N’oublions jamais l’Australie…

- Never forget the Australians

These words are written on the walls of schools in the small town of Villers-Bretonneux in France.

They express the eternal gratitude of the local people to the Australian soldiers, who, on the night of the 24th April and the morning of 25th April 1918, recaptured their village from the German Army. The Australians gave them back their homes, and the French villagers were then, and remain now, forever grateful to the Australian soldiers.

The men who did this at Villers-Bretonneux were members of the First Australian Imperial Force (AIF); there were over 300,000 of them. They were the ANZACS, and "we never saw them when they were doing the things that made them different from you and me." ¹

On December 16, 1918, Winston Churchill said, in London:

"We must look forward one hundred, two hundred even three hundred years, to the time when that vast continent of Australia will contain an enormous population; and when that great population will look back through the preceding periods of time to the world-shaking episode of the Great War ….and many families will seek to trace some connection with the heroes who fought on Gallipoli, the Somme and the other great battles in France…"

And - we do just that. Why?

Cranky Lizard is sure that it was because the men and women of the First AIF were great-hearted Australians who did not know the meaning of the word defeat. They came with the shining confidence of a new nation forged from drought and fire under the constellation of the Southern Cross.

They were not British; their casual, easy rhythms of marching together - long, slow, ground-covering paces - set them aside from the tense, fast-pacing of the British Army and the elegant strolling of the French.

But they could fight like demons unleashed when they were aroused, and, as the mind-numbing horror of the French battlefields unfolded around them, they gave nothing to no man. They confronted the main German Army in the main theatre of war, and they overwhelmed them – no other Australian Army has ever had to do that!

As we attend Memorial Services for them on November 11 this year, Cranky Lizard suggests that you ask yourself who these men and women really were?

Many of the Australian soldiers had mixed Irish/English heritage and had no respect for the officers of the British Army; they refused to salute them and were fiercely loyal to their own battalions and officers.

Australian officers had plenty of opportunities to earn the respect of their soldiers, and almost all of them did!

Towards the end of this cruel conflict, many German soldiers told their officers that they did not want to fight against the Australian soldiers. They were afraid of them because they were such hard fighting men.

Here is a picture of some Australian Infantry, taken in August 1918 during the Battle for Amiens.


Experienced soldiers looking at this photograph will recognize the signs of tough fighting men, the way they hold themselves and their weapons. There is a languid, threatening air about them, much like a lion loping across the veldt. Notwithstanding the length of those bayonets!

We have romanticized the image of the Bronzed ANZAC as a ‘knockabout bloke’ who was a good soldier.

Wrong!

Australians of the First AIF were not really good soldiers – they were bloody good fighters! You do not receive a reputation such as they had by being good blokes! When they needed to, they were fierce and unrelenting in the business of killing Germans in the shocking and brutal business of trench warfare.

But the same men would entice wonderful music from captured pianos in battered French barns, play with a farmer's children and take an interest in the life of the French farmers; many of them were from farms themselves. However, farmers’ wives learned very quickly to keep all their chooks under lock and key – Australian bayonets had an insatiable appetite for French chooks!

Cranky Lizard knows that Remembrance Day focuses the commemoration on the activities of the Australian and New Zealand soldiers on the Gallipoli Peninsular, as it has been from the beginning of the commemoration events of World War I. Nothing written here detracts from what was achieved at Gallipoli, which was fundamental national recognition.

However, we all know that there was much more to the stories of the Australian and New Zealand soldiers in World War I than Gallipoli.

Much, much more.

In 1914, when hostilities were announced in Europe, the population of Australia was 4.9 million people. As a newly formed nation, Australia lost over 60,000 young men killed in action.

A terrible, mind-numbing loss of talent and intellects, never to be replaced: this was compounded by the tragedy of tens of thousands of brilliant young Australian women who, because of these losses, were denied the chance to marry and have children.

