HomeNewsAustraliaEmbassy of Belgium in Canberra: “Today, is Remembrance Day, 14.271 Australians were killed or mortally wounded in Belgium alone”

Embassy of Belgium in Canberra: “Today, is Remembrance Day, 14.271 Australians were killed or mortally wounded in Belgium alone”

On the occasion of the commemorations of November 11, the Belgian Ambassador in Canberra, H.E. Michel Goffin, delivered a very emotional speech to honour the memory of the Australian soldiers.

“Dear friends of Belgium, Dear Australian friends,

Today, is Remembrance Day.

We are gathered here, on this beautiful ground in Yarralumla, to honour the memory of the Australian soldiers, of all ranks and all origins, including Aboriginal and Torres, who made the ultimate sacrifice on Belgian soil, upholding the idea of Decency, Gallantry, Freedom and Democracy.

As my country, Belgium, remembers each year its own fallen on the 11th of November, it also remembers the bond of blood that was established with the ANZAC’s on the battlefields of Menin Road, Polygon Wood, Ypres, Passchendaele, Broodseinde, Langemark-Poelkapelle, Zonnebeke, and many more…

The Great War has seen 330.000 volunteers from Australia embark on a journey overseas to serve in the defence of the Realm and Empire of King George, from which  more than 60.000 never returned, 156.000 were wounded, gassed or taken prisoner. During that conflict, 14.271 Australians were killed or mortally wounded in Belgium alone.

We, Belgians, owe them, and their many brothers in arms of the Allied nations, our current freedoms and our ability to stand as a democratic and independent nation, a founding member and equal partner in the framework of the European Union.

It is fitting to mention the EU in this context since, as Jean-Claude Junker, former Luxembourgish Prime Minister and, later, President of the European Commission, would repeat tirelessly, the reconciliation of our continent and a peace lasting for more than 75 years are among the cardinal successes of the European project, that started right after the end of the Second World War.

From the CECA Treaty (1956) and the Treaty of Rome (1957), to the Treaty of Lisbon (2011), the European project has grown more ambitious and more complex. But at its core remains this quite simple message : “Never again War among Europeans”.

This most successful example of peaceful regional integration could serve as model for many regions of the world, if not with some adaptations. Sometimes, the comment we hear in some circles is : “We are nothing like the EU”… But, for once, though, this is a strength of the EU that nobody can dismiss.

As I mentioned, this great Australian sacrifice on the Western Front forged a lasting bond between our two countries. It is daily commemorated in Ypres, Belgium, with a Last Post ceremony at the Menin Gate’s Memorial to the Missing. On the wall of the Gate, the names of 6.179 Australian soldiers “missing in action” are commemorated. The other more than 8.000 Australians who lost their lives in Belgium are honoured in Commonwealth War Graves cemeteries across the whole area. They are present among us and are not forgotten.

On this small commemorative plate here (before me), inaugurated in 2017, are written the names of the two first “Diggers” wearing the Australian uniform who lost their life on Belgian soil. Their names were Private James J. Mollison and Private Other Beaumont J. Philpott.

The son of Andrew Norman and Mary Mollison and the son of Other and Eleanor Philpott were both enlisted in the “A” Company, 25th Infantry Battalion, Australian Imperial Force. They were killed in action, the same day, Mollison aged 27 and Philpott aged 26. A Last Post Ceremony was held on the centenary of both men’s deaths, on the 17th of June 2016, at the request of this Embassy. Today we honour again their sacrifice.

Lest We Forget.

I would like to seize the opportunity to express also our gratitude to our partners in this common duty of keeping the memory of this bond alive.

Here in Canberra, I would like to start by thanking the Australian War Memorial and its Director, Mr. Matt Anderson, represented today by Brigadier General (ret.) Brian Dawson, the Director for Collections. The two Lions of the Menin gate that are still guarding the entrance of the War Memorial in Canberra are reminders of this bond through time and space.

I would also like to salute the former Director of the AWM, Mr. Brendan Nelson, who prior to his appointment as the head of the Memorial, was the Australian Ambassador in Brussels and did a fantastic job in strengthening the links between our two countries. 

