Last Post ceremony at War Memorial draws huge crowds to hear sad stories
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Last Post ceremony at War Memorial draws huge crowds to hear sad stories

Presentations of biographies of individual servicemen and servicewomen on roll of honour strike a chord.

The Last Post ceremony at the Australian War Memorial is rapidly becoming a must-do for visitors to Canberra.

The key to its popularity is the decision to personalise the roll of honour, the seemingly endless list of Australia's war dead.

Representing the Bell family is Alan Hall of Melbourne after the Last Post ceremony at the Australian War Memorial in Canberra for Flight Lieutenant John Napier Bell.

Representing the Bell family is Alan Hall of Melbourne after the Last Post ceremony at the Australian War Memorial in Canberra for Flight Lieutenant John Napier Bell.Credit:Melissa Adams

The simple but sombre event regularly draws hundreds of people to the memorial at dusk, to hear the mournful note of the bugle, the swirl of bagpipes – and occasionally sobs as the story of a dead Australian is told. The walls alongside the Pool of Reflection – where the Eternal Flame flickers – are etched with the names of more than 102,000 servicemen and servicewomen who died for their country in war and other operations.

As crowds gather at 4.55pm every day (except Christmas Day), they are reminded of Charles Bean's vision for a memorial to remember the war dead. After the singing of the national anthem, a piper plays a lament as wreaths and floral tributes are laid beside the Pool of Reflection.

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Representing the Bell family are from left, Alan Hall and his wife Laureen both of Melbourne lay a wreath during the Last Post ceremony at the Australian War Memorial in Canberra for Flight Lieutenant John Napier Bell.

Representing the Bell family are from left, Alan Hall and his wife Laureen both of Melbourne lay a wreath during the Last Post ceremony at the Australian War Memorial in Canberra for Flight Lieutenant John Napier Bell. Credit:Melissa Adams

A uniformed member of the Defence Force steps forward to read the story of one dead serviceman or servicewoman. Usually a photograph of the person being remembered is displayed. It's always a poignant event and often the reader's voice hesitates, particularly as the young age of the person hits home.

"He was 23 years old," the solemn audience was told on Monday this week when the story of Private Clive Marcusen was told.

Marcusen was among the first wave of troops ashore at Gallipoli in the pre-dawn hours of April 25, 1915. After suffering a gunshot wound, he was evacuated to Egypt where he was visited by his brother, Ernest, before he too was sent to Gallipoli.

Clive Marcusen recovered and returned to Gallipoli but his unit was later sent to France. Tragedy struck on April 20, 1916, when the battalion was heavily shelled. The bombardment killed 25 men, including Marcusen. He was buried at the Rue-Du-Bacquerot Graveyard – known as the 13th London – at Laventie.

Squadron Leader Marcus Watson during the Last Post ceremony at the Australian War Memorial in Canberra for Flight Lieutenant John Napier Bell.

Squadron Leader Marcus Watson during the Last Post ceremony at the Australian War Memorial in Canberra for Flight Lieutenant John Napier Bell. Credit:Melissa Adams

"This is but one of the many stories of courage and sacrifice told here at the Australian War Memorial," the crowd was told. More than 100 school students were stunned to silence by this sad story, on a cold winter evening.

The stories being read at the Last Post ceremony are meticulously researched by the memorial's historians, with the families providing vital details of the person's life before he or she enlisted.

Wreaths are laid during the Last Post ceremony at the Australian War Memorial in Canberra for Flight Lieutenant John Napier Bell.

Wreaths are laid during the Last Post ceremony at the Australian War Memorial in Canberra for Flight Lieutenant John Napier Bell. Credit:Melissa Adams

One of the most moving Last Post ceremonies told the story of Captain Robert Page, of Z Special Unit.

He was studying medicine at the University of Sydney in 1940 but left after a year to enlist. He sailed on the Krait on a mission to sneak a crew of 14 behind Japanese lines.

Page and five other men paddled canoes into Singapore Harbour to attach limpet mines to ships, destroying or seriously damaging seven.

On his return he married Roma Prowse in Canberra on November 1, 1943. He was not allowed to tell his wife about the secret operation.

On a later mission, he was captured and beheaded, one month before the end of the war. He was 25 years old.

When Page was honoured with the Last Post ceremony, his widow – who had never remarried – brought flowers from their wedding cake for the floral tribute she laid in memory of her husband.

According to witnesses, there wasn't a dry eye in the crowd.

The reaction was similar last month when Professor Robert Holland, of Sydney, hobbled forward, helped by two grandsons.

He was laying a wreath next to a portrait of his father, Major Llonda Holland, an Australian Army doctor who drowned when the Hospital Ship Centaur was torpedoed near Brisbane in World War II. That day's Last Post was dedicated to the 268 victims of the Centaur sinking, while the story of one – Llonda Holland – was told.

On Thursday this week, another sad story was told – of Flight Lieutenant John Bell, of 10 Squadron RAAF.

