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Sacred places - Australian battlefield pilgrimages

Every year, Australians travel to distant places that at first glance clearly don't fit with the standard tourist destinationsa peninsula in Turkey, the farmland of northern France and Belgium, the steep mountains of Papua New Guinea, a rubber plantation in Vietnam, a disused railway deep in the Thai jungle. Like pilgrims, they come in their thousands to visit what are often remote places with little in the way of tourist attractions. They come as a mark of respect; to remember and pay tribute to fellow Australians who suffered and died in these places during times of war.

Laura Patrick, an Australian woman from Perth, western Australia prays in the Dawn Service at ANZAC Cove in Gallipoli Peninsula, northwestern Turkey

Photograph by Murad Sezer. Woman praying during the Dawn Service at ANZAC Cove, Gallipoli. Image courtesy of AAP Images. IMS104.

These are places where people come to remember friends and family, to honour their sacrifice and courage and to keep the memory of their deeds alive. They are places where new generations of Australians learn about the experiences of their forebears and of those they fought against.

Interestingly, most of the military sites that Australians visit are not places of spectacular victories or even on Australian soil. Many are geographically irrelevant to Australia and are best remembered for the suffering of those who served there, of military blunders or of stoic determination. Many are places where Australians served and defended other nations.

Dawn services held annually on ANZAC Day on April 25 are a focus for this remembering of Australia's military history, yet pilgrims arrive at battlefields, cemeteries and other important sites every day of the year. For many Australians, the experience of visiting a place where Australians died and suffered during war is a reminder of the real meaning of the day.

'In all the years I've attended Anzac Day services at home, watched the parade or simply just enjoyed the public holiday, until this very day its true significance had been lost on me'
Kim Wildman, journalist and granddaughter of Private John Joseph Alman, a member of the 9th Battalion who was wounded at Tobruk, on her visit to the cemetery at Tobruk on ANZAC Day.

Hellfire Pass, Thailand

'We built a railway from near Bangkok to near Rangoonthousands of us POWs starved, scourged, racked with malaria, dysentery, beri-beri, pellagra and stinking tropical ulcers that ate a leg to the bone.'
Donald Stuart, Australian author and POW on the Burma-Thai Railway.

Thailand World War II Death Railway

World War Two veterans in Thailand. Image courtesy of AAP Images. UDO90.

The Burma-Thai Railway was built during World War Two by around 60,000 Allied prisoners of war and 270,000 Asian slaves. The railway was planned by the occupying Japanese Army that needed an overland supply route to support their troops. Sections of the railway are still in use today.

The Japanese Army treated POWs and labourers cruelly, depriving them of food and water in the tropical heat and forcing men who were sick with diseases such as dysentery or malaria work on the construction of the railway. Around 20 per cent (12,399) of the Allied POWs who worked on the line died, including 2,815 Australians. It is estimated that a further 70,000 to 90,000 civilian labourers also died during its construction. Given the high number of POWs and labourers who died as they worked on the construction of the railway, it is also known as the Death Railway.

Hellfire Pass is a 500 metre section of the 400 kilometre railway line and is located in a remote part of Thailand. It has two sections. The first is around 450m long and 7m deep and the second or main cutting is approximately 75m long and 25m deep. It was largely created during a six week period where the men working on the line were forced to work up to 18 hours a day in an effort to quickly complete the line. This section of the railway is no longer in use.

Bridge Work on the Burma-Thailand railway.

Bridge Work on the BurmaThailand railway. Image courtesy of Australian War Memorial. ART25107.

Over 700 Allied POWs died during the construction of this short section of railway. At night, flickering light from bamboo fires, containers filled with diesel fuel, hessian wicks and carbide lights illuminated the space where the men toiled, cutting the rock and then dragging it out by hand. The sight of the fiery light dancing over their sweating and emaciated bodies, and the nightmarish conditions the starving and diseased men were forced to work in gave the place its name: Hellfire Pass.

Each year thousands of Australians and people from many other nations (including Japan) come to this remote section of Thai jungle to pay tribute to the men who suffered and died here. Every ANZAC Day at dawn, a moving service is held in the Pass, which is lit with bamboo candles and packed with people. At 11am a second ceremony is held at a cemetery in the city of Kanchanaburi where 6,982 British, Australian, Dutch and Canadian POWs are buried.

