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Tuesday, 13 May 2008
Page: 1562

Senator IAN MACDONALD (8:09 PM) —Budgets come and budgets go but today I want to talk about something that is far more important than budgets brought down annually by the Australian government—and that is to recognise the service of Australians in various world wars, in particular the First World War. I raise this at a time immediately following the Anzac Day commemorations in Australia and elsewhere.

This year I had the great opportunity to attend the first dawn service at the Australian War Memorial at Villers-Bretonneux. The service was the first dawn service ever held at Villers-Bretonneux and was held along with the traditional dawn service at Anzac Cove at Gallipoli, as well as, of course, the dawn services that are conducted right around Australia in all of the major cities and in most other regional and village communities throughout our nation.

I was privileged to be involved in the first dawn service at Villers-Bretonneux. The service was attended by, in my estimate, something like 5,000 people. Many of them were Australian and, as I walked through the crowds later on, I was surprised at the number of people I personally knew who made the pilgrimage to that first dawn service on the 90th anniversary of the very significant battle of Villers-Bretonneux.

That battle, 90 years ago on Anzac Day eve, was really the first of the final turning points of the First World War. In 1918 the Germans had undertaken a major offensive which drew the allied lines back towards the west as far as they had ever been. As they approached the town of Villers-Bretonneux, it was Australian troops—for the first time under an Australian commander—that not only confronted the German advance but turned it round, marking the first significant allied advance in that final year of the First World War.

Ever since that particular battle, the people of Villers-Bretonneux have expressed their gratitude to Australians, New Zealanders and other allied troops by conducting a service on the Saturday closest to Anzac Day each year for the last 90 years. This year the dawn service was conducted by the Australians, and I particularly want to congratulate the Department of Veterans’ Affairs for the way they executed the dawn service there and, I know I can say, everywhere else in the world where there were significant dawn services.

Mr Mark Sullivan, the Secretary to the Department of Veterans’ Affairs, and his team deserve the utmost congratulations for the work that they did in the first dawn service at Villers-Bretonneux. I want to particularly thank Mr Bruce Billson, the former Minister for Veterans’ Affairs, who put all of these arrangements in place a couple of years ago. I was delighted that the Australian government was represented at the dawn service by the current Minister for Veterans’ Affairs, Mr Alan Griffin, who I thought acquitted Australia very well in the way that he led the official government involvement in the dawn service.

I also express congratulations to Mr David Ritchie, the Australian Ambassador to France, for the work he and his team did to facilitate the dawn service. I should also mention Major General Paul Stevens, from the Office of Australian War Graves. He was an integral part of the dawn service. In fact, Major General Stevens was master of ceremonies for the actual dawn service and did that with great aplomb and style.

The minister spoke, and there were a number of other participants at the dawn service. The Australian Federation Guard provided the catafalque party. It was indeed a very moving and very significant ceremony. I want to repeat my congratulations to all of those involved. It was not an easy task arranging such a significant event in a foreign country, and I was so proud of the Australian officials who were able to put together that dawn service and really make a significant commemoration of all of those tens of thousands of Australians who gave their lives in the defence of their country and the empire back in that war of 1914-18. The Australian casualties at Villers-Bretonneux were greater than those at Gallipoli. We do rightly recognise the impact of Gallipoli on Australian nationhood and the numbers involved there. But it was somewhat of a surprise to me to learn that the Australian casualties on the Western Front were indeed far greater than those that we suffered during the months we were at Gallipoli.

The service on the Friday, Anzac Day, was followed on the next day by the community service. This is the service that has been put on by the French, by the Villers-Bretonneux people, every year for the last 90 years. It was a real honour to be involved in that service, which was also at the Villers-Bretonneux Australian memorial.

The master of ceremonies was Ms Elise de Rouville, from the Australian Embassy in France. I particularly mention her because she did an excellent job in MC-ing all of the functions that occurred that day, the Saturday immediately following Anzac Day. Members of the Australian Federation Guard again provided the catafalque party and various Australians contributed to that community service, including Major General David Morrison, the Deputy Chief of Army. That service was followed by a service in the town of Villers-Bretonneux at the French memorial, a very moving service commemorating the Frenchmen who died in the First World War.

Following that, the official party moved to Bullecourt, where again there were wreath-laying ceremonies, first of all at a roadside leading to Bullecourt and later within the town of Bullecourt. It was an interesting exercise. The first service was the Australian service held at the church in Bullecourt. That was a very moving service. Wreaths were laid, and I again had the honour of laying a wreath as I had done the previous day at Villers-Bretonneux. Once the Australian ceremony finished in this small community on one side of the road, you turned around to the French memorial and did practically the same service again, recognising the French who had given their lives in that major conflict in the first part of the 20th century.

All in all, it was a very moving experience for all of us who had the honour and the opportunity to participate in those celebrations and commemorations of all those who gave their lives in the First World War. They were commemorated by the services at Villers-Bretonneux and Bullecourt in that Anzac week of this year. My congratulations go to all those who had a part in them. Those ceremonies and also those conducted right around Australia on Anzac Day this year again showed that we will never forget those who fell.