Anzac Day Dawn Service

Prime Minister

We gather today on ground made hallow by Australian sacrifice.

Where we now have the privilege of joining together in peace and liberty, Australian soldiers fought to hold back a relentless enemy.

Six hundred and twenty-five Australians were killed on the Kokoda Track. Of those, 99 fell in the Battle of Isurava and 111 more were wounded.

And we remember and honour them this morning.

We gather today in the final shadows of night because the first Anzacs did.

Half a world away and already more than a century distant, they clambered into their boats their voices barely whispers, the water a rippling darkness stretching before them to that most fateful of shores.

Year in, year out we gather before the dawn for the generations of Australians since Gallipoli who have served in our name.

Every Anzac Day, across Australia and in battlefields like this one, we honour all who have served, and all who continue to serve today.

It is a collective act of remembrance, reflection and gratitude carried out by multiple generations of Australians.

Those who enlisted for the Second World War grew up in an Australia scarred by the memory of the First.

They were the first generation to have attended dawn services. They knew the names of the dead on the cenotaphs and memorials.

Indeed, some were the sons and nephews of the first Anzacs – and there were even some of those Anzacs among them. Whatever sense of romance and adventure there had been in 1914 was long gone.

Yet they came.

We are gathered in a place that has known the most pitiless ferocity of battle, fought with bullet, bayonet, mortar, and the desperation of bare hands.

It is also a place that has seen the unadorned strength of the Australian spirit.

What happened here resulted in the first Victoria Cross awarded to an Australian on what was then considered Australian territory.

The recipient of that Victoria Cross was Private Bruce Kingsbury of the Second Fourteenth Battalion. In the words of Lieutenant-Colonel Ralph Honner, he gave “his life that his comrades and his country might live”.

In our pride we feel the weight of history as we gather here along the Kokoda Track, this great artery of mud and suffering and perseverance that has come to occupy a place of singular power in Australia’s shared memory.

We also look beyond the Kokoda Track to where Australians fought on land and sea and air right across Papua New Guinea.

With the growing sense our truest security lay here in our region, they fought in Gona, in Buna, in Sanananda and at Milne Bay where, at Australian hands, a Japanese amphibious landing was decisively defeated for the first time. Field Marshal Slim described it as the breaking of a spell.

If that spell was broken, something far greater was forged – our friendship, our powerful bond with the people of Papua New Guinea.

We thank every one of them who helped Australians in the face of retribution and sometimes unfathomable cruelty.

The troops, the coast watchers and the shipping pilots.

Soldiers like Warrant Officer Class 2 Bengari of the Papuan Infantry Battalion, who repeatedly volunteered for dangerous missions behind enemy lines.

The villagers who risked their own lives to feed and guide and shelter Australians in desperate need. The stretcher bearers whose courage was matched only by their kindness.

And the carers like Nurse Maiogaru Gimuleia Taulebona who put herself in danger by hiding wounded Leading Aircraftman John Francis Donegan from the Japanese.

They were angels walking tall through the hell of war.

To the people of PNG, I offer Australia’s promise: We will never forget.

For the Papua New Guineans, this was not a theatre, a backdrop or a battlefield. It was home.

And ultimately, that was what Australians were fighting for, too. How far away home must have sometimes seemed.

They served through days of camaraderie. Through days of grinding exhaustion and disease.

Days that brought infernos of gunfire, or the ghostly finality of a sniper’s bullet.

The cruelty of random chance. The silence of sudden death, the terrible suffering of a lingering end.

Soldiers fighting together alongside their mates, soldiers fighting in profound loneliness. Boots carried by hand because the feet could no longer bear them.

The desperation of digging defensive positions with bayonet and helmet and bully beef tin. The hunger that gnawed endlessly, as unrelenting as the flies.

Final diary entries in which the handwriting faded into an almost childlike state – almost as if life’s approaching end carried within it echoes of the beginning.

This was the experience of Australians from across the continent – farmers and gold miners, factory hands and office workers alike thrown against an implacable, disciplined enemy.

As Corporal John O’Brien would reflect on his time fighting at Gama River:

“… when I thought I was going to die I wasn’t frightened, it was only when I realised that I might live, I got scared.”

As we gather here, we remember that 80 years ago, Australian and Papua New Guinean troops were fighting together in Madang and Sepik provinces.

We also remember Australian military personnel were in Europe as part of preparations for the D-Day landings in June.

And here in the Pacific, they would take part as the liberation of the Philippines got under way.

Every soldier, every aviator, every sailor, every nurse and medic seeing us through what Prime Minister John Curtin called “the gravest hour in our history”.

We gather each Anzac Day because how brightly the eternal flame of memory burns depends on how carefully we tend it.

That is what we do here today.

We come in gratitude. We come in sorrow. A pilgrimage of memory as we keep the long vigil of a grateful nation.

We hold to the solemn promise our countries made to the fallen all those years ago: We will remember them.

Anzac Day has never asked us to exalt in the glories of war.

Anzac Day asks us to stand against the erosion of time, and to hold on to their names. To hold on to their deeds.

In the silence, we try to picture them. We try to hear their voices, maybe their laughter, maybe their songs and the jokes they told even as their faces grew waxen, their beards matted with dirt and their dream of seeing home again hung by the flimsiest of threads.

We think of how gravely they were tested.

We remember them – not just for their courage, even though there were times their courage was almost beyond our comprehension.

But we also remember their fear – young, far from home, and confronting the unimaginable as it became reality.

In the words of Private Bill Spencer:

“You don’t want to give up, but you wish to Christ you were somewhere else!”

Even in their extraordinariness, they were human beings of flesh and blood.

As were their families.

Decades of war have built a universe of loss, constellations of grief spelt out on tombstones, inscriptions from loved ones aching with all that has been taken, and all that might have been.

We gather for all who went in our name, and never came home.

We gather for all who came home, but never fully left the battlefield.

And we thank all veterans. Just as they stepped up for us, we must step for them.

We have seen what horrors Australians have defeated. We have seen the difference Australians have made in the world – and continue to make.

We thank all serving members of the Australian Defence Force.

The world changes. The battle – and the battlefield – moves. But because of their courage, the cause of peace remains, and hope for it lives on.

Now, as darkness begins to lose its grip on the land, we think of those nights that must have seemed without end – here, and across continents, across wars, across generations.

And we give thanks that because of them, we can await what they made possible: the gift of a brighter dawn.

Lest we forget.

/Public Release. View in full here.