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Sunday, August 23, 2015

An Open Letter to Australian former prime minister Tony Abbott on the question of War.

I have a number of issues with you Tony but this letter will concentrate on one. War. Let start with the amount of money your spending on the Centenary of World War One, 500 million dollars, more than the rest of the World’s nations combined who were involved in it including, Britain, United States, Russia, Canada, New Zealand, Turkey, Germany, Belgium and France.  At the same time we have homeless people on our nation’s streets and one in ten of them are War Veterans.

I take particular issue with the $90 million to be spent on your Sir John Monash Centre at Villers-Bretonneux in France. Another of your captain’s choices. I know you’ve said that it would increase our understanding of the Australian effort on the Western Front during World War I. Well, what sort of “understanding” do you want? 

Don’t get me wrong I’m not against commemoration, but I’m firmly against the celebration of War. War is a failure of diplomacy and politics and a bloody disaster for all involved. You see that one word question why has not been asked? Why were we at war against Germany and Turkey? Before that, why against the Boers in South Africa and the Maoris in New Zealand? Why is there no serious acknowledgement of the Frontier Wars of against our Indigenous Peoples.

We’ve had the official celebrations. Politicians posing at ceremonies like yourself at Villers-Bretonneux this year. This of course has been something that Bob Hawke started back in 1990 with the 75th Anniversary of Gallipoli. However, you’ve gone further than anyone else spending far more of our money. And the $43 million that was spent on refurbishing the World War One Gallery of the Australian War Memorial in Canberra, was that separate to the Centenary fund? If that was the case then that $43 million brings us up to $533 million dollars being spent on World War One.  

One other question with all this money being spent we have cuts to the Australian War Memorial’s research section. That helps people find out what their ancestors endured. The dedicated staff of this area of the Memorial helped me back in 1998 to get my Uncles John/Jack and Stephen’s Military Medal citations. And again in 2012 when I did research on Stephen’s 21st Battalion and my Uncle Andrew’s 24th Battalion for my historical novel Brothers Part One: Gallipoli 1915. This is John/Jack’s from the Battle of Passchendaele says,

At Broodseinde during the period 26/27th October 1917 No 3648 Pte John Tognolini did excellent work on the morning of the 26th October. He was one of a party of eight carrying two stretcher cases to the Regimental Aid Post when a shell burst and severely wounded three of the party. Although wounded himself he continued with his work and made two trips back to get the wounded they had left on the way. He then returned to line and on the morning of the 27th October when several men were wounded by shell fire and all the stretchers in use. He dressed one man and carried him on his back to the R.A.P. All this work was under very heavy shell fire.

He set a fine example of coolness and courage to the men of his company.
Private Tognolini has on many occasions shown great courage and devotion to duty.

That’s the other thing with me and Villers-Bretonneux. The man, sorry boy I’m named after was killed there when Australian and English soldiers took it back from the German Army on that third Anzac Day, 25th April 1918. The army had his age when he was killed as 24 but that doesn’t square up with the year he was born 1900 so he was either 16 or 17.

John/Jack Tognolini 1900-1918

He had served on the Western Front since Fromelles in 1916, where he and his 57th Battalion were witness to one of the greatest slaughters that Australians endured there. All armies had boy soldiers Tony but Australia had a reputation for them. Will Anzac boy soldiers feature in your theme park at Villers-Bretonneux?

Will the slaughter at Fromelles be present as the Australian version of the Charge of the Light Brigade be prominent?  Charge of the Light Brigade was a comparison used to describe Fromelles by Walter Downing, M.M, a soldier of the 57th battalion gave this account of happened at Fromelles from his book To The Last Ridge.

“The 60th [battalion] climbed on the parapet, heavy laden, dragging with them scaling ladders, light bridges, picks, shovels and bags of bombs.

There was wire to go through and sinking ground; a creek to cross, more marsh and wire; then the German line. Scores of stammering German machine-guns spluttered violently, drowning the noise of the cannonade.

The air was thick with bullets, swishing in a flat lattice of death. There was gaps in the lines of men -- wide ones, small ones. The survivors spread across the front, keeping the line straight. There was no hesitation, no recoil, no dropping of the unwounded into shell holes. The bullets skimmed low, from knee to groin, riddling the tumbling bodies before they touched the ground. Still they kept the line on.

Hundreds were mown in the flicker of an eyelid, like great rows of teeth knocked from a comb, but still the line went on, thinning and stretching. Wounded wriggled into shell holes and were hit again.

Men were cut in two by streams of bullets. And still the line went on.
Fifty-six remained of a full thousand. It was over in five minutes.

