Lest we forget, there are others to remember
There’s rosemary, that’s for remembrance; pray, love, remember.- Ophelia
November is here again. In temperate climates like Canberra’s it is definitely late spring, with roses bursting their buds and bright green canopies of oak and plane to shade the streets. From Sydney north through the subtropics it’s getting hot and humid.
And there is another thing happening now. Today is Remembrance Day, commemorated as always on the 11th of November.
The tradition of a minute’s silence for remembrance and reflection dates from 1919 and was fathered at least in part by the Australian journalist and soldier Edward Honey. He meant it to be, in his own words, “...communion with the glorious dead who won us peace, and from the communion new strength, hope and faith in the morrow…”
I haven’t forgotten that we are still at war today, and that courageous Australians are in harm’s way right now. Nor have I forgotten all those still-living veterans who need our care and understanding. But Remembrance Day is about those who died for us. All those corners of foreign fields whose rich dust a richer dust conceals, as Rupert Brooke put it.
The loss this day marks was heavy from the beginning. In 1919 and the years shortly following, Australians and the rest of the then British Empire remembered what we now call the First World War. Before that war, 604 Australians had been killed in recognised conflicts, almost all of them in South Africa.
The war that began in 1914 changed things. Following the War Memorial’s published statistics, 61,512 Australians died in that conflict, including its Russian sequel. (Ten Australians were killed and two Victoria Crosses won during the little-known campaigns under British colours in the Russian Civil War.)
This from a nation of approximately four million people at the time. One in ten of the total population enlisted. Nearly 40 per cent of the fighting-age males were in uniform. Of those 400,000, more than three-quarters were killed, wounded, missing or seriously ill at some point in their service.
Imagine it if you can. A world where every tenth person suddenly disappears into uniform, including a huge fraction of the men under forty-five. And three-quarters of those either don’t come back at all or are somehow physically affected seriously enough to make the official record. I don’t think I can picture it properly, myself. Yet it happened in our country, at the far edge of living memory.
Of course, the losses went far beyond Australia. Millions died. The First World War ended the British Empire, Imperial Germany and Imperial Russia. It led to the creation of the most unnatural state of Iraq, with all its present-day consequences. And it paved the way for Europe’s totalitarian period, which lasted into the 1990s.
Today is the 94th Remembrance Day. Sadly, since it began we have added another 40,619 Australians to the Roll of Honour. And that figure does not include those who died while serving with allied forces, in the merchant marine, war correpondents, Salvation Army or philanthropic representatives. Nor does it include those killed on peace operations - which broadly means intimidating people into better behaviour, and so carries every likelihood of things going horribly wrong. Nor those killed in helicopter crashes and truck rollovers and all the other things that happen when training for war. And it doesn’t include the wounded, the sick, and the mentally shattered.
Of course, these statistics also don’t include the estimated 20,000 Aboriginal people and two to three thousand whites killed during frontier fighting and punitive raids that still occurred at late as 1928. I’m not making that up. It comes from the research of historians like Henry Reynolds and others since him. Yes, I know Keith Windschuttle disagrees.
Perhaps it’s time to include these first fighting Australians in our remembrance. Some will no doubt be incensed at that notion and some will decry it on technical grounds of nationality or precisely what constitutes a military force. Some will agree violently and others will be astounded at those figures. And probably plenty of people will just pass it by without being moved in any way. But let’s have the conversation.
Today is a time to remember all those Australian warriors who died in arms and those who died supporting them. Define that how you will in your own head when you take your minute’s silence. If you restrict it to the major recognised conflicts, with their geographical limits and time periods, that’s your choice. There are over a hundred thousand of our bravest for you to remember. If you think it includes the brave people who succumbed to the hazards of harsh environments and dangerous jobs keeping the peace or bringing help to the needy in the Solomons or the Western Sahara or Indonesia or a swag of other places, remember them.
If you are moved by the deaths of soldiers in helicopter crashes and training accidents at home, remember them. And, if you want to extend the mantle to those first Australians who fought with spears and clubs against musket and sabre, or to include the colonists who killed them to begin today’s Australia, remember them too.
We have a long history of brave Australians going in harm’s way for what seemed at the time to be good reasons. Many of them did not come back. They live on only in our memories. Please, today, take that moment to be silent, and remember our warriors as they deserve. As the Soldier’s Poem says:
And when he gets to heaven,
To Saint Peter he will tell;
One more soldier reporting, sir.
I’ve served my time in hell!
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