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Saturday, 14 May 2022
Martin Place Cenotaph
Her Excellency the Honourable Margaret Beazley AC QC, Governor of New South Wales

Bujari gamarruwa

Diyn Babana Gamarada Gadigal Ngura

Welcome in the language of the Gadigal. I acknowledge their custodianship of this land and pay my respects to their Elders past, present and emerging.

The closing words of the hymn that we have just sung “Lest we forget, lest we forget” – Ehonia tous I mnimi -are a beautiful but soulful lament.  

Today we gather because we do not forget.  We do not forget those involved in the 1941 Battle of Crete and the Greek Campaign and we reflect on the enduring connections forged between the people of Greece, Crete, Australia and New Zealand in that difficult time.

We do not forget that victory was not ours in 1941.  Allied forces were vastly outnumbered and German air superiority was overwhelming. Australian and New Zealand troops, redesignated the ANZAC Corps, had some local success but withdrawal was soon inevitable.

Beginning on the 24th of April 1941, more than 50,000 troops from the Second ANZAC Corps, were evacuated over five successive nights.   Uncannily the evacuation commenced on ANZAC Eve when 26 years earlier brave young soldiers had also faced intolerable odds.[1] In 1941, some of those left behind escaped thanks to the extraordinary bravery of the Greek people who assisted them.

The Sydney Morning Herald, on Friday the 2nd of May tried to find some positives in an article titled Triumph in Disaster [2] but acknowledged:

There will be many homes in Australia that will be darkened with grief for men who have given their lives in a noble cause.

The same could have been said of many homes in Greece and indeed Germany because no side escapes the horrors  of war.

During that last week of April 1941, over 26,000 weary Allied troops landed on Crete where they fought in an intense battle inflicting heavy losses on the German paratroopers. But again, there was no victory. Only another evacuation and the Allied surrender on the 1st of June.

The evacuation was fraught and unfortunately of the 3,000 Australians left on Crete, most became prisoners of war. Again, some were sheltered by courageous locals. Nazi reprisals during the occupation for protecting the ANZACs are thought to have resulted in tens of thousands of the Greek population being killed.

In an article the day after the capitulation, the Herald again tried to make the most of a difficult time:

To the achievements of these magnificent troops, supported by their Greek comrades, it seems almost presumptuous to offer the tribute of words. Their valour, tenacity, and devotion have filled the hearts of their countrymen with a burning if mournful pride. They have done all that the finest fighting men could be asked to do, and more. [3]

Why is it important that do not forget events? And more broadly, why should we commemorate battles of the past?

It is a question that continues to be answered with a range of views and was a much-debated topic in Europe at the time of the Centenary of the Great War in 2014. English scholar, Geoffrey Scarre warned of the pitfalls saying:

Commemoration must not be allowed to degenerate into mere mass entertainment, thoughtless celebration of martial valour, an occasion for chauvinism, or an advertisement of the merits of war as a means of settling international disputes.

He noted that:

More respectable reasons for commemorating [the Great War] are that it provides opportunities to (i) learn from past mistakes, (ii) reaffirm some common core values, and (iii) to pay our respects to those who died in their country’s service. [4]

Our ceremony today provides those opportunities – with one more that I would like to highlight – the opportunity to recognise and reaffirm the friendship of our peoples – a friendship based on shared values of courage, sacrifice, mateship and “philotimo” [5] – that Greek word which so beautifully captures the concept of pride in self, pride in family, pride in community, and doing the right thing. [6] Let us not forget that pride.

I thank the Joint Committee for your faithful efforts since the late 1970’s to ensure that we remember our shared history.

Lest we forget. Ehonia tous I mnimi.

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