Today marks the 97 anniversary of the Armistice on the Western Front. As we remind ourselves each year, at this hour on the 11th of November 1918, the guns fell silent. Four years of war had come to an end.
It became known as the Great War, and for good reason. Its scale was unprecedented. It sparked the mobilisation of 70 million people across many nations. Its violence shattered great empires. Its images have never lost their power. To a great degree those images of the muddy moonscapes of the Western Front have served to define, for succeeding generations, the horror of war.
It was the costliest conflict in history up to that time. Thirteen million people died, nine million of them combatants. Over one-third of all the soldiers killed were “missing”, or had no known graves.
332,000 Australians fought in the Great War with the First AIF. 60,000 died, 45,000 of them on the Western Front, and 152,000 were wounded. Those grim statistics meant that only one out of every three Australians who went to the war got through it unscathed, at least physically. With a population only of about four million, Australia had, proportionate to forces fielded, the highest casualties in the British Empire.
For the Australians at the front, the Armistice came as a reprieve. Not for them, though, the celebrations that erupted in the cities of Australia and the other victorious allied nations as the news spread. Too many of their mates had been killed. “One sits and ponders sadly of those many pals who are gone to that home from which no wanderer returns,” lamented Corporal Roger Morgan of the 2nd Battalion.
As the men of the First AIF had no home leave almost until the end of the war, they consigned thoughts of home and family to the back of the mind, and a man’s mates became his chief reason for being. “For all the dreadful implications of war, it is something to have known men as they truly are”, wrote Captain Edgar Rule of the 14th Battalion.
Men would rather die than let a mate down, observed the Australian official historian, Charles Bean. Mateship, and the deep loyalty it bred, gave the AIF the strength to endure the terrible ordeal.
It was embodied in the early days on Gallipoli by Private John Simpson Kirkpatrick, who brought wounded down from the line on a donkey until he was killed barely a month after he arrived on the peninsula. It was expressed by Trooper Humphrey Hassall of the 10th Light Horse. “Goodbye, Cobber, I don’t think I’ll be coming back from this one,” he said, before charging to certain death at the Nek.
On the Western Front, on Gallipoli and in the desert, the Australians encountered the mass killing power of modern industrial warfare. But in battle after battle it was not powerful enough to threaten the bonds of mateship that held them together.
When we pause to reflect on why these men fought, it is vital we honour their memories by not abusing it for our own ends. We often talk of ‘fighting for freedom’, or ‘fighting for our way of life.’ In many cases, this is simply not true. Family and social pressure, looking for adventure, being bored at home or simply because mates were joining up were as common reasons to enlist as any lofty ideals such as freedom or nation. The point though, is that it doesn’t matter why they went, we just need to honour their courage and sacrifice having arrived on these distant battlefields.
Our need to glorify their reasons for fighting and their actions under banners of freedom and nation speaks more about us than them. It speaks of our need to justify a failure to look after our young men, denying them full lives as husbands, fathers and members of society. It seeks to justify sending them to slaughterhouses overseas.
There was no righteous cause for WW1- like all wars other than those fought in self defence-it was because of a failure of our leaders with other nations as they should. And like every war since- our young men and women bear the brunt of failed political and military leadership and a public too willing to accept the half-truths given to them. If we truly wish to honour the memory of those who fought under our name- let’s talk honestly and maturely as to why we sent them their, why they joined and what they did whilst there; because this may mean we are less likely to send the next generation of our young men and women away to die for our failings to deal with other nations peacefully. Justifying past wars under slogans of nation, freedom and world peace simply makes it easier for us obtain conscripts for the next war.
Indeed, seeking to coat our reasons for participating in WW1 in glory is unnecessary, because so many of the actions of the men who fought are truly worthy of honouring. Honouring our WW1 soldiers for their deeds is easy because they were immense. Through the pivotal role that the Australian Corps played in the advance to victory on the Western Front in 1918, in the annuls of strategy and military planning, seen best in Gen John Monash, Australia influenced the destiny of the world for the first time in our history, and arguably more than at any other time since.
The First World War was supposed to have ended all wars. The ninety-five years since the Armistice bear eloquent and sad testimony to how illusory that hope was. Those years have seen war after war, campaign after campaign, and thousands more Australian war dead. But, in every instance, those Australians held to the same twin ideals, mates and country – mates and country – as those who went before them. .
In writing of our war dead, Charles Bean said of the Australian War Memorial, “Here is their spirit, in the heart of the land they loved”. It is here that we sense their presence. It is here that their call to us to build a nation worthy of their sacrifice is heard at its loudest.
Those words are clarion call for all Australians. Strengthened by those mighty pillars of mateship and courage that sustained them, and led them, as ordinary Australians, to achieve great things, we must not let them down.
Lest we forget.