Centenary of ANZAC Speech, Parliament House

On April 25 one hundred years ago, two Divisions of the Australia and New Zealand Army Corps landed at a small cove on the Gallipoli Peninsula now named ANZAC in their memory.

MARK DREYFUS QC MP

SPEECH

 Prime Minister’s Motion

 Centenary of ANZAC

 House of Representatives

 22 June 2015

 

I rise to speak in support of the Prime Minister’s motion.

On ANZAC Day this year we commemorated a particularly significant anniversary.

On April 25 one hundred years ago, two Divisions of the Australia and New Zealand Army Corps landed at a small cove on the Gallipoli Peninsula now named ANZAC in their memory.

In the campaign that followed those landings, we would suffer some 26,111 Australian casualties, including 8,141 deaths.

The men who survived the Dardanelles campaign would go on to the even greater horrors of the Western Front.

It is sometimes said that this nation was born at Gallipoli.

We must remember, though, that at the outbreak of war in 1914, Australia already had its own unique identity.

Fourteen years before the landings at ANZAC Cove, six British colonies had freely voted to create a nation. It is not often that a nation-state is formed in an exercise of democracy rather than violence.

Though it was only just over a hundred years since Europeans had occupied Australia – to build a penal colony, no less – by the turn of the twentieth Australia was thriving.

Our capitals bustled with activity. Sydney was a booming city of well over 600,000, with its own culture of business and beaches.

Melbourne had by the latter part of the 19th century become the richest city in the world, a fact still reflected in our architecture. When Commonwealth Parliament met for its first sitting in 1901 it was in the Royal Exhibition Building in Melbourne which had twenty years prior hosted the Melbourne International Exhibition, showcasing Australia to the world.

Australia had its own culture. In 1915 Melbourne, Carlton had just defeated South Melbourne the year before for their fourth premiership in our very own sporting innovation – Australian Rules. We had our own arts. Banjo Patterson’s iconic ‘The Man from Snowy River’ was already 25 years old.

And of course, while Australia might have been a young nation-state when it was caught up in the outbreak of the Great War in 1914, this continent was and is home to the world’s oldest continuing civilisation. Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples had lived on this land for many thousands of years. They, too, would be caught up in maelstrom of global war. Hundreds of Indigenous Australians served in the Great War, and many more would serve in the conflicts to follow.  

We did not need to send tens of thousands of young men to the killing fields of Europe to prove ourselves or to forge a national identity. We were not born at Gallipoli. No, on the Dardanelles and later on the Western Front, the young Australian nation suffered a grievous loss. It is a loss that profoundly scarred our nation. A loss that resonated through the decades that followed. A loss that we still mourn now, every year on ANZAC Day.

It is hard now to imagine the scale of that loss. Australia was at that time a nation of just five million. And yet we sent 416,809 men to war, around 40% of all Australian men of fighting age. 60,000 were killed. 156,000 wounded, gassed, or taken prisoner.

The dreadful loss of Australian men and boys, for very many were only teenagers, is to be remembered for what is was – the wholesale killing of Australians in their prime.

Australia, blessed as it is to be an island nation and far from the cultural and ethnic nationalism that plagued Europe throughout much of the 20th century, could have left the killing fields to the Europeans.

But as war approached, soon-to-be Labor Prime Minister Andrew Fisher declared “Australians will stand beside the mother country to help and defend her to our last man and our last shilling”.

We do not now understand this loyalty to empire, a sense of Britishness which saw Australia so readily enter a British war.

It would be a mistake to apply a modern Australian worldview to events a century ago. Those were different times. As LP Hartley wrote, “the past is a foreign country: they do things differently there.”

Indeed, we should remember that at the time, as a matter of law as well as practice, Australia did not have its own independent foreign policy. Australia did not itself declare war in 1914 and we could not have done so. Not until the enactment here in 1942 of the Statute of Westminster did Australia have the constitutional power to declare war independently of Britain. In 1914, when Britain declared war she did so on behalf of the Empire.

Even mindful of the times, the loss of life we suffered in the Great War was completely senseless, our entry into a war on the other side of the world a great folly.

The mindless and bloody Gallipoli campaign we commemorate on ANZAC Day , the first major combat operation of the war in which Australian forces took part, illustrated that folly.

On the Dardanelles, Australians fought on a hostile battlefield nearly 10,000 miles from Melbourne. After eight months of grinding stalemate, Allied forces withdrew. It was a great strategic failure, the greatest success of the campaign a cunning evacuation.

