'warfare will always remain in my mind now as something most cruel and merciless, and a future war to me is something too awful to contemplate…' —Bill Harney, World War I veteran, 1919
On the evening of Monday 11 November 1918, Australia received the news that the Armistice had been signed. In Sydney, crowds poured into the city, bells rang, and car horns blared. The First World War remains the costliest conflict Australia has been involved in, with more than 60,000 killed and 156,000 wounded, gassed or left permanently disabled. From this overwhelming loss sprung the construction of war memorials across Australian towns. There were no graves to visit or funerals to attend, so these memorials were where families could go to grieve fathers, uncles and sons—the lost generations of men.
But 11 November, now known as Remembrance Day, lives partly in the shadow of Anzac Day. The anniversary of the landing at Gallipoli is considered by some to be the birth of modern Australia. Conversely, 11 November has always been a day marked by reflection and an occasion for peace activists to vow ‘never again’.
One hundred years later, what do these anniversaries mean to Australians today?
Do they still resonate with people, given over 28 per cent or almost 7 million of Australia’s population were born overseas?
Do these traditions encompass some of the millions of people displaced during the Second World War who arrived in Australia, shifting from our enemies to our neighbours and shaping the culturally rich communities we live in today?
On 11 November 1993, Prime Minister Keating, standing at the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier, described how we might make sense of these commemorations:
This Unknown Australian is not interred here to glorify war over peace; or to assert a soldier’s character above a civilian’s; or one race or one nation or one religion above another; or men above women; or the war in which he fought and died above any other war; or of one generation above any that has or will come later.
The Unknown Soldier honours the memory of all those men and women who laid down their lives for Australia.
His tomb is a reminder of what we have lost in war and what we have gained.