He took off in an amphibious Supermarine Walrus from Devon at 3am on June 1940 on a top secret mission to rescue the wife and children of French general Charles de Gaulle from Brittany.

Unknown to the crew, the family had already boarded a ferry. In thick fog, the aircraft went off course and crashed. All on board were killed. The covert mission was kept under wraps until the 1970s.

In steady rain on Thursday, Alan Hall and his wife represented Bell's family to lay a floral tribute. Hall's ancestors laid out the South Australian settlement of Farina where Bell was born.

When Hall, an ex-serviceman, discovered the lack of recognition for the volunteer crew of the Walrus, he researched and wrote a book, Four Men and the Walrus. After the Last Post ceremony, he struggled to keep his emotions in check.

At this weekend's Last Post ceremonies, two brothers from Devonport, James and John Leo, will be remembered. Both died in World War I.

When Dr Brendan Nelson was appointed director of the memorial, he had been Australia's ambassador to the European Union and Belgium, based in Brussels.

He regularly made the 90-minute drive to Ypres to attend the Last Post ceremony at Menin Gate, the magnificent stone arch built at the end of the First World War to commemorate British and Commonwealth soldiers killed, whose bodies were never found. The names of 6169 Australians are inscribed on the walls.

"I would often ask myself why don't they tell us something about one of the people who are named on the gate," Nelson says. "When I came here to the War Memorial I remember on my second day I was told there was a closing ceremony so I went over with some excitement in a sense to see the closing ceremony.

"It comprised one of our staff placing a lectern next to the Pool of Reflection and reading a brief history of the Last Post and then a man would play the Last Post and our staff would say, 'thank you everyone, have a lovely night'.

"That's when it struck me – I stood in that commemorative area and thought we can do what I regard as a more appropriate tribute. And given we have historians who work here at the memorial, surely here of all places we can tell Australians the story behind one of them, one of the names on the roll of honour."

His proposal sparked some scepticism among the institution's conservative constituency. However, it began in 2013, with no fanfare.

Nelson tweaked the order of proceedings and held the official launch in April when the story of Private Robert Poate, who was killed in Afghanistan, was read.

Family and friends of Canberra-born Poate joined the chief of the Defence Force, General David Hurley, the four living Australian Victoria Cross recipients, New Zealand Victoria Cross recipient Corporal Willie Apiata, as well as servicemen and women, veterans, cadets and tourists for the inaugural ceremony.

Nelson is determined the memorial will remain true to Charles Bean's vision but also wants to make the history live.

"Part of what we need to do is get people to look beyond the headlines, to look beyond the broad brushstrokes – 102,700 Australians on the role of honour for example – and to then go down and be reminded that every single one of them was a person just like us, a real person who had a life, who loved and was loved, who then joined our Defence Force and gave his or her life for our nation," he says. "And in doing so, we engage a new generation of Australians in our history."

Attendance at the event varies, from about 50 to 150, but the audience regularly swells to 300 or 400.

"Whilst the template is the same each evening, every service is different, there is always a lot of emotion and it is watched widely on the broadcast," Nelson says.

"We had to stop people coming in on Anzac Day when we got to about 1400 but 300 people still stood outside simply to listen to the Last Post ceremony."

Nelson says the Last Post ceremony is now widely recognised and valued. For instance, outgoing senior Defence personnel choose to read the life story at the service, on the last day of their military service.

"[Retiring chief of the Defence Force] General Hurley had to stop several times when he was reading the story.

"We recently conducted a Last Post ceremony for Cameron Baird [killed on Afghanistan]. The outgoing chief of Army General [David] Morrison read the story and the Governor-General, Prime Minister, Opposition Leader and other dignitaries attended."

Nelson recalls he went to Adelaide for a ceremony for the air warfare destroyer which he had signed off on as Defence Minister. Three members of the public sought him out to thank him for the Last Post ceremony, saying they had watched the webcast.

Jodi Hammond, the co-ordinator of the War Memorial's Last Post event, says there is no shortage of Defence personnel volunteering to do the reading and then move to the central steps to recite the Ode.

"That means there's a Defence person there on Christmas Eve, on Boxing Day, on New Year's Eve, and every Saturday and Sunday," she says.

"For a person in uniform, that's an incredibly powerful event – they're standing on the steps of the Australian War Memorial, they have just paid tribute to the service of one person on the roll of honour, they're looking straight down Anzac Avenue and they can see Parliament House, it's a pretty emotional experience for them.

"Every story is different so every ceremony is an individual experience."

Hammond vividly recalls the Last Post dedicated to the Centaur crew.

"There were hundreds of schoolchildren there who went away knowing the story of the Centaur and of Major Holland.

"Year 9 is a very hard age group to impress.

"I remember standing near a group of year 9s [at another service] and one of them turned to the teacher afterwards and said: 'That was awesome, can we come back again?'"

Twitter: rosspeakeCT

Ross Peake is a senior reporter for The Canberra Times

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