Ilankai Tamil Sangam

Association of Tamils of Sri Lanka in the USA

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Australia's Remembrance Day

by Sabesan, Australia

November 11 is an important day for the people of Australia. At 11.00 am on the 11th day of the 11th month Australians pause to remember the war heroes who fought and died in WW1, WW2, and the war veterans and people affected by all other wars in the last 90 years. And when we reflect on the historical background of Remembrance Day, we are able to see many parallels to the history of our own liberation struggle for Tamil Eelam.

It must be stated that comparing remembrance days is not the purpose of this article. However, it should be pointed out that history does repeat certain fundamental realities time and again. It is our hope that readers would grasp the historical truths and lessons inherent in this article.

The November 11 Remembrance Day was originally known as Armistice Day – the day an agreement was signed for the ‘suspension of hostilities’ during WW1. Why was this day called Armistice Day? Why was it celebrated? And how did it become known as ‘Remembrance Day’?  What is the historical background?

Let us go back 87 years in history to World War 1. On November 11, 1918, three representatives of the German Government accepted the armistice clauses put forward by the French General and Commander of the Allied Forces, Foch. It was a time when German troops were fast retreating from the Allied forces. It was a time when Allied forces were re-capturing areas that were under the control of the German troops. An armistice at this point in time!

The ceasefire agreement, signed at 5.00 o ’clock in the early morning, came into effect from 11.00 am. When the four-year WW1 came to an end, 61,919 Australians had perished on the sea, in the air and in far away lands. Almost all Australian families had been affected by the war. Most families had lost either a father, son, brother, sister or friend in the war.

Of the 416,000 or more Australians who joined the armed forces in WW1 in the name of their country, 324,000 people served overseas. In the Western Front in France and in Belgium, some 45,000 fighters met their heroic deaths. While in Turkey, 8,000, and, in other places, a further 8,000 Australian troops gave their lives in the war.

When the armistice agreement came into effect on 11.11.1918, all believed that a permanent peace had arrived. It was stated in the agreement that hostilities should end immediately and the German forces should vacate certain areas within 30 days of signing the agreement.  When the agreement was made permanent the next year, people all over the world were jubilant and celebrated it as‘Armistice Day.’ For countries like Australia, New Zealand, Canada and America, November 11 came to be known as Armistice Day, on which day they remembered the victims of WW1 annually.

But war broke out again!

The German Nazi Party, led by Adolf Hitler since 1921, seized political control in 1933, installing a Machiavellian reign. Hitler roared for German racial purity and supremacy, practicing blatant fascism. He ran a totalitarian government and indulged in genocide of the Jewish people. Making treaties and breaking them was a natural art for him. During his brutal regime, the army had absolute power. With total disregard for the written law, the German Army revelled in executing the policies of state terrorism. His was a chauvinistically terrorist government, aimed at subjugating other nations of Europe! In 1939, Hitler’s desire to dominate the whole of Europe lead to the Second World War.

When the Allied forces finally defeated Hitler and the Axis powers in 1945, WW2 came to an end. It is only after the end of WW2 that Australia's Armistice Day was renamed‘Remembrance Day.’ The Australian government accepted a proposal made by the British government to this effect. Thus, Armistice Day became Remembrance Day.

Dear friends, even though 87 years have passed, the Australian people have not forgotten their war heroes. As a matter of fact, as the years pass by, they remember their heroes with greater fervour and reverence. We wish to point out just one event as an example.

Of the thousands of Australian servicemen who died in WW1 and WW2, it is still not known where 35,527 of their heroes lay buried. Somewhere in a distant and foreign land the bodies of these warriors rest in unmarked graves.  In 1993, the Australian government exhumed the remains of an Unknown Soldier buried in France’s Western Front cemetery and brought it to Australia. On November 11, 1993 this Unknown Soldier was buried in the Australian War Memorial in Canberra with full military and state honour.

Standing in front of his coffin that was placed on the Stone of Remembrance, the then Australian Prime Minister Paul Keating delivered a eulogy:

“We will never know who this Australian soldier was. Yet he has always been among those we have honoured. We know that he was one of the 45,000 Australians who died on the Western Front, one of the 416,000 Australians who volunteered for service in World War 1 … and one of the 100,000 Australians who have died in wars this century. He is all of them. And he is one of us!”

The passionate speech by Prime Minister Keating was reflective of the feelings of the Australian people. Robert Comb, a World War 1 veteran who had served in battles on the Western Front, sprinkled soil brought from France over the coffin of this Unknown Soldier and said “Now you are home, mate.”

Australia does not stop with honouring its fallen heroes.  When the veterans of both world wars who later led a normal life die of old age, Australia honours them, too. When Alec Campbell – the Kid Soldier (the Kid) who joined the Australian Army when he was 16 – died in 2002 at the age of 103, the Australian Prime Minister John Howard cut short his visit to China and returned home to attend his funeral. The Australian government, which had already honoured Alec Campbell in a postage stamp, honoured him again by minting a coin of the boyish looking Alec in his army uniform, holding a rifle much bigger than him!

The following poem written in May 1915 by Lt. Col. John McCrae in the fields of Flanders, Belgium, has a right message for all of us:

In Flanders fields the poppies blow
Between the crosses, row on row
That mark our place; and in the sky
The larks, still bravely singing, fly
Scarce heard amid the guns below.
We are the dead. Short days ago
We lived, felt dawn, saw sunset glow,
Loved and were loved, and now we lie
In Flanders fields.
Take up our quarrel with the foe;
To you, from failing hands, we throw
The torch; be yours to hold it high.
If ye break faith with us who die
We shall not sleep, though poppies grow
In Flanders fields.

We the sons and daughters of Tamil Eelam can surely understand these patriotic sentiments. For, we are a people of a nation who honour in our hearts our own Great Heroes even before the dawning of the liberated Tamil Eelam. In the same spirit, let us pause at 11.00 am on November 11, to honour in our hearts the Australian heroes, war veterans and all the affected people, who valued freedom in their life above all else.

[This is an abridged English transcript of an analysis by S. Sabesan, broadcast on 7.11.05 on the ‘Tamil Voice’ radio program, Melbourne, Australia.]