Director of the Australian War Memorial, Dr Brendan Nelson

The Australian War Memorial’s founder and official historian for the First World War, Charles Bean, landed on Gallipoli with Australian troops on 25 April 1915 and stayed with them to the end. It was in 1916 at Pozieres, where Australia suffered over 23,000 casualties in 6 weeks, that Bean conceived the idea for the Australian War Memorial.

From August 2014 until 2018, we will commemorate the centenary of the First World War, the scars it left and the pride we felt when we emerged from the other side. The events that took place 100 years ago meant a lot to us then and means a lot for our future.

The Australian War Memorial will be commemorating the Centenary of the First World War through a variety of projects.

Our main project involves the redevelopment of the Memorial’s First World War galleries that will be opening in late 2014. The new galleries will explore why Australia joined the war and who we were in 1914. The galleries will also take on a chronological approach to the display of events and feature collection items collected over the past 100 years, many of which are on display for the first time.

A temporary exhibition on the First World War called Anzac Voices has now opened. This exhibition focuses on the individual stories of sacrifice and features treasures from the Memorial’s archives, presenting the voices of the Anzacs through their personal letters and diaries.

From around August 2014 we will also be projecting the names of the 62,000 men and women on the First World War Roll of Honour panels onto the outside of the Memorial building. This project will continue over the four years of the centenary.

Within the Commemorative Area from November 2014 to November 2018, school children will read the names and ages of each individual on the First World War Roll of Honour panels which will play over discreet speakers placed throughout the cloisters. This is an important project that will reflect the individual sacrifices made by the men and women who fought for Australia in the First World War.

The Memorial will also be enhancing its website through a project called Anzac Connections. This new search function will bring together our rich collection as well as the National Archives collection to tell the stories of our soldiers.

Over 140,000 school children visit the Memorial a year, during the centenary, each child will write their name and school on a wooden cross. These crosses will then be placed on the graves of First World War Australian soldiers throughout Europe.

One project we are currently working on is a travelling exhibition for the First World War. This exhibition will travel to regional communities across the country to share the stories of our First World War soldiers. This will be done through the use of collection items, projections of photos onto community buildings, and, potentially, the display of large technology items. The exhibition will have a focus on the Western Front and in particular the battle of Passchendaele. The exhibition will begin travelling from the end of 2015 or early 2016.

What we do through the centenary is incredibly important as it links our past with our future. The sacrifices of the past reflect who we were then, who we are today, and who we want to be for the future.

Dr Brendan Nelson, National Press Club Address, 18 September 2013.

Our fully restored Lockheed Hudson Mark IV Bomber is now on display inside Canberra Airport near the Virgin Australia check-in counter.


The Lockheed Hudson: RAAF Workhorse

The Lockheed Hudson was one of the most versatile aircraft used by the Allied air forces in the early part of the Second World& War. It filled a desperate need for a long-range patrol/bomber and reconnaissance aircraft. Based on a civilian airliner, it made its first flight in 1938, modified to include a bomb bay, positions for an operational crew of five, and defensive armament.

From 1939 the Royal Australian Air Force took delivery of 247 Hudsons. These were used in a variety of roles across the Pacific, North African, and Mediterranean theatres, including bombing and reconnaissance operations, air-to-sea rescue, transport, and convoy protection. The Hudson was one of the true “work horses” of the RAAF. 

This aircraft, A16-105, arrived in Australia in early December 1941 and was used to train RAAF aircrews. Between December 1942 and January 1943 it saw operational service in Papua and New Guinea, carrying out supply flights during the Allied advance on Buna on Papua’s north coast.

Restoration of Lockheed Hudson A16-105

After the Second World War, Hudson A16-105 was stripped of its military fittings and flown as a photographic survey aircraft.

Flight controls were re-routed, the nose was swapped for one without windows, and holes were cut in the bomb bay doors for camera equipment. It completed its last flight in 1998, and was purchased by the Australian War Memorial in 2001. 

The Memorial set about restoring the aircraft to its wartime configuration of December 1942. The project took 48 months to complete, and involved the fabrication of more than 5,800 parts and tools, extensive research on the colour scheme and internal fitout, the sourcing of replacement parts and spares through the aviation heritage network, and the reconditioning of the airframe. Reference material was limited, so the complete blueprint catalogue, acquired from the National Air and Space Museum in Washington DC, became the Memorial’s planning bible.

Read more about the restoration process in a series of blogs written by the conservation team.


