It’s the worst fear of anyone who sends a loved one abroad on military deployment. Army Chaplain Brenton Fry is responsible for delivering the news that their son, daughter, husband or wife – has been killed in combat.
Today, at the 11th hour of this 11th day in this 11th month, he will remember them.
“There are some things you can train for, but you’re just not prepared for until you’re doing it,” he said.
“It’s horrific. I couldn’t even begin to explain the emotion that goes with that resting of life and the loss and suffering. That person is not here any more.”
“But the thing is, however hard it is for the people delivering it, it is significantly worse for the people receiving it.”
Remembrance Day marks the moment at 11am on the 11th of November, 1918 when the Germans called for an armistice to secure a peace settlement with the allied armies.
They’d suffered heavy defeat over the preceding months and called for a suspension of fighting.
On the first anniversary of this momentous peace deal, an Australian journalist named Edward Honey, who was working in London at the time, proposed two minutes silence be observed. It was endorsed by King George V and became the centrepiece of commemorations on what was now commonly known as Armistice Day.
As the years passed and the day was also used to honour and remember those who were lost while serving in World War II, the Australian and British governments changed the name of the day to Remembrance Day.
In 1997, Australia’s Governor-General Sir William Deane issued a proclamation formally declaring 11 November to be called Remembrance Day. He urged all Australians to observe one minute’s silence at 11am on 11 November each year to remember those who died or suffered in all wars and armed conflicts.
“For me, on the 11th of the 11th of the 11th, the guns fell silent, so I always think about the fact that after years of war, those combatants on both sides of the trenches had this silence that they hadn’t had before,” Chaplain Fry said.
“And from the time that the last gun fired, for a short period of time at least, there was peace. That’s always my starting point when I close my eyes to reflect on the 11th of November.”
But there is also a far more personal affiliation for the man the troops and Army personnel affectionately call Padre Fry.
He was an elite soldier himself with a career of almost 40 years in the military. In 2002 he was appointed the Squadron Sergeant Major of the Commando Signal Squadron.
By 2012, with 20 years’ service behind him, he entered into the Army’s full-time study scheme as a Chaplain.
“My Dad was a World War II veteran and I can remember when I told him I was going to join the Army. And he said “you’re not going to like it”,” Chaplain Fry recalls.
“He didn’t say don’t do it. He just said I don’t think you’re going to like it. You won’t like the discipline required. But here I am, 30 odd years later and I’m still cracking away at it.”
He came from a long line of military stock on both sides of his family tree.
His great uncle served in South Australia’s 43rd Battalion which was involved in the legendary Battle of Hamel.
Years later he would learn that his Grandfather on his Mother’s side, had lost two brothers in combat in World War I.
“He made it home, but he never spoke about it. My only guess is the pain of them not coming home was too much that his Mother never spoke about it,” he said.
“I’ve maintained contact with a couple of families of those who have fallen in Afghanistan and I think I understand that approach, because it’s something that only the families know. We don’t know how they feel and what they’ve lived with.”
“So that’s another dimension for me on the 11th of November. To remember the horrendous things that happened on the front is one dimension, but we should never forget the families and the suffering that followed. It doesn’t stop even when they come home.”
It’s helped add context and significance to a day so important on Australia’s calendar, but one which sadly, appears to be slipping off the radar for far too many, 102 years after that momentous armistice agreement.
“Perhaps I have romanticised it way too much in my mind. But when I was a kid, and by that we’re talking 50 years ago, at 11am on the 11th of November, everything stopped. They were no cars on the road. There were no planes in the sky. Everything stopped,” he said.
“I think in general; society has changed its focus to ANZAC Day. There was a period of time there where ANZAC Day did drop away when I compare it to what it was like when I was a kid, but in recent years there has been a marked increase in wanting to show respect for our service men and women, which is very humbling.”
“But I think when it comes to Remembrance Day, in a very real way, we all have a responsibility to mark it and respect it.”
“For some of the soldiers, ANZAC Day is perhaps a day of reconnection. For others it can be horrible as well.”
“Remembrance Day, I think because of the passing of those generations, those people who were involved in it are no longer alive, but their descendants are, and I think it is our responsibility to make sure they are not forgotten.”
“When the ode is read, the back end of the ode is ‘We Will Remember Them’ and people repeat that. ‘We Will Remember Them’ and ‘Lest We Forget’. That’s like a contract that we have made with them that we will not forget them. So, it is now our responsibility to not forget them.”
“When I was a Padre at RMC (Royal Military College), they’ve got an honour roll at the flag station at the top of the parade ground. They used to invite the cadets to salute as they walked past and pick a name, look at that name and think about the names on every memorial around our country. To remember that that was someone’s son or daughter. Someone’s brother or sister. A husband perhaps. A wife. It was to try and get them to think about the reality of what it is that Army, Navy and Air-Force sign up for.”
“I’ll be thinking about my three great uncles. The one that came back 12 months after Armistice Day. I only met him once. And I’ll certainly be thinking more about my Mother’s Father’s brothers who were killed in the war.”
“Of course, underneath that, I’ll be thinking about the families that I know who had sons or daughters who died.”
“And particularly during the minute’s silence, about peace, which I think is what everyone really wants.”
More than 100,000 Australians have lost their lives through war. 41 have been killed in combat since 2007. Far too many others have taken their own lives as a result of the psychological scars they’ve been unable to reconcile on their return.
Today, especially, we will remember them.
“Remembrance Day. ANZAC Day. The day that their loved one was killed or died, those anniversaries are just horrible and painful in a lot of ways for so many people.”
“I’ve heard some of the families I have dealt with say that time doesn’t heal it. In fact, in many ways, it just makes it worse.”
“But we need to give a heap of credit to the fallen’s mates who have kept in touch with the families. They lost a son, but they gained a Battalion’s worth of support and I’ve heard so often just how comforting that is as they work their way through their grief.”
“It’s never easy, but I am happy to have been able to share a little bit of the burden with the families because that’s what we should do.”
“Today is a day to respect and honour all those who serve and for the families who’s loved ones have died, whether it’s on operational duty or not.”
We Will Remember Them. Lest We Forget.