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Media releases & speeches

The Hon Dan Tehan MP
Minister for Veterans' Affairs
Minister Assisting the Prime Minister for the Centenary of ANZAC

20 July 2016

Dan Tehan’s speech at Fromelles (Pheasant Wood) Military Cemetery for the 100th anniversary of the Battle of Fromelles

Others would work by night and struggle under the weight of their friends. Sergeant Simon Fraser of the 57th Battalion remembered the effort: “I could not lift him on my back; but I managed to get him into an old trench and told him to lie quiet while I got a stretcher. Then another man sang out ‘Don’t forget me cobber’.”

The unknown soldiers that fell during the Great War are emblematic of its mass-slaughter and mass-grief, of loss uncounted and death that can’t be imagined.

The industrial scale of the killing, the machines and weapons that swept away life, created limited time for recognition, recovery or even burial. This resulted in the moments that upon death we take for ourselves and our loved ones being lost.

Today we remember the unknown soldiers here at Fromelles, for their service, we honour them for their sacrifice, and we ensure that they continue to live in the memories of all Australians.

Fromelles became the place where Australia first realised the full force and horror of industrialised warfare.

The Australian official war historian Charles Bean recalled the scale of this devastation here at Fromelles, “We found the old no man’s land simply full of our dead … the skulls and bones and torn uniforms were lying about everywhere … the wounded could be seen everywhere raising their limbs in pain or turning hopelessly, hour after hour, from one side to the other”.

It was a field of men stripped of names, features or identity by the brutal destruction of artillery, guns and bayonets.

After the battles, a chorus of nameless voices crying in pain or agony could be heard by the survivors. It was the nature of the scale of this death that those still safe did not know whether the cries came from dying friends or from soldiers they had never met.

In the days after the battle, soldiers would attempt to go out into no man’s land to retrieve their fallen mates. They often became casualties themselves.

Private Edgar Williams was shot and killed after retrieving eight men.

The grief and uncertainty of families with no plots for their loved ones was immense. Pieces of their lives could never be fully recovered.

On returning from war the soldiers of this battlefield saw this loss stare back at them from the families of lost mates.

Captain Hugh Knyvett recalled: “I discovered one day how deep the knife of war had cut when I spoke to a grandmother and daughter working a large farm; as with dumb, uncomprehending pain in their eyes they showed me the picture of son-in-law and husband who would never return. Rights of peoples and the things for which nations strive had no meaning to these two, but from out of the dark had come a hand and dragged from them the fullness of life, leaving only its empty shell.”

Over 16,900 Australians remain unknown or unaccounted for from the Western Front campaign. Today we honour six men who have now been named. The work to do so, is one we as a country, owe these men, their families and their descendants. It is our duty to honour their duty.

For those who are still unknown, here in this cemetery we can remember them as individuals, though we don’t know where they lie.

They are unknown but did not do their duty any less. They are unknown but did not suffer any less. They are unknown but were not loved any less. They are unknown but not remembered any less.

Today, like 100 years ago, we claim these men as ours. As our sons, our fathers, our brothers, our friends, our workmates. They are ours.

We take this moment to give them the peace and respect we reserve for those we lose to death, not to say farewell but to remind ourselves of the honour, respect and above all else the love they were denied.

We also take this moment to thank the French people and in particular the village of Fromelles, for the ongoing respect they continue to show our fallen.

In those immortal words, ‘Don’t forget me cobber’.

Lest we forget.

Media enquiries:

Minister Tehan’s Office: Byron Vale 0428 262 894
Department of Veterans’ Affairs Media: 02 6289 6203

 

Veterans and Veterans Families Counselling Service (VVCS) can be reached 24 hours a day across Australia for crisis support and free confidential counselling. Phone 1800 011 046 (international: +61 8 8241 4546). VVCS is a service founded by Vietnam veterans.