Proudly supported by: Virgin Australia               Canberra Airport

  1. Lockheed Hudson - The First Cut

    03 November 2010

    Progress report of the conservation and reconstruction of the Lockheed Bomber

  2. Lockheed Hudson - Structural Reference

    18 October 2010

    Progress report of the conservation and reconstruction of the Lockheed Bomber

  3. Lockheed Hudson - Where to Start

    06 October 2010

    Progress report of the conservation and reconstruction of the Lockheed Bomber

  4. Lockheed Hudson Mark IV Bomber Conservation begins.

    28 September 2010

    Progress report of the conservation and reconstruction of the Lockheed Bomber

  5. Lockheed Hudson A16-105 and Ray Kelly

    13 February 2009

    Read about Canberra resident Flying Officer Ray Kelly, who trained with No. 1 Operational Training Unit (OTU) at Bairnsdale during late 1941 and most of 1942, and his experiences with a plane in the War Memorial's collection

Artillerymen train at the Australian-run Afghan National Army Artillery School at Camp Alamo in Kabul, February 2011.

A new permanent display that expands the story of Australia’s involvement in conflicts in the Middle East from the First Gulf War to Afghanistan, opened to the public on the 6 October 2016.

The 150 square metre display is located within the existing Conflicts 1945 to today galleries, and canvasses Australia’s involvement in the First Gulf War, UN weapons inspections, Operation Habitat, the Maritime Interception Force,  as well as the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.

This is the first major upgrade to the Conflicts 1945 to today galleries since they opened in December 2007.

The display includes 218 items from the Memorial’s collection and on loan from current and former Australian Defence Force personnel.

The Afghanistan section features Explosive Detection Dog Sarbi, donated by her handler, Corporal David Simpson.

Sarbi went missing in action during the engagement in which Corporal Mark Donaldson was awarded the Victoria Cross. After 13 months, Sarbi was recovered by US forces and reunited with her unit and handler. The Purple Cross medal awarded to her in recognition of her courage, strength, resilience and service is also on display. 

Also on display is a prosthetic limb worn by Sapper Curtis “Kiwi” McGrath who lost both legs in an IED blast on 23 August 2012. When he was wounded, McGrath joked with medics about becoming a Paralympian – four years later he won gold in the K3 canoe sprint event at the Rio Paralympic Games.

Read more:



If you were involved in operations in East Timor, Iraq, and Afghanistan, the Official History Project Team welcomes your contribution to the Operations in Iraq, Afghanistan and Peacekeeping Operations in East Timor Official History. Contact details are available on the Official History page on our website.

Veterans of the First and Second Gulf Wars and the War in Afghanistan are welcome to sign the Tarin Kowt sign in the Middle East Gallery, and share their stories. The next time you're visiting us at the Memorial in Canberra, simply ask a staff member in the 'Conflicts 1945 to today' galleries for assistance.

Return to Conflict 1945 to Today Exhibition
Trent Parke photograph of a tree

Just as man, at the head of the animal kingdom, is the noblest work of God, so the giant trees of the forest represent His noblest work in the plant world. Monuments of bronze or stone, architectural designs, or imposing buildings may serve as memorials in a collective sense; but the avenue of honour in which each tree commemorates a soldier, introduces a living breathing individuality. The same wonderful vital forces are inherent in both’.

The Argus, 1922

At 22 kilometres the Ballarat Avenue of Honour is the longest avenue of honour in Australia and one of the earliest known memorial avenues to have been planted in Victoria during the First World War. Begun in May 1917 and now comprising 3,801 trees, each tree is planted to honour the service of a particular man or woman from Ballarat who enlisted in the Australian Imperial Forces. 

In 2014 Australian photographer Trent Parke was invited to participate in the international exhibition The First World War Now. This was presented by the renowned Magnum Photos agency in Bruges, Belgium, to mark one hundred years since the German invasion of the city. In response Parke produced the series WW1 Avenue of Honour, twenty-two images made at the Ballarat Avenue of Honour. 

Parke, who describes himself as a storyteller, was drawn to the Ballarat Avenue of Honour because it is a living memorial where each tree stands for a particular life. In selecting and photographing a particular tree he sought to explore both tangible and abstract parallels between the natural forms as he encountered them and the fate of the individual whom the tree commemorates. Parke undertook detailed research drawing on the Red Cross Wounded and Missing files to find links between biographical records and the appearance of the corresponding tree in planting position, size, shape, texture, irregularities of growth, setting in the landscape or it’s silhouette against the sky. His photographs capture these visual forms as an act of contemporary commemoration. 

About the artist

Trent Parke (b.1971) was the first and currently is the only Australian to be accredited as a full member of the prestigious Magnum Photos agency. While working as a press and sports photographer in his early career he received numerous awards including five Gold Lenses from the International Olympic Committee and numerous World Press Photo Awards. Having established a career as an influential artist whose images challenge our expectations of documentary photography, his work has been exhibited and published globally to wide acclaim. His work has been collected by major national institutions including the National Gallery of Australia, The Art Gallery of New South Wales and the National Gallery of Victoria. In 2015 the Art Gallery of South Australia presented a major exhibition devoted to his work The Black Rose.

Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people please be aware that some resource contain images and names of deceased persons.

New & Featured

  1. Carved stone figures

    Year 6+: On the walls of the Australian War Memorial’s Commemorative Area are 26 carved stone figures.

  2. Art in the Aftermath

    Years 9+: This resource is a visual exploration of the aftermath and impact of the First World War.

First World War

  1. A Very Special Day

    Years F-6: This resource for primary teachers will help you explore how we remember and understand the past through objects, stories, and ceremonies.

  2. Understanding Gallipoli

    Years 5-9: a concise and useful overview of the Gallipoli campaign with activities for students and teachers.

  3. 1916

    Years 5-9: This package of case studies and inquiry questions looks at the places Australians fought during some of the darkest days of Australia's military history.

  4. Diary of an Anzac: a Gallipoli perspective

    All ages: Follow the journey of Herbert Reynolds, an Australian stretcher bearer at Gallipoli, through his daily diary entries.

  5. Anzac Diversity

    Year 6 and up: A collection of case studies exploring the ethnic diversity of the Australian Imperial Force (AIF) during the First World War.

  6. Sources: the conscription debate

    All ages: A selection of pro- and anti-conscription leaflets from the conscription referenda in 1916-17.

More resources

  1. Dust Off - Vietnam

    Year 10: This resource explores the 'dust-off' process and the experience of wounded Australians returning home.

  2. Back to the Source

    Years 9+: Turn your students into historical detectives in this guided journey through original source materials from the Memorial's collection

Education kits for travelling exhibitions

  1. Hearts and Minds: Education kit

    Years 9-12: This resource is a study of propaganda posters from the First and Second World Wars.

  2. Ben Quilty: After Afghanistan

    Years 9-12: This resource focuses on Ben Quilty's time in Afghanistan in October 2011 as an official war artist, commissioned by the Australian War Memorial.

  3. Reality in flames: Education kit

    Years 9-12: This resource explores the different ways modern Australian artists responded creatively to the Second World War, comprehending its events and consequences.

  4. A camera on Gallipoli

    Years 5-8: This education resource focuses on Sir Charles Ryan's 1915 series of candid photographs documenting the experiences of Australians on Gallipoli.


  1. Education publications

    Downloadable books, posters, and more made available free of charge for classroom and educational use.

We all wished everybody the best of luck in the New Year particularly those at home.

The above words were penned on 1 January 1915 by Captain Charles Albert Barnes in a letter that he had started to write to his mother on Christmas Day 1914. The letter was continually added to on a daily basis, along the lines of a diary, until the last addition on 17 January 1915. This letter has been digitised as part of the Memorial’s major centenary digitisation project, Anzac Connections, and is now available online here.

Charles Albert Barnes.jpgExtract from letter from Charles Albert Barnes to his mother, 25 December 1914 (1DRL/0091)


The above words were also selected as the first quote to feature in Daily Digger – a Memorial initiative to narrate the events of 1915 through the words of those who were there. To share some of these stories and personal insights into the days of the First World War, the Memorial is pleased to announce the launch of Daily Digger.

All of the collections that have been digitised as part of Anzac Connections contain thoughts and insights into the activities and experiences of Australian men and women who were on active service during the First World War. Sometimes, there is also extensive commentary on the situation back home in Australia.

P02282_013.jpgCaptain Walter Ormond Stevenson, 1st Divisional Train, Australian Army Service Corps (AASC), sits and writes a note or letter in his dugout at Anzac.


Reading through these letters to see what was happening each day for an individual as well as the wider collective experience reveals a rich narrative of a range of different experiences, personalities, language and the private thoughts of those who were putting pen to paper back in 1915.

Daily Digger will provide a featured quote selected from one of the diaries or letters digitised as part of Anzac Connections for every day of 1915. The quote will be uploaded to Twitter on the corresponding date in 2015 and can be viewed here.


Imants Tillers, Avenue of Remembrance, commemorative tapestry commission work in progress. Photo by Jeremy Wehrauch.

In November 2014 the Australian Tapestry Workshop Director, Antonia Syme and Australian War Memorial Director, Dr Brendan Nelson announced the commencement of a significant new First World War commemorative tapestry commission based on a painting by Australian artist, Imants Tillers (b.1950) for the Australian War Memorial.

The tapestry, titled Avenue of Remembrance, has been commissioned by the Memorial and made possible through a generous donation from the Geoff and Helen Handbury Foundation.

Tillers was asked to provide a painting for the tapestry, a commemorative response to the First World War centenary which also makes reference to the Gallipoli letter. The Gallipoli letter is an 8000 word document, written by Keith Murdoch to Prime Minister Andrew Fisher in 1915, and is one of the National Library of Australia’s treasures.  It is widely thought to have helped bring the Gallipoli campaign to an end. View the Gallipoli letter.