Tom Morris was one of the Australian POWs who worked on the railway. He was captured by the Japanese during the fall of Singapore and during his time labouring on the railway was interred at 10 different camps. In 1984 he decided to return to Thailand because he wanted to locate Hellfire Pass. At the time he found it, the area was almost completely consumed by the jungle. He wanted to ensure that the place was preserved in memory of the terrible suffering of the men who were forced to work there, and those who died.

 Australians, New Zealanders and Thais in Konyu Cutting at Hellfire Pass during the ANZAC Day war remembrance ceremony

Photograph by Udo Weitz. Australians, New Zealanders and Thais in Konyu Cutting at Hellfire Pass during the ANZAC Day war remembrance ceremony. Image courtesy of AAP Images. UDO90.

After approaching the Australian Government to have Hellfire Pass dedicated as an historic site, a memorial was constructed and dedicated in 1987. Further work at the site and additional funding meant that a museum was opened there in 1998 by the then Prime Minister of Australia, John Howard. Co-sponsored by the Thai and Australian governments, the experience includes an audio tour and a walk through the Hellfire Pass cutting itself. The museum now receives over 80,000 visitors each year, from all over the world.

The Hon. Rick Colless, MLC, laid a wreath for the family of Private R W Cahill, a POW on the railway, as part of his official visit to the ANZAC Day memorial service at Hellfire Pass in 2005.

'as I carried Private Cahill's wreath and the card given to me by his family towards the memorial at Hellfire Pass, a tremendous wave of emotion overcame me. My spine was tingling and the hair was standing up on the back of my neck.

'I have laid many wreaths on Anzac Day over the years, but I have never experienced the humbling sensations I felt as I laid a wreath in memory of one brave soldier's effort to help his mates survive one of the most terrible events in the course of history'
The Hon. Rick Colless, MLC, in his report to NSW parliament, 10 June 2005.

Tobruk, Libya

Tobruk is a name many Australians are familiar with yet could not locate on a map and have never dreamt of visiting. However this is changing for increasing numbers of Australians who are keen to honour the wartime experiences of family members who served there during World War Two.

Private J. Collins in a front line section post during shelling by the 'Hun' wonders where the next shell will land. Tobruk, Libya. 1941. Image courtesy of the Australian War Memorial. 009513.

Others are simply interested in the story of the 'Rats of Tobruk', the 24,000 men (over 14,000 of whom were Australian) who were surrounded in the town by German and Italian soldiers. Expecting that reinforcements and supplies would end the siege in a matter of weeks, the men ended up being trapped there from April to December, 1941 for a period of 240 days, until they defeated the Germans. It was the longest siege in Allied military history and the first land defeat for German forces in World War Two. 650 Australians were killed, 1597 were wounded and 917 were captured.

J. Smith of the 2/17th Battaloion standing at the grave of Corporal John Edmondson VC of the same unit

J. Smith of the 2/17th Battalion standing at the grave of Corporal John Edmondson VC of the same unit, in the Tobruk war cemetery, 1941. Image courtesy of the Australian War Memorial. P00426.005.

During a time of the war when Allied victories were scarce, news that the Allies had held Tobruk buoyed the spirits of those on the front line and at home. During the siege, Prime Minister Robert Menzies sent a telegram to Major General Morshead, commander of the 9th Australian Division at Tobruk:

'I have been watching with pride the magnificent performance of yourself and your men at Tobruk. Against odds I believe you are putting up a fight that will live in our history I feel it is a great honour to be not only your Prime Minister but your friend'

Tobruk was a place where memorials and the process of remembering the service of those who fought, suffered and died there, started as the battle was fought. Memorials to Australian and Allied servicemen who were killed were erected and troops had the opportunity to visit the graves of their mates, while they were still under siege.

Defence Minister Robert Hill and Captain Nick Berry during ANZAC day dawn service

Defence Minister Robert Hill and Captain Nick Berry during ANZAC day dawn service at the Commonwealth War Graves Cemetery in Tobruk, Libya. Image courtesy of the Australian Defence Force.

In 2005, the first official ANZAC Day ceremony was held at Tobruk, at the Commonwealth War Graves Cemetery there. The service was attended by Australian and Libyan soldiers. After the ceremony, the official group did what many on these pilgrimages dolocated sites of significance to Australians. They visited 'fig tree hospital', a cave where Australians established a field hospital during the siege, and El Duda Ridge, where Australians defeated and captured Germans in a bayonet charge.

