A nation's pilgrimage - ANZAC Day 2011 speech

Villers-Bretonneux, France

Speech. Check against delivery, E&OE

25 April 2011

We come to this place as pilgrims.

We come in the silence of the night.

And now we gather in the stillness of the dawn.

Quietly.

Reverently.

Treading tenderly on this sacred soil — among those who sleep here still, their tombstones silent sentinels of a war long past.

But whose sacrifice stands as raw and as real for us, as if it happened yesterday.

We come also as pilgrims from a distant land.

In fact a land further from this place than most other places on God's earth.

We come here, proudly, as sons and daughters of the new world.

Yet a new world that now rests respectfully in the embrace of an ancient land, the land of the dreamtime.

We come here proudly as sons and daughters of the Southern Cross.

We come here, proudly, as Australians.

We are a people for whom our belief in freedom and a fair go is etched deep in our soul.

A belief that has never been constrained by the limitations of our geography.

A belief that the values of freedom and fairness are instead common to all human kind.

Values that are worth fighting for.

And where there is no alternative, values that are worth dying for.

As those who lie here in Villers-Bretonneux, and the 100 000 like them who lie in foreign fields across the world, have demonstrated by their valour over the course of a century.

For these are the virtues and the values of a strong Australia, proud of its history, confident of its future, resilient in its moral compass, expansive in its national imagination, our sleeves rolled up in the discharge of our responsibility to the world.

For those who doubt the significance of what happened here in these now beautiful fields of northern France, let us for a moment close our eyes, and imagine with our mind's eye what unfolded here at this hour, this day, 93 years ago — ANZAC Day, 1918.

For we are standing at the Front, separating two grand armies - 192 German divisions facing 156 Allied divisions, straddling a line of 800 kilometres from the Belgian coast to the Swiss Alps.

Here at Villers-Bretonneux, the river Somme itself lies barely two to three kilometres to our north, the region that saw so much fighting in 1916.

Amiens lies 15 kilometres to our west, a critical rail head for all northern France, the last remaining barrier to reaching the Atlantic coast and the ability, therefore, to split the British and French armies in two.

And to the east, the massive Hindenburg line, barely 50 kilometres away.

Villers-Bretonneux, and the cities, towns and villages of Picardy, was therefore no ordinary theatre of war.

Success or failure here was not just of tactical significance.

It was of strategic significance for the future of a war that had already been waged for four long years, and had already yielded unspeakable carnage.

So it was in this strategic corner of France that the Australian Army Corps — at one time making up nearly one-tenth of the entire British Expeditionary Force - found itself deployed in the desperate middle months of 1918.

Australians were not, therefore, simply bit players in the great drama that unfolded here — a drama that helped shape the outcome of the war.

Together with the British, the French, the Canadians and the New Zealanders, we were critical to that outcome.

There were in fact many great battles fought here in 1918.

Actions that formed part of the great German offensive of March 1918 when Germany sought to push the British Army in to the sea.

And where the German occupation of Villers-Bretonneux was finally repelled by the 59th Australian Battalion, fighting house to house with bayonets fixed throughout the day of the 25th of April, the third anniversary of ANZAC.

And later the actions that formed part of the massive Allied counter-offensive of 8 August 1918, spearheaded by the Canadian and Australian Army Corps under Monash, launched from Villers-Bretonneux and nearby Dernancourt, culminating less than two months later in the breaking of the Hindenburg line following a 60 kilometres advance.

Let us be clear: the Australians, in partnership with our allies, made a critical contribution to the collapse of the German Line in October and the armistice that followed less than a month later.

General Ludendorf, Supreme German Commander, later described this offensive of 8 August as "the black day of the German Army in the history of the war" noting specifically in his dispatch the contribution of the Australian and Canadian divisions.

Ludendorf's counterpart, Maréchal Foch, Supreme Allied Commander, echoed Ludendorf's analysis. Foch wrote, "In the grave hours of 1918, with their British, American and French comrades, the Australians barred the enemy rush. They stopped it, they broke it, and at the appointed hour, drove it backwards. I am happy to express to Australia the undying memory which we shall cherish of these incomparable soldiers."

