War Memorials in Australia
to reproduce the following article has been kindly given by the author,
Peter Mackay, Canberra, ACT ©
I pressed the button, and
light glowed over the quilt, showing it to be made up of squares, each one
worked with an intricate design, each one bearing a message laden with
emotion. A female choir sang from the small speaker, fading out as I read how
the real choir had given regular performances until the members moved on one
by one and it grew too small.
I moved on to the next
display. So much to see. A series of photographs flickered on a table, mounted
at an angle so that at once it was exhibit and projection screen. You could
reach out and touch the table, your hand flashing white, black and grey as you
stroked the historic wood of the table upon which Singapore had been
The Australian War Memorial is like that. The exhibits, where they are at all
durable, are mounted so that they may be easily seen and touched. You may trip
over the trail of a field gun, reach up to stroke the elegant curve of a
Spitfire’s wingtip, poke your head into the cramped confines of a
tail-gunner’s turret. Signs warn to dissuade touching or leaning on
particularly significant objects.
I ran my hands over the cold grey paint of two gun mountings, one from
the first World War cruiser HMS Sydney, the other from the German raider SMS
Emden. Now standing a few metres apart, they once spoke to each other in anger
one far off day on a distant ocean. A sound and light show recreated the
battle for us in old photographs and bursts of man-made thunder, brought back
into the immediate present so that we children of later days could remember.
There is only one Anzac remaining now, a lone survivor of the event which
occupies a whole hall in the Memorial, and names the vast new display area,
the wide avenue running down to the lake, and a day that strikes a chord from
the heartstrings of Australians everywhere. Almost from the moment you move
into the building, that day reaches out to you, stirs you, holds you. Here,
leaning almost casually in a corner of the entrance hall is one of the nation’s
most sacred treasures, a boat from that first Anzac Day, 25 April 1915, when
dawn over the Dardanelles saw Australians and New Zealanders rush ashore and
up the steep and scrubby hills of Gallipoli. A sign warns against touching,
but one doesn’t need to touch to feel the sensation that echoes resonating
from that ship’s boat, like bullets pinging and ricocheting off the frame,
or piercing through the skin.
I find myself pierced the further I venture into the Memorial. There are
places I cannot go without feeling the ghosts of the past, the hair rising up
on the back of my neck when I see Will Longstaff’s eerie Midnight at Menin
Gate, my eyes filling as I read the letters of families left behind in
Australia, left behind forever in far too many cases.
This is not a war museum, though it is crammed full of guns and warplanes and
tanks and uniforms. It is a war memorial, and there is little to celebrate any
supposed glory of battle, but rather to tell the stories of the men and women
who served and suffered and died, so that we who come after them, we who
survive, may remember them, give thanks, and hesitate before taking up arms
The Australian War Memorial sits like a great grey stone lion under Mount
Ainslie, staring down Anzac Parade and over the lake, past the white wedding
cake of Old Parliament House, past the new one under Capitol Hill, and off to
the mountains and sky beyond. The eye is drawn inexorably down and up again to
some point above the distant Australian flag flapping lazily in the cold
Ted and Samantha joined me at the top of the front steps, and like countless
other visitors, turned to see the sight, and like numberless others took a
photograph. We passed through between the grey lions from Menin Gate, their
stone skin cold to the touch, their cold eyes unblinking as they thought of
the streams of young men they had seen march off to war.
You may see them still, many
of them. Old and stiff in stiff old suits, a dignity and formality for their
fallen comrades, whose names line the walls over the courtyard at the heart of
the Memorial. They stare into the pool of remembrance, where the flames bubble
eternally through the water, and the smell of rosemary is in the air.
We bumped into one of my old comrades, stiff and formal in a dark suit, a
badge pinned to his lapel, and I thought of the days when we were both
sergeants together in the old regiment. I introduced him to Ted and Samantha.
Ted, once a soldier in the British Army, and for many years a guide on the
battlefields of South Africa, where Australia was already at war a hundred
years ago when our nation was born. Samantha, Australian and proud of it here,
a nurse who looked with keen interest and kinship at the names and photographs
of other nurses, and lingered long over that quilt as the light came and went,
the sweet voices rising and falling.
I didn’t have the strength to stand beside her there. The long halls are
crammed full of displays and you simply cannot see them all in a day. As the
hours pass the benches placed here and there are eagerly sought out by
visitors resting their feet, before rising to spend more of their precious
hours here. My legs were weak and I had to move on, to see the table, to take
a bomber flight over the Third Reich, the vibration of the mighty engines
rising again through our soles and shaking the hairs on the back of our necks
as we listened to the cheerful voices of fliers long gone and saw the flash of
bombs and guns as they completed another mission.
Guns point in all directions. Pistols and rifles in the display cases, cannons
protruding from the wings of aircraft mounted overhead, field guns and
antitank guns parked in the halls. “That’s the gun that shelled Paris.”
I showed Ted a tiny weapon which barely came up to our knees, its slender
barrel maybe a metre long. “Incredibly high muzzle velocity.” He smiled at
my feeble joke.
