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Remembrance Day

Roll of Honour with poppies

Roll of Honour with poppies,
Australian War Memorial
Image courtesy of the Department of Veterans' Affairs

Originally called Armistice Day, this day commemorated the end of the hostilities for the Great War (World War I), the signing of the armistice, which occurred on 11 November 1918—the 11th hour of the 11th day of the 11th month. Armistice Day was observed by the Allies as a way of remembering those who died, especially soldiers with 'no known grave'.

On the first anniversary of the armistice, in 1919, one minute's silence was instituted as part of the main commemorative ceremony. In London, in 1920, the commemoration was given added significance with the return of the remains of an unknown soldier from the battlefields of the Western Front.

The Flanders poppy became accepted throughout the allied nations as the flower of remembrance to be worn on Armistice Day. The red poppies were among the first plants that sprouted from the devastation of the battlefields of northern France and Belgium. 'Soldiers' folklore had it that the poppies were vivid red from having been nurtured in ground drenched with the blood of their comrades'.

After the end of World War II in 1945, the Australian and British governments changed the name to Remembrance Day as an appropriate title for a day which would commemorate all war dead. In October 1997, then Governor-General of Australia, Sir William Deane, issued a proclamation declaring:

11 November as Remembrance Day and urging Australians to observe one minute's silence at 11.00 am on Remembrance Day each year to remember the sacrifice of those who died or otherwise suffered in Australia's cause in wars and war-like conflicts.

The end of the Great War 1918

In Victoria Street a group of Australian 'boys' accompanied by a band and their girls decorated in red, white and blue, were swinging down towards Whitehall to the huge delight of all spectators... In Whitehall we got blocked, but what did it matter? We danced on the buses, we danced on the lorries, we danced on the pavement, we shouted, we sang... the office boys and girls at the War Office yelled to their companions across the way; we cheered and cheered again and again, while the Church bells rang out a peal of jubilation...
Sir Evelyn Wrench, 'Struggle', 1914-1918 in They Saw it Happen 1897-1940, compiled by Asa Briggs.

It's no wonder Australian soldiers were dancing in the streets of London. The 11 November 1918 marked the end of the bloodiest war the world had seen, 'the war to end all wars'. Of the Australian population of 5 million, 300,000 young men went to the Great War. More than two thirds of soldiers were casualties of the war: 60,000 Australian soldiers died and 156,000 were wounded or taken prisoner.

Australia's involvement in the Western Front

1st Australian Division in Belgium

1st Australian Division near Broodseinde, Belgium. Image courtesy of the Australian War Memorial: AWM-E833.

At the outbreak of war in Europe in 1914, Australia was a federation of colonies, as part of the British Empire. The Australian government committed itself to supporting the British war effort and Australian men volunteered to fight. Australian troops were often used by the British command as the first wave of an assault, leading to heavy casualties.

The first troops were diverted to Egypt, and with the New Zealanders, were formed into the Australian and New Zealand Army Corps (ANZAC) which invaded the Turkish Gallipoli peninsula, on 25 April 1915. Nearly 8000 Australian men died in the Dardanelles campaign; 800 died at Lone Pine—the most famous of the Gallipoli battlegrounds.

In early 1916, the Australian divisions joined the British army on the Western Front. The Front ran for more than 750 kilometres, from northern France through Belgium to the French-Swiss border in the south.


In 1916, Australians were at the main battle front of the war. In July, on the Somme, the Australians were engaged in one of the bloodiest, most destructive battles in history. Over several weeks, in a series of determined attacks against strong defence, the Australians suffered a rate of casualties that was nearly unsustainable. The single worst day of the war was at the battle of Fromelles.

