Skip to main content

Monday, 20 July 2020
ANZAC Memorial, Hyde Park, Sydney
Her Excellency the Honourable Margaret Beazley AC QC

When John Donne wrote ‘for whom this bell tolls’ in his Devotions Upon Emergent Occasions, Meditation XVII[1]he did not have in contemplation the rawness of the first global conflict in history, World War One.

Nor, I suspect, could Andrew Fisher – then Opposition leader, later Prime Minister of Australia - have fully contemplated the human devastation that would follow when he declared on 31 July 1914, that Australians would ‘stand beside the mother country to help her and defend her to our last man and last shilling.’  

But human devastation there was and the bell tolled for too many, which is why we come together, at this moment of the day, 3.15 am French time, to contemplate and commemorate the brave men of the 5th division of the Australian Infantry Force and 61st British Division, who 104 years ago, engaged in an attack on the German held position near Aubers Ridge in France, in what in military history is commemorated as the Battle of Fromelles. 

The battle was of strategic importance to both sides.  For the British and French, the goal was to prevent the German forces from moving southwards and engaging in the main Battle of the Somme.   After fierce fighting, the Germany Army recaptured their lines and held them until the Armistice of November 1918. 

Regardless of who wins a battle or who wins the war, the decisions and strategies which lead to the wins, or the losses, come at a huge human cost.  And so it was with the Battle of Fromelles.

Today, we commemorate the service and sacrifice of those troops who fought at Fromelles – a battle resulting in 5,533 Australian, 1,547 British and 1,793 German casualties.   For us in Australia, we remember Fromelles as the battle which saw the largest loss of Australian life in a single day. There were no dignified burials for those men. 

After the armistice, VC Corner Australian Cemetery and Memorial was built, located 2 km from Fromelles on the road to Sailly, which recorded the names of 1299 Australian soldiers killed at Fromelles who had no known grave.

Nearly a century later, thanks to the invaluable work research of Lambis Englezos, an Australian teacher and amateur historian, the remains of 200 Australian and 50 British soldiers were found in unmarked mass graves.  They have been reinterred with dignity in the Pheasant Wood Military Cemetery and were accorded military honours.

I commenced with John Donne, the great metaphysical poet.  Let me conclude with Wilfred Owen, the World War One war poet:

            ‘Sit on the bed; I’m blind, and three parts shell,

            Be careful; can’t shake hands now; never shall.

            Little I’d ever teach a son, but hitting,

            Shooting, war, hunting, all the arts of hurting.

            Well, that’s what I learnt…’[2]

Let us leave behind ‘all the arts of hurting’ and peacefully and with dignity commemorate those brave Australian soldiers who, committed themselves to that battle at Fromelles, 104 years ago.  

 Lest we forget

[1]‘Perchance he for whom this bell tolls may be so ill, as that he knows not it tolls for him; and perchance I may think myself so much better than I am, as that they who are about me, and see my state, may have caused it to toll for me, and I know not that.’

[2] A Terre, Wilfred Owen

Back to Top