There is an elegance, an art of war. The beautiful streamlined shapes of
torpedoes and shells and fighter planes, their elegant curves drawing the eye
with them as they move in the imagination, rushing through air or water,
wheeling gracefully and diving on their targets. And the paintings that line
the walls, literally works of art – you could remove all the artefacts,
leaving the paintings and statues, and still have a splendid gallery to lose
yourself for a day. I found myself drawn to the paintings, admiring the soft
watercolours, the bold oils, the works of artists whose respected names and
famous pictures hang in the National Gallery over the lake. I simply had to
sit down in awe when I saw a whole wall of pictures by Arthur Streeton, each
one a jewel in subject, composition and execution.
But there is also another side to war, and at one stage, finding myself in a
group of grey guns, mortars, tanks and vehicles, I was struck by the sheer
brute ugliness of the machinery of battle. There was nothing, nothing positive
about these squat functional shapes, cast in some hellish foundry in Imperial
Germany and sent to the muddy fields of Flanders and France. These awful
weapons, these hulking guns, they killed so many of our young men. The
survivors of Anzac perished under their fire, and if they were not killed
outright, they failed in the mud and cold and disease of the front.
The diorama of the stretcher-bearer brought out an emotional response.
Crouched in a sea of mud, his face in his hands to hide the horrors, his body
slumped in fatigue and shock, there is nothing glorious or artistic or elegant
about him. His uniform is covered in dirt and blood and he is lost in time and
space, remote in every way from those he left behind. I simply cannot pass by
him without sharing his feelings.
There are places I cannot go. There is the displayed uniform of a doctor I
once met, killed in Africa, and I remember her lively face, her voice now
forever silent, and I move on, sick at heart.
There are places I must go,
and I stand in silence before the unknown soldier’s tomb, under the mighty
dome, in dim light filtered through stained glass, an insignificant insect
under the gaze of the heroic figures standing tall and proud in the corners,
their virtues listed for us. Courage, candour, chivalry.
There are places where I
cannot remain. I am moved. Here is a corner, showing the effects of the war on
Australians at home. An antique wheelchair for a limbless soldier, a stuffed
cockatoo from the wards of a repatriation hospital, letters and diaries, and
most poignant of all, the official forms from the War Graves Commission,
asking next of kin for “60 characters, less spaces” to be engraved on the
tombstone of their son, husband, father and friend. There is a stock of these
forms, and visitors may write their own message. Very few of them can stick to
60 characters, less spaces, and all of them speak of thanks and remembrance.
I cannot stand there and
write even a short message, My eyes betray me and the paper blurs, and I must
put down the shaking pen. I cannot possibly stand there and construct a
message where every letter counts, which would mark forever the grave of
someone I loved. Others are strong enough to do so, but I must sit down and
And I cannot stay for long before that quilt, made by service nurses in a
prisoner of war camp, thinking of home, their families, those they cared for.
The choir sings as I look at the faded squares and read how the members of
that choir died, one by one, until there were too few to sing. Samantha reads
on, but I cannot. I think of their courage and their kindness, they who gladly
went overseas to care for the sick and hurt, and found themselves in need of
care. Some survived brutal massacres and they all witnessed scenes of
I am not made of stone. I am not strong enough to remain, like the Menin Gate
lions, and think of those who passed this way, who passed away.
I stand for a moment at the entrance, looking out on that postcard view, the
warm glow of the setting sun sinking over the mountains, the Last Post keening
in my ears. The broad avenue is lined with smaller memorials, children to this
one, commemorating participants of other conflicts. Vietnam, Tobruk, Korea,
the heroic figures of the Army memorial, the rushing, sounding water of the
Navy memorial opposite. The soft green of the service nurses memorial, its
gently curving walls in contrast to the angular shapes surrounding it. The
Australian trees and the New Zealand shrubs march together down the Anzac
Parade, ending in the most recent addition, the New Zealand memorial, the
handles of a Maori flax basket, one on each side of the avenue, our two
nations sharing the load.
The memorials end there, but
in spirit they pass on into the country, where every city, every town, every
township has a memorial, a shrine, a digger eternally standing guard, a man of
stone who is strong for us, who can accept on our behalf the endless thoughts
Close at hand, where the
avenue ends, are two more memorials, here in Australia’s heart. One from
Greece, a shattered column and a twisted girder, and the other from Turkey, an
elegant, enfolding space where Kemal Ataturk, who led our enemies on that
first Anzac Day, gives we Australians fresh strength with the words that mark
the graves in Gallipoli. I cannot remain unmoved when I read those words, and
I doubt that Ataturk wrote them without his paper blurring before him, for he
couldn’t stick to 60 characters, less spaces.
"Those heroes that shed their blood and lost their lives. You are now
living in the soil of a friendly country therefore rest in peace. There is no
difference between the Johnnies and the Mehmets to us where they lie side by
side here in this country of ours. You, the mothers, who sent their sons from
faraway countries wipe away your tears; your sons are now lying in our bosom
and are in peace. After having lost their lives on this land they have become
our sons as well."
Oh, that our arms could hold and comfort our fallen children.
1 July 2001
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