A 'Centenary of Armistice Day Reflection': Evensong at Christ Church South Yarra,
Sunday 11 November 2018
by Lieutenant Colonel John Pearse
We congregate here today in this Australian Church reflecting on the end of a war, far removed from us by geography and time however, by whatever means, still quite close to home. There are those of us who remember those WW1 veterans who survived and at times told stories of those who did not. But how do we gain some understanding of how they lived and what the Armistice meant to them?
During the second lesson we listened to the interaction of sufferings, faith, endurance, character and hope, and even though these words are 2000 years old their message is just as poignant today as when they were written. So it would seem that reflecting on something only 100 years old is almost contemporary.
Not having been directly involved ourselves, one way to reflect on the Armistice is through the writings of our soldiers. Moreover, by attempting to contextualise them against St Paul’s writing, we may gain some understanding of the thoughts they rarely wrote about, and the actions their country requested. Perhaps their sacrifice is better understood through St Paul’s words – “though perhaps for a good person one will even dare to die”.
It might be worth considering that some of the soldiers who lived to see the Armistice had already given themselves up for dead. As Paul Brickhill wrote, there are generally two types of people engaged in conflict, those who never think of death and do their job, and those that know that they will die but continue on never the less. Paul suggests that the bravest were the second type. So it seems likely that some of the men left standing on the 11th November had accepted their own death, but now found themselves completely numb with the idea that they might indeed live. How does a returned soldier explain to their family, that they had actually accepted dying, not as a weakness but a reality of their situation?
Perhaps accepting their mortality or that they had survived, was not something they could talk to their fellow soldiers about either? Trooper Fowler from the 12th Light Horse on hearing of the official Armistice with Turkey on 1 Nov 1918 wrote: “We are pleased to hear it is finished and glad that there will be no more bullets or shells but we are all too tired to talk about it much”. I imagine that the mental anguish involved in their reality would have been very exhausting.
As exhausting as it must have been, hope, though at times faint, remained alive and the reality of the Armistice dictated that peace now existed and that they should dare to believe in life. On the 1st Nov General Sir Harry Chauvel wrote to his wife Sybil that he and his staff had needed to ride from their current position to reach the HQ for the surrender the next morning. He wrote that they bivouacked between towns that night and “It was precious cold and we slept to the sounds of water wheels”. Perhaps General Chauvel was saying, that to be alive, and feel the cold chill was indeed a precious thing, and that the sound of water wheels was far more pleasant than gunfire.
With the announcement of the Armistice there must have also been some understanding of the transition required from war to peace and the possibility of something only previously dreamed of. On the 11th November General Chauvel wrote that “things are really near the end but I won’t be able to get home for a while, there is still much to be done”. I imagine most of the soldiers were probably thinking the same thing, that getting home was now just a matter of time.
Of the Western front, Roland Perry wrote of General Monash’s experiences on Armistice Day: Monash felt a surge of satisfaction as he drove on the 11th of November towards his new HQ which had recently been the HQ of the German Second Army. But Monash’s feelings became numbed as his car sped the 200km from Eu to Le Chateau. The journey took him over the entire length of his battlefields from Vilers-Bretonneux. If he felt like a conquering hero he never expressed it. He was more saddened than anything as he passed ‘the formidable and forbidding desert of eighty odd miles devastated by war’. Perry continued, Monash had just settled into his new HQ when the order for cease fire arrived. After the intensity of the AIF operations, it was an anticlimax, but a welcome one. So even for a General, the Armistice could feel a little hollow.
But what if your war experience left you feeling a little let down, and that you felt that you had more to give? WW1 fighter pilot Cecil Lewis wrote of Armistice Day, “So it was over. I confess to a feeling of anticlimax, even to a momentary sense of regret. Moreover, when you have been living a certain kind of life for four years, living as part of a single minded and united effort, its sudden cessation leaves your roots in the air, baffled and, for the moment, disgruntled”. Again the word anticlimax is used, it seems that many of the men were left feeling empty and perhaps were expecting something more miraculous to end such an immense thing.
However, the lesson seems to be that life goes on, and that though it may take time there is always hope for the future. Arthur Martin-Leake VC and Bar wrote that ‘As the weeks turned into months, the family became accustomed once again to peacetime conditions. Gradually the papers stopped publishing war news and casualty lists, though many column inches were devoted to the peace negotiations taking place in Paris. It seems that those who were left, looked to the future with hope and faith.
So what to reflect on? Do we consider their numbness at the end or do we concentrate on the future. Perhaps we do both…The Australian Diggers led by Monash in 1918 were a driving force in defeating the German Army. The Desert Mounted Corps led by Chauvel defeated two Turkish armies in Palestine, Jordan and Syria. These actions made by 416, 809 Australians of which approximately half either died or were wounded, made a large impact on world history. If we are to reflect on anything, let it be the very character of our nation to endure suffering without losing hope or faith. Though they suffered, they endured and thus was born the ANZAC spirit and character. As Australians it is in our nature to keep waltzing our Matilda. We must learn from their example to never lose faith even in the worst of circumstances. And through our faith, ensure that the sacrifice of our veterans and indeed that of Jesus, is not wasted.
 Monash, letter to Vic, 19 Nov 1918.