Throughout the British Commonwealth, Remembrance Day is the 11th day of the 11th month, when on the 11th hour we remember the fallen in the Great War and pay homage to victims of all wars all over the world. The first ‘Day of Remembrance’ was observed in 1919 and was originally called ‘Armistice Day’. It commemorated the end of hostilities (the signing of the armistice), which occurred on 11 November 1918. It came to symbolise the end of the war and provide a formal opportunity to remember those who died.
After the end of World War II in 1945, the Australian and British governments changed the name to Remembrance Day. Armistice Day was no longer considered to be an appropriate title for a day that would now commemorate all war dead. In October 1997, then Governor-General of Australia, Sir William Deane, issued a proclamation:
“The 11th of November is declared Remembrance Day and I urge Australians to observe one minute’s silence at 11.00 am on Remembrance Day each year to remember the sacrifice of those who died or otherwise suffered in Australia’s cause in wars and war-like conflicts.”
Although Australia had become a nation in 1901, at the outbreak of war in 1914 its loyalties still lay with Britain and its culture was staunchly colonial. The Australian government had committed itself to supporting the British war effort and Australian men volunteered to fight and die on the battlefields of Europe, Turkey and the Middle East. Of the Australian population of 5 million, 300,000 young men went to the Great War. Of those, 60,000 died and 156,000 were wounded or taken prisoner.
Unlike many of its Allies, Australia did not conscript its soldiers to fight in the Great War - all Australian “diggers” (= soldiers) were volunteers. But conscription was an issue in the Australian political arena with Prime Minister William (Billy) Hughes sending Australian voters to two bitterly fought referendums. Although the ‘no’ vote to conscription was successful on both occasions, the ‘no’ wins were narrow ones. The 1916 referendum recorded a 64,549 majority for ‘no’ and the December 1917 referendum recorded a win for the ‘no’ case of 149,795.
Australian troops earned a reputation for their gallantry and courage under dreadful conditions, and they were often used by the British command as the first wave of an assault, leading to heavy casualties. Nearly 8000 Australian men died in the Dardanelles campaign; 800 at Lone Pine - the most famous of the Gallipoli battlegrounds. Do see the excellent 1981 Australian film “Gallipoli” of Peter Weir if you can, for a good coverage of the time and events around the Australian sacrifice in Gallipoli (http://www.imdb.com/title/tt0082432/).
The war was no better for the Australians on the Western Front. The Front ran for more than 750 kilometres, from the English Channel to the French-Swiss border, and was marked by irregular rows of trenches. The Somme, Pozieres, Ypres, Villers-Bretonneux, Bullecourt, Amiens, Passchendaele, the Hindenburg Line are all places that still manage to send shivers down the spine. 10,000 Australians died at Bullecourt, nearly 23,000 were dead on the Somme.
Lest we forget!