Marking the Centenary of the arrival of the first Australian troops in France in 1916

16 March 2016


Monsieur Consul général, distingués invités, amis.

We gather tonight to mark a sombre anniversary. The Australian troops who began arriving in France in March 1916, one hundred years ago this week, many of whom had already been bloodied in the nightmare that was Gallipoli, arrived at a time when some of the most hideous mass slaughters of the Twentieth Century were under way.

One such Battalion – the 48th was actually formed on this very day in 1916 in Egypt from various remnants of the Gallipoli campaign and by July was already fighting on the western front.

The hideous battle of Verdun had commenced just two weeks previously and was to last until December, during which, on 16 March the French forces achieved a major victory repulsing five enormous German assaults on Vaux.

It would not be long before Australian troops would be thrown into titanic battles, the names of which resonate in our history to this day: the Somme, Bullecourt, Messines, Fromelles, Pozieres and Villers-Bretonneux.

Many of the ties that bind our two people and nations were forged in those infernos but it is well to remember that our shared histories stretch much further back.

I was a child of the ‘70s and was taught at school that had Jean-Francoise de Galaup, comte de Laperouse arrived one week before Arthur Phillip instead of one week after him, our nation’s history would be very different. We would have needed the British Council to teach us English rather than have Alliance Française taking care of our linguistic needs. 24 January may have been our national day.

One of the most treasured works in our rare books collection in the Parliamentary Library is a 1793 first edition of Laperouse’s journal. At least we can be thankful that his diaries and charts were preserved as he left them here to be transported home, which they were on the First Fleet returning vessel the Alexander. Without that first example of Anglo-French co-operation in the colony those fantastic records would have perished with Laperouse and his fleet whose disappearance off Vanikoro in the Solomon Islands remains one of the great sea mysteries of all time.

Too few of us know the name of James Larra, the first Frenchman transported to the colony, arriving in 1790 in the Second Fleet, but perhaps it is no surprise that on his release in 1800 he stayed and opened an inn and restaurant. John Macarthur employed Gabrielle Huon de Kirilliare, a refugee from the French Revolution as tutor to his children. Prosper de Mestre was one of the earliest Directors of the Bank of New South Wales (1826-42); Nicolas Rossi was Superintendent of the NSW Police Force (1825-34) an Jules Joubert established the Lane Cove ferry and was the first mayor of Hunters Hill (1861).

Some of the most beautiful parts of this nation bear French names such as d’Entrecasteaux and Freycinet and there’s hardly a Sydney suburban backyard that does not boast its own bougainvillea.


All that said, it remains a fundamental truth that the deepest bonds between our two countries were indeed forged as our troops fought in the defence of freedom and of France.

The first wave of troops were organised into I Anzac Corps and II Anzac Corps alongside the New Zealand Division.  The 2nd Division was the first to arrive in France, followed by the 1st Division, while the 4th and 5th left Egypt later in June 1916. The 3rd Division was the last to arrive, having been formed in Australia in March 1916, and moving to England for training in July 1916, before being sent to France in December 1916.

Between March 1916 and November 1918 more than 295,000 Australians served in the Australian Imperial Force (AIF) in France and Belgium. Of these, some 132,000 became casualties and 46,000 lost their lives – at Pozières, where in a little over six weeks in 1916 the AIF suffered 23,000 battle casualties; or the fields of Belgian Flanders, where in October 1917 alone 6673 Australians died and a further 13,328 were wounded, missing or made prisoners of war.

At this time the Australian population was barely 5 million.

Twelve sitting members of this Parliament and 10 members of parliamentary staff enlisted and served in WWI and of these 5 members and 5 staff served in France.

William Currey won a Victoria Cross at Peronne in September 1918 and was subsequently elected to the NSW Legislative Assembly as Member for Kogarah.

I know just how deeply the people of France respect and honour and treasure the commitment made by soldiers from the other side of the globe who came to stand and fight and die alongside them in those bloody fields.

It is impossible not to be moved by a visit to the graves and the monuments of the western front as I personally had the great privilege of doing in July last year. My grandfather served in a Light Trench Mortar Brigade attached to the 2nd Division and it was an unforgettable experience visiting the 2nd Division Memorial at Mont St Quentin and the battlefield where he fought under Monash in what many people believe was the pivotal battle of the Great War.

That tens of thousands of Australians make this same journey that I did says something of the special relationship and the special bonds that exist between us. I hope many more will visit over the next two and a half years and into the future.

Today we find ourselves once again shoulder to shoulder in waging war – this time on a more insidious and fanatical enemy – international terrorism. We stand by you in response to the deaths of 130 people and the injuring of another352 in the November 2015 attacks.

Nous sommes Charlie.

Last year we celebrated the 800th anniversary of the Magna Carta, one of the foundation documents of our Australian political culture and heritage. That heritage runs from the Witan moots of Anglo-Saxon England, across the field of Runnymede to the writs of Habeas Corpus and our own Bill of Rights.

At the same time, we take from the French tradition the ideas of liberty, equality and fraternity; the principles of the Declaration of Man and the Citizen and the intellectual achievement of the philosophes and the French enlightenment which we place alongside our own British heritage.

We owe you much and have no embarrassment to say so.

It is thus a pleasure for me as President of the senior house of Australia’s oldest parliament, an inheritor of almost a thousand years of democratic tradition of representative government, to ask all of you to join with me, first in the honouring the memory of  those who have given their lives that representative government may continue to flourish, secondly in valuing the enduring friendship and bonds of history that unite Australia and France, and finally to raise a glass and toast to the President and the people of France. Vive le France.