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NEIL JAMESON: Date that packs punch

“So, what should we remember most on this Remembrance Day?”IT’S one of those days when the Earth has a tendency to tremor on its axis.
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What is it about November 11, this date we know as Remembrance Day?

In parts of the Western world we’ll pause at 11am on Tuesday to remember the sacrifice of World War I. During the course of the day Australians might also recall that on 11/11 Ned Kelly felt the noose around his neck, and Australia’s constitutional crisis took a startling twist when the Queen’s representative sacked a democratically elected government.

History has a way of returning to bite us on the bum and no date has sharper teeth than November 11. At the 11th hour on the 11th day of the 11th month of 1918, representatives of the warring nations met in a railway carriage in northern France to sign the terms of settlement that brought “the war to end all wars” to an end.

Allied chiefs cautioned France against making the terms too harsh for the defeated foe. But the hosts, whose country had witnessed the worst destruction, were not in a forgiving mood. It would take Germany until 2010 to pay down the debt. In the poverty and resentment of that burden grew the seeds of World War II. Hitler, who had been in the trenches in WWI, didn’t forget. In 1940, he had that same rail car dragged out of a museum and used again as the defeated French surrendered. On November 11, 1942, the Fuhrer announced that the German occupation of France was complete. The first instalment of his promised thousand-year Reich was in place.

But not for long.

The wheel of history was still in spin and the 11th of the 11th, that auspicious date, would have the next turn. Two years later, General George S. Patton (born November 11, 1885) was at the head of a US-led mechanised onslaught flushing the Germans from France.

As for the alleged US role in flushing Gough Whitlam from office in 1975, that remains one of the conspiracy stories of modern times. Whitlam’s opposition to the Vietnam War and his threats to move against US bases in Australia, including the ultra-secret spy installation at Pine Gap, had made the CIA very nervous. Nervous enough to engineer a coup? Have a dig around and gauge for yourself.

Meanwhile, we do know that Christopher Boyce, a young man who worked as a de-coder for a CIA contractor during the 1970s, insists to this day that the agency was meddling in Australian politics and trade unions during the Whitlam years. Boyce became a whistleblower – the Edward Snowden of his day – and was subsequently jailed for selling secrets to the KGB. His story was the subject of the book (and later movie) The Falcon and the Snowman.

Such yarns abounded in the wake of Gough’s death on October 21. Obituaries made mention of his bit in rolling back 200 years of dispossession with the launch of the Aboriginal Land Rights Commission of 1973. It was one of history’s small coincidences that the Dismissal date – November 11, 1975 – would mark 106 years to the day since the Victorian Aboriginal Protection Act was enacted, giving government control of indigenous wages, terms of employment and where Aborigines could live. Measures used to enforce the act gave rise to the Stolen Generation.

Another mystery surrounding November 11 relates to Ned Kelly’s last words uttered on that spring morning of 1880. Was “Such is life” truly his parting shot? For the sake of all those tattoos, we hope so. One account holds that when the governor of Melbourne Gaol arrived to inform the prisoner that the execution was set for 10am, he supposedly replied “Such is life”. A warden’s diarised account suggested his last words were mumbled and could not be discerned, but a press report recorded Ned saying “Ah, well, I suppose it has come to this” as the noose was slipped over his head.

So, what should we remember most on this Remembrance Day? Well, here’s a thought: After sailing from Sydney in May 1916, the 35th Battalion – Newcastle’s Own – fought right up until the final months of the war as part of the Australian offensive that turned the tide. At Passchendaele on October 12, 1917, of the 508 men who advanced on German positions only 90 returned unwounded. During the desperate fighting around Villers-Bretonneux in April, 1918, the 35th suffered 70 per cent casualties. In 1923, Newcastle City Council adopted the emerald and cinnamon patch of the 35th Battalion – Newcastle’s Own – as the city’s official colours. Today, they’re carried on our city’s coat of arms and our sports teams wear them with pride.

So, here’s a pre-Remembrance Day message to you candidates in next Saturday’s mayoral poll: the sacrifice those colours represent demand you serve this city with dignity and selflessness, and leave the place better than you found it.

Nothing less.

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