Opinion – For some war is still in the head

As The Townsville Bulletin remarked recently, 61,530 Australians died in World War I.

None of them was just a mere statistic.

Every single one had a name and left someone to mourn their loss, to try to pick up the pieces, though never completely.

On July 19-20, 1916 at Fromelles the 5th Australian Division suffered 5533 casualties of whom almost 2000 were killed in action.

Of these 1299 were declared missing and 400 prisoners of war.

Most came from Brigadier Pompey Elliott’s 15th Brigade.

It was Australia’s worst night ever.

Australia’s total war dead numbers 102, 824 including 39,654 in WWII, 340 in Korea, 521 in Vietnam and 42 in Afghanistan.

Then there is HMAS Sydney lost 75 years ago this week on November 14, 1941.

On May 24, 1941 when the Royal Navy battle cruiser HMS Hood was sunk in the Denmark Strait only three of its 1418 crew survived.

On that late afternoon in November 1941 HMAS Sydney encountered a mysterious ship off Geraldton Western Australia which identified itself as the Dutch merchantman Straat Malakka.

It was actually the German raider HSK Kormoran which had cut a destructive swathe across the Pacific.

With a crew of 397 Kormoran adopted several disguises to hide its true identity from unsuspecting merchantmen which it then captured and sank.

Until it encountered the Sydney fully manned to its war establishment of 645, including RAAF aircrew for its Walrus seaplane and some civilian canteen staff.

From about 5.00 pm at a range of 1000m the two ships engaged in the formal posturing of naval identification until about 5.30 pm when the German captain realising the game was up dropped his camouflage and opened fire on Sydney.

The two ships exchanged intense fire for the next five minutes but by 6.00 pm all fire ceased and both mortally wounded vessels, now 10,000m apart entered their death throes.

By the time Sydney finally sank around 10.00 pm when its bow separated no one knows what its crew had endured, whether they realised their fate nor how they reacted.

For several decades the only clues to Sydney’s fate were a lifebelt and two damaged Carly life floats.

Kormoran’s 317 survivors as PoW provided some narrative of the battle but it wasn’t until the two wrecks were discovered in 2007 naval historians were able to establish Sydney’s final moments.

In a few hours Sydney suffered more KIA than either Korea or Vietnam and almost 10 times those in Afghanistan.

More tellingly, so far this year 41 identified veterans have committed suicide.

That’s one short of 42, The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy’s magical answer to the Ultimate Question of Life, the Universe and Everything.

Except no one knows what the question was.

Of all numbers the most telling is just one.

Every life lost in war or as a consequence of military service represents one individual whose death affects many.

Each suicide is one too many but the answer let alone the question remain elusive.

Finding both is essential to preventing more.

Ross Eastgate
Townsville Bulletin
17 November 2016


  1. Great article.
    Needs to be read by every soldier.
    Thank you for including it on the website.
    Look forward to a regular comment.

Speak Your Mind