The Australian War Memorial’s decision to put the names of fallen World War I Diggers up in lights has received a thumbs-up from the nation’s oldest living Victoria Cross recipient.
Keith Payne, and his wife Florence, were among the hundreds who gathered in the cloisters around the Pool of Reflection on Monday evening to mark the centenary of the outbreak of WWI.
The focal point of the commemoration was the projection of the names of some of Australia’s 62,000 WWI combat dead on the memorial tower.
Each name is going to be projected on the tower up to 30 times over the next four years.
The individual letters are more than a metre high and, depending on weather conditions and the viewer’s eyesight, should be visible from the lake end of Anzac Parade.
Prime Minister Tony Abbott had launched an innovative Roll of Honour soundscape, with audio of schoolchildren reading the names of individual soldiers and their age when they died, earlier in the day.
“It [the projection of the names] is a brilliant idea,” Mr Payne said. “Today is a very special day; it marks the start of a war in which a young nation lost far too many beautiful young men; men who would have fathered a new generation of Australians themselves.”
Mr Payne, who was awarded the VC for saving up to 40 men during a firefight while serving as a warrant officer with the Australian Army Training Team in Vietnam in May 1969, is one of a handful of living Australians who have demonstrated the gallantry associated with the Diggers of 1914-1918.
“When you look at it, they only award the Victoria Cross for one purpose [gallantry in the face of the enemy],” he said.
“But for you to receive it there have to be a whole lot of people around to see what you are doing. All of these blokes [the fallen WWI diggers] should have got the Victoria Cross.
“Just going over the top knowing you are unlikely to survive took a lot of moral courage. It also left us with that incredible Anzac spirit of standing by your mates.”
Mr Payne said although his grandfather had fought in WWI his name would not be appearing on the tower.
“He was one of the lucky ones,” he said. “He came home and that’s why I’m here. As children we used to call him 'Cranky Fred'. But now, having had a bit of life experience myself [he turns 81 this month], I know why he was cranky. It was shell shock, we call it PTSD [post traumatic stress disorder] today, and a touch of gas as well.”
Mr Payne, who has given much of his life to helping veterans and counselling PTSD victims, is a patron of the Victoria Cross Trust.
A long-term resident of Mackay in Queensland, his visit to Canberra gave him a chance to meet up with former ACT RSL president and WWII RAAF veteran, Ron Metcalfe, now aged 94.
Mr Metcalfe, who served in Darwin and Borneo, also has close links with WWI.
“My father, John George Metcalfe, served in France at Villers Bretonneux.”
Memorial director Dr Brendan Nelson said it was very easy to accept the “broad brush strokes” view of history favoured by analysts and professional historians; to talk about units, companies and battalions and to discuss campaigns in France and Turkey and New Guinea.
“These two projects [the name projections and the soundscape] have a single purpose,” he said.
“They are part of a program to ensure that we never forget the individual sacrifices that have been made in our name.”