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Think Piece – Why did they have to die?

Thursday 1 October, 2015

Graham Cornes_2_croppedOn the 25 August 1915, Gunner Alfred Cornes was wounded in action at Gallipoli. He had been on the Peninsula for 42 days with the Brigade Ammunition Column, 3rd Field Artillery Brigade. When Eric Bogle, the Scottish songwriter who calls Australia home, so eloquently juxtaposed the spirit of ANZAC against the futility of war in his iconic song “And The Band Played Waltzing Matilda,” he could have been talking about Alfred Cornes, my grandfather. For a big Turkish shell did knock him “arse over head.” It sprayed shrapnel into his eye, head, neck and torso and buried him under a mound of earth, from which his mates dug him out. They thought he was dead. When he appeared at a reunion some years later one of his mates said incredulously “but you were dead.” Not quite.

But he suffered and just over a year after he was wounded he was discharged, medically unfit. The physical wounds slowly healed but the psychological ones didn’t. His service records say curtly: “5.9.16 Discharged from the AIF at Melbourne – Medically unfit – Disability – G.S.W.  Face.  Shell Shock.”

He was a stern, severe man. My father would never forgive him for the brutality that he inflicted on him and the harshness of the family regimen on the soldier settlers block at Camperdown. However, I knew him as my “Pop”, and while he did shun affection and rarely smiled, I embraced him with that affection that kids have for their grandparents. I think he was kind to me; my grandmother certainly was. He was 77 when he died – a good innings for one who had suffered so. However, we never were able to talk about “The War”. Why did so many fine young Australians march like lemmings to their death? Why did we subjugate ourselves to those incompetent British politicians and generals? Why did 60,000 young men from our small nation have to die?

Those of us born after WW II – the baby boomers – marveled at the spirit of ANZAC. Our grandfathers and our great-uncles had been at Gallipoli and on the Western Front in Europe; our fathers and our uncles had fought in WW II. Our teachers, because they were predominantly men, had also been to war. There was a hard edge to them and they meted out corporal punishment summarily, almost sadistically. We were captivated and seduced by the unique bond that they shared. They clung to their war-time memories, that only they understood. The RSL clubs were their havens of mateship, understanding and healing. And drinking!

Then it was our turn. Politicians never learn. They conscripted us and sent us off again to fight another country’s war. Imbued by the spirit of ANZAC – perhaps in search of it – we went willingly, our common sense annulled by our youth and a misguided sense of adventure. A different war, but the courage and the sacrifice was the same, although on a much lesser scale and confined to those few whose birthday fell on an unfortunate date. Same also was the futility.

Most of us came back, although 500 didn’t. Why did they die?

Gunner Alfred Cornes could not have imagined that 100 years later his name would be preserved and remembered as an ANZAC; that regardless of how tough he was as a father, his grandson would be immensely proud of him; that he had imbued in us a unique spirit – the spirit of ANZAC. And he knew, as we would come to know, the real meaning of ANZAC: Sacrifice, Mateship, Courage, Remembrance, Patriotism.


Graham Cornes OAM- has spent a lifetime in AFL football as a successful player and coach culminating in his admission to the Australian Football Hall of Fame in 2012. His football career, was balanced by a corporate career, in which he was the dealer principal of several successful automobile franchises. For over 23 years he was a radio broadcaster co-hosting Australia’s most successful sport, talk radio programme on FIVE aa for 18 years. It consistently rated number one in the Adelaide market, beating even the most popular syndicated national programmes.Having been drafted under the National Service Act Graham also served two years in the Australian Army, including a tour of duty as an infantry soldier in South Vietnam in 1970.

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