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Thursday, 25 November 1993
Page: 3653


Senator KEMP (1.38 p.m.) —I rise to speak about the film Cenotaph. Senator Faulkner was kind enough to draw to my attention the fact that the film was being shown in Parliament House. I had the chance to view the film and, given the importance of this particular project, I would like to make a few comments about it. I think that most Australians who see the film will think of it as a very moving film. Many people will find the historical footage of the First World War and the first Anzac day parades to be a very emotional experience.

  I think many families will be able to effectively identify with some of the individual stories which are mentioned in the film of the young men who went to the First World War. The film also records the visit of the old diggers to France. I think that was in August. Part of the film focuses on the school that was built in Villers-Bretonneux after the war, through the contributions of Victorian school children. This is a story which I think deserves to be told and retold.

  The film told the story of the Great War from the perspective of the township of Hay, from which township a very high proportion of the young men decided to volunteer in the First World War and left our shores. I think that was a particularly original approach. It gave the backgrounds to all those weathering memorials which appear in virtually every township throughout the nation. I always feel it is particularly moving to drive into an Australian country town and to see, often in the main street, a memorial to the men who left that township some 75 years ago.

  This film is part of a series of films. It is the first of seven films on Australia's forces. The aim was to show to viewers the impact on our culture, our heritage and our character of the participation of our forces in the various campaigns in which Australians have fought. Senator Faulkner expressed the hope that it will boost community awareness of the participation and contribution made by Australians to notable events and the campaigns within these conflicts as well as of the overall outcomes.

  There are five matters that I would like to raise in, I hope, a constructive way. I think the film is a worthwhile film. It is a film that I certainly hope a lot of Australians will have the opportunity to see. I think it was a pity that the film did not mention the great strategic significance of the First World War for Australia. Without mentioning this at least in a brief manner, the viewer of the film may be left wondering why this magnificent army ever left our shores.

  As the great war historian Bean points out in his book Anzac to Amiens, had the Great War resulted in a German victory, `the first term in the peace treaty would have been the abolition of the British Navy; and for the Australian nation this meant either subservience to Germany or extinction at the hands of the Japanese'. Honourable senators will recall that around that period there were a number of areas in the Pacific region where Germany had control. Of course, one of those areas was the neighbouring country of Papua New Guinea. So there was a significant strategic reason why Australia had a great interest in a successful outcome to this war.

  Unless we say that, it is a bit hard to explain why so many Australians were prepared to leave our shores and fight for so long. It seems to me that, to a certain extent, we undervalue the sacrifice made by these Australians if we do not mention the overall outcome. Despite the dreadful loss of young men and despite the blunders that were made, at the end of the day the war was won, and that was of great strategic significance for Australia.

  The second point I would like to make is that, while the film appropriately highlighted the dreadful loss of life and the great agony of war, to my mind, it largely ignored the brilliant victories in which Australians played a significant role. It is interesting that some dramatic events occurred on 8 August 1918, just 75 years ago. This was the occasion when the five Australian divisions broke through the German lines. General Ludendorff, who was in charge of the Germany army, described this as `the black day of the German Army in the history of the War'.

  If, as Senator Faulkner said, we are to consider the contributions Australians made to notable events, to my mind, it would have been appropriate to mention again, albeit briefly, the battles in the months leading up to the armistice on 11 November 1918. Monash says in his book on the battles of 1918:

I think that the claim may fairly be made for the Australian Army corps, that in each of the stages of operations which led to the military overthrow—

of the German Army—

the corps played an important and, in some of them, a predominating part. No better testimony for such a conclusion can be adduced than the admissions of Ludendorff himself.

  The third point I would like to make in relation to our national character is that Bean further observes that Australians achieved more than national security. He points out that the experience brought `a new confidence into Australian national undertakings . . . the return of the AIF, its leaders covered with distinction, its ranks acclaimed overseas as one of the notable fighting forces in history, deeply, if insensibly, affected that outlook'. There is no question that the First World War and the experiences, both negative and otherwise, did have a major effect on the Australian character.

  The fourth point I make, and it is a related point, is that we should not be shy of acknowledging the great fighting qualities of these men. It is often expressed that we do not want to glorify war, and I agree with that. On the other hand, it is appropriate to pay tribute to men who show great skill in the military arts and show the great characteristics of courage and sacrifice. This was touched on in the film when it referred to the magnificent army. I think that Patsy Adam-Smith expressed this point particularly powerfully in her book on the ANZACs.


Senator Sherry —A great Australian writer.


Senator KEMP —Correct, a great Australian writer, and I do not think anyone would describe Patsy Adam-Smith as a conservative. In her book on the ANZACs she wrote about the Australian armies in the First World War and she addressed them directly. She said:

You had the greatest number of casualties per men in the field of all the Allied armies; you travelled furtherest, were away the longest. You were the only volunteers. You came from a newer land, were a younger race than any who entered that awful arena. When time has removed this age to a distance, our descendants will speak of you now as we speak of the three hundred at Thermopylae . . .

As I said, we should not be shy of acknowledging the great fighting skills of these men and of the armies which they formed. I think it is a pity that the impression was left at the end of the film—and I make the qualification `if my memory serves me correctly' as I do not have the text before me—when in the final comments it was suggested that soldiers were court-martialled and shot if they refused to fight.

  One of the features of the Australian army, which is very well known in military circles—and, I hope, in the wider community—is that desertion was not punishable by death. I think this actually marked the Australian army as being quite different from virtually all other major armies. As a footnote to history, it is worth noting that the British House of Commons, 12 years after the war, voted to abolish the death penalty for desertion from their own armies. I understand it was said in that debate:

If it can be demonstrated that the Australians could fight as gallantly as they did without the death penalty, then it is a libel of the courage of other British troops to say they cannot fight without it.

The point I am making there is that we undervalue the heroism of these troops by including what, I think, was an historical inaccuracy. As I said, I think the old footage in Cenotaph of the vast columns of returned servicemen marching in the early Anzac Day parades shows just how proud these men were of their achievements and, indeed, rightly so. To a certain extent, the film will explain to the current generation of Australians aspects of this pride that these men felt. My comments today should be read in the light that the film could have given some emphasis to some areas which were mentioned only briefly, or ignored.