Courage circa 1918

If you haven’t had the privilege of visiting the Villers-Bretonneux Australian Memorial in the Hauts-de-France region of northern France, I can tell you, it’s impressive. On a recent visit, it caused me to reflect on the comparisons between my military service and that of the soldiers that it commemorates. While there have been many changes over the last 100 years, the one thing I feel that has not are the important factors required to win battles. I believe perhaps one of the most important of all is the courage and resilience of the soldiers fighting it. While reading about and exploring Villers-Bretonneux, you are presented with many instances of the Australians’ extraordinary courage.

​One example is that of Walter Brown. Walter’s story is amazing, and the courage he displayed all through his life was, I think, astounding. Like me, Walter was Tasmanian. Born in 1885 he grew up not too far from where I did in New Norfolk. It’s easy to see him playing by the river as a child and, after finishing school, working in Hobart as a grocer. It was humbling to realise that, while treading the same battlefields he fought on, we had both grown up fighting the Derwent Valley’s winter cold as young men. More overwhelming was to learn of his courage under fire. You see, Walter was awarded a Victorian Cross, Australia’s highest award, for gallantry ‘in the presence of the enemy’ for his actions at Villers-Bretonneux. Documented in the London Gazette on the 17 August 1918, his citation read: 

“War Office, 17th August, 1918. His Majesty the KING has been graciously pleased to approve of the award of the Victoria Cross to the undermentioned Non-commissioned Officers and Man:
​— No. 1689A Corporal Walter Ernest Brown, D.C.M., A.I.F. For most conspicuous bravery and determination when with an advanced party from his battalion which was going into the line in relief. The company to which he was attached carried out during the night a minor operation resulting in the capture of a small system of enemy trench. Early on the following morning an enemy strong post about seventy yards distant caused the occupants of the newly captured trench great inconvenience by persistent sniping. Hearing that it had been decided to rush this post, Corporal Brown, on his own initiative, crept out along the shallow trench and made a dash towards the post. An enemy machine gun opened fire from another trench and forced him to take cover. Later he again dashed forward and reached his objective. With a Mills grenade in his hand he stood at the door of a dug-out and called on the occupants to surrender. One of the enemy rushed out, a scuffle ensued, and Corporal Brown knocked him down with his fist. Loud cries of “Kamerad” were then heard, and from the dug-out an officer and eleven, other ranks appeared. This party Corporal Brown brought back as prisoners to our line, the enemy meanwhile from other positions bringing heavy machine-gun fire to bear on the party.” 

​The words ‘courageous’ and ‘inspirational’ are tossed around a lot these days. Sportsmen are called heroes and we get given ‘finisher medals’ for completing fun runs. Now, there’s no doubt that every day people struggle with challenges and issues – one person’s walk in the park is another’s Mount Everest. But really? True courage is seen when ordinary people find themselves in extraordinary circumstances and face the challenge with resolve. The men at Villers-Bretonneux and across the Western Front faced death and appalling conditions with courage and resilience which even today, continues to awe their descendants. Walter Brown’s story does not end in 1918. It is worth reading the rest. He, and his brothers in arms, are great examples for us in our daily lives. Not only do they remind us to never forget the sacrifices of past generations for our freedoms and comforts. They also provide the gold-standard of courage and self-sacrifice to live up to

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