In Sydney, I would like to thank the President of the Association Families and Friends of the First AIF, Mr. Jim Munro and his wife Gil, for their dedication in organising, each year on the 26th of September, at the ANZAC Memorial in Hyde Park, the poignant ceremony commemorating the “Battle of Third Ypres.” This Embassy looks forward to attending the next edition, in person, in 2022 and in the future.

Of course, I do not want to leave anybody behind. Less than a month ago, the 14th of October 2021 marked the hundred and seventh anniversary of the death of Corporal William Thomas Leggett, an Australian serving in the (British) 1st Life Guards, a Cavalry Regiment. Leggett was killed in action at Gheluwe in West Flanders, Belgium, on the 14th of October 1914. He was the first Australian national to die in our country, during the ‘First battle of Ypres’, defending that beautiful heritage city against attacking German forces.

Every year since 2001, on the 1st of November, the day we honour all our beloved ones who passed away, the members of the Town Council of Wervik-Geluwe lay flowers at the Leggett Memorial, near the village church, and at his grave in Harlebeke New British Cemetery, Harlebeke, Belgium.

The Leggett Memorial in Geluwe was unveiled in October 2001 and represents Leggett, mortally shot, falling off his horse. On the 11th of November 2005, the Australian ‘twin’ of Leggett’s Memorial was unveiled at Rocky Hill, Goulburn, NSW, in presence of the Deputy head of mission of this Embassy.

The sculpture in the foreground of the memorial in Geluwe was cut from the sheet of steel that now forms part of the memorial in Goulburn, providing a connection between Leggett’s family home in Australia and his place of death in Belgium.

I would like to thank the Mayor of Goulburn, Mr. Bob Kirk, and the Goulburn Mulwaree Council, for keeping alive the memory of these tragic events of our common history.

Now that the border between ACT and NSW is again open, I will be able to visit Goulburn to pay my respects to the Memorial of Corporal Leggett. I am also determined to advance the project of twinning between the city of Goulburn and the municipality of Wervik-Geluwe.

– Knighting of Mr. Richard Woods in the Order of King Leopold the 1st

This ceremony is also the occasion to honour the living and it gives me great pleasure to call upon Mr. Richard Woods to join me now.

Because this Embassy could rely, on countless occasions, on the assistance of Mr. Richard Woods in the execution of its duty to commemorate the Great War, it was determined in higher places, by the Minister of Foreign Affairs of Belgium, that this Australian citizen had rendered an exceptionally meritorious service to the image and the interests of Belgium and its people in Australia.

The Order of Leopold is one of the three current Belgian national honorary orders of knighthood. Named in honour of the founder of our dynasty, King Leopold the 1st, it is the oldest one, having been established on the 11th of July, 1832, during the war of Independence, and it is the highest Belgian award a Foreign citizen can receive.

Already on the 6th of February 2020, a Belgian National Medal Award Ceremony took place in the (then) “ANZAC HALL” of the Australian War Memorial. Richard his wife, his daughter, and all people present on that day will always keep a vivid memory of that emotional ceremony.

But something important was missing on that day… I mean, the medal, of course.

The actual medal that was given to Richard back then was not the “right” one… but rather a temporary “placeholder” due to the fact that the correct jewel, by mistake, never arrived to Australia in the first place… only the certificate. In the meanwhile, the proper “Médaille de Chevalier” in the “Order of Leopold” was shipped to this Embassy allowing us to proceed today with the knighting of Richard.

On behalf of the Belgian Government and the Belgian people, I am proud to hand over my first medal as Ambassador of Belgium in Canberra, to Mr. Richard Woods,  in such a fitting date as Remembrance Day. And I thank him for his exceptionally meritorious service to Belgium.

As a volunteer with the Australian War Memorial and as a long-distance member of the Last Post Association of Ypres, Belgium, our friend Richard has dedicated an important part of his life to the stewardship of the memory of the sacrifices of the Great War and to the transmission of that heritage to the younger generations.

I count on him to continue this sacred mission for many years to come, also in the framework of the annual “Never the Last Post” action, our cooperative endeavour with a number of Secondary Schools in the area, to commemorate the sacrifice of the Great War.

Congratulations Richard and bravo!”

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