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Centenary of Anzac


The Centenary of Anzac has been profound and moving for our nation as a whole and for the many rural, regional and metropolitan communities that have commemorated this event in so many different ways. In schools, RSLs and churches, private moments of reflection have been taken by millions of individual Australians to mark the sacrifice made by men and women who answered the call, not just in 1915 but in theatres of war and peacekeeping in the century since. In the past 12 months I have attended, with my community, a number of memorial services in Maitland—I also attended the service here in Sydney on Remembrance Day—to honour and commemorate the sacrifices made by Australian men and women who, in many cases, paid with their lives. As I stood shoulder to shoulder with members of my community to pay our respects, I was reminded of how the acts of courage and sacrifice have remained so poignant throughout the decades. The many services I attended last year showed the importance of reflecting on the contribution made by our service men and women, and how their actions have enriched our way of life. The services reflected the diverse ways in which our community recognises those actions and that gift of sacrifice. One service I attended marked the sixty-fifth anniversary of the armistice that ended the Korean War. The Consul General for South Korea, Huijin Lee, presented Ambassador of Peace medals to four Maitland veterans of that war: David Cunningham, Ray Jones, Basil Stemp and Brian Moore. The Consul General spoke of the help that his nation had received during and since the war, and how that had helped the nation become an important trading partner. He said that trade—not just with our country but also with the rest of the world—was important for Korea, which was now in a position to help others. It is easy to forget that in all aspects of life it is often those to whom we give a hand—those whom we empower—who later pay it forward by extending a hand to others. A musical performance and the serving of some traditional sweet dumplings was a very positive way to commemorate the service of our Korean veterans and enhance the multicultural understanding and relationship between our communities. In August last year I attended a ceremony to commemorate the centenary of the Battle of Lone Pine at Gallipoli. This ceremony was organised by the members of the Rotary Club of East Maitland to place a memorial plaque next to a lone pine at Cooks Square Park. The pine had been grown from the seeds of the original Gallipoli lone pine. The memorial service was held during the same period as the Battle of Lone Pine, 100 years before, and featured 25 names of those from our area who fought in that battle, including the 18 men who died there. Some of these services have taken on a unique Maitland flavour, including the one held by the Friends of the Maitland Regional Museum, which showcased an excellent local display from the Australian War Memorial. Dr Janece MacDonald, the local advocate for a Maitland regional museum—which we hope will be built soon—was the local curator of the exhibition. It was presented beautifully, and was combined with an embroidery exhibition of poppies that local women had created to commemorate the veterans of the Great War. Held at historic Brough House, the Federal member for Hunter Joel Fitzgibbon delivered a moving speech about his recollections of the women of Horseshoe Bend. I thank him for enriching our local knowledge of these women in our community. Amongst these women there were many widows who never knew the love of a man because their fiances had died on the battlefields after their promises had been made. Many lost their husbands to the terrors of war. The sadness of those women's stories is in the sacrifice told only by their single status as they aged. The stories of those women were not documented in any way, and are only evident today through the name of the man they lost, carved deep into the stone of a cenotaph—a very familiar sight in towns across the country. When I see one of them I am always reminded of the poem Smalltown Memorials, by Australian poet Geoff Page. I will share some of that poem with the House now:

No matter how small Every town has one; Maybe just the obelisk, A few names inlaid; More often full-scale granite, Marble digger (arms reversed), Long descending lists of dead: Sometimes not even a town, A thickening of houses Or a few unlikely trees Glimpsed on a back road will have one.

The poem continues:

Unveiled; Then seen each day— Noticed once a year; And then not always, Everywhere. The next bequeathed us Parks and pools But something in that first Demanded stone.

