This morning we honour the men and women who embody the very best qualities of humanity, and of our country Australia.
Selfless, disciplined, and tenacious – Australian soldiers won a strategically significant battle here at Villers-Bretonneux on the 25th of April, 1918.
They helped stop the German offensive and hasten victory for the allies to restore peace in Europe and the wider world.
It is hard to rationalise how this setting – today so sombre and yet serene – could once have been the scene of a ferocious battle recognised as one of the great Australian victories in the First World War.
No longer the fresh, perhaps naïve boys of the ANZAC landing three years before – the Australian Imperial Force of 1918 was battle-hardened, canny and fiercely brave.
One British officer, Brigadier General Grogan called the victory at Villers-Bretonneux ‘perhaps the greatest individual feat of the war’.
A British gunner wrote of the Australians: “The Australians held the line, and never was the line held better. Villers-Bret was held intact by an army of great-hearted men who were afraid of nothing on Earth. . . I and the rest of us made friends forever of the loose-belted Aussies”.
Villers-Bretonneux was part of that crucial transition during the First World War, when Australia came of age.
Today, I reflect particularly on the many boys and men from my state of Western Australia, who took up arms, leaving their families and loved ones, their friends and colleagues – to be engulfed by the huge tide of the Great War.
Sergeant Charles Stokes and Lieutenant Clifford Sadlier, both from suburbs now within my electorate of Curtin – were awarded the Distinguished Conduct Medal and the Victoria Cross respectively for their bravery and leadership during the second battle of Villiers-Bretonneux.
This was the turning point of battles on the Western Front, as young Australians distinguished themselves in the defence of France and in the defence of freedom.
But I also remember those who fought in earlier battles – the Somme – where on the 15th of April 1917, Lieutenant Charles Pope from Perth was ordered to hold his position to the last.
Surrounded by the enemy, he charged with his weapon into a superior force but was overpowered and died defending his post.
He was posthumously awarded the Victoria Cross for bravery and devotion to duty.
The Somme and Villiers-Bretonneux are two names in the long and bloody roll call of conflicts that helped forge the spirit and identity of the Australian nation.
Today, we have reason to be proud of what all those young Australians achieved almost a century ago, and of the bravery and courage they showed.
The individual experience of each soldier contributes to the greater story of the whole – of what happened here on the Western Front and on the battlefields of Turkey – and of the enormous sacrifices that were made in our nation’s name.
The loss of more than 60,000 Australian lives in World War I from a total population of less than 5 million at that time meant that few, if any, Australians were left untouched by the scourge of war.
Yet the war was no less than the crucible that forged modern Australia.
Over the four years of the First World War, Australia made an increasingly important contribution to the Allied cause.
At the end of the war, Prime Minister Billy Hughes confirmed Australia’s emerging sense of independence and nationhood by ensuring Australia signed the Paris Peace Treaty in its own right, rather than as a member of the British Empire.
For those who survived – the contribution they made to the growth of our nation, our community, our culture and economy was immeasurable.
Returned soldiers made their mark in all walks of Australian post-war life: politics, business, professions, trades, on the land, in the military.
Many returned home to resume their lives of work and family, even though they bore the scars of their wartime service, in body, mind and soul.
We remember too that thousands of Australian women gave war service in countless diverse roles.
This morning, we pay homage to those who survived the war and contributed to the success of Australia as a peace-loving country among the community of nations.
We pay tribute to those who died on these bright fields.
Thousands of young Australian men lie forever buried in this French soil.
But we know they lie in the care of friends.
They will never be forgotten.
- Minister's office: (02) 6277 7500
- DFAT Media Liaison: (02) 6261 1555