75th anniversary of the Australian War Memorial

13 mins read
The Hon. Kim Beazley AC

What a privilege it is to deliver remarks at this 75th anniversary of the opening of the Australian War Memorial. The opening ceremony was performed by the Governor General Lord Gowrie in the presence of the then new Prime Minister John Curtin. An opening not a dedication. They were as moved by their lack of authority to dedicate as Lincoln was at Gettysburg: “But in a larger sense, we cannot dedicate – we cannot hallow this ground. The brave men living and dead, who struggled here, have consecrated it far above our poor power to add or detract.” Officials chose a classical quote from the funeral oration of Pericles as their closest approach to dedication on the opening programme: “They gave their lives. For that public gift they received a praise which never ages and a tomb most glorious – not so much the tomb in which they lie; but that in which their fame survives, to be remembered for ever when occasion comes for word and deed…” A quote which anticipates, as might be expected as another world war raged, that the memorial’s focus on the deeds of our Great War service personnel encapsulated in the displays, would see other “occasions” commemorated here.

The founding spirit of this memorial was C.E.W. Bean, Australia’s World War I official war correspondent, official war historian, and involved at all stages of the memorial’s collection and construction. He conceived it as a combined shrine, museum and archive after the terrible battles of Fromelles, Pozières, and Mouquet Farm, July-September 1916. The Australian Government committed to the project in 1917 and established in May of that year the Australian War Records Section. Soldiers were asked to souvenir on its behalf, a tradition continued to this day with families of service personnel invited to contribute letters, writings and relics to its massive collection. At its outset, the most democratic of sourcing. Its creation was an aspect of Bean’s anxiety that Australians should understand the character of the sacrifice of the soldiers and their achievements. In the heat of his immediate experience he authored a little remembered book in 1918, In Your Hands, Australians. He wrote: “They made our people a famous people, though it is only a small people; they made it so famous that every Australian is proud for the world to know that he is an Australian. That was what these men did for you – all in three or four years.”

There are many wonderful photos of celebrating crowds in Australian capital cities at war’s end. One demonstration at the time, however, was more poignant and in spirit more reflective of the years to come. In Sydney 10,000 black clad women, mothers, wives and fiancées of men killed at the front marched to the wharves from which their menfolk left, throwing flowers into the waters. They were in shock and Australia was in shock. Half the military aged men enlisted, 330,000, went overseas. Close to two thirds of them became casualties including over 60,000 dead (the highest percentage of British forces). In the decade after the war, society struggled to handle the returnees. More than half had been wounded. Hospitals and medical facilities were overwhelmed. Repatriation programmes though innovative were of mixed success. The Australian aspiration for land was manifest in soldier-settler schemes in which many experienced failure. Post-traumatic stress disorders were not understood. Not in this memorial are the names of 60,000 ex-soldiers who died of war related wounds and illnesses, physical and psychological, in the 1920s and early 1930s. That makes 120,000 of the 330,000.

The frustrations combined with social and economic strife, part caused by the burden of war debt, produced resentment in parts of the broader community. These were what one historian described as Australia’s “grey years”. I once asked my grandmother, a war widow whose husband died in 1923 of an illness picked up in Egypt, why she never remarried. She replied that there were simply no young men. She added, though, that being a war widow had status and a just liveable pension. A historiography developed that questioned the basis of the war and the competence of the civil and military leadership. This all fed a political divide which had manifested itself during the war. Had it been worthwhile?

Actually it had been, and in no small measure 75 years’ worth of historical work at this memorial has contributed to that understanding. At the time, General Monash’s book, The Australian Victories in France 1918, held the threads. In that year, Australia made its greatest contribution to the global strategic situation. At that time, at around 100,000 men, we were less than 10% of the British Army. The British Army was probably at its best and most effective, and what I am about to say in no way disparages its achievement or that of the other dominion soldiers and Americans we fought alongside. We started at Villers Bretonneux on ANZAC Day 1918, when we helped to blunt the German High Command’s last roll of the dice. Then from June to October our depleted divisions defeated 39 German divisions, advanced 37 miles, liberated 116 villages and towns, capturing a quarter of all German prisoners and guns taken by the British Army. On 5 October, down to 260 men a battalion, our 11 battalions drove through the Beaurevoir Line, the reserve system of the system of the Hindenburg Line and captured Montbrehain village, as historian Ashley Ekins records.

