25 April 2015

Today, in small towns and cities across Australia, in hillsides and cemeteries right around the world, and in halls and parks such as this, Australians will come together as one to commemorate a century of service.

In doing so, we honour the legacy bestowed upon us by the 420,000 Australians who volunteered for service in the First World War, the nearly 62,000 Australian lives lost in that war, including the nearly 9,000 who died in the Gallipoli Campaign, and all those who have continued their proud tradition by serving our nation in all subsequent wars, conflicts, and peacekeeping operations.

It is telling that in recounting the harrowing statistics of the 'Great War' we make no distinction of race, colour or creed.

Each nUmber stands, simply and equally, for one Australian - for they are equal in the contribution they made, equal in the sacrifice they made and equal in the esteem and gratitude we hold for them.

Each number reminds us that we are all inheritors of a simple moral code - an overriding belief in mateship and egalitarianism, which powerfully manifested itself on the shores of Gallipoli and which continues to guide our national ethos.

In marking the 100th anniversary of the most sacred battle in our nation’s history, it is fitting therefore that we tell the story of all those who refused to allow adversity to diminish their sense of duty or extinguish their drive to make Australia live up to its promise of equality for all its citizens.

When the outbreak of war came, our young nation was stained by exclusionary policies based on race - with the Commonwealth Defence Act of 1909 barring any person not “substantially of European descent” from enlisting.

And yet, in spite of this, men from an array of ethnic backgrounds and traditions chose to maintain an abiding faith in the possibilities of this nation and found a way to enlist.

In Rockhamption, for instance, in April 1915, six men came in unison to the recruiting depot to enlist in the AIF. Two of them were Belarusians, two Ukrainians, one Russian and one Ossetian. They were allocated to the newly formed 26th Battalion and sailed to Gallipoli.

On their voyage, they were integrated with Australians from all walks of life including Chinese Australian Billy Sing, Greek Australian Peter Rados, Charles Lautala, a fisherman of Finnish origin and Indigenous Australian Arthur Homer.

Each one of these men had suffered under the blight of overt and legalised racial discrimination but yet here they were, serving their nation as equals - with just as much patriotism and commitment as anyone else.

In doing so, they poignantly demonstrated that citizenship rests not on a person’s race or ethnicity but rather on a firm commitment to the social and moral values which underpin our society.

If the diversity of the Australian ranks wasn't eclectic enough, the scope of the British Empire meant that upon reaching the Turkish shores, they were joined by the 29th Indian Brigade comprising of Sikh, Gurkha and Punjabi units. The Zion Mule Corps, the first Jewish fighting force, and Newfoundlanders from North America.

With the French alliance, the Australians joined ranks with men from far reaching places like Senegal, Algeria and Tunisia.

Far from being segregated, however, a great camaraderie was established between the Allied soldiers, with one story telling of the Australians eagerly accepting the offer of sharing rations with the Indian units - on account of the infinitely more palatable Indian rations of roti and daal!

And so, whilst the fates of these men at that particular moment in time may have been intertwined by a shared sense of duty, in sacrificing side by side and in forming unprejudiced bonds of mateship, they helped our Nation to understand a simple truth - if people of myriad ethnicities could serve as equals abroad, then surely they could live as equals at home. 

Indeed, whilst our shores may not have been touched by the war, our identity would nevertheless be forever altered because of the war.

In Sydney, diggers were gearing up for operations in the Western Desert by being trained to work with camels - a number of which had been donated by Abdul Wade, an Afghani Muslim who had enjoyed great entrepreneurial success in the 1880s during the development of Central Australia and who was eager to offer his animals for the war effort.

Moreover, in a poem he wrote to the troops in 1915, Banjo Paterson captured the spirit of Gallipoli, noting “through what you boys have done… our old world diff'rences are dead… we're all Australians now”.

This is the spirit we reaffirm today, rooted in the values and valour of the first ANZACs and renewed by every generation.

Lest We Forget.