The 2/13th Battalion's history records the historic charge on the 25th of November, 1941. One hundred and sixty men fixed their bayonets and, with a cry of 'the Australians are coming', charged at the German defenders.

They defeated 450 Germans that day and captured 167 of them. The records show that Private Clarrie Jones took charge of a German captain who immediately wanted to know who it was who had managed to defeat them.

When told, the officer did not believe that it could be Australians who had done this, saying that he had thought the Australians had all left Tobruk. Clarrie showed him a metal title with the word 'Australia' clear to see, yet the officer remained unconvinced maintaining that the men were actually 'English in Australian uniforms to frighten us'.

Although comparatively small numbers of Australians visit Tobruk each year, the volume of visitors and people at ANZAC Day ceremonies increases each year, as more Australians come to this part of northern Africa to pay their respects and remember the sacrifices and suffering of a previous generation.

'their most honoured resting place is in the grateful hearts of their fellow men.'
Chester Wilmot, ABC war correspondent in Tobruk, 1944, p. 317.

Kokoda, Papua New Guinea

The battles fought by Australian forces against advancing Japanese troops between July and November, 1942, along the Kokoda Track are perhaps some of the most significant ever fought by Australians. Although fought in the thick jungle of Papua New Guinea, the battle was in defence of Australia: The goal of the Japanese was to capture Port Moresby, just a short distance from the Australian mainland.

A wounded Australian soldier has his cigarette lit

A wounded Australian soldier has his cigarette lit by Salvation Army Chaplain Albert Moore, padre to the 2/14th battalion. Image courtesy of the Australian War Memorial.

The suffering of the men and the conditions they had to endure during these months were horrible.

'I can't possibly describe fully the hopes and fears, achievements, and disappointments, the sheer determination and will to survive which was all that kept us going during some of the harder stages.'
Corporal Edwards, 2/27th Battalion, quoted in Ragged Bloody Heroes.

In Ragged Bloody Heroes, author Peter Brune describes it as 'the ultimate military obstacle course'. Steep mountains, impenetrable jungle, winding and slippery mountain paths, a determined enemy, tropical diseases and ulcersthe men who fought along Kokoda experienced it all. During the campaign, around 625 Australians were killed, over 1,600 were wounded, and more than 4,000 casualties ensued as a result of sickness.

A Kokoda Track trekker lays a wreath during the 2007 Anzac Day Dawn Service

A Kokoda Track trekker lays a wreath during the 2007 Anzac Day Dawn Service at the Isurava Memorial, Papua New Guinea. Image courtesy of the Department of Veterans' affairs.

The importance of the battle as a turning point in the war against the Japanese, in Australia's relationships with America and Great Britain, in the Australian Prime Minister's decision to recall troops serving in Europe to defend Australia there, and the fact that it was so close to home combine to make Kokoda unique in Australia's history and sets it apart from other places of military pilgrimage.

A series of memorials have been erected along the track and at key sites of the 1942 battle. Most recently, in 2002, a memorial was erected at Isurava, where some of the most intense fighting was held. In memory of Australians and Papua New Guineans who fought and died along the track, it features four pillars of black Australian granite. Each pillar is inscribed with a single word'courage', 'endurance', 'mateship', and 'sacrifice'.

Unlike many other sites which are visited and remembered in ceremonies and contemplation, Kokoda is also a place where a new generation of Australians can go to experience some of what the men who fought there did. It is also a focus for charitable organisations such as Kokoda Challenge or The Kokoda Track Foundation. It is also the venue for an endurance race, held annually.

Many thousands of people walk the track each year, some in memory of servicemen, others as a challenge to themselves.

'During the trek I was thinking about my grandfather and what he and the young soldiers must have been going through. With the terrain and the weather, it was one of the toughest things I've ever done and we weren't getting shot at.' Brett Kirk, trekker

'I have great difficulty glorifying war. However, I have now realised that you don't have to glorify war to glorify the incredible human qualities exposed through the adversity of war. Walking the Kokoda Trail provided me with an insight into the commitment, heroism and sacrifice of those who fought for Australia 's freedom on the trail' Andrew Rosengren, trekker
Excerpts taken from The Spirit of Kokoda by Patrick Lindsay, Hardie Grant Books 2005.

Useful links

Ceremonies of remembrance




Last updated: 14th April 2009
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