Wednesday, 28 March 2018
This year marks the centenary of Armistice, so it's right that we reflect on the tragedies and the triumphs of the final year of the Great War. While we so often rightly recognise the legacy of Gallipoli, the Somme and Passchendaele, the story I'm about to share is one which is less told but no less worth honouring.
In the early hours of 31 May 1918, two German artillery shells hit a barn in the town of Allonville, France. Inside, sleeping at the time, were soldiers of the Australian Imperial Force, who formed part of the 14th Battalion within the 4th Division. The barn was far behind Allied lines and close to the 4th Division headquarters. In the context of war, it was considered a relatively safe place to sleep. Sadly, it wasn't.
Historians speculate that German intelligence led them to target the barn directly. Tragically, 17 Australian soldiers were killed instantly by the two shells and a further 12 were mortally wounded and died later from their injuries. With the terrible toll of 29 lives, it remains one of the greatest losses of life from a single bombing in Australian military history. The youngest killed was George Powell, just 18 years old, barely an adult, yet he gave to his country more than many of us could expect to give in a lifetime.
Another of those killed was the 31-year-old Bertie George Englert. He died when the second shell hit the barn. Last year I had the privilege of meeting Bertie's great nephew, Jason Smith, from Berowra Heights in my electorate. It was Jason who shared his great uncle's story with me, and I am proud to share it now on his family's behalf. In honour of his great uncle, Jason and his cousin Greg Englert conducted extensive research over three years to identify the exact location in Allonville where the barn once stood. Incredibly, Greg and Jason had never met before they stumbled across each other when conducting their separate research into their great-uncle Bertie. As a result of their extensive research, Jason and Greg identified the barn site in Allonville where Australia suffered that terrible toll.
Such remarkable research has now produced an equally remarkable result. This year, Jason's family will for the first time make a proud pilgrimage to Allonville. On 31 May, 100 years after the day of the bombing that killed Jason's great-uncle and 28 Australian mates, Jason's mother, Merryl Smith—Bertie's niece—will travel to Allonville and stand on the ground where Bertie's barn stood. This no doubt will be emotional for the family and of great significance.
Ahead of both Anzac Day and the Centenary of Armistice, I want to honour people like Jason, Greg and Merryl who are keeping the memory of our soldiers and their sacrifice alive. Our soldiers honoured us with their service, so it's right we honour their memories 100 years on. I wish Merryl Smith and her husband well for their trip. May Australia's proud and longstanding tradition in recognising our soldiers' service long continue, and may we never forget those lost to war, not least those 29 young Australians sleeping in a barn 100 years ago in a small French town called Allonville.