Behind my desk is a photograph. It is of Kerry Stokes, Chairman of the Australian War Memorial Council; Brendan Nelson, then Director; myself and Bob Semple. It was taken after the Canberra ANZAC Day ceremony in 2018, a week before I was sworn in as Governor.
Bob, then President of the Rats of Tobruk Association, was there to sustain the relationship between the generations; he of our greatest generation. Kerry Stokes contacted me to say Bob passed away early this week.
Bob was a Victorian, not a West Australian, but as his generation thins he spoke for them all by the time he passed away. He was a typical Australian of his generation with its values. He embellished them, determined to live his life by principles of mateship, loyalty, integrity and respect. He fought in North Africa: including at Tobruk and El Alamein, then back for Papua New Guinea and the Islands.
An unusual thing about Bob was he spoke intensely on the experience. Most old soldiers speak of the mateship and loyalty, as did Bob. But he also spoke of the battle. He would give vivid descriptions of the physical hardship of the Tobruk siege – life in dugouts, caves and crevices: constantly bombed, fly and flea plagued, alternately boiled and frozen by the daily weather. In the artillery at El Alamein: “It was murderous…There was something like 800 to a thousand guns opened up at the one time. It looked like a whole lot of glow worms had turned up and the sky was alight…” Then to a different war in New Guinea, horrible in a different way, “There was nothing like the ironmongery thrown around – as far as the volume of fire was concerned…but it was more testing on the nerves and your mind. The unseen is a bit hard to cope with.”
Apart from his role in ex-service organisations, Bob’s peace time revolved around his wife Isabel whose picture he carried through the war and various top class pipe bands. Isabel passed away in 1999. He became Drum Major of the Hawthorn City Pipe Band and chieftain of Pipe Band’s Australia. He performed at the Royal Edinburgh Tattoo four times, and in Red Square in Moscow. As one might expect of the raw experience of his youth, his mind never drifted far away from his mates departed in the desert and jungle.
As we look around the globe, we have to admit that our generations don’t have the humble stoicism of Bob’s. His life ennobled us, his passing diminishes us.
The Honourable Kim Beazley AC, Governor of Western Australia