Home Front Remembrance
by Honor Auchinleck
There is nobody left to tell us what they were thinking about the announcement of the Armistice at the 11th hour of the 11th November 1918. Despite speculation about an Armistice, it was not confirmed in the Australian press until Tuesday 12th November when newspaper headlines such as The Argus in Melbourne read, ‘Germany accepts Defeat: Armistice Signed on Monday’. Now with those who remember the Second World War dwindling, the torch has passed down a generation or two. Indeed it is passing again to those ready to take it up.
Here in the Upper Murray on 21 November 1918, the Corryong Courier mentioned that there was to be a service of thanksgiving in commemoration of peace a week later on 28 November. The Corryong Courier’s factual information associated with the Armistice contrasts with The Argus in Melbourne and other major daily papers with better access to news in the state capitals. In all likelihood, the reality was that it was all too painful for those local families who had lost a husband, a son, a brother, or an uncle. Possibly life too busy for those living in Corryong and its surrounding district to pay much attention to the Armistice - the war years had been tough for everyone. Indeed did they believe that the Armistice would hold? Or was it that people realized that even if it was going to hold it would be a while before they saw their menfolk again and they had to carry on with their lives as they had done for the previous four years of war? Furthermore many local people must have realized that just because an Armistice had been signed, it didn’t mean that servicemen would stop dying from their injuries, illness and accident. Towns and villages like Towong had already started planting their memorial avenues. Unfortunately compounding tragedy with further tragedy, the 1939 fire took many of those trees.
Unfortunately, the announcement of the Armistice did not mean the last shots had been fired. At Saint Symphorien Commonwealth War Graves Cemetery in Belgium, there is the grave of a soldier killed after the Armistice – other cemeteries also hold graves of those who were killed or died after the Armistice. Many servicemen would have been wondering what would happen next and when they would be going home to their families. Some might have worried that unrest sparked by the Russian Revolution would spread. Others might have wondered how they were going to fit into life back at home: and the wounded in particular would have been concerned about providing for their future. For the originals who enlisted in 1914, just over four years at war was a long time. Many would have wondered what was to become of the resting places of their dead comrades and of the battlefields over which they had fought so valiantly. If that was not enough to overwhelm many, there was another sinister challenge that respected no Armistice agreements. By 11th November 1918, the casualty statistics were not yet complete. Influenza was the new enemy that would take more lives than the actual war itself.
Those who argue that at the time the First World War losses were born with a stiff upper lip have overlooked the immense outpouring of grief. There was recognition of the deep-seated need for a focus for grief and remembrance was recognized. At George V’s instigation, the first Armistice Day Service was held at Buckingham Palace.
In London, the evolution of protocols surrounding Remembrance were deeply intertwined with commemoration. In early July 1919, Prime Minister Lloyd George gave architect Edwin Llutyens two weeks to construct a monument to commemorate Allied victory on 19th July 1919. Apparently, within six hours Llutyens had designed an empty coffin out of wood and plaster – a cenotaph – from the Greek meaning ‘kenos – taphos’ or empty tomb – in memory of those who lay elsewhere. Thus it was to be a monument or memorial to those buried near the location where they fell. Later the cenotaph was cast in Portland stone: it stands in Whitehall as a memorial to the fallen. During a carefully choreographed ceremony, the coffin containing the body of the Unknown Warrior lay on a gun carriage behind King George V as he unveiled the cenotaph on Armistice Day 11 November 1920. The later interment of the Unknown Warrior in Westminster Abbey was another significant part of the 1920 Remembrance and commemorative events. Every facet surrounding the choice and burial of the Unknown Warrior was symbolically significant.
Lutyens designed some 40 First World War memorials in the UK and in other Commonwealth countries. Melbourne also had a wooden cenotaph that was placed on the steps of Parliament House, (then the Federal Parliament) which was the initial focus of the Anzac Day Parades until the completion of the Shrine of Remembrance in 1934. Towns across regional Australia followed suit and commissioned their own memorials, some of which are obelisks like ours in Corryong, with the names of the fallen listed on plaques placed at eye-level. Just like cenotaphs, obelisks have been used as public symbols of commemoration and remembrance since ancient times. In many towns, lawns were planted and benches were placed where family members and old soldiers could rest a while and perhaps even have a yarn to their mates. In those days assistance mostly came in the form of thoughtfulness and kind gestures while forms of psychological help were in their infancy.
If the Remembrance Service in Westminster Abbey on the second anniversary of the original Armistice Day became a funeral service for the Unknown Soldier, over seventy years later Australia would adopt a similar protocol. An Unknown Soldier selected from the Adelaide Cemetery near Villers-Bretonneux was brought home to Australia and re-interred on 11th November 1993, on the seventy-fifth anniversary of the end of the First World War in the Hall of Memory at the Australian War Memorial.
Early in the history of remembrance, Edward George Honey (1885 – 1922), an Australian soldier and later Argus journalist, was horrified that in the face of such suffering and loss of life, that celebrations accompanied the announcement of the Armistice. Honey suggested a five-minute silence, later reduced to one minute in Remembrance of the fallen. It is an observance that is now kept across the Commonwealth.
The commemorations for the centenary of World War I and the growth of interest in family history, aided by Ancestory.com, the availability of digital records from the National Archives, the Australian War Memorial and other online resources have meant that people now want more information about their ancestors who served in the First World War. Responding to this need, Year 5/6 at Corryong College has created biographies of the Upper Murray Light Horsemen from family diaries and letters, and local Museum and online resources. This project has restored detail to many family narratives and created a sense of family history and community identity which hitherto may have been fading from memory. Anyone who reads it will find that it is a gift to our local Remembrance deserving wider circulation.
Remembrance is after all not only about remembering a serviceman’s military service, but it is also about wider history and its role in creating a sense of identity in a rapidly evolving nation with an increasingly mobile population.
While Remembrance can have bad memories and regrets, reflection can bring some reconciliation, acceptance and understanding. Remembrance is also about respect and understanding of the experience of former enemies. It too is about us, and our own families and communities. It is about valuing the contributions, encouraging and nurturing our young people because they are our future, just as those young people were one hundred years ago - they were the country's post-war future. No one generation owns its history – history belongs to us all and we must pass the torch to those who follow. Lest we forget.