Sky News, Peter Stefanovic interview discussing the identification of an unknown WWI soldier, vaccination rollout

Wednesday, August 4 2021

The Hon Andrew Gee MP
Minister for Veterans’ Affairs
Minister for Defence Personnel

Peter Stefanovic: Welcome back to First Edition. Well, a previously unknown World War 1 soldier has been identified at an unknown grave in Villers-Bretonneux in France. Albert Nicholson, originally from Broken Hill in New South Wales, was identified as a driver for the artillery brigade in the Australian Imperial Force.

Joining me live now is Minister for Veterans’ Affairs, Andrew Gee. Minister, good to see you. Thanks for your time this morning. This is fascinating, this. I mean, I’ve spent a lot of time in Villers-Bretonneux over the years and done a lot of Anzac Day ceremonies and covered a lot of stories where remains have had to be exhumed, and it’s exciting the prospect of giving an unknown soldier a name again. So can you tell us about this new soldier who I’ve just said has been renamed?

Andrew Gee: Yes, he’s Albert Nicholson, who was from Broken Hill, and he enlisted in Adelaide. He was 18 when he was going into the Army, and he was 21 when he was killed at Villers-Bretonneux, which was one of the most significant Australian actions on the Western Front. It was a successful action, but it came at a very high cost.

And Albert was a driver, so he drove horse-drawn artillery and ammunition, and he was killed in that battle. And they could not identify him, and so he was originally buried in an orchard and then he was moved to essentially a grave of an unknown soldier at the Commonwealth War Grave Adelaide Cemetery, and he was just identified as a gunner. And through painstaking research by a number of organisations, they identified him and his resting place.

And it’s a very emotional time for his family. I spoke to his great nephew, John — this is Albert’s great nephew, who lives in Whyalla. And he said it’s been a very emotional experience for him and his family. He’s in the process of letting Albert’s other relatives know that this has occurred. It brings closure to the family. And when Albert was originally killed in action the government asked his mother, Agnes, what she would like on his headstone, the epitaph. And he indicated that what she wanted were the words, “Great is our sorrow, but God knows best. He has taken our loved one home to rest.” And now those words will be written on Albert’s headstone at Villers-Bretonneux.

Peter Stefanovic: So just back it up again for me. How was he found? Where was he found?

Andrew Gee: Well, he was in the grave of an unknown soldier, an unknown Australian soldier, in the Adelaide Cemetery at Villers-Bretonneux. And through a process of elimination they were able to identify everyone who was in his unit except for him. So it then became clear that that grave of the unknown soldier was, in fact, Albert because he was, as I said, originally buried in an orchard and then moved a cemetery. And they just couldn’t identify him, but they have now.

Peter Stefanovic: Right. How long has this process been going for? Because, I mean, as you’d be aware, these things do take a lot of time?

Andrew Gee: It’s been going on for a long time. It’s been painstaking and it’s through the Fallen Diggers Organisation. They’ve been working very hard on this. And they’ve been at it for a number of years now. But this has been a very long and involved process. And I think for Albert’s family his great nephew, John, said to me that this has actually helped to bring his family together because he’s actually contacting relatives that he hasn’t spoken to for a long time. And this whole experience has actually brought them together. So even though Albert fell in action 103 years ago, he’s bringing the family together after all of these years.

And I think for our nation this is very important. It’s very important for Albert’s family, but it’s very important for our nation as well because it demonstrates in the clearest possible way that no matter how long ago the conflict, no matter what field, foreign field, our diggers lie in, we will never forget them and we will do everything in our power to honour their service and sacrifice. And we will never, ever forget them. And that’s what we’re doing here. And so it’s a really important day for Albert’s family but also for our nation.

Peter Stefanovic: So what’s the process now? I mean, is there a ceremonial reburial as these things usually go?

Andrew Gee: Yeah, well, his grave will be marked and there will be a ceremony at the cemetery. But quite often what happens is there are local cemeteries — I’m sorry, local services in Australia. So, for example, I had a digger identified from a place called Stuart Town which is just outside of Wellington, a couple of months ago. We had a wonderful service where the French Ambassador attended and that digger’s family, who still live in the area, were present as well. So it’s quite possible that the relevant RSL sub-branch, possibly in Broken Hill, may now want to organise something as well locally so that local and Australian family and friends can attend. And I would certainly be very interested in attending that service if we can get it organised.

Peter Stefanovic: Sure. Yeah, I mean Covid’s probably going to put some delays on that. But we’ve already been waiting a hundred years, so a few more months is probably not going to change things that much.

Just before you go, Minister, I just want to ask, on to Covid — for a change, really — drive-through vaccination hubs? It’s something that has been done for a long time in the United States. It looks as though it’s going to happen from next month, the middle of next month and then onwards. How much do you expect that to speed up the process?

Andrew Gee: I think it will speed it up tremendously. And I think anything that we can be doing to get the vaccination program rolling along we should be doing. And I think with the release of the reports yesterday and the stats, I think at least now we have a road map out of this and we know what we have to do. And I think the message is — go and get vaccinated. I mean, it’s pretty simple at the end of the day — if you want to get out of this faster, then go and get vaccinated.

Look, I’ve had two shots of AstraZeneca now. There’s plenty of it around. Like, when I went to make my appointment out at Orange in the central west of New South Wales, I rang up a couple of days before and they basically gave me my choice of appointments. And I think that people have just got to be realistic that we’re in the middle of an emergency. It’s not a luxury getting a vaccination. And AstraZeneca has been deemed safe by ATAGI, the relevant authority, for over 18s. And so people — obviously take some advice from your GP if you’ve got concerns, but I think you’ve got to keep all of this in perspective.

And I think you can over think this stuff too much. For example, you know, as I’ve said to you on this show before, I once had stage 3 melanoma, and the chances of that coming back and getting you a fifty-fifty. But I went on a vaccine trial for four years. You have CT scans, you have PET scans. Everything you do has a risk, but the benefit is you get early detection and it can save your life. And if you look at the risks with this, I mean, the risks of, you know, an adverse — a fatality from AstraZeneca are 1 in 2 million. Your chances of being killed in a car accident are 28 in a mal. Your chance of being involved in a pedestrian accident are ate in a million. Your chances of being killed in running the bulls in Pamplona, Spain are, like, nine in a million.

Peter Stefanovic: Yeah.

Andrew Gee: Every time you have an aspirin there’s a risk, every time you eat a sandwich there’s a risk you could choke on it. So if you’re worried about AstraZeneca, you wouldn’t be crossing the road, you wouldn’t be driving around in a car. People have got to keep it in perspective and realise that this can save your life. The medical authorities have said that it’s safe, so you should go out and vet vaccinated. That’s message today.

Peter Stefanovic: And what about the incentive for those who don’t? We’re talking about possibly a lottery? How much? A million bucks?

Andrew Gee: Well, look, I think the best thing —

Peter Stefanovic: What do you reckon?

Andrew Gee: No, I’m not going to go there. But I think the best thing that we can do as Australians is do the right thing. I don’t think we need to worry about incentives. I don’t think we need to talk about cash bonuses. Most Australians want to do the right thing and the safe thing by their fellow Australians. So my message is — let’s just get on with it. Go and do it and let’s put thing in the rear view mirror as fast as we can. The way we do that is get vaccinated and not get hung up about, “Oh, you know, I’d prefer this vaccine to that one.” This is a medical emergency — let’s get out there and get it done and save lives, and save livelihoods while we’re at it.

Peter Stefanovic: Andrew Gee, appreciate your time. Talk to you soon.

Andrew Gee: Thanks for having me on the show, Pete. Bye everyone.

** End of transcript **

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