Back to All News

Senator Peter Whish-Wilson - Adjournment Speech - Centenary of ANZAC commemorations.

Speeches in Parliament
Peter Whish-Wilson 17 Apr 2015

There have been many speeches in this place and around the world that reflect upon the centenary of ANZAC commemorations. Politicians on all sides will talk of the sacrifice and bravery of the ANZAC diggers, nurses and other military personnel. It is right we do so. But it is also the right opportunity to seek the meaning of this sacrifice, and question what was achieved by the Great War, and how we should best honour and learn from the deaths of so many ANZAC's. The lessons of history are critically important to us today, if we are to avoid the mistakes of the past. 

I would like to start this speech on what the centenary commemoration of ANZAC means to me by reading an inscription - written by my brother David, with input from my father Tony, a Vietnam veteran, and myself. This is now inscribed on the new City of Canning War Memorial on the Wish for Peace wall near the Grove of Reflection in Perth, Western Australia.

The inscription reads:

For those of us spared the terrors of war, to be worthy of our dead, is to remember them. It is to remember that they died, the men and women of this community, in their thousands, in faraway lands, interred in the ground upon which they perished.

It is to remember those who loved them; their fathers and mothers, wives, children and friends. It is to remember that the pain in the hearts of those who loved them, who lived after them, never healed; the promise of their lives together, unfulfilled.

It is to remember that many who returned were also harmed, so that they and their families continued to suffer. When we wish for peace it is to remember that the lasting meaning of their suffering - their warning to those who follow - remains unheeded so long as there is war. 

For while their service has now ended - their battlefields covered over with meadow, field and forest, jungle and desert sand - let us make of their absence a powerful presence. May we forever hold them in our minds, and the loved ones they left behind.

On the 25th April, thousands of Australians will travel to Turkey to commemorate 100 years since the landing of Australian and New Zealand forces on the beaches of Gallipoli. I will not be going Mr President, as I plan to visit France in 2018 for the commemoration of the battle for Villers-Bretonneux. 

This is because I have already been to the Western Front, with my father and my brother, carrying my great grandfather Clarence Hemphill's war diary, and I want my children to experience what I saw, and felt - the extraordinary emotions: the sadness, the shock, the revelations, the perspective on the futility of war - when I walked across the biggest mass grave on the planet - 765km from the French Somme to the Belgium-German Border. A place we now call the Western Front. 

Australia suffered 60,000 dead and 156,000 wounded in the Great War, and as my Great Aunt Polly recently told me, the hidden emotional and psychological scars of the war, that were never reflected in the statistics, ran very deep in many thousands of veterans and the families of returned soldiers. 

In her area of Scottsdale, Tasmania, Polly explained to me, "An entire generation of children grew up without fathers, even though many were present physically, they were still missing."

So what exactly does it mean to commemorate 100 years of ANZAC? Why do we choose to do this as a nation? Do we do this for the right reasons? 

These are important questions to answer.

Commemorating means paying respects by remembering and honouring the sacrifice of Australians and New Zealanders who fought and/or died in the Great War.

To me, 'commemorate' does not mean to celebrate, or to glorify war. We must be careful to avoid this. 

The two words are easily confused.

The commemoration of ANZAC must be more than simply a ritual; it must be full of meaning. 

In a recent public ANZAC Day address, the late Peter Underwood, the former Governor of Tasmania, made it clear that while honouring the dead and injured was important, on its own it was not enough on ANZAC Day. 

Governor Underwood said:

"ANZAC Day is a day on which we should ask those hard questions about the meaning of wars, their causes and outcomes, in order to become resolute about peace as well as resolute about fighting, when fighting is genuinely necessary and an unavoidable act of self-protection."

"And if we do that, ANZAC Day will become more meaningful, because after all, that was what 'the dead were fighting for.'

He put this in another way in an earlier speech, "Remembrance and honour alone will neither bring nor preserve the peace for which they thought they died." 

It is not just Governors but also veterans who have echoed similar sentiments. Bill Denny, of the South Australian RSL said in 2012 of the centenary commemoration: 

"The overarching obligation we have when we anticipate any ANZAC commemoration is to truly recognise and accept the brutality, senselessness and futility of war."

That is from a veteran today, but you might be surprised to hear this quote from the opening of the Australian War Memorial on 11 November 1941, by Australia's Governor General, Lord Gowrie, a Victoria Cross winner and a severely wounded veteran of the Great War. 