Georges Clemenceau, the French Prime Minister, having visited the Front wrote: "I have come here just for the very purpose of seeing the Australians. I am going back tomorrow to see my countrymen and tell them — I have seen the Australians, I have looked into their eyes, I know that these men who have fought the great battle beside us in the cause of freedom will fight along side us again in the cause of freedom."

From both friend and foe, high praise for these proud sons of Australia.

Boys from Grafton, from Armidale, from Dubbo, from Maitland, from Newcastle and from Narrabri.

But now warriors of Ypres and Passchendale; of Messines and Fromelles; of Bullecourt and Dernancourt; and yes, warriors of Villers-Bretonneux too.

Boys who were sons of the soil, who before the war, had probably never seen Sydney.

Boys with unpretentious names like Bill and Bert; like Bobby and Doug; like Charlie and Mick, boys who were full of life.

But boys who were now battle hardened men, who would never be the same again, because of what they had done and what they had seen.

Boys, now men, and many now heroes, whose memorial lies here in the fair fields of France.

The cost of all this, quite literally, almost bled our fledging nation dry.

Our population was just under five million.

Nearly half a million served in uniform. Nearly 350 thousand of these served abroad, at war's end nearly 100 thousand of these were in France.

Our total casualties, dead and injured, reached 210 thousand of whom 60 thousand lay dead.

Our casualty rate at 65% was the highest of any nation of the war - and uniquely from an entirely volunteer army.

For such was the price of freedom.

It's price has always been high.

And always will.

So today we come as pilgrims from a distant land to honour our own.

We come to honour their courage, their valour, their sacrifice.

We come to honour the values for which they fought — for freedom; for a fair go for all, values which we hold to be true for all humankind, not just for some.

We come too to honour their feats of arms because their courage and skill helped change the course of the war, helped bring that war to an end, a war that had turned this continent into the killing fields of the century.

We come also to honour our allies — the Government of France, the people of France, the people of Villers-Bretonneux to whom we have entrusted our fallen sons.

Et au peuple français, nous dirions également ceci :

[And to the people of France we would also say this:]

Nous vous remercions.

[We say thank you.]

Nous savons que notre sacrifice est petit, comparativement aux 1,3 (un virgule trois) millions de fils que la France a perdu au cours de la Grande Guerre.

[We know our sacrifice was small compared to the loss of 1.3 million sons of France in the Great War.]

Nous connaissons l'étendue de votre sacrifice lors de la guerre qui suivit.

[We know of your suffering in the war that followed.]

Nous sommes reconnaissants que dans chaque salle de classe ici, figurent les mots: "N'oublions jamais l'Australie."

[We are grateful that the classrooms here have inscribed in every one of them "N'oublions jamais l'Australie."]

Mais permettez-moi également de dire, au nom de l'Australie, étant donné les grands sacrifices endurés lors de ces deux guerres mondiales sur les terres de la France dans ces '100 dernières années': "L'Australie n'oubliera jamais la France".

[But let me also say for Australia, given the great sacrifices of two world wars on her soil within the last 100 years: "Australia will never forget France".]

Finally, we come here to honour the families of the fallen — to those of you who make your first pilgrimage here, who ask yourselves the question "what would their lives have been like had they lived"; to share your pride in the feats of the fallen, to share your sadness in young lives cut short and families changed forever.

This year, unusually, ANZAC Day falls on Easter Monday.

Yesterday, Easter Sunday, I attended church in Amiens to celebrate the resurrection, the core belief of the Christian faith.

There I came across the words of the Bishop of Amiens more than 90 years ago.

On 4 November, 1918, the Bishop of Amiens said of the Australians, "During the painful days of invasion, you made a rampart of your breasts, behind which you shielded and saved the last shred of our land… Gentlemen, your dead were great men, and among the most illustrious because they obeyed the highest inspiration."

These were truly great men.

Their highest inspiration was to give themselves utterly and completely for the sake of others.

We are proud to call them Australians.

We are also proud to be called Australians — to share a nation's legacy with men such as these.

For today, we walk among giants.

Lest we forget.

ENDS

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