PM Transcripts

Transcripts from the Prime Ministers of Australia

Transcript 20994

'Australians at War' Address Australia House, London

Photo of Howard, John

Howard, John

Period of Service: 11/03/1996 to 03/12/2007

More information about Howard, John on The National Archive website.

Release Date: 10/11/2003

Release Type: Speech

Transcript ID: 20994

Thank you High Commissioner. To the many distinguished guests, welcome, but may I particularly acknowledge the presence of the Leader of the Australian Opposition Simon Crean, my ministerial colleagues, Mr Geoffrey Hoon the British Defence Secretary, and my good friend and former Prime Minister of Great Britain John Major. I';m very honoured at the gathering and it is a wonderful opportunity to reflect for a few moments on the subject of Australians at war.

In recent weeks, we have welcomed to Australia both the President of the United States and the President of China, both symbolising particular aspects of our relationship – in the case of President Bush, the deep and longstanding friendship across the Pacific with the United States; and with China, our manifest economic and political involvement in Asia. But these associations never have and never will fully express Australia';s place in the world. The modern, independent, economically strong and self confident Australia does not readily succumb to pigeon holing by association. I said recently that Australia will never define its place in any part of the world other than to behave as we are and that is as Australians.

We have links with many but there is no nation in the world with which we share as much history, language, culture, patterns of humour and even sporting rivalry as Great Britain. To Australians, the British heritage is immense. Britain';s most enduring gift to Australia has been the institutions which have tooled our natural instinct for democracy – parliamentary government, the rule of law and the tradition of a free and, uncomfortably on occasion, sceptical media.

Tomorrow, with Her Majesty the Queen and the British Prime Minister Tony Blair, I will unveil a memorial to those Australians who served with their British allies during the two great global conflicts of the last century. And as we gather on the eve of that day 85 years ago, when finally and mercifully the guns fell silent on the Western front, our two nations, above all else, honour those who have given their lives in defence of the values and our way of life that we hold so dear.

And at this time we should recall those moments when the very survival of liberty seemed in peril. The ebb of history can never take from Great Britain that for more than 12 desperate months she stood virtually alone against the spreading darkness of Nazism, so that to use Winston Churchill';s evocative phrase “the long night of barbarism” would not descend upon even more nations. And we Australians will always know that it is forever part of our story that we contributed willingly, importantly and fully to the final victory, and that we did so in virtually every theatre of conflict – in Asia and the Pacific, in North Africa, in the Middle East and in Europe, including in the skies over Britain where some of our sons were numbered amongst the few to whom so much was owed by so many.

Australians are not by nature a war-like people. There is no tradition of conquest or imperial ambition. We';ve had no history of bloody civil war, of winning our independence through armed insurrection or fortifying our borders against some constant military threat. Indeed, there';s something revealing in the fact that only two statues of individuals are placed outside our national War Memorial in Canberra. The Memorial contains relics, artwork and historical records that tell the story of Lone Pine, Beersheba, Villers Bretonneux, Kokoda and Tobruk, Kapiong, Long Tan and the hundreds of other places where Australians have performed some of the finest feats of arms in the history of warfare. And yet it';s Simpson with his donkey who brought wounded from the firing lines at Gallipoli and Sir Edward ‘Weary'; Dunlop, the doctor whose dedication saved countless lives during a long and cruel captivity along the Burma-Thailand railway – both unarmed and unlikely warriors - that stand in bronze as symbols of the Australian military tradition and character.

Our first Victoria Cross – the first of 96 to be awarded to Australians – wasn';t earned in the dramatic capture of an enemy machine gun post, but by a man carrying a wounded comrade out of heavy fire to safety. And Gallipoli itself, the ultimate symbol of our military tradition, was not a glorious victory but a bloody stalemate and then a forced withdrawal.

Despite Australia';s significant achievements on battlefields throughout the world, despite whole generations of our countrymen returning to us as hardened soldiers, a culture of militarism has never taken root. What is firmly entrenched within Australian society, as within British society, is a deeply held belief in democratic principles, in the concept of personal freedom and most importantly, an understanding that in certain circumstances we have a responsibility to defend those values. While acutely sensitive to our own neighbourhood, we have never taken an insular or exclusively regional view of our alliances and responses, but a perspective that is both global and values based.

If I might slightly refashion a well-known phrase of John Kennedy';s, Australians have never asked others to do for us what we have been unwilling to do for ourselves. Most recently, the Australian Government demonstrated that approach in making our decisions on East Timor, Afghanistan and Iraq.

As part of the then British Empire, Australia automatically entered the 1914-1918 war with Britain';s declaration on the 4th of August 1914. By November 1914 Australia had secured her first battle victory with the sinking of the Emden by HMAS Sydney near the Cocos Keeling Islands. Australia entered the Great War so enthusiastically both because we believed our security and basic values to be under threat from a militaristic Imperial Germany, but also and importantly out of sheer loyalty to what was at that time seen as the Mother Country. Australians of the day readily saw themselves as Australians and as British, indeed as Australian-Britons.

