The Crest of the Commonwealth of Australia Treasury Portfolio Ministers
Picture of Wayne Swan

Wayne Swan

Deputy Prime Minister and Treasurer

3 December 2007 - 27 June 2013

30 April 2010

NO.006

Service, Sacrifice and Support

Address to the Deployed Soldiers Welfare Association

Brisbane

30 April 2010

Thank you Jim [Shapcott, Chairman of the Deployed Soldiers Welfare Association], and thank you to everyone for coming here today to support this great cause.

I'd firstly like to acknowledge:

  • Brigadier Paul McLachlan – ADC Commander from the 7th Brigade;
  • The Deployed Soldiers Welfare Association, including Jim Shapcott [Chairman] and his Committee;
  • Major sponsors: Suncorp, Devine, Ipswich City Council, Force 10, and Mitchell Communications; and
  • All the other soldiers and officers from the 7th Brigade that are with us today.

This is the end of a special and even sacred week in our nation's calendar, when we remember those who serve. Like most traditions it evolves and changes in meaning for each new generation.

Some of you may have read Les Carlyon's wonderful books about Gallipoli and the Western Front. One of its strongest messages is that in the early years Anzac Day was a day of mixed emotions. Pride at our troops' courage and achievements, but also immense sadness. The memories were too painful. There were terrible physical wounds.

We forget sometimes that for the gassed, the amputees, the shell-shocked and the traumatised, the physical and mental pain endured for decades. It's what one of the finest of all Australian novels My Brother Jack is all about.

It was difficult for many of the survivors, having participated in the savagery of war, to see it as glorious.

The immediate horrors of the First World War have faded. We can now see clearly what that generation – and those who have followed it in other wars – achieved.

In every conflict Australian troops punched well above their weight – in France in 1918, in the skies above Europe, in the Western Desert, on Kokoda and in Korea and Vietnam. They do so today in Afghanistan and on peace missions around the world.

But we owe it to them to remember what they endured too. And to remember what the troops who served us expected and continue to expect in return.

Waiting to go over the top at the Nek or Fromelles, knowing that enemy machine guns were trained on their parapet, those original Anzacs would have asked us to ensure their sons never had to do the same. They would also have hoped the people they left behind were well cared for. If only we had been able to deliver on this.

Looking out at the audience here today I'm sure there are many with family histories that include service and sacrifice in one or both world wars. And whose families were never the same as a result.

My family is no exception. Even typical.

In 1914 like so many others my grandfather, David Temple Swan, rushed to the recruitment office and tried to join up. He was rejected the first time – probably because, expecting a short war, the army thought they could do without a 36-year-old who was already married with a child.

A labourer, 5-feet 8-inches, 138 pounds, with a scar on his left cheek, another scar from an old fistula elsewhere, and missing a lot of teeth, he probably wasn't their first choice. It sounds like he'd had a tough life – like most of his comrades probably.

But the Dardenelles campaign proved the war was going to be long. The strong, fit soldiers portrayed in the film Gallipoli weren't going to be enough to fill the ranks. And so my grandfather was part of the reinforcements called upon after the evacuation.

He ended up in the 41st Battalion – a Queensland unit, made up in large part of men from the sugar mill towns. Their first task was to man the trenches on the Somme in the winter of 1916-17. They had a tough time. Let me give you a sense of what he and his comrades would have endured.

My grandfather was no poet or letter writer. But the famous poet Wilfred Owen served on the same piece of front at the same time. Here's his description of two days spent occupying a dugout in front of the British line:

"My dug out held 25 men tight packed. Water filled it to a depth of 1 or 2 feet, leaving say 4 feet of air. One entrance had been blown in and blocked … The Germans knew we were staying there and decided we shouldn't. Those 50 hours [under heavy shelling] were the agony of my happy life. Every ten minutes … seemed an hour. I nearly broke down and let myself drown in the water that was slowly rising over my knees."

Needless to say, that Christmas many men on this part of the front froze to death.

Terrible as that was, my grandfather's experiences during the war would only get worse. In June 1917 the 41st participated in the attack on Messines – the subject of that great new Aussie film, Beneath Hill 60.

Reading the battalion's Intelligence Summary tells the story of what happened – and in retrospect why my grandfather's life turned out as it did. Let me give you a couple of extracts:

"6/6/17: Battalion in line under continuous preliminary bombardment on divisional assault area. Enemy retaliation on front line, communications trenches and batteries in rear. Many gas shells on subsidiary line and approach route of assaulting troops … Casualties: 14 other ranks wounded."

"7/6/17: Relieved at 2 am by assaulting battalions of 9th and 10th Brigades who filed into the assembly trenches of this sector for the attack on the MESSINES RIDGE. 41st Battalion filed out through a heavy bombardment with gas shells by enemy (especially through Ploegsteert Wood) to subsidiary line at MAISON 1875. Many officers and men slightly gassed during this march … Battalion personnel utilized for carrying parties for the assaulting battalions in captured line. Casualties: 2 officers wounded. 26 other ranks."

I might add that on these days, travelling back and forth across no man's land, my grandfather and his comrades would have witnessed the horrors caused by huge mines exploding in front of them, which littered the ground with bits of human bodies. He would have been witness to this misery.

This went on for my grandfather for a further three days, leading to more casualties – another three officers and 57 other ranks. Then there is this entry:

"11/6/17: Battalion billeted in Catacombs furnishing carrying parties for … 9th and 10th Brigades in new line. Casualties: Killed 1 officer, 4 other ranks. Wounded 2 officers, 30 other ranks."

