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In 1942 the world was in turmoil. German troops stood at the gates to Stalingrad, a series of Japanese victories had brought them to point where they could make a concerted push on Port Moresby. Darwin has been bombed with the loss of many lives. While the Battle of Midway had turned the tide in the great maritime struggle of the Pacific, the Allies badly needed a substantial victory on land. So did Churchill whose political fortunes were precarious. Here at Alamein, the Eighth Army delivered that victory marking, as Churchill said, ‘the end of the beginning’ of the terrible global war.
Even in this era of globalisation, characterised by the instantaneous transmission of news, the mind boggles at how far from Australia we are as we stand here 70 years later. Here we, citizens of one of the world’s younger nations, gather in the land of the pyramids, the veritable cradle of civilization.
What were young Australian men and women of the 9th Australian Division and other units of the 2n AIF doing here in 1942? What had they been doing in Tobruk months earlier? Or why, for that matter, had they fought in the Middle East a quarter of a century earlier against the decaying Ottoman Empire?
The elapse of time can dim the clarity of the cause for which they fought and died here. Yet they came to this far off foreign land like hundreds of thousands of other Australian soldiers, from the very inception of our nation, for a complex amalgam of reasons. Of course they were inspired by high ideals, but, even more importantly, they were imbued with a hard headed appreciation of what was at stake should Nazi Germany and Imperial Japan dominate the global order.
Thus they fought to guarantee the security of their nation and their loved ones. Even today, well meaning but misguided people, refer to battles like El Alamein as being part of ‘other peoples’ wars, fought at a time when the war in the Pacific was at a tipping point.’
Nothing could be further from the truth. To assert that is to dismiss as victims, men who knowingly left the safety and comfort of home to engage in a great global contest against totalitarianism and for democratic values.
The soldiers of the 9th Division embodied the noble pragmatism that characterises all Australia’s wars. Ever since Federation we have sent our young men and - increasingly of late- our young women- to fight alongside soldiers of like minded allies to preserve the global order that underpins our security and prosperity. On solemn occasions such as these it is tempting to resort to flowery rhetoric. But to me, that does not honour those who fought here nearly as much as a cool headed appraisal of what they achieved.
Ultimately our Army, and our Defence Force, is tool of statecraft. Australian soldiers fight wars and bear the worst of the privations, but they are sent to do so by an elected Government with a clear eye to the national interest and a democratic mandate to secure it.
For Australian soldiers there are no ‘other peoples’ wars - there are merely wars in which the Australian Army fights to preserve a benign global order. The battle of El Alamein fitted into that prevailing paradigm of Australian Grand Strategy.
Our soldiers fought superbly here. They did so joined in commitment and sacrifice with British, Indian, South African and New Zealand soldiers. Indeed, every one of those nations remains an ally to this day. And we must remember too, the superb joint contribution of the Royal Australian Air Force which flew close air support and bombing missions that achieved decisive effects, and the work done by the Royal Australian Navy, that “scrap iron flotilla”, which fought to keep vital sea lanes in the Mediterranean open.
As the professional head of our Army I am deeply proud of what our soldiers are achieving on current operations. When I speak to them, I challenge them as to the legacy they will leave for those who will soldier after them. In doing so, I remind them of our Army’s past and the legacy they have been left.
In the pantheon of bravery and sacrifice that lights our past, in the glow of battles such as Gallipoli, Kokoda, Kapyong and Long Tan, none burns brighter than Alamein. Our current Army ethos is founded on courage, initiative and teamwork. It is a legacy given to us by those men, and women, who fought here, in this place for the secure and prosperous Australia we enjoy today.
Lest we forget.