Humans have always been driven to record their history, whether in ancient lines in Celtic stones, paintings on cave walls, carvings in stone temples, the stained glass of Gothic churches, intricate illuminated works such as those found in the Book of Kells, and the amazing artworks in our own Australian art galleries and the Australian War Memorial. In the eighteenth, nineteenth and twentieth centuries people moved to telling their stories mainly in words. Later, stories were told through photographs and videos—still in their infancy, black and white, with blurred resolution and jerky motion. Photos, artwork and video are all used in propaganda and are very powerful. Wartime photos are an amazing resource for students and historians today. In my electorate, Yvonne Fletcher and John Gillam have been researching and recording the war efforts in the Hunter. I was impressed last week when I participated in the launch of their latest book, Men in Sheep's Clothing: The History of the Sheepskin Diggers Vest, to learn that that story started with one of those very blurry old wartime photos. The book explores a remarkable story of Australian innovation, self-sacrifice, determination and love. During the winters of the Great War soldiers were dying of pneumonia and freezing to death in the muddy trenches. The people of Australia responded with a practical solution: the design and manufacture of a life-saving sheepskin vest that was given to every digger. So innovative, so Australian was this vest, but it was not documented as part of official Army uniform. The record of it was almost lost but for its being observed in the photograph that inspired the book. To commemorate the Centenary of Anzac historians Yvonne and John wrote a story about the vest, exploring its history and its impact on Australians. The commemoration coalesces with the Centenary of the Red Cross and the book recognises the contribution of the ladies who made the vests. Last week at the launch it was very interesting to hear how the Red Cross was set up over a weekend and how it was able in such a short time to deliver vests to the men at the front. Not only have John and Yvonne researched the history of the vest but also, with the help of Stephanie and Tony Mortel, who are local sheepskin manufacturers in my electorate, they have been able to reproduce a version of it. They are making it here in Australia. That is another example of the innovative ways in which we can remember the sacrifice of those who fought for this nation. The way we record and commemorate our experiences has changed so much. No longer do we record our thoughts and feelings in stone. We live in an information age. Our desire to record our personal moments online is pressing. No longer do we whisper our sadness, our grief to the village; we shout it to the world. There was a time when the written word was much more considered than it is today. Carefully chosen words that expressed a point of view or an emotion or described someone were once valued far more than they are today, when we need to be able to express our opinions and thoughts in 160 characters or in seven-second video "vines". It was therefore pleasing to me to see that in 2015 two women in my electorate, Robyn Wickham and Anne Campbell, published a beautiful book called Maitland's Gallipoli Campaign. It explores the stories of people from all over our region who served at Gallipoli. The book is a valuable resource for local teachers, who make these stories come alive for children through the magic that is education. I hope this book will help them to impart to our young people relatable stories of this century-old battle. That the human costs of war are great and that we need to try harder for peace is the lesson. It was our boys who went away to fight, and our girls who nursed them at home and abroad, who kissed their cheeks and sent them on their way and never saw them again. They, like the teenagers of today, had warm, beating hearts full of dreams and aspirations. They are the stories that Robyn and Anne have told in their book. As dawn broke at Gallipoli Cove on Anzac Day in 2015, 20 students and four chaperones from the Hunter region gathered for the commemoration. They had each researched the story of a soldier to tell. Like Anne and Robyn, the authors of Maitland's Gallipoli Campaign, those students have come to know those soldiers as men—as brothers, fathers, husbands, sons and lovers—through whatever records have survived. The students went far beyond words carved on a cenotaph. I am always humbled by the opportunity to represent our community at memorial services and ceremonies, to pay respect to those who paid the ultimate sacrifice on our behalf. Last April, due to flooding in Maitland Park, the Anzac Day ceremony was moved to Maitland Town Hall at the last minute. In a similar vein, the community of Gillieston Heights put together their own Anzac commemoration when they were stranded in their community for more than a week. These are the ceremonies that speak to me. In the face of challenges it was a case of "soldier on", in tribute to the traditional Anzac spirit. During the April 2015 storms and the recent January storms in the Hunter I witnessed the enduring spirit of the Anzacs in my community on so many occasions. I make particular mention of the 2,000 State Emergency Service volunteers from around Australia who came to help us. The region received assistance from the police, firefighters—both retained staff and volunteers—paramedics, Ausgrid staff, council workers, Family and Community Services staff, and staff from Commonwealth agencies and community service agencies. These modern displays of resilience, persistence, courage and sacrifice embody the Anzac spirit that has remained in our soldiers, our armed forces and, indeed, our culture since 1915. In the Centenary of Anzac debate I have heard some of my colleagues reading letters from soldiers to their families describing conditions at the front, but one soldier's letter that I read when I was in El Alamein, at a desert war memorial on the seventieth anniversary of that battle, had particular resonance for me. I have visited the sites of many wars around the world where Australians have served. I have paid my respects at war memorials in Europe, Borneo, South Africa, Egypt and North Africa, Vietnam, Cambodia, Rabaul in Papua New Guinea and many other sites. Last year my son, my husband and my father-in-law walked the Kokoda Track in Papua New Guinea, where two of my son's great-grandfathers fought during World War II. In two months time I hope to go to Turkey to commemorate Anzac Day at Gallipoli, the site of that most hallowed ground, the Anzac memorial. My maternal grandfather fought at El Alamein during World War II. El Alamein was known as "the gentleman's battle". No civilians were involved in the fighting. It is important to note that some 40,000 men died—Germans, Italians and Allies. There is no gentle death in war. The Commonwealth war graves at El Alamein are very ordered: stark headstones in geometric patterns, with vivid pink bougainvillea standing out from the sandy desert. There is a word or two about each soldier on his headstone, underneath his name, with his date of birth and his date of death. Being in the exact same place as one of those young soldiers as I read the letter he wrote to his sister, in a clear, beautiful hand, was a uniquely moving experience. I could almost hear his young voice speaking positively about the conditions, allaying his sister's concerns as she prepared for the birth of her first child alone, without her husband, who was also at war. To feel his wish to help her share the miracle of birth, family and joy while he experienced the horrors of war was almost surreal. To see him reach for some normality amidst the chaos, to offer hope in the horror and despair of war, was and is, to me, an embodiment of the Anzac spirit. Reading that soldier's letter on a sunny day, 70 years later—and it was a beautiful sunny day—at an isolated war memorial, in quiet and peace and order, with only 10 or so people around me, made it all seem so much more jarring. I will share with members something that I wrote at the time to convey the emotions I felt:

