Lest We Forget: A nation that gave its all

On Anzac Day, Australians pause to reflect on the sacrifice made by our servicemen and women. Yak Writer and former Air Force Serviceman Ben Collison reflects on the magnitude of loss experienced by Australians during the First World War, and how we at risk of this reality slipping from our collective memory.

As the crowds gathered in solemn remembrance, their faces were awash with sombre mourning.  Their silhouettes were only distinguishable by the warm caress of the day’s first light as Australia paused to mark the 107th anniversary of the Gallipoli landings.

Older veterans dressed in their finest. Their bearing was true and firm as if they were a spry teenager on a parade ground. Their medals glistened in the early dawn light. Though aged in flesh but not in spirit, their skin is warmed as the sun cuts through the crisp morning air.

Our elderly veterans who defeated a determined enemy on distant battlefields slowly succumb to the battle against time. As their ranks grow fewer each year, their courageous exploits slowly give way to father time and become forever etched in the pages of history.

To their rear, the new generation of veterans stands guard. Though the conflicts and enemies of the day gone by have differed; the scars of war both seen and unseen, unite old and new alike.

Their silence is deafening. Behind their stoic gaze and military posture, hide the memories of mates loved and lost.

As they gather at the altar of service and sacrifice; the veterans are surrounded by those paying their respects. A grandmother holding a photo of a long-lost brother who perished at sea. A daughter who never felt the embrace of a fatherly hug. A mother weeping for a son she will never hold again.

The stillness of the air was only broken by the iconic sound of the bugle. As the crowds dispersed and veterans both young and old marched away; a young girl paused at the foot of the cenotaph and looked at the names etched in stone. Who were they she pondered, as her parents took her by the hand and led her away!

Her moment of innocence among such a sacred moment of Australian history represents a poignant moment in the Anzac Legend. A moment that as we march forward in time, is at risk of being left behind. As ‘the war to end all wars’ slipped from living memory, the devastating toll the Great War wreaked on the Australian population has been confined to reverent places such as the Australian War Memorial and the history books.

Wall of Honour at the Australian War Memorial. Image courtesy of the AWM

When war was declared in 1914, our fledgling Commonwealth had a population just shy of five million people. Over the next four years, four-hundred and seventeen thousand men and women answered the call and raised arms. That equated to approximately thirty-nine per cent of the national population at the time. In comparison to today, the population of Sydney alone is just over five million with Newcastle sitting at just over four-hundred and sixty-one thousand.

By the war’s end in 1918, sixty-two thousand Australians were killed with another one-hundred and sixty-six thousand wounded. That equates to over half of our nation’s fighting force during the conflict killed or wounded. The total strength of the Australian Defence Force today sits at just ninety thousand permanent and reserve forces.

It is worth noting that shell-shock (known today as Post-Traumatic Stress) was not listed in these figures.

As Europe and Turkey picked up the pieces of a war that left its picturesque countryside’s scared and ravaged; Australian men and women returned home to a nation still in its infancy.

As they went back to their lives, townships across Australia were left longing for their sons and daughters. Not just in heart but in hand as well. As Australia attempted to rebuild in a post-war economy; our homes were left absent its soul. It would take another two generations and surviving another world war before Australia would begin to heal from this momentous struggle.

Australia has answered the call time and time again since; no war has left our nation so devastated as the Great War.

As another Anzac Day passes and we move further away from this great struggle that gave birth to the Anzac Legend; we must never forget the cost paid by so many and the long shadow this conflict cast over our humble little island.

Featured image by Ben Collison, Staff Writer.

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