Photo: The first convoy of Australian troops heading off to WWI departed from Albany on WA’s south coast. (Supplied: Albany History Collection)
It was a moment in history that helped define our fledgling country, when the first fleet of brave young men and women set sail to represent Australian on the bloody battlefields of World War I.
Now, 100 years later, tens of thousands of people have descended on Western Australia’s quiet coastal town of Albany to remember their courage, bravery and sacrifice.
“Our nation suffered immensely,” RSL state president Graham Edwards said.
“This was a war that ripped the heart and soul out of our young country.
“So many men who left communities, that were never the same, so many men who came home but were never the same.”
Albany’s King George Sound was the gathering point for ships carrying Australian and New Zealand soldiers, before they set sail for the war on November 1.
Merchant ships departed Albany together with three cruisers – the HMA ships Melbourne and Sydney and the HMS Minotaur. They were later joined at sea by two ships carrying troops from South Australia and WA and escort Japanese cruiser the HIJMS Ibuki.
This event also marks the beginning of the Anzac centenary, where the nation will pause and remember key events during WWI that helped shape the nation.
The more than 30,000 troops who departed in the first fleet had come from all walks of life, from right across the nation, Mr Edwards said.
“From the mining towns, from the Wheatbelt and farming towns, from lawyers’ offices, from railway stations, they were shopkeepers, they were shop owners, they were business owners, they were young men from the outback, fit, strapping,” he said.
“They were supported by so many women who went away in terms of nursing support.
“This was the cream of Australian youth, and it must have so dramatically hurt our nation, our community, our mothers and fathers who gave their young sons and their young daughters to the tempest and trauma of that horrific war in Gallipoli and in France.”
Australia’s population was less than 5 million at the time war broke out. The cost in lives and casualties was high. Of the 416,809 men who enlisted, 60,000 were killed and 156,000 wounded, gassed, or taken prisoner.
‘Biggest logistical event’ the city has undertaken
Some 60,000 people were expected to travel to Albany, a town of about 35,000, to mark the occasion.
Albany Mayor Dennis Wellington said it was the biggest logistical event the city had ever undertaken and had been about five years in the making.
The centre of town will be shut down from Friday afternoon and 60 coaches will ferry people around.
“The problem I guess with getting 60,000 people coming down is that 98 per cent of them are going to drive, so we’re looking at 20,000 vehicles on the road,” Mr Wellington said.
Police have warned there will be major traffic delays on key arterial roads in the South West, with drivers asked to allow eight hours from Perth to Albany.
Mr Wellington said managing the traffic flow would be one of the biggest tasks, and he asked people to be patient.
“The whole city is embracing [the event],” he said.
“We’ve asked them to be mindful that there could be a few delays, … but to welcome all the visitors here, make sure they enjoy the experience.
“We believe that the Anzac story is Australia and New Zealand’s greatest story, and we need to make this commemoration as memorable as their effort was in the First World War.”
The Royal Australian Navy will hold a ceremony at sunset tonight at the Anzac Peace Park.
On Saturday, Australian and New Zealand defence force personnel will be joined by veterans in a march through town from 9:00am, culminating in a service remembering the fallen at the Albany Peace Park.
At 1:00pm Saturday, Royal Australian Naval ships will depart from the King George Sound, symbolising the centenary of the first convoy’s departure.
During these solemn events, Mr Edwards is asking people to pause and reflect on the great sacrifice those aboard the boats made.
“I’ll be asking people to look beyond the memorials, to look beyond the words and the wreaths, and to think about the young lives that were so traumatically cut short by the horror and the reality of war,” he said.
“Every one of those young men and women was a young person who had hopes, dreams, loves, ambitions for the future, not just for themselves but for their country as well.
“I think we should reflect on the character of those young men and women, we should reflect on the character they took with them, and I think we should reflect on the cost of that horrific war to our nation and indeed to the world.”