Sat, 25 Apr 2015 - 21:00
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100 Years of Defending Democracy: Anzac Memorial Service – Knox Grammar School

Chairman of Council, Mr Peter Roach; Headmaster, Mr John Weeks; Commanding Officer, Major McKeith; President of the Old Knox Grammarians’ Association, Mark Wilson; other distinguished guests; Under Officers and members of the Knox Grammar School Cadet Unit; ladies and gentlemen; and Knox students.

Every ANZAC Day is an opportunity to reflect on the sacrifice and service of so many men and women in the First World War, Second World War and many other conflicts in which Australians have fought.

But as we mark one hundred years since the landing on the Gallipoli Peninsula – one hundred years since the battle which so quickly came to be a defining moment in our national character and identity – it is particularly timely to consider the central role of military service in our history as a successful democratic nation.

There is something of a paradox in the way that a democracy goes to war – and in the attitude we bring to the role of war in our history.

For militaristic and fascist nations – like Hitler’s Germany or Tojo’s Japan – war was to be sought out and celebrated.  The nation gloried in its victories – and the disruption to the lives of tens of millions of people, both in the aggressor nation and in its victims, was of little consequence.

Democracies, by contrast, go to war reluctantly – more often than not, only when it is necessary to defend themselves against aggression.  It is notable that the famous call from Opposition Leader Andrew Fisher in July 1914 is couched in terms of defence, not attack:

should the worst happen, after everything has been done that honour will permit, Australians will stand beside the mother country to help and defend her to our last man and our last shilling.[1]

When democracies they go to war they do not abandon their fundamental values.  On the contrary to maintain popular support for the war effort the government of a democracy must be able to show that the purpose of fighting is to defend and advance those fundamental values.

During World War One Australia held two successive referendums on the contentious question of conscription.  The citizens of this young democracy reserved the right to decide on this fundamental question of how the war effort should be resourced - and twice repudiated the Prime Minister of the day, Billy Hughes, who was urging that conscription should be adopted. 

Similarly Australians at the front were determined to form their own opinions.  Historian Michael McKernan highlights this point in his foreword to a recent edition of Keith Murdoch’s famous letter about Gallipoli:

Australian soldiers saw themselves as quite competent to form their own opinions, to think for themselves. They had freely offered their service as soldiers to their country but they had not surrendered their capacity for independent thinking and judgement.[2] 

The wars of the twentieth century, particularly the two World Wars, were tests of whether soldiers of a democracy could fight effectively.  Would they be less disciplined, would they follow orders less reliably, than soldiers who had grown up in a totalitarian state? 

Or would their upbringing in a democratic nation be a strength, equipping them to display initiative and exercise their own judgement?

And would the freedom and the way of life they enjoyed in a democracy translate into a greater determination to fight so as to preserve that way of life?

Writing about D-Day, the American historian Stephen Ambrose said:

“It was an open question, toward the end of Spring 1944, as to whether a democracy could produce young soldiers capable of fighting effectively against the best that Nazi Germany could produce….when the test came, when freedom had to be fought for or abandoned, they fought.  They were soldiers of democracy.”[3]

So too were the ANZACs soldiers of democracy.  Indeed, Charles Bean, Australia’s official war historian, saw a parallel with soldiers of the ancient Greek democracy of Athens who had fought in the Dardanelles over two thousand years earlier. 

Let me quote from the biography of Bean written recently by Ross Coulthart:

Bean was drawn to the stories of fifth century BC Athens because they fit his mythologising of the Anzacs: just as in ancient Athens, the Australia they were fighting to defend was a new democracy with similarly high minded ideals. [4]

ANZAC Day therefore marks the anniversary of a campaign which occurred early in the life of Australia – in a war we were fighting to defend the ideals embodied in our nation.  If this is one reason why the Gallipoli campaign looms so large in our national consciousness, another is that it forms part of a war in which Australians decisively demonstrated their capacities as effective fighting men. 

Gallipoli itself was a military failure.  But later in World War One, Australians were involved in decisive victories – particularly the Battle of Amiens on the Western Front under General Monash. 

The most successful aspect of the Gallipoli campaign was the way it ended – with an evacuation in December 1915, carried out largely without the enemy realising.[5]  

Perhaps a strength of democracies in war is that it is harder to hide military failures from public opinion – and in turn the armies of democracies cut their losses more quickly than the armies of totalitarian nations. 

The contrast in the Second World War between Britain’s famous evacuation at Dunkirk – preserving the core of the British army to fight again – and Hitler’s disastrous overextension in Russia is perhaps another example.

That is not to say it was at all easy for journalists reporting on the Gallipoli campaign to get the truth out.  They faced heavy censorship.  But the efforts of Australian journalists like Keith Murdoch and Charles Bean were important to the decision ultimately taken that the campaign should be abandoned.  It is hard to imagine such men operating – and their work having a similar impact – inside a totalitarian political system.

ANZAC Day of course, and the Centenary of ANZAC, is much more than a commemoration of the Gallipoli campaign and World War I.  On the contrary we are recognising over one hundred years of service and sacrifice by the men and women of our armed forces. 