In 1918, it was a German intelligence benchmark that if you discovered Australians on your front you could expect to be attacked within 48 hours. Monash had become a pre-eminent theoretician of combined arms operations and mobile warfare. Our officers and NCOs were among the best practitioners of the art. They were crucial when attached to American formations in the same battles. Having so few troops available, our sections and platforms set new standards in small unit firepower. As they moved up to Amiens in August, they encountered large numbers of refugees moving away from the front. “Fini retreat madame” one Australian soldier was said to have remarked to one of them, “beaucoups Australiens ici”. The refugees are said to have turned following the Australians back. We could have included the Middle East here. The Australian mounted division was the spearhead of Allenby’s army. We have the unique distinction here as being the only force to capture both Jerusalem and Damascus last century, at the beginning of that year.

Our forces helped complete the government’s war aims. The late British war historian John Keegan said of the First World War that it was “cruel and unnecessary”. So it was. It blighted Europe and set the conditions for an even greater war. It was “cruel” for Australia and blighted our politics and society in its aftermath. However, for us the war was not unnecessary. There is a historiography which sees our leadership as too easily led by Britain and too unimaginative. However, they had, despite British pressure created in the pre-war years and at the war’s outset, a distinctively Australian force within the British Imperial forces. They understood that when Britain was committed, Australian security demanded that Britain win. I agree with the general thrust of Bean’s argument in Anzac to Amiens (1946), where he wrote: “If the struggle which…Great Britain did her best to avoid, the might amassed by the Germans…had resulted in a German victory, the first term in the Peace Treaty would have been abolition of the British Navy and for the Australian nation this meant either subservience to Germany or extinction at the hands of the Japanese.” They are our friends and allies now. Then, things were different.

Running through the cacophony of Australian politics in the 1920s and 30s, was the effort to build this memorial and make it, what it arguably is, the best memorial of its kind in the world. Governments operated with the countervailing pressures of economy and support for its completion. The RSSILA was a potent pressure group. The government passed the War Memorial Act, devoting 250, 000 pounds to it and inviting an architectural competition for it. In 1928, the RSSILA passed a resolution at its Congress: “No act by Government would more appeal to the ‘digger’ than the immediate erection of this national tribute to our fallen comrades”.

From the competition the architects selected John Crust, a public service architect, and Emil Sodersteen, a young, innovative Sydney architect. They were polar opposites. They struggled to get on and Sodersteen left the process in 1938. The core features of it are largely his, particularly the dome of the Hall of Memory. He had in mind the dome of the Ayer Sofia in Constantinople. Economic exigencies produced frequent delays. As it happened, that was probably fortuitous. When it opened, it was a memorial which helped focus us in what was our darkest hour.

Both Gowrie and Curtin drew on these themes. Gowrie said: “The ceasefire that was sounded this day 23 years ago was not the final dismiss. It was only a temporary truce and we are now engaged in the most deadly contest that the world has ever known…The flower of our young manhood, are once again giving their lives for our freedom and for the freedom of those who come after us. They are on land, sea and air emulating the splendid deeds of those men whose memory we are honouring today. They are showing the same courage, the same indomitable spirit as their fathers.”

Curtin said: “It is, I believe, extraordinarily appropriate that the place where this tradition is housed should be in sight of the building which is the seat of all our government. The Parliament of a free people deliberates day by day and cannot but be inspired and strengthened in the performance of its great duty by the ever present opportunity to contemplate the story that has gone before them of the deed that helped make the nation, and of the unifying purpose which links the ordered ways of a free people with that matchless courage which inspires its sons to maintain it.”

He went on: “It does not appear to be necessary to say very much today other than to dwell on what I call the additional appropriateness of incorporating all that takes place in the present war as part of all that has taken place in the previous one and, just as the war memorial is a treasure house containing the records of what occurred 25 years ago, so it is to be a treasure house for all that takes place in the struggle in which we are now engaged.”

Within a month of the opening, Australia was fighting for its life. Both Gowrie and Curtin adhered to the notion then abroad that the struggle in the First World War had created the Australian nation. Arguably, what it had done was to create an image of an Australian male type and a broader international image of Australia as a separate entity in the British Empire. An Australian male image of resourcefulness, egalitarianism, strength, preparedness to sacrifice and stand by mates at home and abroad. The Second World War created an Australian nation.