Many of those who served wearing the rising sun badge of the Australian Imperial Force were quite literally sons of Britain. Twenty-two per cent of recruits who embarked for overseas were not native Australian born but drawn from the many hundreds of thousands of Anglo-Celtic immigrants who had flocked to our shores in the first decade of the new century. Whatever their origin, Australians in 1914 felt themselves intrinsically a part of the then British Empire. They were bound by emotion, economic links, through cultural and blood ties, and by an understanding that Australia';s security interests remained absolutely dependent on British supremacy, particularly on the seas.

A daily newspaper of August 1914 articulated community views when it stated, and I quote, ‘The British fleet is our all in all. Its destruction means Australia';s destruction, the ruin of our trade and institutions, and the surrender of our liberties. The British Empire is our family circle, and we cannot live outside it';.

Andrew Fisher, Australia';s Prime Minister in August 1914 famously declared that Australia was with Britain “to the last man and the last shilling”.

Participation in World War I was to both accelerate and sharpen Australia';s sense of separate national identity. The landing on Gallipoli along with our New Zealand comrades, which gave birth to the Anzac spirit, became in the fullness of time the most defining event in our history. Anzac Day remains more evocative of the Australian spirit than any other day in our calendar. The emotional pull of Anzac has grown rather than diminished, particularly amongst the young.

When Alec Campbell – the last known survivor of the Gallipoli campaign anywhere in the world – died in Hobart in 2002, the outpouring of national sentiment was extraordinary. We knew that we were sharing a moment in our history. Such is the ownership of the Anzac legend now, instinctively felt by young Australians, that in their thousands they flock to Anzac Cove on the 25th of April seemingly as some patriotic rite of passage. One of them to do so on Anzac Day 2003 was Alec Campbell';s great grand daughter, 16 year old Angie Claridge.

Australia seamlessly entered World War I as part of the British Empire. By November 1918 Australians might still see themselves as British but the furnace of war had decisively tilted the balance. Pride in battlefield successes, the magnitude of our losses, sometime dismay at British High Command decision making and some starkly different attitudes held by Australians and their British cousins in respect to class and discipline, helped entrench a feeling of separate identity. That sense of separate identity led Billy Hughes to insist that Australia';s interests be represented independently from those of Great Britain at the Paris Peace Conference. “I speak for 60,000 Australian war dead,” he declared.

And we had earned that separate voice. Australia in 1914 had a population of only four and a half million yet enlistment in the First AIF totalled over 416,000 men, 330,000 of them would embark for service abroad, of whom a staggering 60,000 would never see Australia again. 152,000 more would be wounded. All in all, nearly 65 per cent of those who boarded transports for Gallipoli, the desert campaign or the Western Front would become casualties. These are numbers difficult for modern minds to comprehend from the relative safety of life in this new century. Set against our nation';s current population, it would be the equivalent of losing nearly 300,000 young men in just 4 years and seeing another three quarters of a million of them returned to us maimed and scarred.

Significantly, Australia remained entirely dependent on voluntary enlistment throughout the Great War. Two referenda on conscription in 1916 and 1917 lost to the NO vote. They caused great division within our community and were sadly infected by bitter sectarian debates. Yet even in 1939 when a separate sense of Australian nationalism was far more robust, Robert Menzies was able to declare it his ‘melancholy duty'; to inform his fellow Australians that Great Britain had declared war upon Germany and that ‘as a result, Australia is also at war';. In doing so, he was expressing the continuing fundamental importance of our links with the United Kingdom.

World War II saw Australia directly threatened after the fall of Singapore. The decisive involvement of the United States in our defence, during the battle of the Coral Sea and elsewhere, laid the basis of what became the Anzus Treaty which for more than 50 years has been the cornerstone of our security. Over 30,000 Australians would die in the six years of war against Nazi Germany and Imperial Japan - many of whom will be honoured tomorrow, having served alongside British forces in North Africa and the Middle East, in Greece and Crete, in the Pacific, on the seas and in swirling air battles over Britain herself and continental Europe.

The two world wars exacted a terrible price from us – the full magnitude of that lost potential, of those unlived lives, can never be measured. And yet, some of the most admirable aspects of Australia';s national character were, if not conceived, then more fully ingrained within us by the experience of those conflicts. None more so than the concept of mateship - regarded as a particularly Australian virtue – a concept that encompasses unconditional acceptance, mutual and self respect, sharing whatever is available no matter how meagre, a concept based on trust and selflessness and absolute interdependence. In combat, men did live and die by its creed. ‘Sticking by your mates'; was sometimes the only reason for continuing when all else seemed hopeless.

