Ceremony to mark the Centenary of the Battle of Pozieres
Good Afternoon – may I acknowledge my Parliamentary
colleagues Graham Watt MP and Georgie Crozier MLC, President Cam Johnstone, Dr Geoff Christopherson and Members of the East Malvern RSL, Brigadier Michael Annette from ANZAC House, Councillor John McMorrow and Mayor Claude Ullin, ladies and gentlemen.
I congratulate the East Malvern RSL for its efforts in producing today’s commemorative service.
It is important that we remember the significant conflicts in which Australians have served over the years – not simply so as to honour the sacrifice of so many of our countrymen, but so that we can honour the ideals and the values which they held so dear as to lay down their lives in their furtherance.
Today we gather to mark an important occasion – the centenary of the Battle of Pozieres.
As Victorians, we should know the important role that our state played in this critical theatre during the First World War.
Victoria’s military heritage pre-dates Federation. Throughout our state, we can find memorials to Victorian soldiers and nurses who served in the Boer War at the turn of the 20th century.
Victoria’s Colonial Navy, regarded as the strongest of all of the colonies before Federation, saw action in New Zealand in 1860, some 50 years before Australia became a nation.
Our volunteer militia trained many of our citizen soldiers, including arguably the greatest of them all: Sir John Monash.
So when the people of the colonies democratically voted to join together to become a nation, it is no surprise that Victorians would form a crucial part of Australia’s military forces.
Any in July 1914 as the First World War was looming, Andrew Fisher – who was to become Australian Prime Minister that September – famously declared:
“Australians will stand beside the mother country to help and defend her to our last man and our last shilling”.
Such was the enthusiasm of our young men to serve that it took only a fortnight from the declaration of war for 5 Victorian battalions of the Australian Imperial Forces to be raised – comprised entirely of volunteers.
While each of these battalions, and those that were to follow, have their own important stories, here at East Malvern RSL we dare to claim a special connection to the 8th Battalion, the service and sacrifice of which we honour with the wooden cross on display.
And it is through the eyes of the 8th Battalion that we can better understand the extraordinary contribution that they and their many comrades made.
The 8th Battalion of the AIF was recruited from the former Victorian militia units in towns such as Ballarat, Daylesford, Ararat and Stawell.
After only two months of basic training, the 8th Battalion was sent to Egypt, landing on 2 December 1914, before being deployed to Gallipoli where they took part in the landings at Anzac Cove on 25th of April 1915.
For that alone, they would be a storied part of our nation’s military history.
Indeed, Bolton’s Ridge, on the right flank of Anzac Cove, was named after the 8th Battalion’s commanding officer, Lieutenant Colonel William Kinsey Bolton.
Ten days after participating in the landing at Anzac Cove, the 8th Battalion was diverted to the attack on the village of Krithia.
However this operation came at a significant cost, with almost one-third of the Battalion’s strength lost in the unsuccessful attempt to take Krithia.
Upon returning to Anzac Cove, the depleted 8th Battalion fought at Lone Pine and defended the beachhead until the Gallipoli stalemate ended with the ANZAC withdrawal in December 1915.
But the end of the Gallipoli campaign did not mean a return to home for the 8th Battalion. Far from it.
Following a brief recuperation in Egypt, the 8th Battalion was sent directly to the Western Front and the trenches of the Somme in March 1916.
Consider that time line.
- Landing at Gallipoli in April 1915
- Constant battle, harsh conditions, trench warfare and many casualties for 8 months
- Evacuation and three months later, thrown headlong into the most bloody and desperate of theatres of conflict, not just in the First World War but in the history of modern warfare.
This was what our country asked, it was what the British Empire asked, of the men of the 8th Battalion and so many more of their ANZAC brethren.
It was a hot summer in July 1916. Australian soldiers stood at the Western Front, not knowing that their next battle would make history.
I will not repeat the words of my friend, the Member for Burwood. He has described some of the detail of the battle that we are remembering today.
But in the context of the First World War and of the Western Front – the strategic importance of securing the commanding heights of Pozieres and its ridge was critical.
Without an elevated position – and that was the prize that victory in Pozieres held out – it was next to hopeless to mount a serious assault on the Hindenberg Line and break the German defence on the Western Front.
To hold Pozieres also required taking heavily defended German trench lines.
Although by July 1916 the 8th Battalion had existed for less than two years, they knew only too well what trench warfare entailed. Gallipoli had taught them that.
Over the two weeks of the Battle of Pozieres, and the following month of fighting at Mouquet Farm, three Australian divisions, including the 8th Battalion, suffered 23,000 casualties.
Of these casualties, 6,800 men were killed or died of their wounds.
This toll over just seven weeks of fighting at Pozieres is comparable to the Australian casualties during the entire eight month Gallipoli campaign.
Of course there were many individual acts of heroism.
Thomas Cooke of the 8th Battalion was born in New Zealand but moved to Melbourne and enlisted when war broke out.
During the Battle at Pozieres, Private Cooke went forward to secure an unsafe section of a line with others in his team.
Long range German machine guns killed his comrades, but Cooke maintained his position in the face of a German counter-assault, even after running out of ammunition.
Thomas Cooke was found dead, his Lewis gun next to him. He was awarded the Victoria Cross posthumously.
He left behind his wife and three young children.
He has no known grave.
But to dwell on the manly individual acts of bravery would be, in some way, to deflect from the extraordinary heroism that was shown by the Australians as a whole in this epic battle.
Because our soldiers were fighting, not only for their own survival. And not only for that of their mates beside them.
They weren’t just fighting for their country of Australia, which was less than 16 years old at the Battle of Pozieres.
And they weren’t only fighting for the British Empire, even if that loyalty of kinship may have been why Australian joined the war.
They were also fighting for the values that have inspired our nation and its people. Australian values such as freedom. Democracy. Mateship. A fair go. And bravery and courage in standing up for what is right.
These are values which have shaped our country over its history. These are values which reflect, as Australians, our best selves.
And these are the values which our armed forces lived and breathed in the trenches, in the town and on the ridges of Pozieres 100 years ago.
The story of the 8th battalion doesn’t end with the battle of Pozieres and Mouquet Farm.
The 8th went on to serve at Ypres in Flanders before returning to the Somme. And the 8th was there for the offensive at Amien on 8 August 1918 – the single greatest success for the Allies on the Western Front and a day described by the German General Lundendorff as “the black day of the German Army in this war”.
Any when the guns fell silent at the 11th hour of the 11th day of the 11th month in 1918, the men of the 8th Battalion were able to return to their farms and towns and suburbs across Victoria.
But what did they face?
These soldiers returned home without many of their fellow servicemen; men they called brothers.
It is clear that the sacrifices our soldiers made did not end with the war, but stayed with them.
Physical scares and mental scars of one of the bloodiest conflicts known to mankind.
Time dims the memory of ordinary events, but not great events.
In a nation’s history, great events – whether in peacetime or in war – live in our memories regardless of time.
As long as our Australian nation continues to stand for the values that inspired the brave men of the 8th Battalion on the battlefield of Pozieres 100 years ago, we will remember that battle, as we will the soldiers who fought, and the sacrifices they made for us.
Lest we forget.