Prime Minister Kevin Rudd on the enduring impact of World War I

This is a transcript of an address by Prime Minister Kevin Rudd at the National Archives of Australia on 12 November 2008 to launchShell-shocked: Australia after Armistice.

What is it about this extraordinary conflict which so animates the Australian mind and so animates the Australian soul? We are all shaped by our own experiences and I am no different to anyone else in this room.

What I remember as a small child growing up in a Queensland country town is being woken before dawn to go on the dawn Anzac day march. A town of barely 200 people, but a march well attended. And I always remember in the dim, very early morning light, hearing the gentle clink of medals. In those days, in those days, these were veterans of the war we speak about today.

As I reflect again on the experiences as a kid growing up and through the 70s and the 80s when ANZAC seemed to dim a little in the nation’s imagination and the crowds became thinner for a bit. And then the crowds came back, and they keep coming back and they get stronger and stronger and they get bigger and bigger.

So I go back to the question that I asked, what it is about ANZAC, what is it about the First World War, what is it about the war to end all wars, what is it about Australia’s national military experience which so moves the Australian mind and plumbs the depths of the Australian soul?

It is I think as I struggle to answer this question, made up of many things. It is in part the grand narrative of nations. Nations aligned through the concert of Europe deciding to go to war once again. It is in part about the grand narrative which is the failure of peace and the resort to war.

In part, in our own case, Australia, it is the sheer dimensions of the sign up. Volunteers from all over this country, this vast country of ours so thinly populated in those days and so thinly populated still.

Walking, riding, travelling, days, weeks on end in order to sign up. The dimensions of it, the size of the voluntary effort, volunteering for the cause. Then there is the dimensions of the odyssey. The travel, the distance. Here we are in our part of the world, embarked as a national force of volunteers to embark on a military campaign at the other end of the world and land on the shores of Turkey, the Ottoman Empire.

If you were a kid growing up in Bowral and of enlistment age, would it have crossed your mind as you went to school that you could in a year or two’s time, be fighting in the trenches of the Dardanelles, in the trenches of the Western Front? Names that you could barely pronounce, let alone places you had ever been to, or with which you had any particular connection to or emotional attachment. The distance from here to there at a time when people did not travel as they travel today.

The other great part of why this war so sears the Australian historical imagination is the great divisions over conscription, the great debates which certainly tore asunder the party which John (Faulkner) and I represent today. A debate about conscription which tore asunder much of the nation.

But the other reason that I think this affects so much the nation’s imagination and the nation’s soul are the purely personal dimensions of this extraordinary feat of arms in this extraordinary chapter in human tragedy, because it is both those things.

If you look at the grave fields across the Western Front, thousands upon thousands of white crosses. And I don’t know if you are like me but I always ask myself a question when I go to one of these cemeteries. What would this young man’s life have been like? Killed in action, aged 19, what would have his life been like, how long would he have lived, what family would he have raised, who were the children who never knew him or the children he had he didn’t know any further.

I think what partly animates our souls as Australians is the truly personal dimensions of this. What is wonderful about these national archives and the exhibition that we will see soon is each of those personal essays again come to life and that is what is so important.

Then there are the dimensions of the recovery. Sure 60,000 lie dead and we honour them as did yesterday. 150,000 who were wounded and who came back to try and piece together a shattered life, as John said a shell-shocked life, a life which could never be the same.

Again even as a kid growing up in a little town called Eumundi in country Queensland I remember my mum and dad saying ‘just be gentle with so and so, he is still suffering from the shell-shock’. I am talking about the early 60s, of events more than half a century removed.

The recovery, the recovery of each of those lives. Not just of the 150,000 wounded but of the horrors which were witnessed by those who were not. The mental trauma in an age and a time when no one knew what trauma was. When there wasn’t a psychiatrist or psychologist within cooee, people couldn’t spell the name let alone dispense the practice. Yet they were there - these brave young men of Australia and their suffering families coping with the sheer dimensions of physical, emotional, psychological recovery.

I cannot begin to think how I as human being could have survived those trenches. I cannot begin to think how I could have survived. To have watched, to have heard and to have seen people blown apart in front of you and for their remains to be buried under acres of mud not to be discovered and brought to dignified burial for some decades following, half centuries following, nearly full centuries following.

It is a sight when you put it into your imagination, you think how could any human endure watching that and surviving. The physicality of the brutality and the searing emotional scars and psychological scars stayed with so many of these veterans for a lifetime.

I think that’s also part of what captures the Australian imagination, the Australian soul today. Because it is not just the grand narrative of nations, each of these essays, each of these essays of the 333,000 who served is a very personal essay.

I think the other thing for those who did not enlist, who were women and who kissed goodbye to their sons and their lovers and their husbands. These silent heroes of this great tragedy and the silent heroes of every war waiting with fear for the arrival of the minister or the priest, that terrible, terrible part of the nation’s story.

Women walking to the other side of the street when they saw the priest walking up the street in case the priest was coming to their home to deliver the bad news that they had lost a son or a husband or a father.

I think that’s also what commends an extraordinary feat of arms, this extraordinary chapter of human tragedy to our minds and to our souls. And then the challenge of reconstruction, of resettlement, the agency of government working through the 20s and the 30s with these shattered and battered lives to craft out a new existence.

The trials, the tribulations and the tragedies of the soldier settlement scheme of which we’ve studied much, of which we’ve seen some success and much failure in the various parts of Australia in which it was embarked upon.

And here we saw the first efforts, the first efforts to try and refashion people’s lives and to rebuild the communities from which they came after the extraordinary impact on the economies of those households and those communities through the loss, such huge loss of life.

And in the sweep of our history, something which is reflected on with great intensity by those charged with the responsibility of the reconstruction after the Second World War. Chifley, Curtin and the others reflecting on what had gone wrong post 1919 and how to handle and support the challenges of reconstruction, resettlement and repatriation.

It is a lesson we still must learn again today as we welcome back our veterans from wars still being fought.

And the final part of why I think this is such an extraordinary story for our nation’s narrative, our nation’s still young narrative, is the absolute standout messages of human courage and endurance.

What staggers me about the First World War, and for those of us who know something about the writing of military dispatches and what an incomplete art and science they could have been, is how many stories of heroism have never gone recorded. You hear snippets of them, in the second and third hand accounts of great battles and great encounters.

Simple, brave acts of heroism, not sufficiently corroborated for the purposes of the military historians and those who dispense of the military honours but they’re part and parcel of the fabric of the Australian experience.

Heroic feats on the field of battle, heroic patient achievements in dealing with the aftermath of battle. Weary Dunlop writ large. Simpson and his Donkey, Weary Dunlop in a different war and so that tradition proceeds as well.

Courage, sheer courage.

A friend of mine, who was a prisoner of war in the last world war described his job as having to tend the cremation of each of the Australians who died. I cannot imagine having the courage to do that. As each of his mates died his job was to dispense of their bodies. Imagine the courage required in doing that.

So why is this war so significant in our nation’s story? Why is the aftermath of this war so significant in our nation’s future story? I think it is all these things. The grand narrative of nations and the personal story of families. People at their absolute best. People suffering the absolute worst.

A nation without history is like a person without memory, and that is why these Archives are such an important part of our nation’s memory.

I thank those who have put together this great exhibition and it is with great pride as Prime Minister of Australia that I declare open this exhibition Shell-shocked: Australia after Armistice.

Copyright National Archives of Australia 2017