And then the 59th rose, vengeful, with a shout--a thousand as one man.
The chattering, metallic staccato of the tempest of hell burst in nickelled gusts. Sheaves and streams of bullets were like metal knives. There were many corpses hung inert on our wire, but the 59th surged forward, now in silence, more steadily, more precise than on parade. A few yards and there was but two hundred marching on. The rest lay in heaps and bloody swathes. They began firing at the German line as they advanced. Lewis gunners dropped into shell holes and fired burst and burst, dashing from cover to cover.

A hundred men broke into a wild but futile charge, determined to strike, if possible, one blow, but enemies pressed their red-hot thumb pieces with blistered fingers, spraying death from the tortured muzzles. That hundred lay flat in attitudes of sleep.
It grew quiet again. A few wounded crawled in the grass, sniped at by riflemen. There was silence. Eighty came back that night.

Two companies from the 58th rose from the breastwork-the remainder were elsewhere carrying ammunition- and advanced by rushes with covering fire. In banks of battle reek the sun went down, as red as blood.

As darkness drew on, the 57th went forward, but most were recalled almost before they left,  for there was nothing to be gained by further loss of life. A few reached the creek.

It was the Charge of the Light Brigade once more, but more terrible, more hopeless--magnificent, but not war ---a valley of death fuelled by somebody's blunder, or the horrid necessities of war.

The handful in our trenches stood to arms all night because the line was dangerously weak, for there was no supports and no reserves and many elite forces were in front.

The remnants of the 57th and 58th held the front line system for a further fifty days, making fifty-nine days without relief.”

Will you put Dowling’s words up in your Villers-Bretonneux theme park?

Will you cover the mutiny that Australian soldiers took part in along with English, Scottish, Welsh, Canadian and New Zealand soldiers at the Etaples, the major British training base that Wilfred Owen called the “Bull Ring” because of the sadism of the British Training instructors and ruthlessness of the British Military Police in 1917?

Many of those soldiers were killed in the Battle of Passchendaele.

And of our 46,000 dead on the Western Front will your Villers-Bretonneux theme park mention that 15,000 whose grave headstones have the words “Known unto God” on them because they have no known grave as they were blown to bits by artillery or disappeared in the mud during Passchendaele.

Also will your Villers-Bretonneux theme park display the two conscription referendums of 1916 and 1917 where the majority voted no, including the majority of frontline soldiers on the Western Front.

1st Referendum Oct.28-1916 For Conscription 1,087,577 Against 1,160,033
 2nd Referendum Dec.20-1917 For Conscription 1,015,159 Against 1,181,747

To quote Charles Bean who wrote in his Volume III – The Australian Imperial Force in France, 1916, of this meeting of soldiers after the slaughter of Pozières, where 23,000 Australians were casualties, of whom 6,800 men were killed or died of wounds in less than seven weeks. ”The Agent General of South Australia, Frederick Young, ably addressed part of the 6th Brigade, explaining frankly the object of the meeting, and relying largely upon the argument that Australia at present stood first among the dominions in the eyes of the British nation, and that, if she did not adopt conscription as the British had done, she would lose this regard. The attitude of the troops was quite clear: they did not care whether Australia came first in the opinion of Great Britain or not-they desired that a sufficient number of Australians should be left after the war to develop their empty country in accordance with present character of their nation. Australia, they held, was already "doing enough".

Some were strongly averse to the prospect of having in their regiments those who had avoided voluntary enlistment. Others feared that conscription would mean the introduction of the hated death penalty. Others again would vote as members of the Labour Party, of which the main wing opposed conscription. The common argument that it would provide rest for their overworked units did not impress them, for they well knew that replenished units were likely to be constantly sent into battle and weaker ones rested. But beyond question the most general motive among the soldiers for opposing conscription was one not without nobility. They themselves when they had enlisted had not known the trials and horrors of war; and now they did know, they would not, by their votes force another man into those trials against his will.”

Will your Villers-Bretonneux theme park display Australian Aboriginal soldiers who fought and died there despite them not being citizens of our nation?

Will you have your “Shit Happens” quote on display from your 2011 trip to Afghanistan when Lance Corporal Jared MacKinney was shot dead in a battle with the Taliban. You remember when Channel 7 caught you saying that to senior army officers on camera. At the time Gumbainggir, Aboriginal man and historian and activist Dr Gary Foley said, ”Somewhere there is a big pile of shit in a paddock saying Abbott happens.” 

A History Man’s Past & Other People’s Stories: A Shared Memoir. Part One: Other People’s Wars eBook AUD$5.00 Paperback: AUD$24.00 plus delivery