St Kilda’s connections to the First World War

By  |  0 Comments

By The Hon Michael Danby MP

Nothing compares to standing on the beach at Gallipoli. When you see the gravestones just by the water’s edge, it really communicates itself to you—the sacrifice that Australians made in the pursuit of our national identity and in those terrible battles where 8000 Australians died, in that salient that could not be penetrated in all of those months of 1915.

Our part of Melbourne was heavily affected by the war. Just up Beaconsfield Pde, Port Melbourne in those days was pivotal to the war effort. Melbourne was then the capital of Australia, and people and materiel were shipped from here to the far side of the world. In total 126,753 servicemen, medical staff, chaplains and other support personnel embarked from Port Melbourne. On 19 October 1914 the first Australian troopship left from Port Melbourne. You can see the iconic pictures of that launch in every RSL around the country. Pictures on the walls of the Anzacs leaving, with all of the streamers being thrown at them and very big crowds on the dock down below.

According to the National Archives, 830 people born in St Kilda enlisted in the war effort, with a total of 3719 from surrounding suburbs, which make up the federal electorate of Melbourne Ports. It was also to Port Melbourne that fewer returned. Almost a third of the more than 60,000 Australians who died in World War I were Victorian.

As a little boy I remember my grandfather John Peek marching to the St Kilda Army and Navy Club outside Luna Park and going up that scary European-style grill elevator to where we used to have the Christmas party for kids at the St Kilda RSL. Representing the Opposition in 2002, I visited the WWI battlefield at Villers–Bretonneux. I remember walking up the hill and seeing a sandstone wall in which the names of 10,000 Australians who were killed in the First World War and who have no known grave were engraved. I found on that wall the name of my grandmother’s brother, David Swan, one of the thousands of Australians butchered in the British-led military operations after the Battle of Pozieres—probably the most disastrous event for the Australian nation in the First World War.

Over the past year, we have been commemorating the centenary of ANZAC. On 25 April this year, cold winds and rain did not deter hundreds of people from gathering at several services across the Melbourne Ports area to mark the centenary of the Gallipoli landing.

There have also been several federal grants made available through the Melbourne Ports Centenary of Anzac fund. These have included a memorial sculpture near the Shrine to celebrate the Australian–Turkish friendship forged over the last 100 years, as well as a moving sculpture by Peter Corlett in Albert Park of Matron Grace Wilson and a recuperating digger both set on a plinth, like something from the ancient world. Matron Wilson, who was stationed on the Greek island of Lemnos, was made famous earlier this year with the TV show ANZAC Girls.

St Kilda has long commemorated its connections with those first Anzacs. Jacka Blvd is named for Albert Jacka VC (1893–1932), World War I hero and former mayor of St Kilda. Jacka was the first Australian to be awarded the Victoria Cross in World War I, just three weeks after the fateful landing at Anzac Cove. He later served on the Western Front where he was decorated twice more for bravery (which, according to many historians, should have won him two further VCs).

None of these commemorations attempt to glorify war. Indeed, most speakers and monuments recall the horrors that war inflicts on soldiers, their families back home and, of course, the civilians caught up in the fighting. The terrible situation in Syria and the millions of refugees in surrounding countries, as well as Europe, is a modern-day reminder that war has lost none of its brutality. But these centenary of Anzac commemorations also remind us of the sacrifice that normal Australians made for their country, for the freedom of other people’s countries, and for their comrades in arms.

Michael Danby is the federal Member for Melbourne Ports

Find us on FacebookFind us on FacebookFind us on FacebookFind us on Facebook