Today, as we mark a century since they gave their lives, let us resolve to continue to fulfil their trust, so that every passing year will only add to the measure of their honour.

The Australians who served on the Western Front were not professional soldiers. They were not conscripted but were volunteers from all walks of life, in uniform until the war ended or until death or wounds claimed them.  As they awaited the battles that they knew would come in 1918, a section of 19th Battalion men rested in a billet behind the line.  Private Frank Purnell, who two years before had been a school teacher in Waga Waga, where, by coincidence, I have just been - described the scene:

The hut is warm … The fire … means a fortune to the soldier. … … Some half dozen sit or recline on the heap of mysteriously-gathered wood …. Jack is … is one of the few “original” men … and has never been wounded or sick.  His old mates have left him one by one until he is almost a lonely man.  Some are back in Australia, home again…  Some are still in hospital in “Blighty” … Some are in a rest camp in France, spelling.  The others – heroes every one – repose for the most part, beneath the soil of Flanders.… In one corner, a man, forty years of age writes to his mother in Westralia.  Alongside him, sitting on his blankets, with a two-inch candle set on a steel helmet, is a corporal writing to his wife and little girl, opposite a lad from Lismore takes stock of the contents of a parcel … There is a towel – which Reg gives to a comrade who has none all packed by thoughtful and loving sisters.

Next to the Lismore lad, a Burwood man reads a seventeen-page letter, written by his wife. … You notice his smile as he reads, that he reads the whole letter twice, and some parts he reads three times.  Then he, happy, folds his letter and places it in his tunic pocket … To complete the group, one must not forget those who shave by candlelight, some standing, some kneeling; nor those who have already made their beds and are safely ensconced in them.  Soon all will be in bed.  … outside, in the gloom the sentries pace their beat and keep watch over the sleeping camp.
(DA, March 9, 1918)

We do not know what became of these men in 1918.    On average it is almost certain that one in five of them would have lost their lives during the months that followed, and that some of those parents, wives and children to whom they were writing in the scene Private Purnell described so touchingly would have received official letters bringing the most desolating grief.    More still would have been wounded.  Those who survived would return to rebuild their lives and forge their character into the great country they would help build. They would remember forever their many comrades, their fellow “diggers”, they left behind here and before in places like Gallipoli, and whose spirit will forever be part of Australia’s identity.  Those men, and their loved ones, trusted that such costly sacrifice would be honoured.  Today, as we mark a century since they gave their lives, let us resolve to continue to fulfil their trust, so that every passing year will only add to the measure of their honour.