The phrase “Lest We Forget” is synonymous with ANZAC Day ceremonies.
The idea that we should always strive to remember the sacrifice and service of our armed personnel.
In part we remember because it is personal – perhaps a great grandfather fought and died in WWI or a Grandfather in WWII or an Uncle in Vietnam.
I think of my Uncle’s service in the Australian army driving the Leopard tanks at Puckapunyal and my Grandfather who was an Egyptian auxiliary in Montgomery’s 8th British Army in North Africa during WWII – he used to tell me snatches of stories.
He reckons he singlehandedly with just his rifle took prisoner a whole unit of Italian artillery – I couldn’t tell or was too young to tell if he was having me on – but he noted that the enemy Italian units he caught just wanted to get out of the hot desert and to the relative comfort of a British POW camp in Cairo.
I wish now that I had asked him more questions about that period – so that I could remember more, remember better, now that he has passed away.
But the personal connection we have to our forebears service does not fully explain why so many millions of Australians attend ANZAC commemorative and dawn services around the country and the world.
And why this attendance has increased over the years –
The memories of that service of our forebears are now kept alive by their descendants and by the millions of Australians that stand in the cold in the dawn to remember them.
I think that we remember – and we never forget - because deep in our hearts – deep down in the marrow of our bones Australians know over the history of our nation, the service of 2 million men and women in uniform, and the ultimate sacrifice of 102,825 diggers is the very reason why we enjoy the freedoms of our Australian democracy.
Our Diggers today are deployed in some of those same far flung places that so many of our ANZACS are buried, among the rocky hills and deserts of the Middle East.
Today as did their forebears they defend our nation, protect our way of life and defend our democracy – ensuring we can continue to enjoy our freedoms.
That is why we as Australians come out in our millions to commemorate their sacrifice and their service.
I have been to many ANZAC dawn services much like todays – in Canberra and Melbourne and I have stood in solemn respect at least intellectually understanding the history of that sacrifice.
However, it never really hit me emotionally until I attended an ANZAC dawn service in Iraq in 2004.
I spent almost a year in Iraq, posted by the Australian Government in 2003 and 2004, working on a whole range of national security and counter terrorism tasks, working alongside the ADF and coalition forces.
I was at the ANZAC dawn service in 2004 at the Australian forces HQ in Baghdad. Every morning at dawn the Australian HQ and the Coalition HQ in the Green Zone were hit with mortars and rockets.
So the ANZAC service had an especially eerie feel – because of the backdrop.
The tracer fire that lit up the predawn and the background noise of the helicopter gunships that rumbled across the sky as we commenced the service.
As the sun rose and the Last post was played I saw just a silhouette of the bugler against a blood orange sky –
And it hit me with an emotion I still can’t describe adequately in words
Of course I knew already that the diggers all around me at this service were putting their lives at risk every day protecting me as we moved across Baghdad and other parts of Iraq in the Australian Light Armoured vehicles, the ASLAVS.
It was this scene I guess that made me think more deeply of the 1st ANZACS of how so many had paid the ultimate sacrifice in France in the Mid-East and of course at Gallipoli.
Ordinary men whose deeds made them extraordinary.
And that is an important point about service in the armed forces.
It is in so many ways an extraordinary act of sacrifice for others, for the nation.
At that moment at the dawn service in Baghdad I felt an enormous gratitude to the generations of our service men and women who had fought and died for our freedoms.
And yes I admit I shed a tear at that service and I don’t do that often. Though I may do that if my beloved Magpies lose to Essendon today.
Yet the ANZAC spirit we commemorate is also an uplifting one. The mateship and camaraderie – the larrikin spirit of the Australian soldier are legendary.
I can assure you that larrikin spirit is alive and well. On that ANZAC day afternoon in 2004, I was knocking down a few VB’s with the diggers at Australian HQ. The problem was the US 3 star - Lt General Sanchez, head of Iraq forces, had banned the consumption of alcohol on base.
But the Aussies didn’t just hide the VB’s. They built the cans up into a giant VB can pyramid on a balcony especially for General Sanchez to see as he flew in low in his Blackhawk with plenty of waving diggers to let him know about it!
Today we are all with the Diggers in spirit in memory in remembrance.
RSL sub branches around our great country have been with the Diggers for 100 years.
And when the wars are over – it is the RSL sub branches that look after the survivors, the widows and the orphans.
And we as Australians I know will always remember them, our dads, our mums, our brothers, out sisters, our uncles, our aunts, our grandfathers, our grandmothers, our mates, our service men and women – those that gave their lives and those that give us so much to live for today. We will always remember them.
We also remember the anniversaries that the passing years mark:
On this ANZAC day, 100 Years since of Villers-Bretonneux - an Australian effort so special that Sir John Monash described it at the time as the finest thing done in the war by any soldiers of any army. In fact, the words ‘Do not forget Australia’ are on a sign in the playground of the Victoria school in Villers-Bretonneux .
100 Years since the Battle of Hamel which was the first set-piece operation planned and conducted under Sir John Monash and came to be regarded as a model for later Western Front battles.
100 Years since the Battle of Megiddo, the climactic battle of the Palestine campaign cleared the Allied advance on Damascus. The Australian 10th Light Horse, the first Allied troops to enter Damascus beginning the end of the war with the Ottoman Empire.
100 Years since the Armistice with Germany was signed.
75 years since the Battle of the Atlantic where Royal Australian Navy vessels involved in convoy escort duties.
50 years since the Battles at Fire Support Bases ‘Coral’ and ‘Balmoral’ in Vietnam.
65 years since the Korean War Armistice which is still in effect to this day.
75 years since Hellfire Pass and completion of the Thai Burma Railway where the Imperial Japanese Army used 9,500 Australian and 51,000 allied POWs as labour for its construction.
2,646 Australians and 10,000 Allied POWs died.
While with a few exceptions from more recent campaigns, all those men and women are no longer with us.
We still remember their sacrifice, their struggle today. And while all we have left of them may be sepia stained photos and black and white grainy footage, they are enough of reminders for our memories to remain strong in commemoration – the old images are sign posts - to the stories of sacrifice and struggle that they went through. And the importance of those events in the pages of history.
Whether they were great grandparents, grandparents – or other distant family members – all of us as Australians recall the sacrifices made for the broader Australian family. For our nation.
And that’s why we commemorate each ANZAC Day these brave and selfless people who have fought for us, and the too many who have made the ultimate sacrifice.
Lest we forget.