A hundred years after the first Anzacs landed at Gallipoli, Australia’s eyes turn to that narrow stretch of rugged coast on the other side of the world. As a nation, we pause to remember the lost generation who fell with faces to the foe, far from their homes. We remember their brothers-in-arms who lie beneath white crosses amidst red poppies in other foreign fields.
We will remember 60,000 young people, lost to an even younger nation.
All who served in World War I were forever changed by the hardship they faced and overcame. Tens of thousands came home wounded, unable to return to the jobs they left behind. A generation of soldier-settlers were stretched to breaking point by a harsh land they were forced to tame.
Many more carried the hidden scars of trauma. Husbands and fathers who could not find the words to tell the people they loved why things could never be the same again.
We will remember their families too. Parents, wives and children who welcomed home a different person to the one they farewelled.
World War I left its mark on our people and our continent like few events before or since. Across our country, families and communities counted the dreadful cost, a toll that echoed through the generations.
We all know towns where the list of names etched into the weathered white stone seems impossibly long.
We have all paused in front of honour rolls in our local halls where the surnames come in twos and threes, brothers who couldn’t be separated, strapping sons lost to their families, sometimes in the same hour of bloody chaos.
On Anzac Day, as we gather for the rituals of respect and contemplation, as we say together ‘‘Lest we forget’’, we rededicate ourselves and our nation to the honoured memory of the fallen. We declare, as we always must, that their sacrifice was not in vain.
We remind ourselves of the timeless truth of what they fought for: the people they loved and the country they believed in.
One in five of the first Australian Imperial Force had been born in Britain, and it is true that our nation had bound itself to Britain’s cause: “to the last man and the last shilling”.
But what Australia lost and gained in World War I did not belong to Britain.
The sacred name of Anzac, the bravery and sacrifice of the young citizen-soldiers we honour today, and every day, belong to all of us.
Those first Anzacs risked and lost their lives not for the “green and pleasant land’’ of England but for the free and fair nation they had built here, beneath the Southern Cross.
They sent words of comfort to anxious parents in Bunbury and Launceston, not Bristol and London. They wrote to sweethearts in Parramatta and Essendon, not Plymouth and Essex. At Gallipoli they sought race results from Randwick, not Ascot.
It was Australia they loved and it was Australia who mourned their loss. It was Australia who cared for the loved ones they left behind and it is Australia who honours their sacrifice still.
In 2015, as we mark the centenary of Anzac, there is no-one left among us who knew first hand the courage and chaos of April 25, 1915.
Even those left to grow old have gone.
But the Anzac story will always be part of our Australian story.
The Anzacs will always speak to us, and for who we are.
In the coming years of commemorations, I encourage all Australians to honour the memory of those who served by looking up into the branches of their family trees. Try to find out, if you can, the history of your family’s service.
Together, let us learn and tell the story of the ordinary people who found the courage to do the truly extraordinary.
Let us, as a new generation, give new meaning to the solemn national promise we repeat today.
Lest we forget.
This opinion piece was first published in the Daily Telegraph on Friday, 24 April 2015.