My Dad would be 102 today, and I sent a reminder to my children about this significant birthday. Significant – none of them knew their grandfather as he died before they were born, so being a significant date for them in these difficult Covid times is questionable.
To help them understand and let me reminisce as well, I dug out this “piece” (a speech that I was asked to write a couple of years ago), as a way of letting them know that he played an important part in their lives, even although he didn’t get the chance to meet them or give them some valuable, “granddad” moments.
Welcome to Anzac Hall in the Australian War Memorial.
It is significant that this year, 2017, marks a milestone in the story of this well-known institution. Exactly 100 years ago the Australian War Records Section (AWRS) was established in London, to collect records and relics relating to Australian war service for a future museum, a national museum as envisioned by Charles Bean during his coverage of the Battle of Pozieres on the Western Front in 1916.
Charles Bean wanted to make sure that the sacrifices of Australian soldiers would not be forgotten and he lobbied tirelessly for the creation of the Australian War Memorial (AWM). John Treloar, the first Director of the memorial, devoted his life to the development of the War Memorial as we know it today. It was officially opened on Remembrance Day, 11 November, 1941.
This evening, here in Anzac Hall, we are able to appreciate the vision of Charles Bean and his determination to ensure “this Memorial was not to be a place glorifying war or celebrating a triumph over enemies”.
Long before this building took up its prominent position looking out across the river flats of the Molonglo, the indigenous Ngunnawal people had inhabited the region for thousands of years. In 1820, early explorers, then settlers, ventured onto the Limestone Plains with their sheep and cattle, and gradually developed pastoral holdings, with small communities, villages, and towns quickly established. There was little industry, and farming and livestock enterprises were the main undertaking throughout this southern part of the Colony.
With Federation and the establishment of Canberra as the Nation’s capital, change began and this wonderful city and the region started to grow, but at the outbreak of the First World War, the young men who joined in their thousands from this area were mainly “off the land” or involved in agriculture in some way. Sons, brothers, nephews, cousins, answered the call. They left their farms and enlisted to do their duty.
Let’s pause for a moment and recall one story, a story repeated many times over, where a young farmer leaves his home and his family. Enthusiastic, brave, committed, and intelligent, he is a young leader, but doesn’t hesitate in making his decision to serve.
16 November 1916
“The desperate cold of a harsh winter in the trenches must have broken the spirit of many a soldier on either side. Who was the enemy didn’t matter as men tried to stay warm, tried to understand why they were there, tried to steel themselves for the inevitable shelling that had become as much a part of their daily routine, as the sun rising and setting. This was life in the trenches.
In the early hour after dawn, men stirred on both sides, you could hear them talking across no-man’s land as they prepared for another day.
As the pallid sunlight added brushstrokes of grey to the scarred landscape, figures emerged from the trenches, and went to shell holes to fill buckets with water. Overnight rain, frozen and now thawing, gave them a chance to replenish supplies, while there was a lull in the fighting and the guns were silent.
The first shell of the day was always the one that came silently, the one that was the precursor to another day of slaughter, the one that jerked you from hope and hurled you into despair.
The first shell was always a killer, and on that November day, it took the life of Private 4524 AIF, as he knelt down to fill his pannikin, only 20 yards from the trench where his mates chatted and waited. Just another shell, just another day, a mere punctuation mark in the record of the Battle of the Somme. Another shell that didn’t leave much to be retrieved from the mud, only a wasted life, which was bundled up, tagged and put aside for placing back in the mud, tearlessly, at a later time, when the guns fell quiet again.”
The farms and the families of rural Australia took a long time to recover from such losses, but even more concerning was the wasted leadership potential that held back a whole generation. Modernisation and innovation beckoned and the importance of agriculture was being realised. Drought and then the Great Depression further exacerbated the situation, and when the unbelievable happened and Australia once again found itself involved in a world war, the farming sector offered its fit young men to join the ranks of servicemen leaving for foreign shores once more.
The farms were left in the hands of fathers too old to serve, underage brothers too young to enlist and an increasing band of capable young women who did not hesitate in accepting their new responsibilities.
In this next chapter of our story, a young soldier has completed his training in the desert of Western Australia and is preparing to embark for the Middle East, when news from home of his father’s sudden illness, allows him a few days compassionate leave. The farm, in the paddocks where Canberra’s suburbs now stand, will not function without leadership and direction and in a complete turnaround in Government policy, key agricultural workers are re-classified as “essential” and the Prime Minister of the day bravely recalls troops and puts Australia on a stronger footing to prepare for the looming threat in the Pacific.
The soldier who went back to the farm, was the nephew of Private 4524 who died in World War 1. He had been named after his much loved Uncle. He didn’t do to the Middle East and instead returned to the Canberra area shortly before his father died and together with his younger brother, managed to maintain the productivity of the farm during the final years of the war. Post war, as life tried to return to some sort of normality, his leadership qualities were recognised, and he was chosen for a mentoring role in Civil Defence to prepare and train primary producers in case of hostilities involving atomic weapons. It was the 1950’s and there was the very real threat of another regional conflict, and the importance of ensuring farms were able to continue growing contamination-free produce, was high on the Defence agenda.
Like so many others of this post-war generation, he embraced change and participated in the remarkable advances made in the livestock sector, particularly with meat sheep and Merinos. He went on to represent his industry, and his community, he shared his knowledge willingly and encouraged others in their endeavours. He was an excellent ‘sheep man’, one of the best wool classers in the district and went on to become the President of the National Agricultural Society. Generations later, the family remain closely involved with the Australian sheep industry.
The farmer in our short story learned that perhaps one of the most necessary attributes of leadership was an ability to serve, and it is fitting that in closing his narrative, we acknowledge tonight those men and women who served for us, many paying the highest price. Their sacrifice has meant that we can enjoy the opportunities and freedoms that are so important today, as we seek to identify, nurture and develop the leaders we will need, to guide us in the challenging years ahead.
This speech was delivered at the launch of the Sheepmeat Industry Leadership Programme in Canberra in 2017.
The soldier referred to in WWI was Malcolm McIntosh Southwell and the second soldier, his nephew, was Malcolm George Southwell – my father.
Today, 20 July is his birthday……he would be 102. Happy birthday Dad.