When the guns fell silent

The guns fell silent 100 years ago today.  Four years of the Great War, as it was known, ended. The bloom of national manhood had been mown down in France, Germany, Britain, Russia and countless other places.

Seventy million were mobilised across the world for the conflict. By November 1918, between nine and 13 million would be dead.

Australian commander in World War I, General Sir John Monash.

Australian commander in World War I, General Sir John Monash.Credit:Fairfax Media

The new nation of Australia tallied 61,560 dead, more than all the other wars fought in the history of white settlement. Over 150,000 were “wounded, gassed ot taken prisoner”, according to Australian War Memorial records. Many returned soldiers would die in the early postwar years, others would remain haunted by the carnage they witnessed. Families were shattered.

Today we again bear witness to their sacrifice. Today, on the 100th anniversary of the signing of the Armistice, we remember.

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WWI saw the world torn asunder and remade. The Bolsheviks seized Russia. Many a monarchy was swept away. With the Ottoman Empire extinguished, Turkey’s Gallipoli hero Ataturk launched his nation’s Westernisation. The British and French drew new borders in the Middle East, setting up a century of turmoil.

Australia has its own legacy from the war. The deeds of the Australians and New Zealanders who landed at Gallipoli in Turkey on April 25, 1915, birthed the  legend of Anzac. Simpson and his donkey became part of national folklore. And General John Monash’s command of Allied forces in the Battle of Hamel, in July 1918,  is hailed as a late turning point.

But World War I cannot be anything other than a story of immense loss.  Men who would have won the Nobel Prize, or an Olympic medal, or worked on a medical breakthrough, possibly even cured cancer, lost their chance to make their mark on life. As Peter FitzSimons writes today, there are no happy stories.

WWI tore through Australian politics, splitting the ALP.  Australia fielded the only all-volunteer army, because two plebiscites on compulsory service failed, dividing communities in the process. The ”white feather” became notorious, the social-media trolling of its day.

Debate over the rights, wrongs, and causes of the Great War will not end 100 years after its end.  World War II has come to be seen as a continuation of the first, making Armistice Day 1918 a mere pause in a 30-year-conflagration.

But there will never be another war like it.  Soldiers will never again go ”over the top” and be mowed down by  machinegun fire,  so memorably depicted in the 1981 Australian film Gallipoli.  Outside the world’s poorest regions, technology overcomes brawn on the battlefield; fewer casualties in war have been a trend since World War II, even allowing for horrors such as Syria.

Ultimately the utmost respect must be paid to anyone who lays down their life for their fellows. And so we honour them again today. We remember the sacrifice – of all our servicemen and women in the past century. And hope the generations to follow will be spared this horror.

Lest we forget.