Lest We For­get

Warragul & Drouin Gazette - - WE WILL REMEMBER THEM - By John Wells

One hun­dred years ago ‘The Armistice’ ended the great­est, blood­i­est and most stupidly fought war the world has ever seen.

More than eight mil­lion peo­ple were dead as a re­sult of that war. I will talk of fig­ures and sta­tis­tics here, from Aus­tralia’s point of view only.

Just think about th­ese num­bers for a mo­ment. Let me risk los­ing your at­ten­tion, but re­mem­ber that ev­ery one of th­ese num­bers refers to brothers and sons and mates and un­cles and cousins, fi­ancés, boyfriends, lovers, bosses, work­ers – ev­ery one of the peo­ple who made up th­ese sta­tis­tics was a per­son, a real per­son, a per­son with loves and fears, and hopes and dreams, and a life to live.

Sixty two thou­sand Aus­tralians sac­ri­ficed them­selves and about 150,000 were maimed, in­jured, dis­abled and psy­cho­log­i­cally dam­aged. That, in­ci­den­tally, was the of­fi­cial num­ber, more or less. Many other men went home hold­ing their hurt close to them­selves, not want­ing sym­pa­thy, not want­ing to share their pain with oth­ers.

To be a man, back then, nor­mally meant that your suf­fer­ing had to be in­ter­nalised.

From a pop­u­la­tion of less than five mil­lion 416,809 men en­listed. Four men in ev­ery ten of ‘mil­i­tary age’ (18-44) en­listed. Three hun­dred and eight thou­sand served in a ‘theatre of war’. Yet we had 750,000 hos­pi­tal­i­sa­tions, be­cause many men went to hos­pi­tal more than once, per­haps wounded, per­haps suf­fer­ing from en­teric fever, about 208,000 suf­fer­ing from shell shock, in­jury, trench foot, you name it. There was no of­fi­cial PTSD di­ag­no­sis in those days.

We se­ri­ously un­der-re­ported our hos­pi­tal­i­sa­tion fig­ures, and we had to. At the start of the war young men joined the forces in great num­bers, some be­cause it was go­ing to be an ad­ven­ture, some be­cause their mates did, most be­cause it was the right thing to do, or so they thought. They might have been naïve in many cases, but they grew up very quickly and, mostly, they be­came heroes.

They be­came an in­te­gral part of ev­ery one of our­selves, a huge part of how we see our­selves and, hope­fully, the source of a re­al­i­sa­tion that we have those same re­spon­si­bil­i­ties, per­haps in less-dra­matic ways.

They loved the idea of Aus­tralian-ness and we should love it, too, re­gard­less of where our lives be­gan. We owe them, and our­selves, that much at least. Lest we for­get? They helped to show us who we were, and who we could be. Have we built on that?

By 1917 it was get­ting hard to find re­place­ments, be­cause the ad­ven­ture had be­come a grim game of chance, with long lists in the news­pa­pers of those who would never come home, and be­cause ev­ery town in Gipp­s­land now knew of men who had come home dam­aged be­yond re­pair, dam­aged far be­yond any hope of re­cov­ery. Ev­ery com­mu­nity now knew some­thing more about grief and loss than it had be­fore.

In 1919 and 1920 about 500 ex-ser­vice­men took their own lives…

About 8000 died pre­ma­turely af­ter their ‘safe’ re­turn.

Yet the let­ters home, and to our na­tional credit we have saved hun­dreds of thou­sands of th­ese let­ters in our ar­chives and in our publi­ca­tions, al­most al­ways told of the in­ter­est­ing things, the funny things, not the dan­gers. A re­cur­ring sen­tence was “Don’t worry about me, be­cause I am in a safe and quiet part of the line.” Some­times that wish to stop peo­ple wor­ry­ing was part of the last let­ter ever writ­ten. “I’m in a pretty safe possy, and thanks for the AN­ZAC bis­cuits and the socks.”