I was moved by an account written by Hugh Clarke, who, like thousands of other Australians and British servicemen, endured years of senseless cruelty as a prisoner of the Japanese after the fall of Singapore. He recorded that he couldn';t remember a single Australian dying alone. There was always someone being there to look after him in some way. That expressed our mateship.

Contemporary Australia takes great pride in its egalitarian attitudes. Mud and fear and enemy fire are no respecters of class, rank or parentage and from both wars, our returned men and women brought back to Australia a renewed conviction that an individual';s worth should be judged - not by those things - but by their own talent, courage and personal virtue.

Two examples I quote. Harry Murray enlisted in 1914, a little older than many recruits, he was nearly 30. Prior to the war, he lived a simple life in rural Western Australia working as a ‘timbergetter';, to use the endearing expression of the day. He landed at Gallipoli on the 25th of April as a private, a machine gunner. Four years later, that same man returned to Australia as Lieutenant Colonel Murray, VC, DSO and bar, DCM, French Croix de Guerre and Companion of the Order of St Michael and St George. He had commanded a Machine Gun Battalion in battle and had served as a specialist advisor to an American Corps.

Sir John Monash, Australia';s greatest General, equally defied then traditional attitudes to gain high rank. Not even a professional soldier at the outbreak of the war – a civil engineer by profession, the son of East Prussian Jewish immigrants, he rose from Brigade command on Gallipoli to become Commander of all five Australian divisions, our air squadrons and artillery units – a force, as he proudly wrote back home, two and a half times the size of Wellington';s army at the Battle of Waterloo. Had the war continued, many claim that his innovative tactics, planning and training techniques and remarkable record of success would have carried him far beyond even corps command.

Murray and Monash are two well known examples but the principle was repeated thousands of times as men of worth were recognised and rewarded, not on the basis of pre-defined social ranking but for their own achievements. The self confidence of individuals and of the nation as a whole not surprisingly rose as a natural consequence of wartime success. To illustrate - from the 27th of March 1918 when Australians first counterattacked the Germans'; last great offensive, to the end of their war seven months later, our five divisions played a sustained and crucial role. By most accounts their battlefield successes were significantly out of proportion to their numbers.

That tradition of professionalism and achievement was carried through to the servicemen and women of the second war and remains a feature of our defence forces to this day, as recent events have proved. One of the groups that will be honoured tomorrow are those Australian airmen who flew bombing raids over occupied Europe and Germany, suffering appalling casualty rates higher by far than in any other arm of the services. A crew had only 40 per cent chance of surviving its tour of duty. Despite the outstanding service by every squadron within Bomber Command, it was the RAAF';s 460 Squadron who sent more Lancasters on missions and dropped a greater tonnage of bombs than any other. And on a personal note, there was a rear gunner with the 460 Squadron, Bryan O';Leary, whose son is my Press Secretary.

A case can be made that Australia';s post World War II economic boom and industrial expansion was based in part on the self confidence of that generation, coupled with the technical and people management skills developed in war service and importantly a determination, after all the horror and carnage, to make the most of the peace. That peace – the peace amongst major nation states – has held for 60 years and indeed it is difficult to imagine a descent once again into global warfare. Yet now in many ways, we';re confronted with a world made more complex by the breakdown of those traditional power balances, by asymmetrical threats, by terror perpetrated on a scale without historical precedent. In facing such challenges, it is reassuring for Australia, to find ourselves once more in the company of old and trusted friends. For although the character of the threat has changed from that of 1914 or 1939, the essential nature of the values that Australia and Great Britain still seek to defend has not.

The coming years will confront every society with challenges that none of us could have contemplated even three years ago. Tonight, tomorrow';s ceremony and the Australia-United Kingdom Leadership Forum over coming days are all proof that our friendship and affinity remain deep and strong and that we are taking Dr Johnson';s advice to keep our friendships in good repair. Australia will always play its part. We will continue of course to determine our own future in our own independent way. We have our own interests and our own aspirations which will continue to guide us. But many of our values as a society are not unique to Australia alone. In defending and promoting them, we share a common cause with others and with the United Kingdom in particular. That is why we will be in the future, as we have attempted to be in the troubled times of the past of which I';ve spoken tonight, a staunch ally, a reliable partner and a true friend.

And may I conclude my remarks in expressing the admiration of all Australians to those wonderful men and women who represent the heroic generations that have gone before us and have given us the liberty, the peace of mind, the security and the wonderful privilege of being an Australian in the 21st century. There are 28 representatives of that heroic, courageous generation with us. They are very much in our thoughts and our hearts and as Prime Minister it is an immensely proud moment that I can welcome them here and to say on behalf of them that tomorrow we will honour their service, we will honour the service and the sacrifice of their mates in the best Australian tradition.

Thank you.


Transcript 20994