Campbell High School student, Harvey Butler, 12, of Dickson with his crosses at the War Memorial. Photo: Graham Tidy
The Australian men who fell on the Western Front might have been dead for nearly a century, but it's never too late to say thank you.
Students from across the country now have the chance to do just that when they visit the War Memorial, where they can write their thanks on small wooden crosses each adorned with a single red poppy.
The crosses will then be placed on the graves of Australian soldiers across the battlefields of the Western Front as part of Anzac Day ceremonies.
One of the messages displayed on a cross. Photo: Graham Tidy
Year 7 students from Campbell High thought long and hard about their messages during a visit to the War Memorial on Tuesday before packing their crosses into boxes along with hundreds of others to be sent off to the battlefields.
Harvey Butler, 12, had his own family in mind when he penned his missive; his great-grandfather had died on the front.
"War should never happen, lives should not have been lost, but those who gave their lives will be forever remembered," he wrote.
Zachary Hewertson, also 12, said he was struck by knowing the men who fought for Australia had chosen to lay down their lives.
"I don't think anyone really had the right to make their lives that way, to take away their lives, but I think the fact that they selflessly sacrificed their lives and they knew what was at stake, for our country so everyone here can walk free, I think that's a great thing that they've done and they didn't have to do that," he said.
Memorial director Brendan Nelson said the commemorative project began in 2010, when he was serving as the ambassador to the European Union, Belgium and Luxembourg.
He was contacted by Peter Pickering, of the Sons of the British Empire organisation, who had been visiting schools in Tasmania and telling students about the Australian sacrifice in the First World War.
"He was taking these crosses and getting the kids to write these messages … he wrote to me and asked if I'd be the patron, and I said it would be a privilege," he said.
Dr Nelson arranged to have some of the crosses sent over and placed on graves in a Flanders cemetery, and the project has since expanded to become a nationwide initiative.
He said as the centenary of the First World War approached, it was more important than ever to keep alive the memory of the 60,000 Australians killed, especially among young people.
"If I have the privilege to have anything to do with it, I'm determined to see it grow. We have young Australians who get an understanding of what this is about. They think, 'What's my message, what do I want to say to these men?' And then at the other end, you've got an Australian, often an adult, who'll pick it and up think, 'I'm reading something written by a child, a student, a young person in Australia, about what this means to them'."
Dr Nelson said it was a practical way to connect the past and future.
"What I would like to do is to order a significant number of crosses, and given this is the First World War, have an Australian Army rising sun on them from that era, and an Australian War Memorial image at one end, and have this become a permanent part of our program.
"What I want to do is to have them go to Brussels for Flanders, to Paris for Villers-Bretonneux and Bullecourt, and to Ankara for Gallipoli. And in some cases, the graves will end up with 30 crosses on them because there'll be more crosses than graves."