IN this day and age, one of the more challenging phrases for many of us to comprehend, let alone live by, would have to be “lest we forget”.
After all, we live as if to forget. We cram too much into our daily lives. We expect and demand too much of ourselves. We look for answers and meaning on the internet. We communicate in 140 characters or less. We refer to strangers on social media as “friends”, while we turn real-life friends into strangers by chanting the mantra, “Sorry, I don’t have enough time. Next time”, or “Sorry! I forgot!”. After a while, we forget to even say “sorry”. We just forget.
Our lives are largely structured around the here and now. Don’t look too far ahead, and, whatever you do, don’t look back.
As a result, many of us struggle to remember what we did last week, let alone have the time or memory space to think about something that happened 100 years ago.
Thank goodness there are people who don’t forget. Peter Hedges is one of them. He helps jog the memory of the rest of us.
Peter is the President of the East Maitland RSL Sub-Branch in the Hunter Valley, and a Vietnam veteran. Corporal Hedges was in the 7th Battalion, Royal Australian Regiment (7RAR), serving in Vietnam in 1970. He vividly remembers the ambushes he was involved in against Viet Cong fighters. And he will never forget his mates.
“We lost five fellas out of our platoon, we lost our platoon commander,” Peter says.
Lately, Peter has been devoting his time to learning more about another war from another time, but with the same appalling outcome of young men and boys dying.
He is the president of Maitland’s Passchendaele Commemoration Committee. Just as groups have been doing recently around the country, Peter and his fellow members have been organising a series of services to commemorate the centenary of the Battle of Passchendaele, which took place on the Western Front during the First World War.
“We sing about the fields of Flanders, but I don’t think many appreciate this was a brutal battle, they just kept throwing blokes at it, like sending lambs to slaughter,” Peter says.
Among those being thrown into the mud and tumult against the German forces near the town of Ypres in 1917 were Hunter Valley boys. The 34th Australian Infantry Battalion was known as “Maitland’s Own”, because it had been formed in the Hunter River town, and many of its recruits came from the region. On Flanders’ fields, they joined other Hunter men; the 35th Australian Infantry Battalion was referred to as “Newcastle’s Own”, and the 36th was also formed in Newcastle.
“Maitland’s Own” was decimated in the mire. According to Peter, the 34th’s casualty list was about 400, so more than half the battalion’s members were killed or wounded.
Four hundred young lives. Imagine the gaping hole, the aching emptiness, that would have left in families, in communities, on farms and in factories in the Hunter Valley. And that’s just one battalion.
In the course of the three and a half-month campaign, 38,000 Australians were listed as killed, wounded or missing. In total, there were an estimated 475,000 casualties at Passchendaele. The consequences of that carnage reverberated across borders for generations. And that’s just one campaign in a war that lasted from 1914 to 1918.
More than 60,000 Australians were killed during the First World War. Another 156,000 were wounded or taken prisoner. This from about 417,000 who enlisted in a young nation of fewer than 5 million.
The sum of so much loss can be seen etched in stone in just about every town across Australia. The names of the local men and boys who served, and the names of those who never returned, are neatly carved into cenotaphs tucked away in parks or outside public buildings.
They are more than war memorials; they are ledgers of sorrow for communities who sent away their fittest, strongest, and brightest, and were given back shattered lives or none at all. These memorials are headstones for so many communities whose very future was blown apart and buried on the other side of the globe.
Imagine what each of these communities could have become, imagine what this nation could be now, if all these men and boys had never gone to war. Imagine what difference their lives could have made to yours.
It’s not enough to say, “they died so we might live”, and then forget about them. They have to mean more than a name in stone, to be perhaps glanced at each Anzac Day. They have to be honoured and remembered by each and every one of us.
Which is why Peter Hedges and his fellow committee members have organised a church service for 9.30am Sunday at St Peter’s East Maitland, and a service for 5.30am on Thursday - “the 12th is the actual day the [34th] battalion stepped off into the attack at Passchendaele” - at the cenotaph in Maitland Park.
They have organised another service at the cenotaph for next Saturday at 11am. Part of the reason for the second event, Peter explains, is because, “we don’t know if there’s the interest to have a dawn service.”
Yes, there have been a lot of commemorative services since the centenary of the Gallipoli campaign in 2015. Who knew there were so many battles involving Australians after Gallipoli, and for so many years? Perhaps commemoration fatigue is setting in for some. It would be easy to groan, “not another service”.
But Peter encourages us to guide our minds back 100 years ago, and to remember those on the frontline, and those back home, who, day after day, had to confront the terror and tragedy of “not another battle” and “not more death”.
And just as most of us live in the here and now, so did those young soldiers. But for an entirely different reason. On a Western Front battlefield, there wasn’t much point looking too far ahead, because there was a fair chance you’d be dead.
“War itself is futile,” reasons Peter. “But they went for the right reasons, they went through sheer hell, and it would be terrible for people to say, ‘Who cares? It happened 100 years ago’.”
So if a commemorative service for Passchendaele is being held near you, step out of the “here and now”, out of the all-consuming rush of your own life, and attend. And if you live in Maitland, remember to set your alarm for early Thursday morning, step back in time and into the muddied boots of the diggers, and honour their lives by going to the dawn service. For what happened then has shaped who we are now. And we should never forget that.