One hundred years ago, on November 11, 1918, an eerie silence descended along the 760 kilometre length of the Western Front.
After four years, an armistice had been signed to end hostilities between the Allies and Germany. The First World War had ended.
The Horsham Times proclaimed: ‘Armistice signed 5 o’clock this morning’, and crowds gathered in Firebrace Street to listen to the proclamation.
Across the Wimmera, communities responded to the ‘wonderful news’. At Jung Jung, there was ‘great rejoicing’ and the church bell rung, ‘and all available bunting was flying.’
Bombardier Robert Lindsay, formerly a Horsham bank clerk, wrote to his father in Horsham: ‘Peace! We cannot realise properly yet that we have been blessed with peace.’
When the war began, on August 4, 1914, few imagined it would continue for more than four years.
In those final weeks, the armistice came suddenly and caught many by surprise. Australians fought their last battle of the war on October 5, 1918, at Montbrehain east of the Somme.
As the official historian, Charles Bean, wrote of that battle, ‘some astonishing deeds were done, but many splendid leaders killed.’
One of those killed that day was Sergeant Lindsay Ranson, an Ararat bank clerk who had served at Gallipoli, and France and Belgium throughout 1916 to 1918.
From late September 1918, in quick succession, Germany’s allies signed armistices with the Allies - Bulgaria on 29 September, Turkey on 30 October and Austria-Hungary on 3 November.
Conditions in Germany became almost unbearable so that revolution seemed imminent. On November 10, the Kaisar abdicated and the new Social Democratic party quickly signed the armistice.
No war had ever encompassed so much of the world and the costs even today seem beyond our comprehension. Thirteen million people died, 10 million of them combatants. Twenty million were severely wounded and eight million returned home permanently disabled. On average, over 5500 died every day.
The maimed returned to Australia: 3000 Australian officers and men of the AIF returned to Australia with artificial limbs. For older readers, it was common to see men with one leg, or one arm, sometimes no legs, in Melbourne streets.
David Bamford, from Penshurst, received gun shot wounds to his legs at Polygon Wood, near Ypres, in 1917. Both legs were amputated. He returned to Australia in 1919, where he lived out his days in Penshurst and Hamilton, cared for by his two brothers.
Children of the 1930s remembered him, joining ‘Anzac Day parades in his wheelchair which had steel rims and wooden spokes’ and one recalled sneaking into the pub and seeing him ‘perched up on the bar. His brothers would hoist him up.’
How easily we forget – Davey was buried in an unmarked grave in Penshurst cemetery.
Les Brooksby, born near Horsham, was wounded in action on 4 June 1918, and his arm amputated. In a letter home, he described his ‘right hand ... working overtime on account of his lazy old mate getting tired of life and preferring to be buried in France.’
Les was enthusiastically welcomed home in Horsham, and later worked for Kowree Shire Council as a rate collector. After 1931, he took up farming at Labertouche, Gippsland.
The war’s end did not end the suffering. The influenza pandemic of 1918-1919 infected 500 million people worldwide and between three and five per cent of the world’s population died. For many bereaved families, influenza was particularly cruel. Hopetoun’s Lieutenant Jim Griffin was killed in action at Bullecourt on 3 May 1917. His younger sister, May, who had written ‘sheaves of correspondence’ to local soldiers serving overseas, died of influenza on 7 May 1919 – almost two years to the day since her brother had been killed. As a mark of respect, seven returned men carried her coffin to the graveside at Hopetoun Cemetery.
The traditions we associate with Remembrance Day: red poppies and ceremonies at war memorials, began as men returned after 1918.
On the old battlefields, the Commonwealth War Graves Commission established their beautiful cemeteries. On the Western Front, which covers an area similar in size to that between Horsham and Ballarat, 956 CWGC cemeteries dot a landscape once churned by warfare.
So many men of Horsham and district lie buried in these now-peaceful memorials to four years of war.
Lest we forget.