Senate debates

Wednesday, 29 October 2014

Statements by Senators

Albany Convoy Commemoration

12:50 pm

Photo of Dean SmithDean Smith (WA, Liberal Party) Share this | | Hansard source

This coming weekend and in particular this Saturday, 1 November, will mark a moment of both enormous pride and enormous solemnity in a very special part of regional Western Australia. This Friday and Saturday, the City of Albany on Western Australia's southern coast will be the focus of national and international attention, as tens of thousands of people gather to commemorate the 100th anniversary of the departure of those troops whose bravery and commitment gave birth to a tradition that continues to inspire a nation.

The morning of 1November 1914 saw 36 merchant ships anchored in the waters of Albany's King George Sound, joined by two newly-born Royal Australian Navy ships, HMAS Melbourne and HMAS Sydney, along with HMS Minotaur, which had escorted ships from New Zealand. Aboard the merchant ships were some 27,000 troops from the Australian Imperial Force and the New Zealand Expeditionary Force, along with 26 nurses from the Australian Army Nursing Service. Although they could not have known it at the time, these men and women were beginning a journey that would transport them not only to the other side of the world but into the realm of legend, for they were the Anzacs.

Today, the phrase 'the Anzacs' carries totemic weight. Even those Australians who take little or no interest in military matters or history nonetheless understand 'Anzac' to be a byword for service, for selflessness and for sacrifice. It is my hope that, as a result of this weekend's commemorative events being held in Albany and the extensive media coverage they are receiving, many more Australians will gain a deeper understanding of just how significant that sacrifice was.

All told, 41,265 Australians and New Zealanders departed from Albany and Fremantle in 1914, the first convoy departing on 1 November and the second departing on 31 December that year. Those in Albany leading up to the departure of the first convoy report the air as being thick with excitement rather than foreboding. The Albany Advertiser noted that waiting troops came ashore 1,500 at a time, along with 'bands and regimental mascots in the form of all conceivable breeds of dogs. Night and day, the scene was pulsating with life.' The departure of the convoy was several times delayed by unfavourable weather, which only served to build the sense of anticipation, on the ships and on the shore.

Also in town to join the departing convoy as a war correspondent for The Sydney Morning Herald was Banjo Paterson, already famous as an Australian balladeer and a poet of renown. He wrote: 'Each day there was a report that we were to sail on the following day, but day after day passed, and no move was made by any of the ships. At last, on Saturday October 31, word passed round in the mysterious way in which word does pass round at sea that the transports would leave the next morning.'

Charles Bean, who had narrowly beaten Keith Murdoch for the right to serve as official AIF war correspondent, was one of those aboard. He crisply noted on 1 November: 'At 6.26 am, with the harbour glassily smooth, the Minotaur and Sydney up-anchored and moved out between the sun-bathed hills to sea.'

Banjo Paterson, with his lyrical touch, set the scene more poetically: 'A red sun rises behind a long island away out seaward, on which is a lighthouse, sharply silhouetted against the sky. Not a sound, nor any movement of any living thing, comes from the frowning hills on either side of the waterway. The sea is dull, still grey, without a ripple. A vague electric restlessness is in the air. As each big vessel clears the gateway of the harbour, she too swings around the west and after her leader, and seems to dip her head into the waves with a sort of enjoyment at being once more on the trail.'

It took around three hours in total for all the ships in the convoy to clear Princess Royal Harbour and King George Sound that day. Another aboard, Lieutenant Alan Henderson, wrote to his family about his experience: 'A red letter day in truth. I haven't got any black ink, but this deserves red. We left Albany at about 8:30 this morning. It was a glorious morning, sunny and calm. I snapped the shore as we passed the lighthouse. Then we deployed in three long lines about a mile apart, with 800 yards distance between the ships. It was a beautiful sight. We steamed along the shore till about 6 pm when we turned north-west. This is, I think, the last of Australia. God bless us all while we are away.' Sadly, for Lieutenant Henderson it was indeed the last of Australia. Like so many others aboard the convoy, he was killed in fighting at Gallipoli. Indeed, one third of those aboard the convoys never returned home, meaning that, for many, Albany's dramatic coastline and the spectacular King George Sound afforded a final glimpse of their homeland.

What happened at Gallipoli shaped our nation in a great many ways, but it gave rise to a marked shift in this nation's attitude to war. The horror of what unfolded at Anzac Cove in April 1915 was without precedent in the Australian experience. Our young nation was forced to grow up and to learn hard lessons about the realities of war. In the aftermath of Gallipoli, reportage of troop departures to other conflicts would not feature the word 'excitement' prominently. In that spirit, the events that will take place in Albany this weekend are a commemoration, not a celebration.

The most lasting legacy of this weekend's commemorative activities comes in the form of the brand new National Anzac Centre, which will be officially opened on Saturday. This will mean that, finally, there will be a place for Australians, overseas visitors and—perhaps most importantly—the generations that follow to go, reflect and be immersed in the personal stories of the men and women whose service and valour our nation will always honour.

Fittingly, the National Anzac Centre is perched atop Mount Adelaide, and looks out over the waters of King George Sound, where the story began. Inside, visitors will be able to view a range of interactive exhibits that deepen our understanding of the Anzac experience. An especially moving aspect of the centre is a contemplative water feature, which will continuously screen the names of all who departed on the Anzac convoys. To watch the full cycle of names just once would take over 50 hours.

The National Anzac Centre complements Albany's other significant World War I memorial, the Desert Mounted Corps Memorial, which sits atop Mount Clarence, not far from the site of the of new centre. This memorial was opened by Prime Minister Robert Menzies when he visited Albany in October 1964, and it is fitting that, fifty years later, Prime Minister Tony Abbott will be in Albany this weekend to take part in these commemorative events. His Excellency the Governor-General will also be present, along with the Leader of the Opposition, and representatives from many other states and foreign governments.

With around 60,000 people expected to visit Albany to take part in the various commemorative events, the next 96 hours will be among the most momentous in the community's long history. Among the highlights, in addition to those events I have already discussed, will be a re-enactment of the convoy's departure, comprising ships from the Royal Australian Navy, along with ships sent from our friends and allies internationally to take part. There will also be a troop march and formal commemorative services, as well as films and live concerts that will showcase the ongoing influence of the Anzac experience in Australia today.

None of this, of course, has come together by chance. The series of moving commemorative events we are about to witness in Albany is the culmination of many years of collaborative effort from federal, state and local governments, as well as tremendous amounts of planning and hard work from the local community and, most particularly, the local Returned Services League group.

During my 2½ years as a senator for Western Australia, an absolute highlight has been working cooperatively with Mayor Dennis Wellington and his fellow councillors; Mr Laurie Fraser MBE, OAM, and Mr Peter Aspinall of the Albany RSL—and countless others in the local community that time does not permit me to name. They, together, have helped to make sure that this weekend's events are a fitting tribute to those who gave so much.

Along with many other Western Australians, I very much look forward to being in Albany this weekend as our nation pays tribute to our Anzacs and their enduring spirit, described best, I think, by Charles Bean as standing for: 'reckless valour in a good cause, for enterprise, resourcefulness, fidelity, comradeship, and endurance that will never own defeat.'