Silent, som­bre re­flec­tion

Herald Sun - - OPINION -

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.

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