Opinion piece – Honouring their sacrifice

The Hon Matt Thistlethwaite MP
Assistant Minister for Defence
Assistant Minister for Veterans' Affairs
Assistant Minister for the Republic

Every year on Remembrance Day, our community pauses at the 11th hour of the 11th day of the 11th month.

We remember all those who have died or suffered while serving in wars, conflicts and peacekeeping operations.

Like me, many Sydneysiders have fond memories of growing up by the beach, and share my lifelong love of the ocean.

For surf lifesavers, this is also the time of year when thoughts turn to the volunteer roster.

I am proud to have been a member of the Maroubra Surf Life Saving Club since I was a teenager, and to work with volunteers who risk their life to save others. Maroubra is one of Australia's oldest surf clubs. Since it was established in 1906, members have carried on the club's proud tradition of providing a lifesaving service for the community.

Following this Remembrance Day, I would like to share the story of a Maroubra surf lifesaver from the early days.

Sapper Walter Freebairn served our community as a lifesaver, and he served our country during World War I.

Walter worked as a cutter at a tailor's on Pitt Street in Sydney.

He was a great athlete, and spent his spare time volunteering as a lifesaver.

When war broke out, Walter was one of the first to enlist in the Australian Imperial Force.

He left Sydney in October 1914 with the 1st Field Company, Australian Engineers.

Sapper Walter Freebairn was part of the landing force at Gallipoli, and he was killed in action on the first day, April 25, 1915. He was 24 years old.

Back home in Australia, his loss was felt deeply by grieving loved ones.

Fifty years later, Walter's family and friends were still placing notices in the newspaper to honour his memory.

He left behind a fiancee, Essie Adams, and her cherished pre-war photograph of Walter is preserved today as part of the Australian War Memorial's collection.

We can all be proud of locals like Walter Freebairn and his mates, who put their hand up to serve the community as lifesavers and answered the call to fight for our nation.

The names of 16 members of the Maroubra Surf Life Saving Club who made the supreme sacrifice are recorded on the club's First World War Honour Roll.

At least 8000 surf lifesavers from around Australia are known to have served in the armed forces, and nearly 700 of them have died while serving our country.

Remembrance Day is a time for us to reflect on their sacrifice.

It is a time for us to consider the selfless service of the more than 103,000 men and women who have given their life for Australia in the course of wars, conflicts and peacekeeping operations.

We also think about the enduring values that Australians have fought and died to defend, and show our respect for the families of service personnel and acknowledge their grief and sadness.

We remember those who have given everything to keep us safe and protect the Australian way of life.

Lest we forget.

This opinion piece was first published in The Sunday Telegraph on Sunday, 12 November 2023.

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