Malcolm Turnbull has shared his grandfather’s story while paying tribute to a generation of Australians who enlisted in World War I, only for many to never return.
The prime minister was visibly moved while reading from a letter his grandfather Fred, a 22-year-old schoolteacher from the Macleay River who served on the Western Front, sent to his parents during the conflict.
The letter, reprinted in Kempsey’s Macleay Chronicle in May 1917, carried solemn news of the deaths of several soldiers from the region.
It told of Fred Turnbull’s fortune in meeting various people he knew, an expectation of further battles, and his determination to continue fighting until peace was secured.
Mr Turnbull reflected on the letter at a reception for Spirit of Anzac Centenary Experience – a travelling exhibition on Australia’s involvement in the First World War – in Sydney on Friday.
“You can just imagine a whole class, a whole classroom, whole community, young men, all of the same age within a few years, all of their friends, there, in France, in the trenches,” he told those gathered, his voice wavering.
Days out from Anzac Day, the prime minister also spoke of the poignancy of exhibits in offering an insight into the loss, fear, hope and courage of war.
“An evolving tapestry of human triumph and tragedy,” he said.
Mr Turnbull said that among the most moving items was a pair of socks the sister of an Anzac soldier started knitting only to stop after hearing he died at Gallipoli, which she kept unfinished until her death at 92.
He was also touched by the Bell of Darwin, which rang through the night to signal the end of hostilities in 1918, and the shell case from the last shot fired at Gallipoli.
Out of context, each were mere objects but accompanied by stories and presented thoughtfully each were powerful symbols of the human face of war.
“They are stories of the lives of our servicemen and women. They are the stories of communities,” Mr Turnbull said.
The prime minister thanked those involved in the exhibition, which was visited by about 350,000 Australians over its 200,000km journey across the country since September 2015, for bringing the stories of Anzacs to life.