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Student blog: I am comforted by the strength of the human spirit

 11 Nov 2016

Author: Jessica of Year 11    

At 11am on 11 November 1918, the guns on the Western Front fell silent after more than four years of continuous warfare. On this historic occasion, we join fellow Australians in silent reflection as we remember the tragedy of World War I and the ultimate sacrifice made by the men and women who have served their nations at war ever since. We pause and reflect, and with grateful thanks, remember them.

416,000 Australians volunteered for service in WWI, 62,000 of whom were killed 152,000 of whom were wounded, and countless more scarred by the trauma of their experience on the battlefield. The effects of war were felt profoundly on the home front, where entire families and communities grieved for the loss of their loved ones who were never to return home.

One example is the tragic story of the six Smith brothers: Herbert, Frederick, Alfred, Clarence, Errol and Jack, who were killed as cannon fodder at war. Lottie, the only sibling to remain, later admitted her most cherished possession became a little one penny red stamp that had been attached to a letter from the front written by her youngest brother. Imprinted on the back was the simple instruction: “I go out to return, Jack”. 

Losses like these act as a reminder that there is nothing glorious about war. It leads to the eradication of human life on a scale far too great to ever be justified. With over 70 million military personnel mobilised during WWI, resulting in four years of horrific fighting, in some cases over only inches of land, one can only wonder what could have possibly driven these military leaders on as they sent their men towards certain death. 

Inflexible and unwilling to alter their battle plans, it quickly developed into a war of attrition. Both sides simply resorted to wearing down their opponents to the point of absolute exhaustion so as to finally break the stalemate. When I learned about this, Wordsworth’s words came to mind: “It grieves my heart to think what man has made of man”. The futility of the battles and the complete disregard of human life is truly hard to comprehend. 

Imagine, with the sound of artillery hammering in your ears, clothes sodden in mud from weeks of fighting, being told to “go over the top”. Imagine knowingly running towards the enemy fire, staggering over bodies, your fellow comrades, with little hope of ever coming back.

The footage we have all seen of lifeless, muddy moonscapes on the Western Front. It depicts men holding one another in their arms, utterly exhausted and emotionally defeated – leaving us all asking: what was the point of it all? The misery, the killing, the mass destruction.

World War I was supposed to have been the Great War to end all wars. Yet 98 years on, and scenes of conflict, violence and destruction continue to echo around the world. Since WWI, more than 100,000 men and women of the Australian Defence Force have continued to answer the call to serve their country. 

Remembrance Day is an opportunity to acknowledge their service and sacrifice, and hope that those currently posted abroad see a safe and speedy return. Hearing the stories of mateship, courage and selflessness that emerge from these horrors, I am somewhat comforted by the strength of the human spirit: our resilience and ability to arise despite circumstance.

During World War I, women played a crucial role volunteering and supporting their nations in whatever way they could to bring comfort and service to those in need. Over 2,300 women served overseas with the Australian Army and Red Cross to provide medical assistance and support to the many wounded troops. Recruited into jobs formerly reserved for men, they became railway guards, bus conductors, postal workers and police to uphold a functioning society despite the war.

We must be thankful for what they did, for seeing and enduring the best and the worst of humankind, for giving up everything and everyone they cared about to serve future generations of their country. These men and women, who seem like distant strangers from another time, have given us a legacy on which to build a better future. 

Today we honour the contribution they have made to this nation. We commit ourselves to upholding the values for which these Australians gave their lives. We also commit ourselves afresh to the great cause of peace. In remembering them, we make a promise – a promise to never repeat the losses and wrongs of the past. We remember because to remember is to hope. Lest we forget.