Historian Peter Burness awarded Queen’s Birthday honour

09 June 2017

Peter Burness, the renowned historian and curator who retired from the Australian War Memorial in 2016 after 43 years of service, has been honoured in the Queen’s Birthday 2017 Honours List with the Member of the Order of Australia (AM).

Memorial Director Dr Brendan Nelson praised the dedicated commitment and unfailing professionalism displayed by Mr Burness throughout his long and distinguished career.

“Peter is a man who has devoted his life to honouring the memory of the more than 102,000 men and women who gave their lives for us. As a direct result of Peter’s contribution to the work of the Memorial many thousands of people now have a deeper understanding of what our soldiers, sailors, airmen, and nurses experienced,” Dr Nelson said.

“Peter has always been unfailingly generous in sharing his extraordinary knowledge of Australia’s military history, and his dedication to encouraging interest and learning in these areas is more than worthy of this significant personal recognition.” 

Mr Burness joined the Memorial in 1973 as a curator, and up until his retirement at the end of 2016 was its longest-serving employee. In the course of his career he was involved in the development of many collections and contributed to dozens of permanent, temporary, and travelling exhibitions. In 2015, in recognition of his outstanding service, he was appointed a Fellow of the Australian War Memorial.

As a widely acknowledged expert on Australia’s First World War military history, Mr Burness has published extensively on the subject, including his popular book, The Nek: the tragic charge of the light horse at Gallipoli. First published in 1996, with a revised edition released in 2012, it is commonly regarded as a modern classic.

Mr Burness developed an extensive network of contacts domestically and internationally as he helped the Memorial build its collection. His efforts were instrumental in identifying and bringing to light the remarkable Vignacourt photographs of Australian soldiers in France during the First World War. Now known as the Thuillier Collection, these iconic glass-plate photographs were discovered in 2011 after laying undisturbed for nearly a century in the attic of a farmhouse in Vignacourt. The collection is considered one of the most precious visual records reflecting the service and sacrifice of Australian soldiers in the First World War. The Chairman of the Memorial’s Council, Mr Kerry Stokes AC, personally acquired the fragile plates and donated them to the Memorial in 2012.

In 2010 Mr Burness was appointed the Memorial’s inaugural Lambert Gallipoli Fellow, in which role he undertook extensive research related to the Gallipoli centenary. In continuing this work he has completed a comprehensive volume based on the Western Front diaries of Australia’s official First World War correspondent, official historian, and founder of the Memorial, Charles Bean, for anticipated publication in 2018.

“Based on Peter’s vast knowledge of the subject, this work will undoubtedly make a significant contribution to popular and scholarly understanding of Australia’s role in the Great War, and is expected to become standard reading on the history of Australia’s involvement in the First World War,” Dr Nelson said.

“Peter has agreed to continue to work with the Australian War Memorial in a volunteer role; such is his ongoing dedication to what this national institution stands for. If anyone ever deserved this award, it is Peter Burness.”

Holly Pritchard
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