Principal's Address: Anzac Day 2010

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Principal's Address
Sydney Boys High School
Anzac Day Assembly
Held on 23 April 2010

Distinguished guests, Old Boys, staff and students, welcome to High’s Anzac Day Assembly. I acknowledge this morning the Presidents or Secretaries of the six RSL Sub-Branches who have honoured our Assembly today. Thank you to regulars, Bill Harrigan and Vic Thatcher, celebrating the occasion with us again. We have with us this morning as usual numerous Old Boy veterans, amongst them Major General Kevin Latchford, Air Vice Marshall Russell Law, Commodore Ian Callaway and Colonels Michael Bindley and Thomas Fuller. Thank you for all for coming on a school day which is the closest day to Anzac Day that our assembly has been held this century.

On this occasion it is timely to reflect on Australia’s contribution to the maintenance of world peace through pre-emptive military campaigns and peace keeping operations conducted by the United Nations. Our soldiers continue to be deployed in Iraq, Afghanistan and East Timor. Since this occasion last year, sadly, I find it difficult to detect much progress towards the avowed aim of the coalition to make the world safer by neutralising Al-Qaeda training bases and breaking up terrorist cells. Terrorist plots have been averted domestically but it is still cold comfort because so many serious terrorist acts have been committed internationally. Their frequency and intensity do not seem to have diminished despite various troop surges and policy changes. Pakistan has tried really hard this year to address its problem of terrorist bases on its soil, particularly in the Swat valley. The outcome of that campaign still hangs in the balance. Winning hearts and minds has proven to be much more challenging to the Coalition than planning and conducting successful military campaigns in the Middle East.

Later today we will unveil an honour board commemorating the service of more than 50 High Old Boys in the Vietnam War, several of whom are here today. I am sure this list is far from complete. Vietnam, a complex conflict, is starting to be discussed more freely and unemotionally, so the service of our soldiers in that theatre of war is now becoming more properly recognised. We can feel proud of what attributes and values they modelled in the name of their country. It is past time that the reputations of the servicemen in that lamentable conflict were restored, irrespective of the aims or character of the war itself.

Anzac Day has become a unique national civic ceremony. Australians celebrate it at home or at Gallipoli or Kokoda. For the second time many Australians will be at the Australian National Memorial in Villers-Bretonneux, including our touring band of 50. Our students will be playing at the Anzac Day service there.

Anzac Day is arguably the most significant, and certainly the purist, expression of Australian nationalism. Our broadened focus in terms of service across time and place, coupled with our desire to connect with multicultural and international perspectives, signifies, in my judgement, a maturing nation, steadier in its self-concept. As Australians we no longer have to force the ANZAC contribution to World War 1 to the forefront of remembrance discourse. We are comfortable enough now to place it in its proper perspective within an engulfing conflict.

One such expression of a broadening view is the current movie Beneath Hill 60. The context of that snapshot of World War 1 was the mining of Messines ridge. In June,1917, Haig was allowed to launch the offensive which came to be known as the Third Ypres, or Passchendaele. He wanted to control the sickle–shaped ridges around Ypres. His first step was to capture the ridge and village at the handle of the sickle – Messines. Sir Herbert Plumer’s second army, including Godley’s II Anzac Corps and Monash’s 3rd division, was to be used. Plumer had a great planner in Monash and after two years on the Ypres salient he had learned that artillery had to be concentrated, that creeping barrages were necessary to protect infantry and that counter artillery planning was very helpful in offensives. Plumer deployed 2200 pieces of artillery on a 16 kilometre front. Since 1915, Allied tunnellers had constructed more than twenty galleries in the Flemish mud, some nearly 700 metres long and up to 30 metres deep, into which they loaded 400,000 tonnes of high explosives.

On June 7 at 3:10 am nineteen mines exploded over a 45 second interval. Hill 60 was well to the north of the Anzac Corps position. It was the largest man made explosion in history, heard as far away as London. An estimated 10,000 Germans died. Many were demoralised as the attack by 80,000 Allied troops began. The German frontline was overrun within thirty-five minutes. During the day’s fighting that followed, the ridge, the slopes behind it, the fortified villages, and the Oosttaverne Line were all taken. No British attack of the First World War succeeded so well on the first day. The immense explosion, as portrayed in part by the story of Hill 60, played a major role in that success.

Such accounts of war are retold on these occasions to emphasise the awful impartiality of the circumstances of loss of individual lives that occurs in war. We need to remember that people on both sides did their duty and what a sacrifice that was for so many! Consider them on April, 25.