On the evening of 19 July the Australian 5th Division and the British 61st Division attacked the Fromelles ridge in a diversionary attack.... The two divisions chosen for this battle were both new to the sector and lacked local battle experience. The men had to assault over open fields criss-crossed with drainage ditches and in the face of heavy machine-gun and artillery fire. Many fell, while others were overwhelmed by German counter-attacks. The attack failed, with 5,000 Australian casualties, and no ground was taken.
Peter Burness, Exhibition Curator, 1916


Flanders poppies

The unveiling of a memorial to fallen members of the 1st Australian Division on the Pozieres battlefield. Department of Veterans' Affairs.

Fromelles was followed by six weeks of fighting 'in the murderous ordeal that was Pozieres'. On 23 July, the 1st Australian Division captured Pozieres, but within five days the 1st Division had lost 5,000 men. The 1st Division was replaced by the 2nd, and there were almost 7,000 casualties in twelve days. The 4th Division was the next to take part and all suffered heavily.

Over a period of 42 days the Australians made 19 attacks, 16 of them at night. As a consequence, the total casualties were a staggering 23,000 men, of whom 6,800 were killed. Charles Bean, Australia's official wartime historian, later wrote that Pozieres Ridge marked 'a site more densely sown with Australian sacrifice than any other place on earth'.

At Pozieres ... the destructive power of artillery now dominated the battlefield. Shrapnel tore men to pieces, high explosive blew them to bits and destroyed trenches, smoke covered the turned-up, stinking ground. Added to this were gas shells. It was the worst artillery shelling that the Australians experienced in the entire war.
Peter Burness, Exhibition Curator, 1916

Winter in the Somme with more battles and casualties

In November 1916, the Australians returned to the Somme, accompanied by the 5th Division where they made attacks near Gueudecourt and Flers, but the muddy conditions meant that the fighting came to an end on 18 November. The rain, mud, and slush of winter 'made life wretched' with respiratory diseases, frost bite and 'trench foot'—caused by prolonged standing in water. Large-scale fighting did not resume until early 1917 when spring approached.

Flanders poppies

Flanders poppies. Courtesy of
Australian War Memorial.

The Somme was followed by battles at Bullecourt and Messines, followed by the battle of the Third Battle of Ypres in which all five Australian divisions and the New Zealand Division fought, where another 76,000 men were killed or wounded. The final phase of the Third Battle of Ypres, Passchendaele, was one of World War I's bloodiest battles, involving at least 300,000 troops from the British Empire and more than 250,000 German casualties between 31 July and 6 November 1917.

A total of 10,000 Australians died at Bullecourt in 1917. Charles Bean wrote of the Australian engagement at the Somme, that the men 'are simply turned in there as into some ghastly giant mincing machine'. Nearly 23,000 men died at the Somme.

Finally, at 11 am on 11 November 1918 the guns of the Western Front fell silent after more than four years of continuous warfare.

An army of volunteers, mates and diggers

return of the unknown soldier 1993

Entombment of the unknown Australian soldier from the Western Front at the Australian War Memorial's Hall of Memory. Courtesy of the Department of Veterans Affairs.

Unlike many of its Allies, Australia did not conscript its soldiers to fight in the Great War—all Australian soldiers were volunteers. The Australian Prime Minister, Billy Hughes, was aware that the scale of fighting on the Western Front would make heavy demands on the nation and had always wanted to introduce conscription rather than rely solely on voluntary recruitment. The losses at Pozieres had only reinforced his views.

There were two referendums on conscription: in October 1916 and December 1917. Although the 'no' vote to conscription was successful on both occasions, the 'no' wins were narrow ones. The 1916 referendum recorded a 64,549 majority for 'no' and the 1917 referendum recorded a win for the 'no' case of 149,795. While the 'No' vote narrowly prevailed, the population remained bitterly divided over the issue.

