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A Centenary of Sacrifice

ww1Australia’s High Commissioner, Mike Rann, offers a poetic reminder of the state of the world 100 years ago, and everything that we should be grateful for today

On 4 August 2014, nations around the world will begin honouring the centenary of the Great War.

Here in the UK, ceremonies will start at Glasgow Cathedral, the morning after the closing of the Commonwealth Games, followed by vigils at Westminster Abbey and in countless churches around Britain.

Across the Channel, at St Symphorien, near Mons in Belgium, leaders of nations that were on both sides of that conflict will gather in a beautiful cemetery that includes the graves of Allied and German war dead.  Similar services will be held in cities, towns and cemeteries around the world.

On 25 April next year we will also commemorate the centenary of the Allied landings at Gallipoli in 1915.  People will gather at hundreds of dawn services: at Anzac Cove in Turkey; around Australia and New Zealand; here in Britain; in the steaming heat of Papua New Guinea; in a chill morning of a Flanders field; at Villers Bretonneux in France; in an olive grove in Crete; and at similar ceremonies around the world.

On that day we will recognise all those who fought, not only the large contingents of British, French and Turkish forces, but also those who came from far away; from India and Newfoundland, from Africa and the Pacific.

For Australians and New Zealanders, Gallipoli has a special significance. On what we call ANZAC Day, we honour a unique relationship between both countries forged in mud and blood.  It was a conflict that helped shape our characters and define our identities as new nations, as well as enshrine a bond between us that can never be broken.

So at dawn services each ANZAC Day, Aussies and Kiwis say a quiet and humble thank you to mark the everlasting companionship between the living and dead.  And each year we are moved when the Turkish Ambassador recites the words of Ataturk now engraved on a memorial at Anzac Cove.

Those heroes that shed their blood

And lost their lives.

 You are now lying in the soil of a friendly country.

Therefore, rest in peace.

 There is no difference between the Johnnies

And the Mehmets to us where they lie side by side

Here in this country of ours,

You, the mothers,

Who sent their sons from far away countries

Wipe away your tears,

 Your sons are now lying in our bosom

And are in peace

After having lost their lives on this land they have

Become our sons as well

The World War Ι ceremonies will continue with memorial services in 2016 at the Somme, a battleground which alone claimed more than a million lives.  Among them the writers, artists and musicians, the great engineers and doctors, the farmers, factory workers, the husbands and fathers who were not to be.

They will not be forgotten. We will sing the hymns and read their names engraved on memorial walls and headstones; the lost company of cheerful friends who have joined the silence for which we are all bound.

The statistics tell a stark story.  Staggeringly, the total number of military and civilian casualties in World War Ι was more than 37 million, including 16 million dead and 20 million wounded.  A generation of young men were lost.

The impact on countries with small populations was also immense. Between 1914-18, 38.7 per cent of the total male population of Australia aged between 18 and 44 fought with a casualty rate of 65 per cent, the highest of any country. It was a similar story with New Zealand, where 42 per cent of Kiwi males fought with a casualty rate of 58 per cent.

But during the next few years the commemorations will not only focus on the Great War. In June, here in Britain and across the Channel in Normandy, we will remember that 70 years ago on D-Day, the largest armada history has ever seen, left this island in an operation that was as epic in scale as it was in aspiration.

Their purpose could not have been clearer. Europe was enslaved by the greatest tyranny. Proud nations were in chains.  Millions were dying in camps such as Auschwitz, Dachau and Bergen Belsen. Civilisation itself was in peril.

Their mission was not simply to storm the Normandy beaches.  It was to free a continent.

And this year I hope we remember that the Allies could not have prevailed in Normandy without the intelligence coming from Bletchley Park, where 9,000 people worked undiscovered in three shifts every day, year after year, breaking the codes that helped shorten the War, saving countless lives.

All these events were inter-connected at a time when history itself appeared to be racing.

There could be no D-Day unless the RAF, whose fighter pilots, alongside those from Australia, New Zealand, Poland, Czechoslovakia and Canada, had not won the Battle of Britain. There could be no VE-Day without D-Day. No VE-Day without the sacrifice of millions of Soviet troops and citizens. No VP-Day without the bravery of our American friends at Midway, Guadacanal and Okinawa and alongside Australian diggers, our New Zealand mates and courageous locals in the jungles of New Guinea.

One of the great privileges of my role as Australian High Commissioner to the UK is to be a Member of the Commonwealth War Graves Commission and a Trustee of the Imperial War Museum (IWM).  Both these wonderful organisations have busy years ahead.

Many millions of pounds are being invested in a stunning redevelopment of the IWM’s Lambeth museum, which will be opened to the public prior to the World War Ι centenary.  (www.iwm.org.uk)

The Commonwealth War Graves Commission cares for 1.7 million graves in 23,000 cemeteries in 153 countries.  On countless occasions, descendants of those who perished tell us how impressed they are with our cemeteries, their beautiful gardens and the poignant atmosphere they invoke. (www.cwgc.org)

For those of us who had parents and grandparents who served their countries in both World Wars, the ceremonies we will soon attend will have great personal meaning.

Recently I attended the service to commemorate the 73rd anniversary of the Battle of Britain at Westminster Abbey.  I will always remember the faces of those surviving pilots as they looked up to see a Spitfire and Hurricane flying in close formation over Big Ben.

Today we look back to generations that possessed a quality of spontaneous decency and shared sense of duty.   They were prepared to give everything, including their lives, to the next generation.  We remember their talents, their promise, their uncompleted happiness, the years never spent with their children, their spouses or their sweethearts.  They were generations who endured bereavement, privation, smashed cities, and prolonged separations from loved ones, that are unimaginable to us now.

In a time of terrorism, when the enemy is often unknown and unseen, we honour not only those who have fallen but also those who continue to bravely serve us in conflict zones and in peacekeeping operations around the world.

So as we move towards the honouring of a centenary of sacrifice this year, we will remember our fallen comrades as the best of our breed, the saviours of all we cherish and the architects of who and what we are.


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