Origins of the Australian War Memorial
The Memorial is more than a monument. Inside the sandstone building, with its copper-sheathed dome, selections from a vast National Collection of relics, official and private records, art, photographs, film, and sound are employed to relate the story of a young nation's experience in world wars, regional conflicts, and international peacekeeping.
The Memorial forms the core of the nation's tribute to the sacrifice and achievement of 102,000 Australian men and women who died serving their country and to those who served overseas and at home. A central commemorative area surrounded by arched alcoves houses the names of the fallen on the bronze panels of the Roll of Honour. At the head of the Pool of Reflection, beyond the Flame of Remembrance, stands the towering Hall of Memory, with its interior wall and high dome clad in a six-million-piece mosaic. Inside lies the Tomb of the Unknown Australian Soldier, an official war grave and national shrine.
Many a man lying out there at Pozières or in the low scrub at Gallipoli, with his poor tired senses barely working through the fever of his brain, has thought in his last moments: "Well – well – it's over; but in Australia they will be proud of this." (Charles Bean)
After the anguish of Gallipoli, the Australians of the 1st AIF (Australian Imperial Force) and their official war correspondent, Charles Bean, moved on to the greater horrors of the Western Front in France and Belgium. The Australians' first big battles were at Fromelles and Pozières, in July 1916. Bean was immediately appalled by the sufferings of the men. He wrote in his diary:
Pozières has been a terrible sight all day ...
One knew that the Brigades which went in last night were there today in that insatiable factory of ghastly wounds. The men were simply turned in there as into some ghastly giant mincing machine. They have to stay there while shell after huge shell descends with a shriek close beside them – each one an acute mental torture – each shrieking tearing crash bringing a promise to each man – instantaneous – I will tear you into ghastly wounds – I will rend your flesh and pulp an arm or a leg – fling you half a gaping quivering man (like these that you see smashed around you one by one) to lie there rotting and blackening like all the things you saw by the awful roadside, or in that sickening dusty crater. Ten or twenty times a minute every man in the trench has that instant fear thrust tight upon his shoulders – I don't care how brave he is – with a crash that is a physical pain and a strain to withstand.
A month later the idea of a memorial museum for Australian was born, as Bean's confidant A.W. Bazley later recalled:
I remember in August 1916 when after his busy days tramping the Pozières battlefield and visiting units in the line he would roll out his blankets on the chalk firestep of the old British front line ... on the edge of Becourt Wood and Sausage Gully. We used to sleep feet to head– C.E.W.B., Padre Dexter, myself, and others – and although I cannot recall the actual conversations today I do remember that on a number of occasions he talked about what he had in his mind concerning some future Australian war memorial museum.
Two men, above all others, moulded the Memorial: Charles Bean, Australia's Official Historian of the First World War, and John Treloar, the Director of the Memorial between 1920 and 1952.
Charles Bean (1879–1968) was born in New South Wales but grew up largely in Britian. He returned to Australia and worked as a journalist, and in 1914 was chosen by the journalists' association as official war correspondent. Bean went ashore on Gallipoli on 25 April 1915 and for the rest of the war stayed close to the soldiers in the front line. As well as lobbying for the creation of the Australian War Memorial, he was appointed to edit the 12-volume Official History of Australia in the War of 1914–1918; he wrote six of the volumes, completing the last in 1942.
John Treloar (1894–1952) contributed more than any other person to the realisation of Bean's idea. Treloar, who came from Melbourne, also landed on Gallipoli on 25 April 1915. In 1917, as a captain, he was appointed to head the newly created Australian War Records Section (AWRS) in London, responsible for collecting records and relics for the future museum and to help the official historian in his work. After the war, Treloar devoted his life to the Memorial and had influence over every aspect of its development. Appointed Director of the Memorial in 1920, he remained in this position for the rest of his life, apart from a period in charge of the Military History and Information Section (MHIS) during the Second World War.
AWRS was set up in 1917 to ensure Australia would have its own collection of records and relics of the great war being fought. Treloar devoted himself especially to improving the quality of the unit war diaries which recorded the action of each unit day by day, and to ensuring that after the war the official historian would have a well ordered collection of the diaries and supplementary material to work from.
Others, such as Sid Gullett and Ernie Bailey, went out into the field to collect relics or material evidence of the conflict. At the same time orders were given to the common soldiers to do their bit of collecting for the projected museum and, in this way, 25,000 relics were gathered together.