My grandfather was one of those 30 other ranks. He received shrapnel wounds to his back, probably caught in the open in an enemy artillery barrage.

The extraordinary thing about what my grandfather and his mates endured at Messines was that this battle was considered a success and cheap in terms of lives – especially compared to what had occurred before at Fromelles and Pozieres and what was to come later in 1918.

By mid-September my grandfather was back in the line – just in time for what the historians tell us was the most shocking and unendurable battle of the war – Third Ypres. It's now a by-word for futility and slaughter, remembered for the rain, the mud, and the stories of men drowning in water-filled shell holes.

The 41st Battalion participated in the major battles of that campaign: Polygon Wood, Poelcappelle, Broodseinde, and Passchendaele. The enemy ground gained per British life will give you a sense of the futility of the fighting:

  • Polygon Wood – 15,375 casualties for 1,250 yards;
  • Broodseinde – 20,000 casualties for 1,000 yards;
  • Poelcappelle – 7,000 casualties for 500 yards;
  • Passchendaele – 13,000 casualties for no appreciable gain.

A good proportion of those men were Australians.

The official sources merely record that the 41st had a bad experience there. So bad indeed was it that at the end of the battle, one of the British Generals visiting the front burst into tears and asked, "Good God, did we really send men to fight in that?"

The following March, my grandfather's battalion helped halt the German Spring Offensive in front of Amiens. He was injured again, this time in the hand. Yet still the most costly battles lay ahead.

And the chances are that I wouldn't be standing up here talking to you today if my grandfather's health hadn't succumbed to the influenza that swept through the ranks just as the fighting intensified. He was hospitalised and his lungs simply packed it in and he never returned to the front again.

Possibly too old and unhealthy to begin with, he was not only wounded by shrapnel twice, but was gassed multiple times, endured two freezing damp winters in the trenches and no doubt saw more horrors to fill a hundred normal lifetimes. Let me simply quote from his final medical report:

"Essential facts of medical history: Pain across left chest. Short of breath. Wound in back.

Cause of disability: Strain attributable to service. Gets 'shakes' with illness."

A classic case of gassing, war strain, shell shock – call it what you will.

As Les Carlyon tells us in his monumental history, The Great War, while only 3 per cent of gas casualties were fatal, the figure is misleading:

"Many who had been gassed returned home with chronic bronchitis and skin rashes and died young."

Such was my grandfather. Those in the family with memories of him recount that he was never the same. He died in 1935, younger than I am now. I think we can only guess at the privations my grandmother suffered and the lost opportunities that resulted for my father, uncles and aunts.

This sad story invites a crucial question that bears on why we are here today: Did we do enough to look after men like my grandfather and the people like my grandmother and uncle they left behind?

I think it's fair to say that the authorities at the time did the best they could given their resources and knowledge and society's expectations – especially through organisations like the Repatriation Commission, which was set up 92 years ago.

When he enlisted, my grandfather at least opted to have the maximum amount of two-thirds of his pay deducted for his wife and child – 4 shillings per day out of 6 shillings pay. Not much, but it showed he and the authorities of the day were thinking about the wives and children.

And when he returned he was rewarded by a grateful nation with a soldier-settler block. Sadly, though, it proved to be such poor farming land that a man half his age and twice his fitness would have struggled to make it pay. Like so many others, it failed.

My grandfather was let down in one important other respect, because a generation later his son – my father – endured similar experiences fighting in another war in the Pacific.

If there is a positive lesson from this very typical Australian tale it is this. Having seen his father and mother suffer, and then his own mates suffer in war, my Dad was one of the many thousands who subsequently devoted their lives to looking after their fellow veterans, their dependents and the widows and children of the fallen.

My Dad eventually became manager of the Nambour RSL Club – and I have many fond childhood memories sitting in the bar of that club drinking raspberry lemonade while Dad went about his important business.

I haven't recounted this personal story to claim any uniqueness. Sadly my grandfather's and then my father's experiences were commonplace. And they were the lucky ones. They came out alive. They happened not to get in the way of a machine gun bullet.

While my grandfather's life was probably shortened by the war, he had another 17 years of life after 1918 that many men didn't. My grandmother was at least spared the fate of becoming a young widow. My father was given life. I was born.

My ancestors, like many of yours, learned the hard way the lesson every Australian now understands: when we go to war we have to look after both the people who march away and the people they leave behind.

The war isn't just fought at the front and doesn't finish when the armistice is signed. It's fought by the husbands and wives and children of our troops. And those sacrifices stretch out over the decades that follow. Every one of these people needs our moral and practical support.

We have to be there for them when they're deployed overseas. We have to be there for the families they leave behind. We can't let them do this heavy lifting for the nation all on their own.

The Deployed Soldiers Welfare Association is a practical expression of this idea. There's no better cause for us to support.

We don't send our young men and women off to die in their thousands in the way we did in generations past. But war is always war. The physical and psychological stresses are just as great. And in conflicts like the recent one in Iraq and the current one in Afghanistan, sometimes the psychological stresses can be worse – because those conflicts involve terrorists and civilians.

Our troops can never be certain who the enemy is and where danger lurks. Their loved ones know this – and know the problems it causes. They want their husbands and wives and mothers and fathers to come back the same person who went away. And the troops themselves want to come back to families united and strong and happy.

So let me end with thanks and with a plea. Thanks – for having expressed your support for Jim Shapcott and his wonderful organisation by coming here today. And a plea – to keep digging deep to enable the Deployed Soldiers Welfare Association to continue its work for the troops and friends and families making such a huge sacrifice on our behalf.

Many thanks.