Whilst praising the heroic efforts of Australian soldiers and their willingness to sacrifice for the cause they believed in he stated:

"Now the war had lasted for four years. It was responsible for the death of over 8 million able-bodied men. It was responsible for the wounding and maiming of many, many millions more. It caused universal destruction, desolation, distress without bringing any compensating advantage to any one of the belligerents. It was a war which settled nothing. It was a war in which all concerned came out losers."

Lest we forget that quote, Mr President, when we reflect upon this year's commemoration.

And we should also remember on the 25th April this year that we are still in an open-ended war in Iraq, and if the history of the West's involvement in Middle Eastern Wars is anything to go by, there will be few winners and nothing permanent may be settled from this military conflict. 

The 'senselessness' of the Great War is best reflected in the questionable reasons for its occurrence. To date, I have seen very little of the ANZAC commemoration's public focus on this topic. Where is the dialogue or messaging on the reasons, the madness and hysteria, the leadership failures,  that led the world into a war that killed 37 million people,  3 million of them 'unknown soldiers' whose bodies were never even recovered. A war that helped set up another world war, which was years later to claim another 85 million lives.

Much has been written over the past 100 years on what caused this hideous and appalling conflict that killed so many people. Possibly the best synthesis I've read is 1914: The Year the World Ended written in August last year for the 100 year commemoration of the First World War by the highly respected historian Paul Ham. 

Building on a century of analysis by other writers such as Niall Fergusson and Barbara Tuchman he states in the book's conclusion that World War One was, "an avoidable nightmare... an unnecessary exercise in collective stupidity and callousness launched by profoundly flawed and emotionally un-intelligent men... that determined the direction of the 20th century."

Ham points the finger of blame for this avoidable war directly at politicians and governments who he claims were "wide awake, sentient decision-makers" who "collectively manufactured" the war. 

"Europe's rulers and political leaders knew something most of their people didn't; a war was coming. A few powerful, old, aristocratic men [brought] war on the world from behind closed doors, free from the scrutiny of a fully enfranchised public or an uncensored press," and then, "for four years, European Governments compelled millions of young men to go to war, to die, to be terribly mutilated, gassed or mentally ruined. They [have] used propaganda, [plain] lies, white feathers, threats and political expedience to goad, threaten, terrify and humiliate men into uniform." 

He also strikingly states in the book's conclusion, "Only a legal construction distinguished the Great War from the government-sponsored mass murder of youth."

Could the invasion of Iraq over a decade ago, the subsequent war and the region's descent into barbaric, bloody chaos, have been an 'avoidable nightmare?' Was it also a failure of leadership and a few powerful politicians in an executive, away from scrutiny and a fully enfranchised public, that delivered us to this war?  

It is critical at this commemoration we should reflect upon the causes of all war, just as much as we reflect upon the many acts of bravery and sacrifice in war. A war avoided, is tragedy foregone.

Mr President I have stood at Tyne Cot Cemetery on the battlefields of Passchendaele, and imagined, for just the briefest of moments, transporting myself to the fear, violence and horror of the Great War. Believe me, the cemetery and its confronting visitor centre is an easy place to imagine such an apocalypse. 

I had an understanding that this was a place where your biggest fight would have not just been for your life, or that of your mates, but for your own humanity, and your sanity. Brutalised, dehumanised, fighting hand to hand and living to kill for months on end, year on year, mates dying, crying, deafening noise, shock, blood, mud, going barking mad. I got a sniff, and it was terrifying. Many of the real stories I read, from veterans, talked of how cheap life became on the Western front. 

On this note it is worth reflecting on what Prime Minister Paul Keating stated about the First World War, that it was, "when the horror of all ages came together to open the curtain on mankind's greatest century of violence, the twentieth century."

Given the horrors and sheer scale of this war, which I better understand after visiting France, it is also worth reflecting on the late Peter Underwood's concerns about the dangers of ANZAC day commemorations becoming a "soft focus event."

The Governor said, "Time has passed. Memories soften with the passage of time. They blur, they lose their sharp and painful edges."

Mr President, ANZAC Day and ANZAC mythology cannot be allowed to lose its sharp edges.  My visit to France, and the reminder of my great-grandfather's secret diary, will help keep the edges sharp for me. 

But what about to others - especially younger Australians?  

It was explained to me recently that the popularity of ANZAC Day dawn ceremonies is only a recent phenomenon, because in decades past many veterans' families were still struggling with the "sharp and painful edges," the side-effects of war.  This included family breakdowns, alcoholism, domestic violence, mental illness and other side effects of Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) experienced by many veterans. I note these hard edges to the remembrance are seldom discussed today in relation to the ANZAC legend.  At least not from what I have seen.

