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Tuesday, 28 September 1993
Page: 1337

Senator FAULKNER (Minister for Veterans' Affairs and Minister for Defence Science and Personnel) (11.18 p.m.) —Tonight I would like to inform the Senate of the successful completion of the recent mission overseas to commemorate the 75th anniversary of the battles on the Western Front. Fourteen World War I veterans, seven war widows and two junior legatees joined me, Senator MacGibbon and many others on a mission which left for France on Friday, 27 August, and returned on the morning of Monday, 6 September. The opposition was ably represented by Senator MacGibbon. The honourable member for Bennelong, Mr John Howard, from the House of Representatives, also participated in the mission. Although it was in a personal capacity, it was certainly to a very significant extent.

  The group included Mr August Band, Mr Edward Field, Mr Edward Smout and Mrs Myrtle Shand from Queensland; Mr Bruce Heathcote, Mr Howard Pope, Mr Hugh O'Donnell and Mrs Gwen Serviss from South Australia; Mr Stanley Graham, Mr William Davies, Mr Alexander Griffiths and Mrs Pat Graham from New South Wales; Mr Harry Poulton and Mrs Margaret Burns from Victoria; Mr Robert Comb and Mrs Erica Weller from the ACT; Mr Robert Lewis, Mr Alfred Evans and Mrs Florence Carr from Tasmania; and we were accompanied by Mr Peter Casserly and Mrs Zoe Hall from Western Australia.

  The junior legatees accompanying the mission were Elizabeth Livingstone, age 17, of Queensland and Daniel Stein, aged 16, of Western Australia. As a tribute to the distinguished Commander of the Australian Army Corps in 1918, Lieutenant-General Sir John Monash, Monash University sponsored officer cadet Erin Palmer, a student and member of the university regiment. The Australian people were represented at the major commemorative ceremonies by the Governor-General, Bill Hayden, and Mrs Hayden.

  The mission was supported in its tributes by a ceremonial guard and band drawn from the land command of the Australian Defence Force. Many of them were selected because they have family or regimental connections to the Western Front. The mission left on a high note with a farewell by the Prime Minister (Mr Keating) from Lady Davidson Hospital followed by a gathering of well wishers and a civic farewell at the Sydney Town Hall. I believe that really set the scene for the entire visit.

  As I understand the extensive media coverage of the mission conveyed, it was a most moving and enlightening experience for all those involved and certainly did pay appropriate tribute to the 46,000 Australians who died on the Western Front. For the diggers, who had of course experienced the horrors of war there, and the war widows, whose husbands fought there, it was a very emotional experience indeed. I think all members of the mission found the experience extraordinarily moving and certainly one that they will never forget. I think it is properly and genuinely described as the experience of a lifetime for all involved.

  The itinerary for the week of the mission included commemorative events at all the significant battlefields where Australians fought and coincided with the 75th anniversary of the great Australian victories at Mont St Quentin and Peronne. The mission began with a mass at Les Invalides on the morning of Sunday 29 August, followed by a commemoration service at the Arc de Triomphe and a reception at the Australian Embassy attended by the Governor-General and Mrs Hayden.

  The next day the mission travelled to Villers-Bretonneux for the first major commemoration ceremony at the Australian memorial and in the presence of the Governor-General. This was followed by wreath laying ceremonies at the 3rd Division memorial at Sally-le-Sec and the 1st Australian Division memorial at Pozieres. A civic reception was held that night in the magnificent Arras Town Hall.

  On Wednesday, 1 September the mission travelled to Fromelles for a wreath laying ceremony at the VC Corner cemetery and then on to Ypres to visit the battlefield sites and lay wreaths at the 5th Division memorial at Polygon Wood. After a civic reception at the Cloth Hall in Ypres, the ADF contingent marched through the town to the Menin Gate memorial which now, of course, is very much a peaceful landscape and very different from that experienced by the predecessors of that ADF contingent during the First World War. That evening a major commemoration ceremony was held at the Menin Gate.

  On Thursday, members of the mission visited the Australian Memorial at Bullecourt and on Friday, 3 September we travelled to Mont St Quentin where wreaths were laid at the 2nd Division memorial. Meanwhile, the ADF guard and band assembled at the Peronne Town Hall, marched from there to L'Historiale where the 75th anniversary of the liberation of Peronne by Australian forces on 3 September 1918 was commemorated. A wreath was also laid at the 4th Division memorial at Bellenglise before the mission returned to Paris and from there back to Australia the next day.

  I would like to mention that a souvenir issue of the mission's itinerary, which sets out in some detail the return to the Western Front mission, is being produced jointly by the Department of Veterans' Affairs and the Defence Force Journal.

  At the major battlefields we visited a total of 11 large plaques sculpted by Dr Ross Bastiaan were unveiled. The plaques inform visitors of the activities of Australian soldiers in the local area during World War I. I think they are a splendid and certainly innovative addition to our historical record. I join others in sincerely thanking Dr Bastiaan and his sponsors for the fine work and community spirit that they have shown in producing these plaques.

