Anzac Centenary

A couple of years ago I was at a meeting of the Bankstown Historical Society. I was talking about the upcoming Centenary of Anzac and seeking their advice, and the president, Ken Willis, told me about the old Bankstown War Memorial that used to be at Bankstown Memorial Oval and was now in storage, in a council depot.

That set me on an expedition. I went down to the depot and I found it. What stood out were the 31 names on two stone tablets with the heading: Bankstown Heroes 1914-1918. I thought, ‘Who were these men? Where did they grow up? Where did they live? What did they do before the war? Why did they enlist? And what happened to them?’ As part of this year’s Centenary of Anzac, I have tried to answer these questions. To do that my Anzac Centenary Committee commissioned this book, The Thirty One: the Bankstown Anzacs who never came home.

One hundred years ago Bankstown was a small semi-rural town. The railway line had just come through and the first gas street lamps were being installed. The population was about 4,000. And about 350 went off to war. The book reveals that 54, not 31, never came home but the book focuses on the 31 names on those two stone tablets. They were ordinary blokes—carpenters, wood turners, labourers, storemen, stone masons, picture framers, artists and milkmen. The youngest was only 17 when he enlisted; the oldest was 46. And they fought and they died in some of the greatest battles of the war, from Lone Pine to Villers-Bretonneux. 

One of the greatest feats of bravery at Villers-Bretoneux was from a Bankstown Boy, Private Fredrick Porter, a 22-year-old milkman from Gow Street. The book tells how he single-handedly attacked a group of 10 German soldiers, killed five and forced the rest to flee. In the fight, he was wounded in the arm and broke his wrist. When the Germans realised he was wounded, they attacked again. That was a bad mistake because despite his injuries, the milkman from Gow Street killed another two of them. For his bravery, Private Porter won a Distinguished Conduct Medal. He survived the Western Front but he died of influenza on the ship back to Australia. He never made it back to  Bankstown. He was buried at sea on 10 November 1918—the day before the war ended.

The book is full of stories like this, of courage and sacrifice and of human frailty—sad stories, desperately sad stories. Stories about widows and mothers who, years after the war was over, were still searching for information on what happened to their husband or their boy. This book is a very precious thing. It tells us what happened to these men, and will help ensure my local community never forgets who they were or what they did. To help ensure that, I am distributing the book to all my local schools and giving a copy to the Australian War Memorial, and, with the permission of the House, I seek leave to table it today.

I want to sincerely thank: Tim Carroll from Bankstown Youth Development Service, who led this important project; Ellen Hottleman and Jennifer Madden from the Bankstown Library, who did most of the research; and Adam Courtenay, the progeny of Bryce Courtenay, who bought this story so beautifully together.

It was not the only thing we did. After World War 1, Bankstown Council bought a piece of land called Fripps Paddock on the south side of the railway track and renamed it Memorial Oval. It is a memorial to the 31 Bankstown boys who never came home and is where that old memorial with their names on it used to stand. It is now back there, where it belongs. As part of the centenary commemorations, we organised for the memorial to be taken out of storage and installed back at Memorial Oval. And that was where a very special service on Anzac Day took place. More than 1,500 local residents turned up; 33 schools laid wreaths at the base of that old memorial, and so did 30 local community groups. My old friend Jack Bedford, one of the last Rats of Tobruk read the Ode, 100 students from Bankstown Public School sang the National Anthem, and then the big electronic scoreboard was turned into a giant TV and we sat and watched the sunrise over Gallipoli. It was a special moment for Australia and a special moment for my community.

There are a lot of people I need to thank for making this happen: my Centenary of Anzac committee, Dick Payten, Jim Wrigley, Kevin Mahony and Alan Rawlinson; All of my local RSLs, Bankstown, Bass Hill, Chester Hill and Padstow; the team at Bankstown City Council who made this happen, Kerry Sebio, Julie Hayes, Jose Papadimitriou and Matthew Jessop; and Matthew Massetto, Vice-Captain of De La Salle College, our MC on the day—an outstanding young man, the same age as some of the youngest names on that old memorial.

That is not all we did either. We also funded artist Jane Cavanough to develop a series of bronze sculptures for Bankstown City Gardens, and we funded a commemorative garden at Bass High School, proposed by Principal David Horton and Ingrid Winter from the P&C.

In January, I went to Gallipoli for the first time. It was part of the Mateship Trek. Every two years my colleague from across the aisle Scott Morrison and I bring together young Australians from very different backgrounds to walk in the footsteps of Australian soldiers. We have walked Kokoda track, the Sandakan Death March and the Black Cat Track. This year it was the battlefields of Gallipoli. What made it a little different this year was that we took young Australians from Turkish and Anglo-Celtic backgrounds—Ersoy, Alara, Erol, Simal, Yasmine, Georga, Hayden, Joel and Jackson. One hundred years ago some of their great grandfathers fought against each other. In January they walked together in their footsteps.

I also got the chance to walk in the footsteps of my great grandfather. His name was Jack Price. He was not an Anzac; he was a Royal Welch Fusilier. He was one of the lucky ones—he survived. And decades later, his great grandson got to know him, to love him and to call him ‘Pop’.

We walked 60 kilometres from Helles to Anzac to Sulva Bay. And we did it with the help of a lot of good and generous people, from our patron, the Governor of New South Wales David Hurley, to our incredible guide, Anzac Memorial historian and director, Brad Manera.

We were also privileged to walk with two distinguished Australian soldiers Major General Jim Molan, and ex-Commando Nick Hill and they walked together with two Turkish soldiers. One hundred years ago they were enemies, today good friends. We also managed to raise more than $30,000 for Soldier On, the organisation that supports Australian service men and women who have been wounded, physically or psychologically in contemporary conflicts.

On the second last day that we were at Gallipoli, we visited Shell Green Cemetery. In that cemetery lies the body of another of the 31 Bankstown boys who never came home. His name was Reginald Foote. He was an artist from Old Kent Road. He died on 17 December 1915, the day before the Anzacs evacuated. He was 20 years old.

War is nothing to be celebrated, but the people who fought and died deserve to be remembered. That is why we do these treks. That is why we have commissioned this book. On Anzac Day, I told the 1,500 people gathered at Bankstown Memorial Oval to think about their mum or to think about their dad, to think about their brother or their sister, to think about their husband or their wife, and then think about never seeing them again. That is what happened to Frederick Porter, the milkman from Gow Street. He never saw his mother, Sarah, or his dad, George, again. And that is what happened to Reginald Foote, the artist from Old Kent Road. He never saw his mum, Ethel, again. It is what happened to all of those 31 men on the memorial and to all of those who fell in World War I and to all those who have fallen since. This is not about war; it is about them—the extraordinary sacrifice they made so long ago. And that is why we do this and why we say we will remember them

Lest we ever forget.