Lest We Forget
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.