Charles Bean wrote of the Australian diggers in relation to their status as volunteers;

... he accepted the rigid army methods as conditions temporarily necessary, he never became reconciled to continuous obedience to orders, existence by rule, and lack of privacy. His individualism had been so strongly implanted as to stand out after years of subordination. Even on the Western Front he had exercised his vote in the Australian elections and in the referendums as to conscription, and it was largely through his own act in these ballots that the Australian people had rejected conscription and that, to the end, the A.I.F. consisted entirely of volunteers.
'The Australian Imperial Force in France During the Allied Offensive, 1918' reprinted in The Australian: Yarns, Ballads, Legends, Traditions of the Australian People, edited by Bill Wannan, Australasian Book Society, Melbourne, 1958, pp. 31-32.

The Great War contributed to the Australian definition of mateship as a shared experience based on mutual respect and the significance of Armistice and Remembrance Day has continued for Australians. Many households were cast into mourning in the face of such terrible losses. Many streets in towns and suburbs across Australia were marked by households bereft of men.

Commemorations on the Western Front

The names of the places and battles fought there are part of the collective Australian memory—the Somme, Pozieres, Ypres, Villers-Bretonneux, Bullecourt, Amiens, Passchendaele, and the Hindenburg Line. The names of many Australians who died in the First World War appear on memorials along the Western Front, including 18,000 men of the Australian Imperial Force with 'no known grave'.

Each year services are held at memorials in Belgium to commemorate the service and sacrifice of the allied forces who fought to reclaim Belgium from the Germans.

'At 8pm every night the Last Post can be heard at the Menin Gate in Ypres. Hundreds of thousands of Allied soldiers, including thousands of Australians, marched through the original Menin Gate on their way to battle,' Mr Griffin said.

Today the names of more than 52,000 Allied men who have no known grave, including 6,000 Australians, are listed on the stone panels of the gate.

Menin lions – from Ypres to Canberra

In 1936, two large stone guardian lions were donated to the Australian War Memorial by the burgomaster (mayor) of the Belgian city of Ypres. The lions, carved from limestone, were given to the Australian government as a gesture of friendship. In exchange, in 1938, the Memorial gave a bronze casting of C. Web Gilbert's sculpture Digger on behalf of the Australian government. The inscription on the casting of Digger reads:

In assurance of a friendship that will not be forgotten even when the last digger has gone west and the last grave is crumbled.

The lions had originally stood on plinths on either side of the Menin Gate at Ypres. This gate was one of only two entries into the medieval fortified city. It was through this gate that allied soldiers, including Australians, marched to the battlefields of the Ypres salient between 1914 and 1918. After the war, the Menin Gate was chosen as the site for a memorial to the thousands of allied soldiers who were killed in the area but had no known grave.

Australia's Unknown Soldier laid to rest

In 1993, to mark the 75th anniversary of the 1918 armistice, the Australian Government exhumed the remains of an unknown Australian soldier from the Western Front for entombment at the Australian War Memorial's Hall of Memory, Canberra. As Australia's Unknown Soldier was laid to rest, World War I veteran Robert Comb, who had served in battles on the Western Front, sprinkled soil from Pozieres, France, over the coffin and said, 'Now you're home, mate'.

New Fromelles cemetery

The Fromelles cemetery, built by the Commonwealth War Graves Commission, is the first official war cemetery built for more than fifty years. The cemetery holds the remains of 250 Australian and British soldiers who were found in 2008 in a group burial ground near Pheasant Wood. The site is diagonally opposite the village church at Fromelles, overlooking the battlefield to the west and within line of sight of the original burial ground at Pheasant Wood. The cemetery honours their memory and is a place of pilgrimage. At the Battle of Fromelles, Australia suffered 5,500 casualties, with more than 1,900 killed. Another 470 were taken prisoner.

The Australians at Pheasant Wood were among more than 18,000 of their countrymen killed on the Western Front who have no known grave. The original burial ground, which is too water-logged to be a cemetery, and to which access is relatively difficult, will be commemorated with a community memorial. 

Lest we forget


Useful links

Ceremonies of remembrance

Australian WW1 resources

Traditions of remembrance

Personal stories of Australian diggers

Australian WW1 references

Australian Women in War – Department of Veterans' Affairs

General WW1 resources

Last updated: 17 November 2015

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