their remains — missing for a century — were discovered at Bullecourt and formally identified using DNA.
These forever young men are among 12,000 Australians in France and 6000 in Belgium whose final resting place remains unknown.
Australian soldier Henry Pryce’s poem, Silence Falls, was written on November 11, 1918:
All spent he lay and dreamed till the moment came: Now, waking with a cry, he looks, all wonder
To see the empty sky hurl down no flame: To hear no crack of thunder.
The war to end all wars was, of course, not. World War II, two decades later, became the most deadly conflict in history.
Remembrance Day marks a time to remember the sacrifice of all those in uniform, who have made the ultimate sacrifice, throughout all wars and operations, in our name.
Lest we forget.