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Commonwealth Day: remembrance.



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Perspective

Monday 10 March 2003

Air Vice-Marshall Gary JJ Beck, Director, Office of Australian War Graves, Department of Veterans’ Affairs

 

Commonwealth Day - Remembrance  

 

When King George V visited Flanders in 1922 and saw the extent of war graves in Northern France and Belgium, he is reported to have said, and I quote: 

 

‘We can truly say that the whole circuit of the earth is girdled with the graves of our dead....and, in the course of my pilgrimage, I have many times asked myself whether there can more potent advocates of peace upon earth through the years to come, than this massed multitude of silent witnesses to the desolation of war.’ 

 

The Commonwealth War Graves Commission was established by Royal Charter in 1917. These war graves and Memorials to the Missing to 1.7 million Commonwealth servicemen and women are preserved in perpetuity and if this act of remembrance is to stand the test of time, it seems important that members of the public are made aware of the Commission’s work. Of course, the world wide web has revolutionised the way individuals and organisations communicate with each other and the success of the Commission’s Debt of Honour Register at www.cwgc.org is testament to its impact. 

 

Australia is a founding member nation of the Commission, along with the United Kingdom, Canada, India, New Zealand and South Africa. Its costs are shared in proportions based on the numbers of each nation’s graves. Australia has over 102,000 graves and names on Memorials to the Missing from the two World Wars, representing 7.5 percent of Commonwealth war dead. 

 

The Office of Australian War Graves is an integral part of the Department of Veterans’ Affairs, but is also the agent for the Commission in this region. Our website can be visited at www.dva.gov.au. We maintain 12,000 war graves in Australia and over 6,000 in Papua New Guinea and we meet these costs separate from our Commission contribution of six percent. The Commission budget is about 36 million pounds sterling annually or 100 million dollars. 

 

One might be excused for thinking that the World War I war cemeteries in France and Belgium have been forgotten by all except those who undertake a pilgrimage to those places. But the public response last year to French airport and Belgium freeway developments possibly impacting on war cemeteries served to remind us they are far from forgotten. Similarly, the growing attendances at the Anzac Day services at Gallipoli, especially by young Australians, prove that the Gallipoli campaign in particular, remains strongly tied to our celebration of nationhood. That said, I also note our young visitors there show great respect for our war dead and our surviving veterans.  

 

We differ from other Commonwealth nations in our remembrance of these past events. For instance, we are the only Commonwealth nation who still officially commemorates our ‘eligible’ deceased veterans, ie., those we assess as having died of war-related causes. In this way, we commemorate 7-8,000 veterans annually and we now maintain graves or plaques for a quarter of a million post-war deceased veterans. We are maintaining war graves in nearly 2,000 cemeteries around Australia and PNG.  

 

For those deceased veterans who have been privately interred or cremated, we maintain Gardens of Remembrance in every State in order to allow their official commemoration. We have recently constructed one in Darwin and we are planning the construction of one in Townsville and one in Canberra. 

 

Perhaps the most challenging task we now face is the growing pressure to create new commemorative memorials at important overseas historical sites. In 1997, our Office constructed a hospital and a memorial at Kokoda village. From 1997-99, we built a POW memorial museum at Hellfire Pass in Thailand to commemorate the losses on the Burma-Thailand Railway, a POW memorial museum at Sandakan, Sabah in East Malaysia where the infamous death marches originated and we built WWI memorials in France at Fromelles and Le Hamel. In 2000, we dedicated the new Anzac Commemorative Site at Gallipoli, site of our largest overseas Dawn Service. In 2001, we constructed a new Hellenic-Australian Memorial at Rethymnon, Crete, to commemorate the 60th Anniversary of the battles of Greece and Crete. Last year, we constructed and dedicated three new memorials in Papua New Guinea, at Isurava, Milne Bay and Popendetta. 

 

Currently, we are engaged in the design and construction of our largest project to date - the Australian War Memorial in London, commemorating our sacrifice and suffering in two World Wars, to be sited at Hyde Park Corner and due to be dedicated on Remembrance Day, later this year. I am confident it will become, not only the new location for our Anzac Day Dawn Service in London, but a place where visiting Australians will forever gather to remember.  

 

Australia, through the Commonwealth War Graves Commission, maintains war graves in 76 foreign countries, proving that our commitment to world peace once extended far beyond our national boundaries. By virtue of our membership of the Commonwealth of Nations and our determination to maintain those freedoms, it still does.  

 

Guests on this program:

 

Air Vice-Marshal Gary JJ Beck AO (Ret'd)  

Director 

Office of Australian War Graves 

Department of Veterans' Affairs