Hard up against the wire of the fence, weapons faced against the soldiers, They lie down the slope a way, with silent sentries to mark their places on the battlefield, Messages of love and loss from families frozen in grief, in time, The only hint left of the warm young bodies that once lay above the ground. The blue turquoise of the water beckons me, Sparkling on the horizon, the sky meets the sea in a mist that defies the eye to say Where it begins and where it ends, It is so far away. And in that distance, the blue turquoise is a talisman, an impossible oasis, Where they forgot for a moment, the dry brittle heat of this desert, This battle for a land so barren where they fight without the distraction of civilians. They write their letters home, they keep their chins up, Offering reassuring, wise words to family, in perfect blue penmanship which belies the chaos around them. Human comfort for a thirsty soul. Eyes look up for a moment, to follow that other thin line of blue, That beguiling horizon which blends into the cyan sky in the distance, Imagining that they can follow that line with their eyes Home, To their families, friends and loved ones. They never went back. Instead, here they lie, Soldiers under the battlefield In strict formation, Row by row, Horizontal sentries. Seventy years on, And still the water dances beyond their reach.

The stories of those who served Australia in all wars are, and will be, forever etched in our hearts and they propel us every day to be better, fairer, stronger and kinder and in so doing to truly honour the Anzac spirit. It is amazing to think that 100 hundred years after a single battle on a small beach in a far-off land our national heartbeat still resonates when the bugle calls and we see those lists of names on cenotaphs around Australia. Lest we forget.

#JennyAitchison #MaitlandJuniorParliamentarians #CentenaryofAnzac

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