Skip to main content
Poppies on the Australian War Memorial
Opinion_

Remembrance Day: A turning point in Australian history

10 November 2017
Historians reflect on Australia's wartime past

A year away from the centenary of the end of World War I, University of Sydney history academics reflect on the Great War’s impact on Australia as a young nation and the significant contribution our alumni made to the cause.

Remembrance Day this year will mark 99 years since the end of the ‘Great War’, with the four-year conflict formally ending “at the 11th hour of the 11th day of the 11th month” in 1918. Together with ANZAC Day on 25 April, the day commemorates the sacrifice and dedication of the servicemen and women and those affected by war over the four-year campaign.

Recognising the impact

Professor Stephen Garton, Deputy Vice-Chancellor and Provost of the University of Sydney, and historian and author of The Cost of War: Australians Return, says Remembrance Day is a chance to reflect on the long-lasting human, economic and cultural impact the war had on Australia

“Remembrance Day is a solemn day of commemoration held in many parts of the world. It is the anniversary of the declaration of Armistice to end the Great War (1914-1918). This ‘war to end-all-wars’ witnessed unprecedented loss of life, only to be superseded by World War II two decades later,” said Professor Garton.

“The Great War resulted in 18 million military and civilian deaths and 23 million wounded. This was the first major war in Western history where more people died as a result of combat than the effects of disease.

“This is a time to reflect on the consequences of war, the loss of so many young men and women and the terrible emotional, psychological and physical cost of so many ill, injured and damaged servicemen and women who returned from this terrible conflict. We must also acknowledge the sacrifice of so many. Australia experienced the highest proportion of military forces of any combatant nation with 60,000 dead and 150,000 wounded. Many lives across the generations were profoundly affected and shaped by the Great War and its aftermath,” said Professor Garton.

Army hat with ANZAC pin sitting atop a suitcase

A turning point in Australian history

Dr Peter Hobbins, a historian of military medicine, defence science and aviation in the Department of History, says the end of the war was a turning point in Australian medical history.

“Remembrance Day marks the end of an era of sacrifice, suffering and death. What's often less appreciated is that it also heralded a new relationship between Australians and our governments. From repatriation medical benefits, to the Spanish influenza pandemic, the end of World War I saw a fundamental change in what we expected from our healthcare system, and what we would surrender to achieve it."

Alumni lead the charge

Associate Professor Julia Horne, a historian specialising in Australian cultural and social history and co-director of an online biographical website about the Great War, Beyond 1914, highlights the need to acknowledge the sacrifice made by our past students.  

“On November 11 this year, I will think about the amazing life of Elsie Dalyell,” said Associate Professor Horne. “Elsie was an outstanding medical graduate from the University of Sydney who, because of her gender, was not permitted to join either the AIF or the British Army despite both armies’ desperate need for doctors. Instead, she joined independent medical units set up by women in Britain, such as the Serbian Relief Unit and the Scottish Women’s Hospital.

“She served on various war fronts including the Eastern and Western Fronts, and there, tended to the medical needs of men from allied forces, as well as contributed to the control of infection, the major killer of soldiers in all previous wars. In fact, World War I was the first war in which rampant deadly infections were largely controlled. Without people like Elsie Dalyell, death tolls would have been even higher than they were, so we have much to thank for the work of such women (and men) doctors,” said Associate Professor Horne.

They shall grow not old, as we that are left grow old: Age shall not weary them, nor the years condemn. At the going down of the sun and in the morning, We will remember them.
Laurence Binyon (Ode of Remembrance)

Beyond 2014 - The University of Sydney and the Great War

Many members of the University community were affected by the break out of war in 1914. In 2014, 100 years on, the University launched the online resource Beyond 1914 – the University of Sydney and the Great War, a free, searchable database comprising photographs, letters and diaries, plus biographical information of over 2,500 men and women, all graduates, students or staff of the University who served in World War I.

Charlotte Moore

Assistant Media and PR Adviser (Humanities)