Welcome Address: Official opening of First World War galleries

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The Hon Dr Brendan Nelson, Director, Australian War Memorial

Welcome address delivered by Dr Brendan Nelson, Director of the Australian War Memorial, at the official opening of the First World War Galleries on 22 February 2015.

With a sense of awkward humility infused with immense pride, we pause here today, to mark a great milestone, not only for the Australian War Memorial – but for Australia.

In these First World War Galleries, our nation reveals itself in the men and women whose story it tells. It is who we were and who we are.

Facing new and uncertain horizons, it is also a reminder of the truths by which we live, how we relate to one another as Australians and see our place in the world.

We pause here upon the shoulders of giants, none more so than the Memorial’s founder, Charles Bean. His vision, drive and perseverance gave our young nation’s story its spiritual home.

Charles Bean bore witness to cataclysmic events that shaped our nation.

He landed on Gallipoli with the Australian troops on the 25th of April and stayed with them at the front through the entire war. Wounded at Gallipoli, it was said of Bean that no one risked death more often than him.

Of all he observed and recorded, it is an incident before the assault at Lone Pine in August 1915 that perhaps says it best. At its end would be 2,300 Australian and 7,000 Turkish casualties. Seven Australians would be awarded the Victoria Cross.

An Australian digger approached the front trench.

‘Jim here?’, he asked.
‘Yeah, right here Bill’, came a voice from the fire step.
‘Do you chaps mind movin’ up a piece?’, asked the first voice.
“Him and me are mates – and we’re going’ over together’.

It would take Bean almost a quarter of a century to write and edit the twelve volumes of the official history.

At its very end, searching for the words to give meaning to it all, he wrote this, words now inscribed at the very start of the new galleries:

What these men did, nothing can alter now.
The Good and the bad; the greatness and the smallness of their story,
It rises….it always rises; above the mists of ages
A monument to great hearted men, and for their nation – a possession forever.

Every nation has its story. This is ours.

The origins of the war, the naval campaign in German New Guinea, enlistment, embarkation, Egypt, Gallipoli, France, Belgium, Sinai Palestine and the stunning leadership of John Monash from Hamel to the war’s end in November 1918.

It is all here.

But more so than previously, the stories of individual soldiers, sailors, airman, nurses and families are woven through it all, as is the service and sacrifice of the first Australians who enlisted from a desperately unequal society to find equality in the Australian Imperial Force.

Visitors will leave this new exhibition immensely proud of what was achieved, but informed with a sober understanding of the price paid by a generation gripped with inconsolable grief, mourning almost 62,000 dead.

Then Prime Minister Gillard and Minister Snowden believed in this from the outset, committing $28.7 million. Prime Minister Abbott and Minister Ronaldson in opposition and in government have been steadfast in their support for it.

The Memorial committed $2.6 million from its capital reserves and consistent with its origins and ethos, BHP Billiton partnered with a $1 million contribution.

Some 2,000 objects from one of the world’s greatest collections are displayed, 70 per cent for the first time or in decades, punctuated by ten magnificently and painstakingly restored dioramas.

Many people made this possible.

Katherine McMahon was the project director. Her passion, intellect, professionalism and judgement are in every aspect of the galleries.

Nick Fletcher led the concept team, working side by side with our most senior First World War historian, Peter Burness.

This is a heritage building. It takes great faith to place it in the hands of a builder and allow major works within it.

We chose Built NSW. Our confidence was well placed. Both the primary works and the secondary works were completed on time and under budget.

The architects who delivered the superb design were Johnson Pilton Walker.

The exhibition designer was Cunningham Martin Design. In particular, this nation owes a great debt to a man whom I affectionately and respectfully call ‘the golden skivvy’. Bryan Cunningham’s genius brought this to life with a creative veracity and depth that will engage a new generation of Australians.

Root Projects Australia – Peter Root and Paul Van Der Plaat provided stunning project management. A complex project of this scale and emotional importance to the nation was delivered on time and on budget. From the first internal sensitive demolition to the installation of the three large artillery guns on the western side of the memorial, every aspect of the project was managed with composed, meticulous professionalism.

WT Partnership, our quantity surveyors, kept the cost and budget on track.

On one level, this is a $32.37 million project.

But is value cannot be measured.

The Scottish archaeologist and historian, Neil Oliver arrived here at our invitation in the spring of 2013 to record a behind the scenes documentary for Foxtel’s History Channel.

In the opening scene of the first episode, he walks up the steps of the Memorial and says:

“It is always daunting when you arrive in a new place as an outsider and try and find the locations and stories to tell….well, it’s infinitely more challenging when you arrive at a nation’s emotional and spiritual centre – its beating heart, and while there, try to find the words to do that place justice”.

Sixteen months later, having read the letters and diaries, discovered the stories behind the photographs, relics and artefacts and witnessed the construction of these new galleries, in the final minutes of the very last episode, he stood in the twilight darkness of the commemorative area in front of the Hall of Memory and said this:

“Look closer. There is more here (than war). Between 1914 and 1918, in France and elsewhere, we made for ourselves the worst times and places imaginable. And yet, even in such places, surrounded by horror and fear, some men devoted their last moments not to themselves – but to their friends.

And that’s love.

The love might not survive them but it was the last thing they would lose. The realisation that in such places, love between friends and for friends was there, at its end – is beautiful.

And so as well as all the death, loss and horror, it is friendship and love that will be remembered here, and for all time”.

At Pozieres, France in 1916, Australia sustained 23,000 casualties in just six weeks.

In late July Charles Bean recorded this:

Many a man lying out there at Pozieres and 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.

We are.

We are proud these men and women.

We are proud of what they gave us – belief in ourselves and the gift of knowing that a life of value is one spent in the service of others and our nation.

Dr Brendan Nelson
Australian War Memorial

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