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Tuesday, 12 May 2009
Page: 3494

Ms NEAL (3:32 PM) —My question is to the Minister for Veterans’ Affairs. Would the minister provide the House with an update on Anzac Day activities and the government’s initiative to develop an interpretative trail on the Western Front?

Mr GRIFFIN (Minister for Veterans’ Affairs) —I thank the member for Robertson for her question and I acknowledge her interest in this matter and the interest of all members of the House in ensuring that we properly commemorate the loss of more than 102,000 lives over the last century in conflicts right back through to World War I and even before that. Reports we have from across the nation with respect to Anzac Day commemorations on this occasion are that we reached record numbers in many places. It is fair to say that some of the inclement weather conditions produced a situation in which that was difficult.

Internationally, ceremonies occurred as usual at Gallipoli, where the Minister for Foreign Affairs represented the government. The crowd was down a degree, but that was expected due to the impact of the global financial crisis. But it was still a significant crowd and a crowd which augurs well for the lead-up to the centenary. Commemorations occurred at places like Sandakan and Hellfire Pass. I had the privilege of representing the government at Villers-Bretonneux at the second dawn service there, which followed on from the 90th anniversary last year. Again, the crowd was down slightly, but all concerned were very pleased that the numbers held up well. There was certainly evidence of increased interest from the local French and also from people coming across from the UK. It certainly augurs well for the future growth in the significance of that particular service.

I also had the privilege while I was in France to make an announcement with respect to this government’s proposal around the question of an interpretative trail, an opportunity to properly educate not only Australians who travel to France but also the British and European community about the amazing efforts of the 1st AIF in the war that was supposed to end all wars. There are a number of locations which relate to this particular proposal. The intention is to try and ensure that if anyone travels there they will have the chance to see what Australians did at various points in time and at the Front, such as in the tragedies of 1916 and 1917 but also in the triumphs that occurred at places like Hamel, Villers-Bretonneux and Mont St Quentin outside Peronne.

The locations have been selected in consultation with the local French communities. There are opportunities that we think are available with respect to building on what is already occurring in some locations. We are trying to work with the local French communities to see how we can build a proper commemoration to the work of our diggers so long ago. These locations include Fromelles, where the worst 24 hours in Australian military history occurred, with over 5,500 casualties. The recent discovery of a mass grave at Pheasant Wood provides us with an opportunity to work with the local community to provide a proper interpretation and commemorative location for what occurred on that terrible day. Then there is Pozieres, about which CEW Bean wrote ‘a ridge more densely sown with Australian sacrifice than any other spot on earth’—some 23,000 casualties on roughly a mile of front.

Then there is Villers-Bretonneux, a location proposed by the previous government. There is an intention to continue with that proposal in conjunction with the local school. That has the support of the French community of the local area. We believe that there can be a significant interpretative capacity there in line with what was intended in the major proposal that was considered for near the memorial.

One that will be particularly interesting if it is able to be done will be at Mont St Quentin just outside Peronne. Many Australians are not aware of the significance of the Battle of Mont St Quentin. It was described by Brigadier General Grogan VC as ‘perhaps the greatest individual feat of the war—the successful counter-attack by night across unknown and difficult ground, at a few hours notice, by the Australian soldiers’. To anyone who manages to get to Peronne, I urge them to view that location. We are currently in negotiations through the historical museum there with a number of local interests to see what we can do.

We have had good indications of support at the local, regional and national level from the French government in terms of their willingness to come to the party around the question of management and also financing with respect to these proposals. We retain a good deal of flexibility, but the intention is to make sure that, in the lead-up to the centenary of the Great War, those Australians who make what is a significant pilgrimage and also those from other countries who go to view that carnage that occurred so long ago see what the Australians did as part of an horrific and tragic—but, in the end, triumphant—effort by those forces who fought.