Premier's Anzac Memorial Scholarship 2016

Reflection Speech

As many of you may have already heard, last month I took part in the Premier’s ANZAC Memorial Scholarship Tour which granted me the opportunity to travel to Europe for 12 days in order to tour many of the 100 year old battlefields on the Western Front. The tour saw 24 students in years 10 and 11 from schools across NSW visit some of Australia’s most infamous battlefields, commonwealth cemeteries and memorials to the fallen, in France and Belgium. It was a great honour to represent my family, my school, my community and my nation throughout the tour and I would like to thank those I represented for such an opportunity.

Conflict has been a part of our nature for thousands of years however, before the Great War we had not seen conflict on such a massive scale and of such a cruel nature. The total number of casualties in the Great War is estimated at 38 million. To put that in perspective the total number of civilians and soldiers killed, wounded or missing is over 158% of Australia’s current population. The Great War brought terror and suffering; on a scale that we as humans had never before witnessed. All of a sudden a few men had the power to cut down thousands of others in a matter of minutes yet we had not yet changed our tactics to keep up with such brutal methods of warfare. The mindset of those leading their units to the Western Front during the Great War was one of attrition: “surely we can afford to lose more men and money than they can”. This macabre strategy coupled with poor tactics was undoubtedly the war’s biggest killer.

For as long as we have been fighting one another we have employed science to develop more efficient, more powerful, ways of ending the lives of rival tribes, kingdoms, races, religions and nations. From the development of bronze weaponry some 4000 years ago to the unmanned aircraft and guided weaponry we employ today, humanity has been racing itself towards the development of game changing technologies however, it was not until the Great War we realised that our technology was capable of surpassing our tactics by quite a great deal.

On 4th August, 1914, German forces began unfolding the Von Schlieffen plan; invading neutral Belgium in order to gain a strategic advantage on the French capital, Paris. This action dragged Great Britain and the Commonwealth into the war so that they might uphold their alliance with the Belgians. The first attacks on Belgian forces were a major success for the Germans however as German forces were met with stronger and more prepared French and Belgian resistance their advance slowed, stopped and eventually evolved into a steady strategic retreat.

It was at this pivotal moment that it became obvious that the Napoleonic tactics being employed were no match for the never before seen power of artillery, machinegun and accurate rifle fire. As both sides descended into trenches it became clear the war was not going to be like anything humanity had seen before. Both sides were inevitably going to have substantial losses.

On the 22nd of April 1915 on the Ypres salient the fact that our desperate struggle for victory had finally surpassed our morals became clear. As German artillery units unleashed the first effective poison gas attack of the First World War, a strange yellow gas began to fill Allied trenches. Despite being warned by German prisoners-of-war as to the imminent use of poison gas on the front, Allied troops were caught completely unaware and instead were ordered to ‘stand to’ and prepare for an enemy advance. This advance never came and instead chlorine gas began to fill the lungs of unsuspecting Allied soldiers, tearing apart their respiratory system and bringing on severe coughing and sneezing fits.  

The development of new technologies continued throughout the war and armies on both sides became more and more effective at killing. Today this advance in weapons technology continues to make our armies more and more deadly and our lives more and more vulnerable.

It can also be argued that the blood of those killed in the Great War stains the hands of not the scientists, engineers and inventors of the period but, those commanding the armies on both sides of the front line. However, the fact is the men in command had no idea of how to control an army with such destructive power, or how to approach a battle with a 700km long front. The circumstances facing the generals of WWI were completely alien and had not been witnessed in an earlier war.

Desperately many of the War’s generals attempted to preserve movements, tactics and strategies of the Franco-Prussian War of 1870, over 40 years before the Great War, the drastically improved weapons technology of the time began to claim lives by the thousands due to the inefficiency of the tactics when matched with machinegun and artillery fire.

The forty year gap between the Franco-Prussian War and the invasion of Belgium in 1914 spelled a recipe for disaster. This gap was long enough for weapons technology to have developed exponentially, yet short enough for some of the previous war’s generals to still be commanding armies. These generals had had no chance to see the raw power of the newly developed machineguns, accurate bolt-action rifles and long-range field guns capable of raining reliable and accurate shells on enemy positions with devastating results. With no experience commanding units armed with new weapons technology many Generals tried to maintain their old tactics, with disastrous results.

The most detrimental of these tactics was arguably extended file advances towards enemy trenches, most heavily present in the early years of the war. Weighed down by heavy kits and told to march forward in a line extending  parallel to the trenches, soldiers of the Great War posed a perfect target for flanking enfilade fire from enemy machine gun posts forward of their trenches. This primitive tactic was the cause of death for thousands of young men, thousands of which were Australians.

It was not until the latter half of the War new commanders began to arise from the ranks of the men with first-hand experience in trench warfare, and Generals began to develop new tactics more suited to this form of war. An example of one such Australian leader was General Sir John Monash who led the Australian troops of the AIF’s 3rd Division in many successful battles including; the battle of Messines, the battle of Polygon Wood, the battle of Hamel and the third battle of Ypres. Monash is famous for revolutionising the role of infantry in a battle after saying:

“the true role of infantry was not to expend itself upon heroic physical effort, not to wither away under merciless machine-gun fire, not to impale itself on hostile bayonets, but on the contrary, to advance under the maximum possible protection of the maximum possible array of mechanical resources, in the form of guns, machine-guns, tanks, mortars and aeroplanes; to advance with as little impediment as possible; to be relieved as far as possible of the obligation to fight their way forward.”

This statement completely contradicted the practices of many other Generals at the time yet Monash stood firm by his point and proved its effectiveness during many pivotal battles of the Great War and undoubtedly did his nation proud.

The Great War is one of the darkest stains on human history to date, riddled with stories of cruelty, suffering, sacrifice and violence. However it was in the fire of the Great War that the Australian national identity was forged, and the legacy of the thousands of lost Australian lives, lives on in the free and proud nation we revel in today. However, such sacrifice of our forefathers would be wasted if we did not learn from their mistakes.

We are at a crucial turning point in human history. Our technological power is a time bomb for disaster should we as humans continue to pursue war. We have the power to destroy our planet yet we have not learned to live peacefully beside one another. Should another major conflict arise, like that of the Great War, it is almost certain the whole planet will be severely affected on a much larger scale than ever before seen.

It is now that we must begin to question our nature and form a new image of humanity; one not stained by bloody conflict, extremism and pride, but one that is an exemplary piece of diversity, culture, scientific and philosophic progress and of a peaceful nature.