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Wednesday, 2 December 2015
Page: 9608


Senator WILLIAMS (New South Wales) (12:45): I rise today to extend an invitation to everyone in this chamber, and to all Australians, to attend a very special event in my home town of Inverell next month. You ask: 'What is that event?' Before I explain, I want to go back 98 years to the battlefields of Belgium and a young soldier from Inverell, Private Alan James Mather.

Private Mather, who was in his mid-30s, signed up on 10 January 1916 and left Inverell two days later as part of a group of men who were to become known as The Kurrajongs. There were 114 men who marched through the streets of Inverell in that muster, responding to the terrible news coming back from the war front of the horrific casualties, particularly at Gallipoli some eight months earlier. It is said that 5,000 people lined the streets to farewell them. The mayor proclaimed: 'It is one of the proudest days in Inverell's history', and The Kurrajongs marched to the Inverell railway station. At the time this was the largest single group of men to leave a country town for war service. The train collected other recruits along the way at Delungra, Warialda and Moree before setting up camp at Narrabri.

Most of the volunteers, including Private Alan Mather, became members of the 33rd Battalion AIF. The farmland, the livestock, the easy-going rural life enjoyed by Private Mather and his Aussie mates were a world away from what they faced on the battlefield in Belgium. His 33rd Battalion became engaged in the Battle of Messines on 7 June 1917. It was fierce fighting involving 216,000 men from Australia, New Zealand and Great Britain. The following day, 8 June 1917, Private Alan Mather, who was from a small property just to the north of Inverell, lost his life when a German shell exploded near the trench he was in. He was one of 6,178 Australians who served in the Ypres campaign, and his name was added to the Menin Gate alongside those with no known grave.

In August 2008—a long time later—archaeologists, who were combing through the battlefields in Belgium, discovered Private Mather's remains of his rifle, ammunition, corps badges and the contents of his pockets and haversack underneath the site of what had apparently been a big bomb blast. An identification disc was found, but was too corroded to provide any useful information. The Australian Army commissioned DNA testing on surviving relatives. The younger Alan Mather was able to put the investigators on to an even closer relative, Cath Mitchell, a cousin living in Armidale, who was aged 96. When I say 'the younger Alan Mather', he is still alive and well in Inverell today. The identification was confirmed, and you could not begin to imagine the emotions of the Mather family when they heard the news.

On 22 July 2010 Private Alan Mather, service No. 1983, of the property 'Flaggy' at Pindari near Inverell, was formally buried with full military honours at the Prowse Point Commonwealth War Graves Commission Cemetery in Belgium. His great-niece, Kim Blomfield, and nephew, John Mather, joined the Chief of Army, Lieutenant General Ken Gillespie, and the Ambassador to Belgium, Luxembourg and the European Union and NATO, Dr Brendan Nelson, in a solemn remembrance ceremony.

The lady who performed the service at the burial of Private Mather, Katie Inches-Ogden, may attend the very function I spoke about earlier. We are having a march on 10 January in Inverell, which is a re-enactment of The Kurrajongs march. That may be attended by, as I said, Katie Inches-Odgen. Another special guest will be Dr Kerry Neale, who is a curator at the Australian War Memorial. She will speak on 'Healing a nation—wounded veterans and family caregiving after the First World War'. Dr Neale will recount the stories of wounded soldiers who returned to Australia shell-shocked, disfigured, blinded and suffering the effects of being gassed.

The committee, headed by Private Mather's great-niece, Kim Blomfield, and ably supported by Ann Hodgens OAM, has organised an outstanding program that will be enjoyed by thousands of locals and visitors alike. The big day, as I said, is Sunday, 10 January, when the re-enactment march will be held. An enormous amount of work has gone into tracking down descendants of The Kurrajongs to participate in the march and commemorative events, and already some 220 people have registered to march. On Tuesday, 12 January a service will be held, as well as the re-enactment, of the presentation of the New South Wales Governor's shield. This is very important as this shield was presented to Inverell for providing the most recruits per head of population in New South Wales during a campaign in 1918.

Today a memorial to The Kurrajongs stands proudly among the avenue of Kurrajong trees lining the eastern entrance to Inverell. Inverell shops will be decorated, and the town is really getting into the spirit of this re-enactment. Yesterday there was a bus tour of some of the points of interest hosted by Ian Small, who wrote The Kurrajongs, a book which is a mixture of fact and fiction. I thank the federal government for its contribution to the event through the Anzac Centenary Local Grants Program and the Inverell Shire Council, Inverell RSM Club and Inverell RSL sub-Branch for their outstanding support. Australians are flocking in their many thousands to visit war graves overseas, and I hope to get there myself one day. One Inverell man retrieved a handful of soil from the Oakwood area just to the north of Inverell and sprinkled it on the grave of an Oakwood man who had been killed in World War I and was buried in St Pierre Cemetery in France. It was his way of reuniting the soldier with the land where he had been born and grown up.

We saw a magnificent Anzac Day this year, the Centenary of Anzac. I remember my late father telling me, many years ago, when he was president of the RSL sub-branch in Inverell that there was concern that Anzac Day was waning, it was fading and people were losing interest. That has certainly not been the case and, indeed, it has got bigger and bigger every year. It is great to see the youngsters participating and being involved in that.

Next January the 10th, our hometown of Inverell will host the commemoration for the 100 years since the Kurrajongs marched and headed off to war. They were brave young men—many never returned. Many believed they were going on an exciting journey but found the absolute opposite in the battles they faced, and against the odds. I thank those people who have done so much work to organise the re-enactment: Kim Blomfield and the crew of the committee and Ann Hodgens. They have done a wonderful job, well done. We look forward in Inverell to the big commemoration remembrance of the 100 years of the Kurrajongs on 10 January and the couple of days following that.