At the Menin Gate, past which all 60 batallions of the first Australian Infantry Force (AIF) marched, John Howard has paid tribute to the Australians who fought on the Western Front in the 1914-18 war, the so-called 'Great War' and 'the war to end all wars'. Howard's pilgrimage to battlesites is now a traditional part of every overseas excursion and it is reported that he was noticably moved at the ceremony conducted at the Ieper (Ypres) Town Hall.
Ypres is a rebuilt medieval town that was one of the most important cloth producing and trading cities of Flanders during the Middle Ages. By the end of the war in 1918, the city which stood in the middle of the frontline had been all but bombed out of existence. Howard pointed out that The Last Post ceremony has been performed 25,000 times at the Menin Gate since 1928, except during the period of German occupation in World War II.
Howard said of Australia's participation in the European war: "We were a nation in 1914 with just two and a half million men. Almost 360,000 of those volunteered for service in World War I. We suffered more than 60,000 dead, an enormous casualty rate and here, in the period of the Third Battle of Ypres, something in the order of 13,000 Australians lost their lives."
This is the transcript of the speech given by the Prime Minister, John Howard, at the Ieper (Ypres) Town Hall, Belgium:
Mr Burgomaster, Secretary of State, Ambassadors, ladies and gentlemen.
It’s 85 years since the terrible battles of 1917 and earlier, but it’s still quite impossible to come to a place such as this as an Australian and to participate in the sort of ceremony that we did a few moments ago without literally tears coming to your eyes and a lump developing in your throat. It’s important that Australians remind each other of the scale of our contribution to World War I. We were a nation in 1914 with just two and a half million men. Almost 360,000 of those volunteered for service in World War I. We suffered more than 60,000 dead, an enormous casualty rate and here, in the period of the Third Battle of Ypres, something in the order of 13,000 Australians lost their lives - 1917, we lost 20,000 men in that year and in October of 1917 has to be the most tragic month in recorded Australian history, where we lost some 6,405 men from that tiny country population-wise.
It’s part of our history. The names that are recorded here are recorded on memorials all over our country. In fact, the battle of Ypres had in it people from every city and every major country town and every bush area of Australia. And it really reached every part of our country. And all 60 battalions of the first AIF marched past this building as it then was. Today therefore, I feel quite touched to be amongst you and I can say on behalf of all the Australians here that we are warmed beyond description by the generosity of your welcome, the genuine nature of your affection for our country.
The Last Post ceremony has been performed 25,000 times. It was interrupted only during the period of the German occupation - I understand that it resumed the day after the Germans left in 1944. That’s a commitment to a memory that we appreciate very much and may I say, speaking on behalf of all of the Australians here, that we are touched by the very genuine character of the welcome. This wonderful surrounding, the very moving ceremony and also by the many things that you’ve done over the years. The contribution of the lions from the Menin Bridge to the Australian War Memorial, the inspiration that the Menin Gate provided to Longstaff’s wonderful portrait of the Menin Gate and the spirits of the dead soldiers rising, which had an enormous impact on Australia when it was taken around the country in 1927.
But very importantly, tonight is an occasion to reaffirm the determination of our peoples to pursue and maintain the peace. The most awful thing about war is that it takes the young. You look around the cemeteries and you see the ages - they’re 18, they’re 19, they’re 21. They’re the ages of many of our children. And the terrible cost of that war and of course World War II, has naturally guided the political instincts and the political behaviour of the European nations and their determination to put in place mechanisms that will prevent those terrible things occurring again.
Over the years, as I mentioned, you’ve been very kind in marking our contribution to the defence of Belgium in World War I. And I’m very pleased to announce tonight that, as a small contribution from Australia, we’re going to contribute a multi-media package to the Museum, “In Flanders Fields”, which will provide in I think, a quite comprehensive way in a modern, contemporary fashion, some depictions and detailed remembrances in a personal fashion, of the contributions of Australians to the defence of your country.
What is moving also about an occasion such as this is to see so many young people feeling part of the ceremony. It is something that we Australians experience on Anzac Day and you visit Gallipoli or you visit the cemeteries of Belgium and France. You see the young, you see Australians with the Australian flag around their shoulders, you see them proud of who they are and wanting to connect with their heritage. And in talking to the Burgomaster, I find that that is a similar circumstance here in Ieper, that people are reaching back and wanting to understand.
So tonight can I say thank you for providing such a moving occasion for me and for all of my Australian colleagues. And we remember the terrible losses of our country, but we also remember the terrible losses of Belgium, and the terrible losses of the French, the terrible losses of the British and the Indians and the South Africans and the Canadians, and also the terrible losses of the Germans. They all left behind mothers and fathers, whatever side they fought on and it’s just an occasion to remember all of them and to rededicate ourselves to ensuring that it doesn’t happen again.