Bean and Treloar also arranged for the appointment of official artists and photographers. There were 18 official warartists, the best known being Will Dyson, George Lambert, and Arthur Streeton. Bean's official photographers included two adventurers, Frank Hurley and Hubert Wilkins. Hurley had been to the Antarctic with both Mawson and Shackleton, while Wilkins had been to the Arctic and in 1912 had filmed the Balkan War with the Turkish army. Bean insisted that art and photography should show the war as it was, not an idealised version.
Melbourne and Sydney exhibitions
After the war it took a long time before the Memorial's building in Canberra was constructed. Initially there were delays in arousing public and government enthusiasm. Then the Depression intervened. In the meantime large, long-running exhibitions were held in Melbourne and Sydney. The "Australian War Museum" opened on ANZAC Day 1922 in the Exhibition Building, Melbourne. This exhibition of war relics was enthusiastically received by press and public, and attracted large crowds. The exhibition closed in 1925 and was moved to Sydney, where it remained until 1935.
A permanent home
In 1918 Bean conceived how the Memorial would appear:
on some hill-top – still, beautiful, gleaming white and silent, a building of three parts, a centre and two wings. The centre will hold the great national relics of the A.I.F. One wing will be a gallery – holding the pictures that our artists painted and drew actually on the scene and amongst the events themselves. The other wing will be a library to contain the written official records of every unit.
The Memorial's design was a compromise between the desire for an impressive monument to the fallen and a budget of only £250,000. An architectural competition in 1927 failed to produce a satisfactory single design for the building. Two of the entrants in the competition, Sydney architects Emil Sodersteen and John Crust, were encouraged to submit a joint design, incorporating Sodersteen's vision for the building and Crust's concept of cloisters to house the Roll of Honour. The joint design was accepted and forms the basis of the building we see today, completed in 1941.
The post-war years
As Australia entered the Second World War, the Memorial in Canberra was still not complete and intended to be devoted solely to the First World War. As it became apparent that the new war was comparable in scale with the Great War, it became almost inevitable that the scope of the Memorial should be extended. In 1941 the government extended the Memorial's charter to include the Second World War; in 1952 it was again extended to include all Australia's wars. With the inclusion of the Gulf War and of peacekeeping operations the Memorial in the 1990s must remain ready to respond to new events.
During the Second World War the MHIS was set up, once again under the charge of John Treloar. A more mobile war made collecting difficult and the Memorial's Second World War collection has never quite matched that of the first. Bean wrote to Treloar urging the collection of evocative relics:
The kind of relic that would stir me to the marrow is, say, a section of the original Kokoda trail, … part of the charred wharf from Darwin; … a uniform taken from a man after a muddy jungle fight.
How exactly a "section of the original Kokoda trail" could have been collected is hard to say. In any event, the Memorial, which was still run by First World War veterans, remained predominantly a First World War museum. In a sense, the comparative failure of the MHIS demonstrated the magnitude of the achievement of the AWRS.
Once again, extensive collections of art, photographs, and film were assembled. Other areas were less lucky: during the 1950s, for instance, many of the Memorial's fine collection of Second World War aircraft were disposed of, a number being sold for scrap.
Space was a major problem. The building had been designed to display relics from the First World War only. It was not until 1971 that the eastern and western wings were added, finally allowing room for adequate display of Second World War material.
From the beginning, Bean had hoped that the Memorial would incorporate a Roll of Honour, listing all the Australian dead of the war. Originally this was intended to be inside the Hall of Memory and Bean even hoped to include a photograph of each man. The list would be arranged by town of origin, so that visitors to the Memorial could easily find the names of all the dead from their own town.
The scale of the casualties and the cost constraints imposed on the building defeated these plans. John Crust's most important contribution to the building's design was the beautiful and moving idea of placing the Roll in cloisters around a central courtyard. But long delays ensued and by the time the Roll of Honour was completed in 1961 it had become a list of Australia's dead in all wars, arranged (for administrative simplicity) by units rather than towns. There was certainly no room for photographs. But the Roll remains an impressive achievement. This vast list of names serves to remind us of the equality and individuality of every one of the dead, commemorating not the sacrifice of a nameless mass but the tragic loss of each well-loved man or woman among this great number.
