SYDNEY (AFP) - Australia and New Zealand on Saturday marked 100 years since their first convoy of troops left for the battlefields of World War I, with thousands attending events to commemorate the "heavy day in history".
The convoy left the Western Australian town of Albany on Nov 1, 1914, carrying 20,000 Australian and 8,500 New Zealand soldiers bound for Gallipoli in modern day Turkey and later the battlefields of Europe. "It was a heavy day in our history and it led to even heavier times to come," Australian Prime Minister Tony Abbott said in remarks welcoming New Zealand leader John Key to the country.
"All were sailing into history," Mr Abbott told a commemorative service overlooking the ocean, referring to the convoy. "The first World War was the crucible in which the Australian identity was forged. In 1914 we were a country with a flag and a Parliament but little sense of nationhood. The baptism of fire that was the Great War changed all that. The scale of sacrifice and loss was beyond anything imaginable."
Losses in Gallipoli were hard, with the offensive claiming the lives of more than 11,000 New Zealand and Australian troops in a matter of months, although worse battles were to follow in the Great War, Mr Key said. "In a war that engulfed the world, our young nations were among the hardest hit. No community, rural or urban, was left untouched by loss," Mr Key said. "But the service, and sacrifice, of those who fought for us - would play a critical role in forging our national identities.
"Our experiences in the First World War marked an important point in our coming of age as countries. They made us look at who we were, and we came from colonies to became nations," Mr Key said.
Before the service thousands had lined the streets of Albany for a commemorative troop march, ahead of a symbolic departure of a flotilla of naval warships from King George Sound.
Albany in the far south of Western Australia was the gathering point for ships carrying the Australian Imperial Force and New Zealand Expeditionary Force which were later to become known as the "Anzacs".
The first convoy was joined at sea two days later by two ships carrying more Australian troops along with the Japanese cruiser HIJMS Ibuki to help protect their journey.
Japanese and New Zealand ships alongside French troops were also set to participate in this weekend's commemorations in Albany, a town which for many Australians who fought in WWI was the last they saw of home.
"On days such as this we do not glorify war but we do acknowledge the selflessness and comradeship of shared struggle," Mr Abbott told the gathering that included French Defence Minister Jean-Yves Le Drian and Japan's Parliamentary Vice-Minister for Foreign Affairs Kazuyuki Nakane.
"Today we also remember all those we fought with, the soldiers and sailors of the countries of the British empire, of gallant France, and of Japan, first an ally, then a foe, now the very best of friends.
"We remember them all. They are all gone now. Gone, but never forgotten by the nation they shaped."
Among those who travelled to Albany for the event was Ms Judy Purdie, who told the Australian Broadcasting Corporation she was there in honour of her grandfather who left Albany to fight in France in 1916.
"It put tears in my eyes. It's just a very emotional time, it's wonderful," she said.