We are also marking the fundamental importance of the wars in which Australians have fought – and particularly the two world wars – in shaping Australia as a nation.

The First World War led to a change in Australia’s perception of itself – and to its standing in the world.  After the victory, we pushed forward to participate more strongly in world affairs, and to express the ideals which had motivated us to fight.  

Prime Minister Billy Hughes demanded a seat at the table at the Paris Peace Conference in 1919 and pushed the case for Australia to have independent membership of the League of Nations, despite the reluctance of the United States.

On 28 June 1919, Hughes signed the Treaty of Versailles on behalf of Australia. At the end of the conference, Australia was a full member of the League of Nations and the former British Dominions had achieved a new international status.[6]

Of course this all came at enormous cost – to so many ordinary Australians.  The impact on our own region of Ku-ring-gai is a good example.  Over 1300 people with a connection to this area served in the First World War.[7]

Of the Australians who served, around one in five did not return.[8]

Every aspect and institution of Australian society was fundamentally affected.  

Knox itself is a good example. The founding headmaster, Mr Neil Harcourt MacNeil, who was in Britain as a Rhodes Scholar when war broke out, enlisted in 1914 and was commissioned to the Royal Highland Infantry.  He was awarded the Military Cross for gallantry at a battle near Loos in 1915.[9]

Mr MacNeil was one of several men who returned from war to take up positions at the school.  No doubt their wartime experience influenced themes in the education the school offered, and the emphasis on inculcating values of leadership and service.  This was given practical form with the provision of military training through the cadet corps.

Within a couple of decades, Australia would find itself once again preparing for war.  Like the other democracies, it faced the challenge of rearming and of expanding the modestly sized peacetime army into a much larger fighting force.  All of this had to be done very rapidly in the face of enemies which had been steadily marshalling their resources for many years.

Schools like Knox had a very important role to play. Many Knox men would fight in World War 2 – and many would take leadership positions, drawing on the education they had received at the school.

It is sobering to read in the Roll of Honour the biographies of men who lost their lives. The sense of wasted human potential, of lives cut tragically short of fulfilment, is powerful.    

John Charles Paton, for example, was Captain of the School, achieved an extraordinary list of sporting and leadership honours at the school, worked for a leading firm of architects, and died in 1945 when his bomber was lost over Europe. 

Edwin Nott O’Reilly won a Sydney University Exhibition and had graduated in science when he joined the RAAF and became a Kittyhawk pilot; he was killed in air operations over the Admiralty Islands.[10] 

The words that Charles Bean used of the ANZACs, adapted from a memorial to the earlier Athenian soldiers, could equally well be used of the Knox men who fell, and all their comrades who fell alongside them:

They gave their shining youth, and raised thereby valour’s own monument which cannot die.[11]

If you add up all the similar rolls of honour – across schools, across other social institutions, across the cities and towns and villages of Australia – you reach dauntingly large numbers.

The Australian War Memorial records the names of over 102,000 members of the Australian armed forces who have died in war or due to war or warlike service and on certain other operations.[12]

But while we can add up numbers – we can never calculate the true human cost.

We can only know that all of us today – citizens of this vibrant, prosperous, successful modern democracy, a country that ranks second in the world on the human development index, a country with standards of education and health care envied all around the world, a country of peace and safety and personal security – owe such a profound debt to our soldiers of democracy.

It is right that as a nation we stop on ANZAC Day to acknowledge their service and sacrifice.

It is right that institutions like Knox, and so many others around Australia, work to maintain the memory of their people who served – and particularly of those who lost their lives – through events like this ANZAC service and Cadet Ceremonial Parade.

It is right that one hundred years on from the landings on the Gallipoli Peninsula, that rather than having forgotten, we are remembering, and the numbers attending ANZAC Day services and parades all around the country are at record highs.

We can never take our freedom and good fortune for granted.

We must never forget our soldiers of democracy.

[1] ‘To the last man’-Australia’s entry to war in 1914, Parliamentary Library Research Paper,

[2] Keith Murdoch, The Gallipoli Letter, Allen & Unwin, 2010, p 35

[3] Stephen Ambrose, D-Day, June 6 1944, The Climactic Battle of World War II, pp 25-26

[4] R Coulthart, Charles Bean: If People Really Knew – One Man’s Struggle to Report the Great War and tell the Truth, (HarperCollins, Sydney, 2014), p 345

[5] R Coulthart, Charles Bean: If People Really Knew – One Man’s Struggle to Report the Great War and tell the Truth, (HarperCollins, Sydney, 2014), p 169.

[6] National Archives of Australia

[7] Ku-ring-gai Historical Society,

[8] ‘To the last man’-Australia’s entry to war in 1914, Parliamentary Library Research Paper,

[9] Australian Dictionary of Biography,

[10] A Nisbett (ed), Knox Remembers: 1939-1945, p 14.

[11] R Coulthart, Charles Bean: If People Really Knew – One Man’s Struggle to Report the Great War and tell the Truth, (HarperCollins, Sydney, 2014), p 345

[12] Australian War Memorial,