The Hall of Memory was completed in 1959 but had ceased to have an obvious purpose except to inspire contemplation. In the early years the proposal was sometimes made that Australia, like other countries, should have a tomb of an unknown soldier. Bean and Treloar resisted this, fearing that such an edifice might compete with the Memorial. In 1993, however, it was decided to create such a tomb as part of the Memorial and to place it in the Hall of Memory. In this way two forms of commemoration, of one anonymous individual together with a great mass of named men and women, would be combined. On Remembrance Day in 1993 the remains of a soldier killed on the battlefields of the Western Front during the First World War were placed in a marble-covered tomb in the Hall of Memory. The event – regarded as the biggest and most significant staged by the institution since opening – attracted generous national coverage and interest. The four pillars erected at the same time symbolise the four elements of earth, air, fire, and water.
In keeping with the sombre commemorative tone of the Memorial, Bean was from the start concerned that it should not be seen to be glorifying war or triumphing over the enemy. He urged Treloar and others not to speak about "trophies", preferring the term "relics" instead. He also urged that captions and text should not use derogatory terms, such as Hun or Abdul (German and Turk were preferable).
In the 1950s Bean drew up a list of exhibition principles, suggesting among other things that the galleries should "avoid glorification of war and boasting of victory" and also "avoid perpetuating enmity … for both moral and national reasons and because those who have fought in wars are generally strongest in their desire to prevent war". In general, the former enemies should be treated as generously as were Australians. The exhibitions also needed to be made interesting, for example, by presenting relics as objects with their own story rather than as just examples of a type. Bean also thought of the future: "exhibits [should be] so described and displayed as to be understood and interesting seventy-five years after the events."
Some of these issues became an area of dispute in the early 1950s when some swords surrendered by Japanese generals at the close of the Second World War were taken off display, as being tokens of surrender and thus violating the principle that the Memorial should not be in any way a monument to victory. After a public outcry, however, the swords were put back on display.
In the 1990s the Memorial set out to formalise its guiding principles in a set of policy documents, such as the Acquisition and Disposal Policy and the Exhibition Policy.
Through the eighties
In 1980 the Memorial became a separate authority (previously it was merely a part of a government department) with a new Act which gave it much greater powers to manage its own affairs. This was one of the catalysts for a period of major progress and growth which continues today.
In the early 1980s a conscious effort was made to improve the funding and staffing of the Memorial, the levels of which had fallen well below what was needed. Within a few years staff numbers had increased, from around 100 to over 200, and funding to support new and existing programs was substantially increased.
This enabled the Memorial to embark on initiatives, such as increasing its impact and scholarly profile in the area of Australian military history. A Research Grants Scheme was set up to foster original research in the field, the annual history conference was instituted, to bring together all those interested in the field and to give a forum for the discussion of new ideas. At the same time a considerable publication program was developed.
A program of gallery refurbishment was undertaken during the 1980s starting with the Gallipoli Gallery's opening in 1984. The opening was attended by 240 Gallipoli veterans. This was followed by the opening of galleries commemorating recent conflicts such as Korea and Vietnam.
At the same time, the Memorial became more professional in many other ways. Senior curators were recruited to care for the collection and improve professionalism; the Conservation Section expanded to provide world-class facilities and highly qualified staff to ensure the collection's preservation; collection management practices using modern computer technology were introduced; and a greatly expanded education program was instituted to bring the Memorial's message to an ever increasing number of children and adults.
The Memorial today
Additional government funding in the last few years has enabled the Memorial to build up-to-date facilities at the Treloar Centres at Mitchell to house the large part of our collection not able to be displayed in the galleries.
A major fund raising program has been introduced which is seeking funding from private and corporate sources to supplement what we receive from government, and which will enable us to undertake projects that would otherwise have not been possible.
A significant beneficiary of the fund raising has been Gallery Development, which set a fund raising target of $20 million. In 1995 the Gallery Master Plan was endorsed by Council, an extensive program to revitalise the galleries. The work has included major changes to the layout of the galleries – making them more accessible through a centrally planned information space – and the development of new exhibitions to replace existing ones. Emphasis was placed on making maximum use of the Memorial's collection in combination with modern exhibition technologies and resources. The redeveloped galleries, Research Centre, and Sculpture Garden were officially opened by Prime Minister John Howard on 11 March 1999.
In June 2001 the construction of ANZAC Hall, was completed. It houses the Memorial's collection of large technology items.
Undoubtedly, the Memorial's staff take pride in working for an institution which in many ways lives up to Bean's vision of "the finest monument ever raised to any army".
Notes on reading
- Here is their spirit (1991) by Michael McKernan is an excellent history of the Memorial.
- The Memorial and its people: an illustrated talk to mark the 60th anniversary of the Memorial