Keynote address for the opening of the First World War Galleries

6 mins read
Mr Les Carlyon AC

The keynote address was delivered by Mr Les Carlyon AC at the official opening of the First World War Galleries on 22 February 2015.

Those of us who have had even a modest involvement with the War Memorial know that we stand on the shoulders of giants -- giants with names like Bean and Treloar.

But we should not forget Colonel Tinkler. He was in charge of the ceremony when this building opened in 1941. I know this from looking up the Canberra Times archive. According to the Canberra Times the colonel sat at a little desk beneath the dais, keeping his eyes glued to the clock and giving directions through a telephone to [quote] the scattered branches of his organisation [unquote].

The scattered branches of his organisation? How big were things in those days? Obviously there were no concerns about efficiency dividends. And one has to ask: Where is Colonel Tinkler today when we really need him, not to mention the scattered branches of his organisation?

That opening in 1941, back when there were only seven million of us Australians, was truly something.

Here was this dramatic building, this Byzantine profile, rearing out of a sheep paddock. And it was far from complete. The livid scars of bulldozers were everywhere. No oak trees, no Anzac Parade pointing a finger towards Parliament House.

Children from all Canberra’s schools came to the opening. Lieutenant-General Thomas Blamey was here, as was Sir Harry Chauvel, the first Australian to become a corps commander. John Curtin, the Prime Minister spoke; nearby was his predecessor, Robert Menzies.

In that hard strong voice of his, John Curtin described the Great War as the first great crisis in Australian history. He thought it just right that this building should be in sight of Parliament House. This gave parliamentarians the chance to contemplate what he called ‘the story that has gone before them’.

Seventeen men wearing the Victoria Cross stood on the steps here that day. There was also an eighteenth man wearing that maroon ribbon -- Lord Gowrie, the Governor-General.

Lord Gowrie didn’t dissemble in his speech. The Great War, he said, settled nothing. All concerned came out losers. Those who visited this shrine, he said, would declare, and I quote: ‘Never again, never again’.

And here we come to the terrible poetry that hung over that opening . . .

It was happening again.

Charles Bean, John Treloar and others had conceived of this building as a memorial to a single event – the Great War. Now the war had started up again. German armies were racing towards Moscow, leaving a thousand atrocities behind them. This time it was going to be worse.

The phrase ‘The Great War’ had already dropped out of the language. There was now the First World War and the Second World War. Pearl Harbor was three weeks away.

In the event – and in some ways miraculously – Australia’s casualties from World War II were not as severe as in the Great War.

And the Great War, and these new galleries that depict it, is what this ceremony today is about.

It is hard to under-estimate the place of that conflict in Australia’s story. It was perhaps not quite the nation-building event that some claim for it. Rather it was one of many.

We had done some fine nation-building in the thirteen years after Federation. We had created a unique society – the best of the British heritage but without the feudal hangovers.

Ahead of the rest of the world we gave women the vote and the right to stand for Parliament.

We introduced the secret ballot.

We had a Labor Government in 1904, twenty years ahead of Britain.

We said there had to be a minimum wage.

We said there was something honourable about the self-made man.

We didn’t invent mateship, but we had developed a peculiar version of our own, based largely on the truism that it was just about impossible to survive in the bush without mates.

The Great War interrupted those splendid beginnings, checked the creative tide. It became the worst trauma in Australian history, and still is.

There were the battle casualties – huge for a young country of only five million people.

There was hardly a family in Australia that was not touched. People could explain the loss of a son or husband with one word. They would say ‘Pozieres’ or ‘Passchendaele’. No need to say any more.

And there was that endless wake that seemed to sap the vitality out of Australian life in the twenties and thirties. War weariness is a long illness.

As I said, we stand on the shoulders of giants. Bean and Treloar and others gave us a marvellous collection from which to tell the story . . .

Twenty-five thousand relics -- everything from the barrel of the Amiens gun to the moustache trainers that German officers put on at bedtime so that they might better resemble Kaiser Bill.

There’s the art of Septimus Power, who brought a rare and sad beauty to the artillery horse.

There’s the moody photography of Phillip Schuler and Frank Hurley . . .

And those spine-chilling dioramas of Lone Pine and Mont St Quentin.

Add to these the thousands of diaries and letters, those rustling pieces of paper that creep into your head and heart when you hold them in your hand.

Steve Gower, one of the Memorial’s latter-day giants, once said that you can’t have a great museum without a great collection.

This is a great collection, not just by our standards but by world standards. And now, in its renewal, it’s even better.

These galleries are the War Memorial’s main contribution to the centenary of Anzac. There had been no significant changes to them since the nineteen-seventies. There had been no change to the concept since the opening in 1941.

What we now have are galleries that run chronologically: from Gallipoli to Fromelles to Pozieres – all the way to the Hindenburg Line. What we now have are new galleries that touch on matters either side of the fighting – why Australia went to war in 1914, and the legacy of pain and loss after 1918.

The Great War galleries now unfold as a seamless narrative -- story after story . . .

Stories that tell us where we came from . . .

Stories that give us reference points as a nation . . .

Stories that tell not so much of heroes as of great-hearted men who kept going back and back . . .

And stories that remind us of something that tends to be overlooked and shouldn’t be – that in 1918 those great-hearted men won victories that remain unrivalled in our military history.

And while the galleries are new, they remain faithful to the ideals of Charles Bean, one of which was that this place should not glorify war -- and it doesn’t. It is as well to remember at times like this that to commemorate means to preserve in the memory. It has nothing to do with celebration, nothing to do with triumphalism.

Another of Bean’s hopes was that this place, like his official histories, should first of all remember the ordinary soldiers, that extraordinary body of volunteers who became the 1st AIF, men who saw the war as a duty, not as a career path in the military. Hence there are no Napoleonic overtones.

Peggy Noonan became famous as the speechwriter for President Reagan. The second-most famous speech she wrote for him was for an anniversary of the Normandy landings.

When she was drafting the speech White House staffers kept coming up to her saying: ‘It’s got to be like the Gettysburg address – it’s got to make people weep.’

She tired of people telling her this and eventually rounded on one of them and said: ‘The Gettysburg address doesn’t tell you to weep – it tells you to think.’

That, I believe, is the wonderful thing about these new galleries, their overarching virtue – they make you think.

Last updated: