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“… a ridge more densely sown with Australian sacrifice than any other place on earth”.
Australian War Memorial founder C.E.W. Bean, on Pozières Ridge.
In less than 24 hours of fighting the Australians suffered 5,500 casualties at Fromelles in what remains the most costly day in Australian military history. The founder of the Australia War Memorial, Charles Bean, similarly described the fighting at Pozières as a “ghastly giant mincing machine”.
These terrible battles saw Australian soldiers exposed to the full horrors of the Western Front, including devastating artillery, machine-gun fire, and costly frontal assaults.
In this address Memorial Director Dr Brendan Nelson will relate some of the individual stories coming out of one of the most tragic periods in Australia’s military history. He will share insights into the courage, mateship, and determination that underpinned the next stage of Australians at war.
Dr Brendan Nelson commenced as Director of the Australian War Memorial on 17 December 2012. Prior to this, he was the Australian Ambassador to Belgium, Luxembourg, the European Union and NATO (2009–12). Apart from overseeing a major transformation in Australia’s relationships with the European Union and NATO, Dr Nelson forged deep links with the communities of Flanders, where almost 18,000 Australians lost their lives during the First World War. He regularly made the trip from Brussels to the Ypres (Menin Gate) Memorial at Ieper, where the names of 6,190 Australians who died in the First World War and have no known grave are listed.
Born at Coburg, Victoria, in 1958, Dr Nelson studied at Flinders University, South Australia, where he graduated with a Bachelor of Medicine and Surgery. He worked as a medical practitioner in Hobart from 1985 to 1995. In 1993 he was elected unopposed as National President of the Australian Medical Association (AMA), becoming the youngest person ever to hold this position. He had previously served as National Vice President, and Tasmanian Branch President, of the AMA. During his time as National President, he campaigned on a wide range of social policy issues, including Aboriginal health and immunisation, and led the campaign against tobacco advertising and sponsorship of sport. He was also a relentless advocate for private health insurance. In 1995 Dr Nelson retired as president of the AMA following his preselection as the Liberal candidate for the Sydney seat of Bradfield.
On 2 March 1996 Dr Nelson was elected to the Federal Parliament of Australia. After the 2001 election, he was promoted from parliamentary secretary to the Minister for Defence to Cabinet in the senior portfolio of Minister for Education, Science and Training driving major reforms to universities and a focus on school standards and reporting. In 2006 he became Minister for Defence when troops were deployed to Iraq, Afghanistan, East Timor and the Solomon Islands. He oversaw major new investments in Defence including the decision to purchase 24 FA-18F super hornets, three air warfare destroyers, two Landing Helicopter Docks (LHDs), two additional battalions for the Australian army and a multibillion dollar recruitment and retention package. In November 2007 Dr Nelson was elected leader of the Liberal Party of Australia, serving as Leader of the Opposition until September 2008. The following year he retired from federal politics before taking up his ambassadorial appointment.
In 1995 Dr Nelson was awarded the AMA’s highest honour, the Gold Medal for “Distinguished Service to Medicine and Humanity”. In recognition of his commitment to public health, he was awarded an Honorary Fellowship of the Royal Australasian College of Physicians, and in 2011 he received an Honorary Doctorate from Flinders University. Dr Nelson was appointed an Officer of the Order of Australia (AO) in January 2016 for his services to the community, the parliament of Australia, diplomacy and cultural leadership.
In addition to being Director of the Australian War Memorial Dr Nelson is a Distinguished Visiting Fellow at ANU; a member of the Chief Scientist’s Advisory Council; Patron of Lifeline ACT; Patron of Trish MS Research; Patron of the Weary Dunlop Foundation; Patron of Legacy Australia; Patron of Soldier On and ambassador for the Reserve Defence Forces.
Dr Nelson is married and has three adult children; his interests include Australian military history, music, motorcycles, and tennis.