When Charles Bean first envisaged his plan to build a memorial to commemorate the commitment and sacrifice of Australia’s servicemen and servicewomen, he wanted to ensure that the people making the decisions to send Australians to war—the politicians—had that commitment uppermost in their minds.
That’s why the Australian War Memorial is in direct line of sight of the Australia’s Parliament House.
The thinking was that as Prime Ministers, Ministers and MPs debated the decision to send Australians to war, the War Memorial presented a visible and salutary reminder of the gravity of those decisions and the costs borne by ordinary Australians and their families.
Such decisions are never taken lightly. But they’re informed by the best intelligence, military, strategic and diplomatic advice on offer.
I’ve found that, over many years in many roles, you have to make your own decisions in the end. In doing so, you seek and listen to the advice of experts in the particular field in which you’re working.
It was on my watch as Defence Minister that Australian soldiers went to Afghanistan.
In the end, you must apply intellectual rigor to the process of exercising judgement in the very best interests of those you lead and represent: Australians.
While Bean wanted to ensure that parliamentarians were aware of the human cost of sending Australians to war, he also wanted to highlight the major driver that sustained the Anzacs while they were fighting for King and Country as members of the Australian Imperial Force.
In those foreign lands, in inclement conditions, under fire in the trenches, awaiting orders to go over the top to face a foe that was primed and ready…the thing that sustained the Anzacs most was mateship.
In his 1921 publication, The Story of Anzac, Bean wrote that the strongest bond during these hellish times was that between a soldier and his mate:
‘So far as he held a prevailing creed, it was a romantic one inherited from the gold miner and the bushman, of which the chief article was that a man should at all times and at any cost stand by his mate…
This was and is the one law which the good Australian must never break. It is bred in the child and stays with him through life.’
Bean highlighted mateship, one of many great Australian traits, with the following story which occurred at the Battle of Lone Pine where Australia suffered heavy losses and seven Victoria Crosses were awarded:
‘In the last few moments before the bloody attack upon Lone Pine in Gallipoli, when the 3rd Australian Infantry Battalion was crowded on the fire-steps of each bay of its old front-line trench, waiting for the final signal to scramble over the sandbags above, a man with rifle in hand, bayonet fixed, came peering along the trench below.
‘Jim here?’ he asked. A voice on the fire-step answered ‘Right, Bill; here.’ ‘Do you chaps mind shiftin’ up a piece?’ said the man in the trench. ‘Him and me are mates, an’ we’re goin’ over together.’’
Bean stressed the same thing must have happened many thousands of times in the Australian Divisions.
While musing on the pressures and influences Australian governments and parliamentarians must be under, I can’t help but think about that anecdote, and what those Australian’s were thinking about as they went into battle.
While it was King and Country that sent them to war, and while family and loved ones left at home must have been uppermost in their thinking as they waited for that final command to go ‘over the top’, it would have been the mates fighting alongside them that drove them out of the trenches and into action.
It’s a driver that I’m regularly presented with by today’s soldiers returning from their own Middle East and peacekeeping duties alongside their mates.
Those decisions to send our forces to war are never made easily, but they’re made in the national and international interest.
Once taken, I’ll never forget that it’s then up to the individuals at the front to fight the good fight on behalf of the nation but, more importantly, for the mate standing alongside you.
Lest we forget….