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In France, in August of 1916, on the eve of the battle of Pozieres, where over 7000 Australians were to lose their lives in less than one week of fighting for almost no tactical gain, a 25 year old Captain, Arthur Mcleod, wrote a letter to his wife.
I have no record of the situation that he found himself in while writing the letter and our living link with the soldiers of that war is now gone. However, most of us have seen enough images of the First Great War, to have in our mind's eye the conditions he might of experienced as he wrote. The noise of the guns conducting preparatory fire would have been a constant feature of the preceding days but, given that he had seen service in France in the year before, you can imagine that he might have been able to throw that cacophony of noise to the back of his mind while he focused on those he loved. There might have been controlled confusion around him as he wrote, possibly in the reserve trenches, some way back from the line. Men preparing themselves for battle, testing equipment, joking with each other to mask their inner feelings; some searching for a moment of solitude in the crush of bodies and mud, to also write those last few words home.
There is no record that I have, other than this excerpt of his letter, to indicate his frame of mind, but he would have been under no illusion as to what faced him. The sense of adventure, the desire to see the world, that had taken so many of his fellow Australians to Gallipoli in 1915, had been irrevocably changed by the death and suffering they had already experienced. It is fair to say that by 1916 it had been replaced by a sense of duty, of a pride in what they as soldiers had been able to accomplish in Turkey and in France, and certainly, as is shown in so many of the records and letters written by that remarkable generation, it was underpinned by an abiding love for Australia.
He wrote “Well Darling, at 12 o’clock tonight we go over the parapet and then our fate is sealed – if I am lucky we’ll be relieved I suppose within a week. The place is like hell but the sooner we get it over the better…remember it is better to die for you and the country than to be a cheat of the Empire. I’ll try, love, for your sake to do well and come through…God be with you Love of all time…Remember me to the baby when she is born.”
He did not survive. He was seriously wounded the next day and he died three months later. I have no other record of him, other than this scrap of a letter, but while the words are unremarkable, the feelings that they convey are so essentially human: love of a soul mate, and of a child and of a home.
And these emotions, which you find in the letters, and now emails and Facebook entries, of the millions of our fellow Australians who have served, and who continue to serve, this country, in places like Tobruk, El Alamein, the Coral Sea, Kokoda, Kapyong, Long Tan, Kibeo, Timor, Bagdad and Oruzgan, these emotions are what we celebrate on Anzac day.
And I choose the word celebration deliberately. Of course the day is about remembering their sacrifice, but it is also a coming together of community to mark their humanity, their courage and their hopes and their dreams, which is the legacy they have left for us.
Through our assembly in another theatre of war, with our allies and our mates, we witness both their service, and our continuing commitment to this vibrant country that exercises its democracy in such a robust and distinctly Australian way. It is a great community in which to live as a citizen and to serve as a soldier. In promising to remember them we affirm the future that they wanted for us. Lest we forget.