  As part of the ceremonies at the battlefields, the Last Post was sounded on the bugle used by Corporal Claude Potter to rally the 8th Battalion into action on the Somme. It was lent by his son Mr Graham Potter of Western Australia and I would like to thank him for his generous gesture. At each ceremony the scene was set by the delivery of a prologue by the Deputy Director of the Australian War Memorial, Dr Michael McKernan. These prologues vividly described the actions of Australians who fought in the area in World War I and the significance of each of the sites we visited to Australia's military history. The prologues set the scene for the ceremonies and certainly, I believe, brought into focus the purpose of the commemorations.

  The Governor-General hosted a reception in each of the communities associated with the major commemoration ceremonies and also at Fromelles and Bullecourt. These provided opportunities for our veterans and war widows to meet the local people who turned out in very large numbers. I think all of us were very pleased to see a great number of local children paying tribute to the diggers on their return to France and Belgium.

  I would like to place on the record my thanks to the French government for its generous assistance and logistic support for the ADF ceremonial contingent. In all the areas that we visited, the French community warmly welcomed the mission and joined in the commemorative activities, as did the local communities in Belgium, and they certainly recalled the days in 1916 to 1918 when close links between our nations were established.

  I would also like to commend the Australian Defence Force for the absolutely magnificent way in which it performed its important ceremonial support role during the mission. In my judgment, its participation helped to make the national tribute to those who sacrificed their lives on the Western Front a full and appropriate one.

  To the World War I veterans and the war widows who took part in the mission, I can only join Senator MacGibbon in expressing my highest admiration for their remarkable courage and stamina during the mission. I think it is fair to say that they were an inspiration to all of us on that mission and, I have heard since my return, certainly an inspiration to all at home.

  I believe that everyone who accompanied the mission was really grateful for the opportunity to see at first hand where these veterans had fought, and really appreciated the opportunity to share with them the moving tributes to their fallen comrades. As I said, it was an experience that will never be repeated for any of us.

  Sadly, Mr Hugh O'Donnell, who was a veteran from South Australia, died a week after returning from the mission. I am pleased to say that, even though he developed health problems on the trip, he really was determined to participate fully in our mission—and, indeed, he did just that. On his return to Australia, his health gave rise to some concern and he was admitted to Concord Repatriation General Hospital in Sydney for observation. The Department of Veterans' Affairs flew his wife and daughter to be with him during his last few days and, as I say, he died soon afterwards. It really was a privilege to know such a fine old man, and I certainly express my deepest sympathy to his wife and family.

  I would like also to report to the Senate and to the Australian people that our war dead of the Western Front rest certainly in peaceful circumstances, obviously a peace for which they unselfishly gave their lives. It was a great opportunity for us in France and Belgium to see the role that the Commonwealth War Graves Commission plays. I believe that all who were on the mission were genuinely impressed with the way memorials and cemeteries have been kept throughout the Western Front.

  I would like also to place on record my gratitude to all those who were involved in organising and conducting such a successful mission. It was planned and it was executed in an absolutely exemplary manner by the Department of Veterans' Affairs. The veterans and war widows, who were the focus of the mission, received the very best of care throughout the mission.

  In particular, I would like to thank the medical team and the carers who attended to the veterans group with real skill, real commitment and real compassion. I would like to offer the staff of the Department of Veterans' Affairs and the Department of Defence my thanks, my appreciation and my congratulations for a job very well done. I believe that it is an achievement they can be justly proud of.

  The 75th anniversary commemorations of World War I will culminate on 11 November, Armistice Day, with the dedication of the tomb of the unknown soldier at the Australian War Memorial. This will be the last significant anniversary of the First World War at which surviving Australians from that conflict can be present and in which they can participate. The tomb will provide a solemn and inspirational focal point for the large number of Australians and others who visit the memorial each year. With overseas battlefields, cemeteries and memorials so far away, I think the tomb is going to be a place where visitors can go to grieve, to place a flower of tribute or remembrance, to remember, and to reflect—and to do that in this country, Australia.

  When I announced on 7 July the names of the veterans and war widows who would be taking part in the 75th anniversary commemorative mission to the Western Front, I observed that there would obviously be very great disappointment amongst those who were selected for the reserve group for the mission but who would not be part of the mission. I invited them at that time to travel to Canberra with a family member or carer, at government expense, to attend the dedication of the tomb of the unknown soldier. I certainly hope they will be able to join us here—I believe they will—and I think that this event will be a very fitting climax to the government's very full and significant program of commemorative events to remember and honour Australia's participation in World War I.

  Finally, again I would say a sincere thankyou to the veterans, the war widows and all those who accompanied this commemorative mission to the Western Front. I believe that our veterans and war widows really did our country proud in France and Belgium, as did the veterans, of course, before in 1916 to 1918. I know that the whole of the delegation—everyone on the mission—was honoured, as I certainly was, to be part of this historic occasion. It is an experience that I will certainly never forget. I am sure that for all those who participated in the mission it is something which will stand as perhaps one of the most important life experiences and certainly something that will stay with us for the remainder of our lives.

  Question resolved in the affirmative.

Senate adjourned at 11.38 p.m.