In New Zealand, the general population was just over 1 million: over 120,000 young New Zealand men served overseas in the New Zealand Army – an incredible one out of every five never returned. Of all nations involved in this madness, New Zealand had the highest casualty per capita rate of all.

Almost all families in both fledgling countries, either bush people or slickers from the city, were affected in one way or another by the huge casualty list from the battlefields of France; very few escaped.

As they began to come home, long, sad grief, like a black fog, enveloped the nation. Those who had remained at home in Australia and New Zealand could not comprehend the numbing and mind-changing horror that many of these returning soldiers experienced.

Many of them had great struggles and difficulties readjusting to everyday life – the country they had left behind a mere four or five years ago had not changed: they had.

And, of course, as it was then, it is now.

The social destruction of PTSD (known at that time as Shell Shock) was immense. Marriages failed. Unemployment followed. Alcohol abuse was endemic, and veteran suicide prevailed, especially in the bush.

None of these sad events was hidden by the families, and Police know all the details of these lonely, forlorn graves. Cranky Lizard knows, in fact, has seen, very old, unmarked graves on rural properties where suicidal uncles or fathers or brothers are buried. They were kept away from public cemeteries because of the social stigma of suicide during those years.

The social and human price paid by Australia and New Zealand for the bravery of their young soldiers on the battlefields of France and the Gallipoli Peninsular was staggering and weighed heavily on both nations.

And that is why it is so important to remember them, their stories, their incredible military achievements and their fierce National Pride, both in Australia and New Zealand.

Irrespective of the post-war social problems unleashed by PTSD, these men and these women built nations. Both in New Zealand and Australia, they got on with building egalitarian societies with opportunities for all.

They formed the RSL in Australia and the RSA in New Zealand – organizations destined to take some of the heat and pain out of the post-war years by providing forums for veterans to discuss with other veterans the terrible sights they had seen and endured, thus reducing the mental isolation many of them felt.

The two young countries they left in 1914, Australia and New Zealand, are no longer in existence. The nations of Australia and New Zealand would be to them as strange as the planet Mars would be to us.

But we, today's Australians and Kiwis, owe that generation of men and women a vast and unrepayable social debt. They built the national foundations upon which we now live.

In closing, Cranky Lizard repeats some of the words of the best speech a Prime Minister of Australia ever spoke. On November 11 1993, The Honourable Paul Keating said this at the ceremony for establishing the Shrine for the Unknown Australian Soldier in Canberra:

"We do not know this Australian's name, and we never will. We do not know his rank or his battalion. We do not know where he was born, nor precisely how and when he died. We do not know where in Australia he had made his home or when he left it for the battlefields of Europe. We do not know his age or his circumstances - whether he was from the city or the bush; what occupation he left to become a soldier; what religion, if he had a religion; if he was married or single. We do not know who loved him or whom he loved. If he had children, we do not know who they are. His family is as lost to us as he was lost to them. We will never know who this Australian was. There were 324,000 Australians who served overseas in that war and over 60,000 of them died on foreign soil.

Over 100,000 Australians have died in wars in this century.

He is all of them. And, he is one of us."

LEST WE FORGET.

Cranky Lizard reminds you to enjoy your days and do not forget the 800 dead Australians in Victoria.

________________________________________________________________________

¹ Les Carlyon – “The Great War” Published November 2007; The Australian Book Industry Awards’ Book of the Year 2007; Winner of the inaugural Prime Minister’s Prize for History, 2007



Recent Posts

See All

With the publishing of this Issue, we celebrate Mother’s Day. The whole team at the LOCAL wishes every kind of mum a very happy Mother’s Day. Our Front Cover is a local mum who some of you will know.

The Price of Freedom is Eternal Vigilance. Cranky Lizard is and has been an observer of the human condition for several years. For a Lizard, it has been, at times, a frightening experience. Lizards do

By Staff Writer Sheree Hoddinett How much have you thought about the future? While it’s not everybody’s favourite topic - what happens with everything when I’m no longer here - it pays to have things