“On a day perhaps as misty as those of the battles of Passchendaele exactly 90 years ago, five World War I Australian soldiers were buried yesterday,” wrote Sydney Morning Herald correspondent John Button on 5 October, 2007. Advances in DNA technology had enabled Belgian scientists and the Australian Army history unit to put names to two of five well-preserved remains of soldiers killed during the battles of Passchendaele. The remains had been found by gas workers while laying a pipe last year. The author of The Great War, Les Carlyon points out that in two months in what is still the “biggest episode in our military history,” Australia lost 7000 soldiers, with 38,000 casualties. ( Mr Carlyon’s book was reviewed in this column on 19 December, 2006) The moving ceremony was attended by Their Excellencies the Governor-General, Major General Michael Jeffery, and Mrs Jeffery, the Rt. Hon Helen Clark, HM New Zealand Prime Minister, representatives of the Kingdom of Belgium, including the Belgian High Command, and several other mourners.
Before the soldiers’ coffins were lowered into the earth in Buttes New British Cemetery, Polygon Wood, the relatives of Private John Hunter, from Nanango in southern Queensland, and Sergeant George Calder, of Goldsborough in northern Victoria, placed flowers and a toy kangaroo on their coffins, and Mrs Jeffery, a sprig of golden wattle.
In a moving address, the full text of which is below, the Governor–General asked “what was the glue that held these men together, despite such indescribable conditions; men so battle fatigued, yet never giving in; men who continued to give when no more could reasonably be expected of them?”
“I believe, “ His Excellency said, “the answer lies in the intense personal pride created through a profound sense of belonging to a section of 10, a platoon of 30, a company of 100 or a regiment of 700, of never letting a mate down and the belief in, and sharing of a common purpose.”
John Button reported that an emotional Jim Hunter, a nephew of Private Hunter, said he knew a great deal about his uncle because his father, also named Jim, had fought beside him in Flanders and had buried him the first time. “Many old soldiers never talked about the war. But Jim Hunter spoke always about fighting in Flanders with his older brother, known as Jack. For his son, the stories kept Uncle Jack alive. The brothers were graziers in Queensland. A German shell killed Jack when he went over the trenches on September 26, 1917. He laid Jack down in a blanket tied with signal wire. ‘He wrapped him pretty well,’ says the younger Jim Hunter, 73. ‘They were great mates. You could see my dad loved him from the way he talked. Near the end of his life, when he had Alzheimer's, he used to cry: 'Jack, Jack …’ Private Hunter was hastily buried for later reinterment, but his body was missed when temporary cemeteries were dug up after the war. He lay in Belgium for almost 90 years.” The address by His Excellency, the Governor –General follows:On behalf of the Government and the people of Australia, I welcome you all to this solemn, yet uplifting ceremony. Ninety years ago, almost to the day, the five young Australian soldiers we honour here today died in a savage but successful battle to capture this general area known as Polygon Wood, in which two of the participating Australian divisions, the 4th and 5th, suffered some 5800 casualties in just a few days of very heavy fighting. It is hard to imagine standing here in this beautiful, productive countryside that in 1917 not a tree, not a blade of grass or indeed a building was left standing. This battle was the second of four; Menin Road, Polygon Wood, Broodseinde and Passchendaele, in which all five of our Australian divisions with the New Zealand division fought together for the first time, as part of Field Marshal Haig's offensive to break the German lines at Ypres, with the intention of swinging north west to the Belgian Coast to capture the ports of Oostende and Zeebrugge from which German submarines were causing serious losses to Allied shipping in the Atlantic. This offensive, known as Third Ypres, was also designed to relieve pressure on the French Army still recovering from low morale and mutiny because of huge losses in earlier battles.
With relatively dry weather, excellent planning and support and hard but skilled fighting, Menin road, Polygon Wood and Broodseinde were successful. Then the heavens really opened up, turning the key battlefield at Passchendaele into a mud heap in which men could barely move, let alone fight. The Allied offensive was thus halted; Passchendaele later falling to the gallant Canadians who captured it in November 1917. In just eight weeks of the most brutal fighting, the Australians suffered in the four battles a staggering 38000 casualties, with over 7000 dead.
Our location here at the Butte, is the site of the second battle of Third Ypres – Polygon Wood. It commenced on 26th September, with the Australian 4th and 5th divisions advancing behind a huge barrage of very well directed artillery, which the Australian war historian, CEW Bean, described as being akin to "a Gippsland bushfire". This followed days of preparatory bombardment to soften up the German positions. Objectives were quickly and brilliantly taken, but the cost in human life was staggering.
We know through sentiments expressed in their letters home and in other recorded memories, that our Australian soldiers were fighting to preserve a way of life, of values if you like, summarised in the old Aussie adage of a 'fair go for all'. The five young men here, like their mates, were all volunteers and we respect and honour them for their sense of duty to country, their indomitable fighting spirit and for the horrific conditions of shell, gas, machine gun, barbed wire and mud they so bravely endured.I think it relevant at this point to ask what was the glue that held these men together, despite such indescribable conditions; men so battle fatigued, yet never giving in; men who continued to give when no more could reasonably be expected of them?
I believe the answer lies in the intense personal pride created through a profound sense of belonging to a section of 10, a platoon of 30, a company of 100 or a regiment of 700, of never letting a mate down and the belief in, and sharing of a common purpose.
Battlefield leadership was also very important and frequently in evidence. There are still thousands of Australian dead in this Ypres Salient with unknown graves, who are listed on the walls of that wonderful memorial, Menin Gate. For the past ninety years, the five young men before us were numbered among them.
When found last year, they were all wearing Australian insignia, but could not be identified by traditional methods. The revolutionary use of DNA testing and some remarkable historical detective work in Belgium and Australia have helped end ninety years of uncertainty for two Australian families. Sergeant George Calder and Private John Hunter can now be laid to rest under their own names. Sergeant George Calder, himself a rapidly promoted, battle-hardened NCO of the famous 51st Battalion, was a son of the 19th century gold mining town of Goldsborough, Victoria, before the family moved to Boulder in outback WA, from where he enlisted.
Private John Hunter, of the 49th Infantry Battalion, was a son of Nanango, an agricultural, timber and early gold producing region of southern Queensland. His brother also served in the same Battalion. As country boys they were the youthful product of a heritage that valued independent thought and action. They were innovative and inured to hardship. They belonged to a special breed of men who could invariably ride, shoot and laugh at themselves. When the Mother Country, France and Belgium were threatened by tyranny, they flocked to the colours as volunteers because it was the right thing to do!
And that is why it is such a privilege to join the families of Sergeant Calder and Private Hunter here today and their three unidentified mates, to recognise in this small group of soldiers killed in action, the very essence of that ultimate sacrifice – the laying down of one's life for one's friends and/or the greater cause.
May I also pay tribute to the dedicated, professional assistance of our friends here in Belgium whosesupport has been crucial in helping positively identify Sergeant Calder and Private Hunter. On behalf of the Australians present, may I thank and commend the Belgian Armed Forces through their Chief, General Augustus Van Daele, the local Belgian authorities and the many local citizens who have provided support, friendship and compassion.
And so it is, ladies and gentlemen, that we commit the bodies of these five Australian soldiers to permanent rest in this beautiful and sacred place; to lie at peace alongside their mates; "ordinary" men who did such extraordinary things.
Let us never forget.