Centenary of the Outbreak of World War I
Today we commemorate the outbreak of the deadliest conflict in Australia’s history and one that caused utter devastation and massive loss of life in Europe. World War I was not only a tragedy over the course of the four years during which it was prosecuted, it also set the foundations for the even greater conflagration and monstrosity that was World War II.
From an Australian population in 1914 of fewer than five million, 416,809 men and women enlisted, of which over 60,000 were killed and 156,000 wounded, gassed, or taken prisoner. This was a brutal price to pay for a young nation and in the decades since, we have been left to try to comprehend the long term cost we have paid.
Australians fought from New Guinea to the wide oceans of the globe, from the sands of the Middle East to the brutal slopes of Gallipoli and to the murderous clawing mud and skies of Flanders. They went to war from a myriad small towns where plaintive memorials are now a ubiquitous feature of our physical and social landscape.
Small towns that could ill-afford to lose so many, in some cases virtually an entire generation. The little town of Union Jack near Tumbarumba is one poignant example among many. Union Jack lost almost all its fighting age men and as a consequence a town that was thousands of kilometres from Europe and the Middle East was destroyed and ceased to exist, save for the memorial at the side of the road that bears witness to the loss.
They also went to war from the cities where whole sporting clubs and organisations would enlist together, because “you had to be in it”, in a land that was anxious to show its worth, from a people that had long before embraced adventure.
From this day, for the next four years, we pause to mark the way points of the conflict that brought waves of devastating news and eternal grief to families across our nation. Names burned in our collective memory, such as Gallipoli, Fromelles, Passchendaele, Beersheva, Hamel will resonate again. At each remembering we will honour the values we hold so dear, the values of courage, duty, honour, mateship and sacrifice. Values that have inspired us in all we do and that have secured our freedom down the years.
We will also reflect on the folly of war and in particular on the stumbling drift towards its outbreak on this day 100 years ago, when national leaders failed their people in preventing this most preventable of wars. Perhaps this is the most important service the commemoration will serve in our own times where there are all too many circumstances that could germinate similar sequences of escalation.
Ultimately though our commemoration will centre on the individuals whose lives were lost or shattered and we will wonder at their example. In drawing something positive from such pain we should constantly ask ourselves are we worthy of their sacrifice? Have we made the most of the freedom and opportunities they gave us? If we can answer these questions well we cannot help to make ourselves, our country and our world a better place.
We will never forget the sacrifice of so many.
Lest we forget.
MONDAY, 4 AUGUST 2014
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