Imants Tillers, Avenue of Remembrance, 2014, oil on board, 3.27 x 2.83m, photo courtesy of the artist

Tillers' poetic landscape painting is reminiscent of the wartime roads on the Western Front and the many ‘avenues of remembrance’ planted in memorial to the First World War around Australia.  Layered over the top are words from the Gallipoli letter and a selection of names of the many places where Australians fought and were buried during the war.

‘We all know that an ‘avenue’ is not only a regular planting of trees along a road, it is also more abstractly ‘a way to access or approach’ something – to an idea or even a memory. My ‘Avenue of Remembrance’ is, I hope, a way or means to remember not only those young men who died but also the profound loss and grief experienced by their mothers, their fathers, their brothers and sisters. By their friends, by their communities. By our nation.’

Imants Tillers speaking about his work, Avenue of Remembrance

The tapestry took over 2380 hours to complete and was woven by Master Weavers Sue Batten, Chris Cochius, Pamela Joyce, Milena Paplinska and Cheryl Thornton. The completed tapestry is 3.3m by 2.8m. It was unveiled at the Memorial on 30 April 2015.

The new tapestry Avenue of Remembrance was available for public viewing during its production at the Australian Tapestry Workshop in South Melbourne from late October 2014 onwards.

Australian Tapestry Workshop logo

Anzac Centenary Print Portfolio

The centenary of the First World War is a momentous international cultural, historical, and commemorative event. It resonates powerfully in Australia and New Zealand, where the war and the coming together of the Australian and New Zealand Army Corps (ANZAC) on Gallipoli in 1915 remain closely linked to contemporary national identity and the enduring bond between both countries. To mark the centenary the Australian War Memorial has commissioned the Anzac Centenary Print Portfolio, comprising contemporary artistic responses to the First World War by five Australian and five New Zealand artists.

The Australian and New Zealand experience of the First World War can never be fully comprehended by those who did not participate, so the aim of the Portfolio is not to try to represent the experiences of those men and women. Instead, the aim is to creatively explore the legacy of the First World War and the Centenary itself as a way of linking our past with our present and future.

The ten artists chosen to participate were: Daniel Boyd, Megan Cope, Helen Johnson, Mike Parr, and Sangeeta Sandrasegar from Australia; and Shane Cotton, Brett Graham, Fiona Jack, John Reynolds, and Sriwhana Spong from New Zealand. Each artist came to Canberra for an individual two-week residency between May 2014 and July 2015, working with master printmaker John Loane and the specialist staff at Megalo Print Studio and Gallery to produce their print. The artists worked in isolation from each other; the aim was never to produce a consistent or even cohesive account of this history, but to reflect a diversity of artistic perspectives and constitute a broad-ranging survey of creative responses.

A limited edition of 20 portfolios has been printed, 17 of which will be given to peer cultural institutions in Australia and around the world to promote international awareness of Australian and New Zealand artists and of our countries’ experiences of the First World War.

The edition presented to the Parliament House Art Collection will be on public display in the Presiding Officers’ Exhibition Area at Parliament House, Canberra from 17 March 2016 until 5 June 2016.


The Simpson Prize

This is the current (2018) Simpson Prize question and source material. Previous years are available here.

The Question

Some historians have described 1917 as “the worst year of the Great War” for Australia and Australians. To what extent is this an accurate statement?


The Simpson Prize requires you to respond to the question above using both the sources below and your own research.

You are encouraged to agree with, debate with, or challenge the statement from a variety of perspectives—individual, national and global—and to use sources in a variety of forms.

You are expected to make effective use of a minimum of three of the following sources. Up to half of your response should also make use of information drawn from your own knowledge and research.

Information about word or time limits, the closing date, entry forms and judging can be found at the Simpson Prize official website.

Note: students who submit winning entries for this year's Simpson Prize question will travel in 2018.

Source 1: Statistics

a) Graph showing rates of Australian enlistment 1914-1918

Australian enlistment rates during the years of the First World War peaked in 1915.

Adapted from Ernest Scott, "Australia during the War", vol. XI, 1936, pp. 871-72, in C.E.W. Bean, ed., Official History of Australia in the War of 1914-18, Angus & Robertson, Sydney, 12 vols, 1921-36. Copyright Australian War Memorial.

b) Table Showing Deaths in the A.I.F. Abroad


Year From Battle Casualties From Non-Battle Casualties Total Progressive Total
1914 - 14 14 14
1915 7,819 655 8,474 8,488
1916 12,823 873 13,696 22,184
1917 20,628 1,108 21,736 43,920
1918 12,553 1,687 14,240 58,160
1919 27 597 624 58,784
1920 - 6 6 58,790
Totals 53,850 4,940 58,790 58,790



From A.G. Butler, ed., The Australian Army Medical Services in the War of 1914-1918, