Armistice 100. Victory but little sense of triumph with the poignant truth we would do it all again

In soldiers’ folklore, the vivid red of the poppy comes from the blood of their comrades soaking the ground(1)  During WW1 poppies sprung up in the battlefields of northern France and Belgium, obliterating the horror of the ravaged landscape. The Australian Returned Soldiers and Sailors Imperial League (the forerunner to the RSL) first sold poppies for Armistice* Day in 1921 importing one million silk poppies, made in French orphanages(2). They remain a symbol of remembrance.

Poppy seller pins the flower on cricketer Don Bradman’s lapel outside the State Theatre, Sydney, Remembrance Day, early 1930s / photograph by Sam Hood. From the collections of the Mitchell Library, State Library of New South Wales

Australia’s involvement in WW1 began when Britain declared war on Germany on 4 August 1914. The world was at war until 11 November 1918.

Australian Army soldiers marching along Macquarie Street, Sydney, Courtesy of Australian Maritime Museum. Photographer Samuel J. Hood

WW1 remains Australia’s costliest conflict in terms of deaths and casualties. From a population of fewer than five million, 416,809 men enlisted, of whom more than 60,000 were killed and 156,000 wounded, gassed, or taken prisoner(3). Almost an unthinkable number.

German losses were a staggering 1,531,048 killed, 4,211,569 wounded and 155,013 died from disease, not to forget the 762,796 deaths among their civilian population from food shortages(4). Aussie diggers were buried, if at all, not far from where they fell, in cemeteries scarring the landscapes of Gallipoli, Egypt, Palestine, Belgium, and France with many graves lost as continued conflict destroyed the sites. Pilgrimages began in the 1920s when mothers, fathers, wives, and children crossed the seas to visit the graves of their loved ones(5).

WW1 diggers are now long gone. I first came across some of their resilience and larrikinism in a second hand book called The Anzac Book. Written and illustrated in Gallipoli by The Men of Anzac in 1916, one of the first entries describes the landing in Gallipoli. “Trenches full of rifles upon the shore and surrounding hills open on us, and machine guns hidden in gullies increase the murderous hail”.

R. Perry from the 10th Battalion A.I.F. goes on to say “after twelve hours hard fighting, I was aboard the troopship again-wounded. But I would not have missed it for all the money in the world”.

This type of character was also too evident in the men we would host whilst celebrating The Battle of Maryang San and Kapyong at one of my old units 3RAR. They were mainly the WW2 diggers that went on to fight in the Korean War. Characters to the last. Sadly not long after I left 3RAR the old diggers were left out of the celebration days as less and less of them were around to be part of it. The ones that did make it were falling into depression after another mate had passed. The decision made for the health and wellbeing of the surviving diggers.

Australian’s have a long and proud history of military service and continue to serve in the ongoing conflicts in Iraq and Afghanistan. Despite the rhetoric, WW1 was not the “war to end all wars”.

We always look on with astonishment and respect for WW1 diggers; for what they achieved and the unbearable conditions that those who ventured into was put up with. From Gallipoli to Egypt & Palestine and onto the Western Front, I could only imagine such hardships even after working in the three war zones myself.

Private James Charles (Jim) Martin convinced recruiting that he was 18 years of age, when in fact, at enlistment he was 14 years and three months(6). Jim lasted 6 weeks before dying of typhoid fever and is believed to be the youngest Australian to die in Gallipoli. Today we could not imagine or accept this happening.

Townsville Brewery employees riding on decorated vehicle in Armistice Day Peace Parade, Townsville, Queensland, 11 November 1918. Courtesy State Library. QLD

The Armistice brought victory, but little sense of triumph. Australians did not yet know the poignant truth, that it would all have to be done again by the next generation.

Lest We Forget.

Brian served as Corporal in the 3rd Battalion, Royal Australian Regiment from 1999 – 2003 & School of Military Engineers 2003-04 as Corporal PTI. He now works at KPMG in Management Consulting.

*Armistice Day marks the armistice signed between the Allies of World War I and Germany at Compiègne France2.

  4. Scates (2007). Soldiers’ journeys: returning to the battlefields of the Great War. Journal of the Australian War Memorial – Issue 40
  5. J D C Bennett (1990). Medical advances consequent to the Great War 1914-1918. Journal of the Royal Society of Medicine Vol (83)

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