There came about a great fear of of­fi­cials at the door – usu­ally the lo­cal po­lice­man and a cler­gy­man. My great-grand­mother lost three sons to the war, all in France af­ter sur­viv­ing Gal­lipoli. She went quite odd and would at­tack po­lice­men or cler­gy­men on the street -and who could blame her? How many other moth­ers had to live with the grief of los­ing their sons, and the dreams and the love they had for those young men? How many fathers cried in their hearts but could never let their tears run free?

Early in the morn­ing of 11 Novem­ber 1918, In a rail­way car­riage in the for­est of Com­piegne the French, Bri­tish and Ger­mans signed an armistice to end the war. Ef­fec­tively a sur­ren­der, this was ‘THE” Armistice. Pre­vi­ously armistices had been signed by the Ot­toman Em­pire, the Aus­tro-Hun­gar­ian Em­pire and the Bul­gar­i­ans but the Ger­mans were the last to give up.

Mar­shal Fer­di­nand Foch, the Supreme Com­man­der of the Al­lied forces, and First Sea Lord, Ad­mi­ral We­myss, signed for the Al­lies and the four Ger­man sig­na­to­ries were a naval cap­tain, Ernst Vanselow, and army of­fi­cer, Ma­jor Gen­eral Det­lof von Win­ter­feldt, a civil­ian politi­cian and Count Al­fred von Obern­dorff of the Ger­man For­eign Min­istry. (In a strange out­burst of spite, the same car­riage was used by the Ger­mans to take the French sur­ren­der in the Sec­ond World War.)

Agree­ment, one-sided though it was, was reached at 5am. Sig­na­tures were at­tached by 5.20am and the guns fell silent at 11am. Th­ese are all French times so the ‘eleventh hour’ was noon in Ber­lin.

All th­ese im­por­tant men were in clean clothes and uni­forms, well fed and safe. Not one was a young man. Not one had been out there, in a muddy trench, cross­ing the pit­ted waste of no man’s land in the face of ma­chine guns, charg­ing across the desert at Beer­sheba, wait­ing be­hind prison wire for the monotony and de­spair of the war to end.

I have quoted all sorts of fig­ures here, but in bulk fig­ures some of the truth be­comes hid­den. Think of the sim­ple things in­stead. How many cup­boards in War­ragul and Walpeup and War­rnam­bool and Wal­halla and West Brunswick held clothes that would never again be worn? How many houses across the coun­try had a room where a man sat with the blinds drawn for a decade or more? How many kitchen tables had an un­used chair?

Who helped work the farms dur­ing those grim years, or de­liv­ered the gro­ceries, or the mail? How many young women who should have been hap­pily married and rais­ing chil­dren lost a huge part of their own lives and fu­tures. How many hearts were for­ever bro­ken?

How many moth­ers had a bronze plaque sent to them by the govern­ment when what they re­ally wanted was Bill or Tom or Harry back home again.

Whether we call it Armistice Day, Re­mem­brance Day or Vet­er­ans Day, it is a day of re­mem­brance around the world, and it is a day on which we should de­ter­mine that it will never hap­pen again. It does, per­haps in smaller wars, but, be­lieve me, if you are un­der fire your war seems as big as war has ever been. I’ve been there. I know.

It should be a day of sor­row, and a day of pride. For all of us.

The Need­ham brothers were just one set of sev­eral to join each other in serv­ing World War I.Henry (left) and Ge­orge (right) were killed in ac­tion, while Her­bert re­turned.Pho­to­graph cour­tesy Trafal­gar-Thor­p­dale RSL

Gipp­s­land Lighthorse Troop­ers as­sist­ing some un­will­ing horses to be loaded into the stock cars on the War­ragul Sta­tion dur­ing world War 1 1914.Pho­to­graph cour­tesy War­ragul and District His­tor­i­cal So­ci­ety.

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