Principal's Address: Anzac Day 2011

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Principal's Address
Sydney Boys High School
Anzac Day Assembly
Held on 6 April 2011

Senior School Distinguished guests, Old Boys, staff and students, welcome to High’s Anzac Day Assembly. I acknowledge this morning our special guests - the Presidents from our local RSL sub-branches: Merv Wood from Kensington War Memorial and Barry Collins from Coogee-Randwick. We welcome also Vic Thatcher, a High Old Boy and Secretary of the Clovelly RSL sub-branch. We have with us Old Boy veterans, amongst them Air Vice Marshall Russell Law, Commodore Ian Callaway, Jim Lumsdaine, Marshall Burgess, John Fraser, Ian Deveraux, Clem Lewis and Dr. Douglas Carruthers. A special welcome is extended to Major Bill Goldsmith from the University of New South Wales Regiment and serving Old Boy Major Ross Cable. As our honour boards attest military service has a strong tradition at High. Many Old Boys have served and a significant number did not return. We also think of them today.

Every year I hope that at this assembly I can report that peace has broken out in the world. Sadly, it has not happened yet on any one of these occasions. We are faced with growing destabilisation in the middle-east with what has become a civil war in Libya; with violence and unrest in Yemen; democratic protests in Syria and uncertain political outcomes in recently overthrown autocratic regimes in Tunisia and Egypt. Thankfully, Australia is not directly involved in these theatres of conflict but on the international stage we have been voicing our opinions about how the situation should be handled. Timely intervention by Allied air assets in Libya to protect civilians seems to have been successful so far. It appears that the idea that global citizenship means not wantonly killing your own people is at last seen as enforceable by the international community. There is a greater international readiness to act after reflection on the consequences of UN inaction in recent civil wars in Africa. The lesson here is that national sovereignty is limited. Leaders are accountable now for humanitarian violations.

Even though April 25 is some weeks away, it is important for schools not to miss the annual commemoration of the Gallipoli landing. When viewing TV footage of current conflicts we are drawn to appreciate the contrast in Australia and reflect on our peaceful nation and the men and women who fought to keep it safe.

In my reflection this morning I am focussing on a positive outcome in a time of repeated catastrophes. The best thing about the tragic Gallipoli campaign was the Allied withdrawal from the Peninsula. General Von Sanders, the German Commander of Turkish ground forces, wrote later that the Turks did not learn of the withdrawal “until the last minute”. It is hard to take him at face value. The challenge for General Birdwood, the Allied Commander, was to get 80,000 men out of two battlefields under cover of night and within a few days. To disguise the gradual withdrawal, the Allies had to make each day look, to the Turkish observers on the heights, the same as the day before it.

Uncharacteristically, for military actions on the Peninsula, this one was well-planned and executed. A month before the evacuation the troops were ordered to stop shooting and stay silent for three days. The Turks became curious about the inactivity and sent scouting parties to see if the Allies had left. The parties were attacked and the Turks realised they had been tricked. They were softened up for more extended periods of silence. By December 18, half the men had been taken off. Calm seas and morning fogs assisted the Allied cause. The rest of the men were to come out by December 20. Self-firing rifles were set up with ingenious trigger mechanisms. Men were told to gather in groups within sight of Turkish observers. By 11 pm only 2000 men remained.

To cover the withdrawal, a huge pile of explosives planted in tunnels under the Turkish trenches at The Nek was detonated, causing severe casualties and causing the Turks to open fire, believing that an attack was imminent. The last of the evacuating troops followed the lines of salt and flour down to the beach. By 0410 on the morning of December 21, it was all over. There were no casualties – just two minor flesh wounds. The Allies were lucky. In truth the Turks did not want to attack. They were there to defend their homeland. Both sides were exhausted. The campaign was already over.

General Birdwood felt that there had been a triumph at Gallipoli, not in military terms but of the human spirit. The ANZACS had “held onto this forlorn bit of dirt for so long and with such good humour”. It was surely a black comedy. There were never enough heavy guns or equipment to accomplish the task; the political resolve to succeed was never shown; and Gallipoli was an adventure that failed rather than a considered plan. Around one million men served at the Gallipoli theatre. Between one third and one half of them became casualties. New Zealand suffered disproportionately with 87% of their forces killed or wounded. Not enough regard for human life was exhibited by the leadership of either side in the conflict. Les Carlyon in his well-researched work Gallipoli writes: ‘It is hard to condemn the generals for failing to understand twentieth century warfare, but not hard to blame them for their arrogance, carelessness and ineptitude”. Wars boil down to people and their actions. There is something depressingly timeless about frailty.

Today we pause to honour the men of Anzac, the courage they showed, the loyalty they demonstrated, the mateship they offered and the suffering they shared with their enemy of the time. Remember them on April 25.