While these same side-effects still prevail today with veterans from recent conflicts such as Vietnam and Afghanistan, they are also virtually invisible, and not given the attention they deserve. These diggers, many suffering PTSD, should also be in our thoughts on the 25th April, and I have supported veterans' group Soldier On in their bid to have an extra minute's silence to respect PTSD and other mental illness suffered by the walking wounded as a result of recent conflicts. This is an important recognition of the true cost of war and violence that is still being paid today.

Whilst on the subject of today's younger veterans, I recently read, "The Long Shadow of the ANZACs" by Captain James Brown, an Afghanistan veteran. He rejects, as other veterans do, the expenditure of many millions of dollars on ANZAC commemoration planning on what he describes as: 

"A discordant, lengthy and exorbitant four year festival of the dead."

He suggests that ANZAC commemorations should be silent and respectful, and outlines that Australia's obsessive focus on the ANZAC myth obscures the reality of service and reduces the quality of public debate about the role and use of Australia's Defence Force. 

Captain Brown documents the many negative aspects of ANZAC's long shadow including:

a growing gap between myth and reality in the public understanding of what someone in the Defence Force actually does,

a reticence of politicians to question individual deployments or even the standard performance of the military, and 

undue pressure on the serving personnel to live up to the ANZAC model.

To many the ANZAC 'model' is the laconic image of relaxed, cheeky, tall bronzed Aussies, who took it all in their stride, were brave and fearless, who stuck by their mates through thick and thin, who distinguished themselves and Australia. My grandfather's diary is very telling in this respect. His early writings did support much of this myth. I will read a few brief excerpts from his diary.

June 13 - August 26, 1916

"It was a grand sight: the star shells lighting up the place all along the line mostly used by Fritz to see where our chaps were attacking. After the bombardment had lasted some hours and our little band of drivers were gradually getting smaller for cars were beginning to go out on their errand of mercy to collect wounded and what was once a tall stalwart very Australian hero (for heroes they are, every one of the Infantry) now laying on a stretcher broken and shattered by German shrapnel or shell, but still contented, the first words they ask the Doctor: "How long will it be before I'm coming back to my comrades"?

"Never a word about the pain of his wound. They are grand.

"They would be exhausted then and worn but not an ounce of give-in in them.

"Our First came out of the trenches dirty unshaven, clothes torn and gaunt-looking, but they were victorious and were singing. These sons of Australia that had faced death a thousand times are something to be proud of. I'll take my hat off to them every day."

I can't help wondering what Clarence would have said if he had known his words would be read out in the Australian Senate nearly 100 years after they were written on the battlefields of France.

But the diary also suggests an almost split personality, from the enthusiastic young man before the horror of the Somme, to the hardened man who wrote 'cynical and bitter' annotations to his diary near the war's end, admonishing himself for his earlier naivety and stupidity. 

Speaking of 'splits' Mr President, lastly let's not forget on the 25th April that the Great War split our entire young nation. If our 'national identity' was born in the Great War, suggesting we all came together 'as one' following the beaches of Gallipoli and the fields of France, then part of this national identity is that we are a people sceptical of fighting in foreign wars, beyond our shores. 

This ANZAC commemoration must reflect that we were deeply divided and questioning of our commitment to the Great War. The 1916 and 1917 referendum votes on conscription, in which conscription was rejected, are an example of how much the war tore the fabric of Australian society apart. 

And war still divides us today.

In conclusion, on this important day, the 25th of April, we must acknowledge our brave ancestors who fought and died not just to win the war, but to win the peace. 

The war to end all wars. Looking back over the last century the world has collectively failed in this regard. It seems it is easier to win wars than the peace.

Governor Underwood understood this, referring to a quote from Winston Churchill just a few weeks following Armistice Day in 1918:

"Mr Churchill's exhortation to us is that we seek out on this anniversary, with the most intense care, every detail of the struggle that was the Great War. Implicit in that exhortation is that we seek the truth, the truth of the causes of war, the truth of what happened during and after the war, and the truth of what we have done to avoid there being another war like it. 

"Until we seek the truth we cannot begin to pay proper homage and respect those who have fallen in service of this country."

Governor Underwood also had a novel idea that we should declare the "centennial year of the start of the war to end all wars, the year of peace."

This is something important to reflect on, a focus on peace, and alternative means of resolving conflict in our society as our commitment to the fallen.

I believe this is the 'powerful presence,' referred to earlier in the inscription, that we should make from the absence of our fallen ANZAC's.

 

Back to All News