We emerged from the war with a political leadership capable of mobilising internally and struggling with allies. Determined to push forward the conditions of our survival and interest in part against their perspectives of their interests and priorities. We emerged with a substantial industrial economic base. Winning the war was a product of an effort not only of men and women at the front but of a massive effort at home. A supply base for ourselves and our allies. We were, as Menzies and Curtin sloganized, “all in”. We were arguably the most mobilised belligerent. Russian might have been but large swathes of its population were cut out of participation by the German invasion. Men were militarily and civilly conscripted. Single women were civilly conscripted and married women encouraged to contribute. Our indigenous population were engaged, some in the armed forces and others in support for our efforts in the north. It should be mentioned here that a number of Indigenous Australians volunteered for our effort in the First World War, despite a government decision to exclude the Indigenous populations from it. In this conflict, it was all in. Of our seven million, one million men and women were in the services. Women were drawn into the work force with some 8,000 of them in the highly skilled area achieving for the first time equal wages with men. The image of the Australian and the attached attributes of courage, skill, resourcefulness and sacrifice were no longer gender or ethnically specific. Our political leadership was clear-cut that in relations with friends and allies in our region and globally we had begun to discern distinctly Australian interests. Though we did not have the strategic impact, I identified in the First World War we emerged in leadership roles in the creation of the United Nations and preparedness to play a creative role in the process of change in our region. This memorial, in the depiction of the Second World War and the other conflicts commemorated here, reflects those changes. As far as battle is concerned, the armed services now reflect the gender and ethnic changes in the composition of our armed forces completely.

This memorial is the centre point of our sombre ANZAC Day commemorations. Larger commemorations take place elsewhere in Australia but all of us turn our eyes to the commemoration here. This is the focal point of scholarship about, and presentation of, our war effort. It is also a place of pilgrimage. As one commentator has noted that as internal tourists become absorbed by the sheer volume of depictions from dioramas, to sound and light and filmic exhibitions, they transform from visitors to pilgrims. They leave enveloped with mixed emotions – pride, sorrow and wonder. For veterans, the memorial is often a place of healing. It reinforces a public determination that our veterans should know that their contribution is substantial and recognized. They can see it for themselves. It is reassurance.

Some one million a year come here, increased in number by the impact of special exhibitions and special dates. Who can forget the amazing dawn service in 2015 attended by some 128, 700 folk. I suspect we may see that matched in 2018 both at the service and to the exhibitions that will focus on the Australian deeds in France.

The leadership here, and in particular that of Hon. Brendan Nelson, thinks creatively all the time of how even more meaning can be inculcated in the institution. I think here in particular of the Last Post ceremony introduced in 2013 which featured the story of Private Poate of the 6th Battalion who was killed in Afghanistan in 2012. That ceremony set a precedent for family, VIPs, Australian Defence Force veteran and student attendance that has continued to grow over the last three years, more than 1,000 ceremonies later. As part of the memorial’s core business, daily attendance averages 500, nearly 166,000 over the course of 12 months.

The educational outreach has also grown with curriculum based programmes. Particularly significant has been the Memorial Box outreach programme begun in 1993. This has been a fascination for thousands of school students to be able to touch historical artefacts. The 97 themed boxes, administered across Australia by state agents, contain a variety of items including case studies of personal stories and hands-on items such as uniforms, objects and records. Themes include First and Second World War, Vietnam, as well as Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander war time service. More recently, that has been joined by the Education at the Memorial Facebook page, which engages learners of all ages. The Centenary of ANZAC in 2015 saw a spike of 1.2 million unique visits, 370,000 more than usual. More generally, this location and the net provide the families of veterans, and those just interested, to search the military documents of loved ones and ancestors. This is very much a peoples’ memorial. Democratic attributes include both money into the memorial pool and poppies on the names of family members on the honour roles that flank the cloisters.

Though vastly expanded at its core, the original building and conception remains. The whole creates an understanding that governments from time to time need to call on those who volunteer, or more broadly, to advance a national interest both in our approaches and further afield. One thing has changed from the times at its creation. They thought the horror of the war at its creation would end all war. It manifestly hasn’t and nor will such circumstances emerge. What our serving men and women know is that as they are committed they will never be forgotten. The original conception of the memorial was finally completed with the internment of the Unknown Soldier on this day in 1993. The then Prime Minister made one of the two great short speeches in Australian history, the other being Curtin’s speech on the adjournment during the Battle of the Coral Sea. In that speech, the Prime Minister said, “He is all of them. And he is one of us”. At the ceremony, a surviving veteran Robert Coomb said, “Now you’re home mate”. Indeed he is in a home we all reverence.

Last updated: