Principal's Address: Anzac Day Assembly 2012

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Principal's Address
Sydney Boys High School
Anzac Day Assembly
Held on 24 April 2012

Distinguished guests, Old Boys, staff and students, welcome to High’s Senior School Anzac Day Assembly. It is great to be able to celebrate the occasion so close to Anzac Day itself. I acknowledge this morning- the Presidents from our local RSL sub-branches: Merv Wood from Kensington War Memorial, Tony Miller from Coogee-Randwick, Paul Graham from Mascot, Terry Ireland from Bronte, Trevor Warfield from Botany and Barry Allen from Malabar. I welcome also Les Haggett, Honorary President of the National Servicemen’s Association of Australia and Major Erroll Christian representing the University of New South Wales Regiment. Among our Old Boy veterans today are: Commodores Ian Callaway and Viv Littlewood and Lt. Commander David Daish, John Fraser and Alf Tremain. To you and more recent Old Boys, thank you for sharing our commemoration ceremony today.

In the year since our last Anzac Day assembly the Syrian situation remains just as bloody and unresolved. Despite sanctions and intense diplomatic efforts by the United Nations, people are still dying in Homs. South and North Kenya are in dispute again over territory and oil. The Libyan militias have not been disarmed so stability is fragile. The fighting season has begun again in Afghanistan with brazen Taliban attacks. Let’s hope that the timetable for what appears to be a political draw-down of Australian troops in Afghanistan does not undo the good social reconstruction work achieved by our troops in Uruzgan Province. We all want the soldiers to come home, but not so rapidly that the mission in Afghanistan, for which Australia has sacrificed 32 soldiers, is compromised.

In parts of the Arab world some progress has been made. Presidential elections in Egypt are welcome as is the democratic effort in Tunisia. Nearer home the UN mandate in East Timor is coming to an end as the people peacefully elect a new President. In these times, as always, Australia needs its Defence personnel to protect and defend our interests. When we acknowledge their current work we are reminded of our traditions.

Our involvement in lengthening overseas engagements has led us to indulge in revisionist thinking about our image in the world and about the idealised fighting qualities of our soldiers. We are questioning our mythology inspired by the deeds of Australian soldiers at Gallipoli. We like to think of them as tall, bronzed Aussie bushmen, yet the vast majority were mid-statured, pallid, city dwellers. I fail to see how it matters…there were all body shapes and origins in our forces. Where they came from and what they looked like are irrelevant; it is what they did that we remember and acknowledge.

As a counterpoint, claims for the award of posthumous VCs are being investigated and assessed. It is as though on the one hand we are becoming disenchanted with a supposedly jingoistic myth making about ANZACs and on the other, feeling more responsible for justly acknowledging the deeds of our soldiers in past wars.

Albert Jacka’s story is an inspiration but it is characteristic of our ambivalence about lionising our past heroes. Albert Jacka was an average looking man of medium height and slight build, but a legendary figure in Australian military history. He was reckless and he liked to fight. He was a Victorian forestry worker - confident, frank, outspoken, impatient with authority. Corporal Jacka won a Victoria Cross at Courtney’s Ridge on Gallipoli. He repelled a Turkish infiltration of an Australian position. He jumped into the trench, shot five Turks and bayonetted two others.

Next Year, in Flanders at Pozières, he was a Lieutenant. During a German counter attack on the morning of August 7, 1916, his platoon was caught behind enemy lines. Jacka led seven men in a charge against a German detail which was escorting Australian prisoners to the rear. After a fierce hand to hand battle, the Germans surrendered, Jacka’s platoon was reduced from 52 men to 4 unwounded by the end of the day. Jacka was wounded seven times during the close combat but survived, after killing at least five Germans. He blunted the momentum of a German advance. He was awarded a Military Cross. Did he not do enough for a second VC to be awarded?

In my view it is problematic to overdo the re-writing of history. In the context of the times, great deeds were overlooked and unacknowledged. The military circumstances of the action might reflect badly on leadership. Scrutiny of the event might best be avoided. There were politics involved. War is like that. What has happened has past. Let it be.

As Australians we ought to be proud, not hesitant about our military traditions. Our celebrations are not about victories or defeats. We want to admire, preserve and nurture great human virtues: bravery, stoicism, mateship, self-sacrifice, initiative, daring. It is natural to reassess our traditions each generation and it is equally natural to retain a romantic fondness for the symbols of our idealised ‘digger’. They were citizen soldiers. They helped forge our nationhood. Let us spend Anzac Day reflecting on those who served, those who are serving, those who died in service and those still suffering as a result of their service. I hope all High boys will spend some of their time on April 25 showing respect for the service and sacrifice of our citizens in our country’s name.