Commander Forces Command ANZAC Day Address 2016 - Sydney Cenotaph
The monotonous rattle of the rail tracks must have served as some distraction for the Australian troops as they travelled north through the ‘glorious’ French countryside from the Port of Marseilles 100 years ago today. On board a train, and heading to the Western Front, were Norman Gibbins and Percy Woods.
Gibbons was a Corporal and Woods a Sergeant when both had sailed together from Circular Quay in 1914 with a sense of hope for our young nation. Both had waded ashore at Gallipoli on our first ANZAC Day in 1915 and it was at Gallipoli that Woods was Mentioned in Dispatches for his leadership during the ferocious Battle of Lone Pine.
Here they were now, a year after our first ANZAC Day, with the Australian Imperial Force preparing on the Western Front in Northern France. Steel helmets and gas masks were being issued for the first time and Australia’s War Historian, Charles Bean, explains that the ANZACs ‘came to this new front…somewhat anxious…but proud of their ANZAC record…’
A few months later, the newly promoted Captain Gibbins and Captain Woods were still serving together when the Battle of Fromelles, Australia’s first major battle on the Western Front, began.
One digger vividly describes the situation as the attack began at dusk: ‘artillery shells were bursting everywhere, and you could see machine guns knocking bits off the trees and sparking against the wire…when men looked over the top they saw No-Man’s Land leaping up everywhere in showers of dust and sand.’
Into the evening and throughout the night, trench lines were taken, only to be re-taken by German counter attack. Whole units were lost in battle and the operation had taken ‘on a hopeless aspect’ before withdrawal was ordered.
Described as a commander whose men ‘almost worshipped him’, a wounded Captain Gibbins was occupying a rear-guard position to cover the withdrawal of dozens of troops from a perilous situation. The withdrawal was ‘hard pressed’ and Gibbins was the last to leave the position. His gunner, who had just reached the safety of the Australian line recalls: ‘I saw him reach the top our trenches where he turned his head around sharply and was immediately struck in the head by a bullet and killed.’
The rises and ditches of No-Man’s Land now lay littered with the dead and the dying, and ‘then was seen, along the whole front of the 5th Division, that magnificent tribute of devotion which the Australian solider never failed to pay to his mates. For three long days and nights,’ diggers chanced death and injury to venture onto the battlefield to rescue the wounded.
Back home in Sydney, news of Norman Gibbins’ death reached his sister, Violet. Violet was just one of hundreds of thousands of sisters and mothers; brothers and fathers; sons and daughters, touched by a death on the front line, or left living with those carrying their wounds long after the last guns had fallen silent.
Each year, on the anniversary of Norman’s death, Violet would come here to lay a gilded laurel wreath on the Cenotaph that stands before us today.
And what of Percy Woods; that 29 year old Sergeant who clambered up those cliffs at Gallipoli on that first ANZAC Day in 1915? The man who led his platoon in their charge at the Battle of Lone Pine, and was only metres away from Norman Gibbins when he was killed in the trenches of Fromelles?
Well, Percy fought through the entire war, eventually commanding the 55thBattalion on the Western Front. Decorated on seven occasions for his bravery and leadership, one can only try to imagine how Percy returned to ‘normal’ life here in Sydney after the war. What hidden scars did he carry and what thoughts filled his mind on ANZAC mornings like today?
Percy Woods died of lung disease in Sydney at the age of 51 as a result of the gas attacks he had endured on the Western Front.
In his poem, In Flanders Fields, John McCrae brings meaning to the sacrifice of Norman Gibbins and Percy Woods, and to the 5,500 men of the Australian 5thDivision who were lost at Fromelles in just 24 hours of fighting, and to the 60,000 Australians who died during the course of the First World War, and to the 100,000 Australians who died in all wars of the last century.
McCrae speaks for each one of these souls when he says: ‘to you from failing hands we throw the torch; be yours to hold it high.’
So how do we Australians now carry this torch, this symbol of their sacrifice?
If they were here with us today, just as the person next to you now stands this morning, straight of limb, true of eye, steady and aglow, could you; could I; could we, Australians all; look them in the eye and confidently say that we carry their torch high? Could we say that we live in honour of their sacrifice, in honour of their courage and selflessness, and in honour of their belief in themselves and their belief in each other?
As I reflect on the hundreds of children from 71 New South Wales schools who gather each year, as they have done for more than 20 years, to conduct their own wonderful Commemorative Service at the ANZAC Memorial in Hyde Park;
and the thousands who are gathered here this morning; and the hundreds of thousands who gather in growing numbers each ANZAC morning from Coogee to Condobolin, and from Grafton to Gallipoli; and the countless people who make courageous and selfless decisions every day to advance Australia; I have no doubt that we carry the torch high!
On this day, 101 years since our ANZACS first strode ashore at Gallipoli, and every day into the future, we should each commit ourselves to work together in their memory to leave a better Australia for our Nation’s tomorrow. In this way, we will remember them. Lest we forget.
‘For your tomorrow, we gave our today’.