 Nonetheless, even in that doomed campaign the ANZAC forces distinguished themselves, fighting ferociously and bravely against impossible odds.

On the 25th of April this year, I joined thousands of residents of my community at ANZAC Day services in my electorate of Isaacs.

As with every year, I was touched by the diversity of attendees. Australians of all backgrounds and ages turned up in droves on a cold wet day to remember and pay tribute.

A constituent of mine, Mrs Margaret Diggerson of Chelsea, was successful in obtaining an Anzac Centenary Grant to write a book about the men of Chelsea and Carrum who fought and died in the Great War.

Titled ‘The Fallen’, Margaret’s book examines the lives, tragically cut short, of 59 men who left the townships of Chelsea and Carrum for the Great War and never returned.

I would like to read from the entry for Private Henry Deering Mossenton, who fought for the 8th Battalion and later for the 59th Battalion. Private Mossenton was a farm labourer at Carrum, which, 100 years ago, was a small farming community outside Melbourne, not the densely settled suburb it is today.

On 27 September 1915, Private Mossenton wrote to his sister Maud about his experience in the Gallipoli campaign:

“Dear Maud,

Just a few lines to say I have been at the front and been under fire at last. It seems a long while since I left home. We were at a place called ANZAC but were only for about two weeks and were shifted back to Lemnos again. I was not in the trenches but was working a good bit on the beach. Two of our chaps got wounded there with shrapnel, one pretty badly poor chap. My mate and I had a narrow escape.”

In the same letter Private Mossenton describes ANZAC Cove:

“It is wonderful when you have a look at the place where our boys landed, for it is just a mass of hills. When you get out of the boat there is only about 20 yards of a sandy beach and then the cliffs start. How our chaps got to the top and took them, well I don’t know, for it has been a wonderful piece of work. No wonder they praised our chaps up. I think when I look around all the boys who landed there they ought to get the V.C.”

Private Mossenton was evacuated from Gallipoli on 7 January 1916 and went on to fight on the Western Front, where he was reported missing, presumed killed in action on 19 July 1916 at Fromelles.

Harry Mossenton is remembered on honour boards at Chelsea Council, Carrum Fire Brigade, Carrum RSL and the Carrum War Memorial.

On reading Private Mossenton’s letter to his sister, I was struck by his line that all the boys who landed ought to get the V.C.

I am sure that many soldiers who fought in Gallipoli or on the Western Front felt the same and I think the line really encapsulates the genuine camaraderie and selflessness of the Australian character – then as now.  

As a farm labourer in what was then rural Victoria, Harry Mossenton would no doubt have had little knowledge of the destruction threatening to take over Europe. He would have signed up, along with most of his mates, totally unprepared for the inhumanity and butchery of the Dardanelles and the Western Front campaigns.

What Harry Mossenton did understand was the importance of community and of recognising his mates and acknowledging their work.

The Great War was a conflict of little virtue. It was a war of necessity for Allied powers in Europe and a war of imperial loyalty for Australia.

It was a war where tens of thousands of young Australian men signed up with little idea of what they were getting themselves into.

Australia has entered many wars since, though none as blindly. The Great War was not, as some of the men who suffered through it might have hoped, “the war to end all wars”. But it was certainly the last war which Australians would enter with anything less than dread. 

I said earlier that Australia was, at the outbreak of war in 1914, already a young nation with its own character and cultural identity. But that identity shone through in our wartime experience. 

Ours is an egalitarian nation. We have no time here for aristocracies and stuffy class distinctions. Australians have a great sense of camaraderie, a loyalty to the collective, a keenness to pull together in the face of adversity.

The ANZAC legend has become such a touchstone of our national folklore, not because of the death and destruction at Gallipoli and on the Western Front, a most pointless and despicable waste of youth, but because those Australians who fought and died at war encapsulated what was already in Australia’s soul: a generosity, honesty and decency that can only come from the roots of a community formed by a history like Australia’s.

The diggers at ANZAC Cove distinguished themselves above all through their loyalty to their mates – which, despite the passing of a century, Australians today still relate to.

It is important that we commemorate the sacrifice of our diggers, but it is just as important to learn the lessons of war and to remember the horrors of conflict.

It is my hope that today’s Australians never have to live through another world war, or the tragedy of losing a generation in its prime.

This is not the occasion to glorify violence, but to remember the mindlessness of war and the grievous damage it can inflict on an entire nation.  

Lest we forget.