The Hon Brendan Nelson AO

Director of the Australian War Memorial
'1917 – a time of tragedy and triumph'
Tuesday, 19 September 2017
Arrive from 11.30am, lunch 12 noon, speaker 12.30 concludes 1.30pm
Canberra - 16 National Circuit, Barton ACT 2600

Registrations for this event are now closed. Please contact reception for further details.

Australian forces were involved in two significant actions in the latter half of 1917. The first, fought in Belgium, would test our troops to their limits, while the other was fought in the Middle East and would earn a central place in Australia’s military history.

They were Passchendaele and Beersheba.

After the Australians had fought at Bullecourt in France throughout April and May, the focus of British operations shifted north into Belgium. The British Commander-in-Chief, Field Marshal Sir Douglas Haig, planned for a major offensive that sought to break out of the so-called Ypres Salient and secure the Belgian coastline.

From Ypres, the Australians participated in a number of attacks that collectively formed part of the Third Battle of Ypres. Throughout September and October, the five Australian Divisions made a number of successful advances that came at an immense cost: Menin Road, Polygon Wood, Broodseinde, Poelcappelle and Passchendaele.

The Australians fought in wretched conditions, casualties mounting at an appalling rate. The rain and shellfire turned the battlefields into a swamp where soldiers, heavily laden with weapons and kit, staggered and drowned under a constant barrage of machinegun fire.

Of the 76,000 Australian casualties recorded that year, more than 38,000 occurred in just eight weeks during the Third Battle of Ypres. The Australians suffered their heaviest casualties in any single month of the war in October 1917 with over 6,800 dead.

Around the same time, in the Middle East, the Anzac Mounted Division entered Palestine with the rest of the British Desert Column and were involved in two unsuccessful attacks on the Ottoman positions at Gaza. A third British assault was finally successful after two regiments of the 4th Australian Light Horse Brigade carried out their famous charge at Beersheba on 31 October, earning themselves a place in our nation’s psyche. When the Ottoman Army’s Gaza defences collapsed, the Anzac Mounted Division joined the push into Palestine which resulted in the capture of Jerusalem later in the year.

During this moving presentation, Dr Brendan Nelson, Director of the Australian War Memorial will discuss the two battles, their impact on the war and how they helped shape the Memorial and our nation. Using the stories of those men and women who took part in these battles, Dr Nelson will help us interpret their experience during this most shocking of years and give us insights into what it means to be an Australian.


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 14,000 Australians lost their lives during the First World War. He regularly made the trip from Brussels to the Menin Gate Memorial to the ‘missing’ 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.

Dr Nelson was elected to the Federal Parliament of Australia in March 1996. 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. Here he drove major reforms to universities and a focus on school standards and reporting. In 2006 he was appointed 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. In 2011 he received an Honorary Doctorate from Flinders University and in 2017, an Honorary Doctorate from the Australian National 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; Patron of Lifeline ACT; Patron of Trish MS Research; Patron of the Weary Dunlop Foundation; Patron of the NSW RSL and Services Clubs; Ambassador for Legacy Australia; Ambassador for the Invictus Games for disabled veterans; Patron of Soldier On and ambassador for the Reserve Defence Forces.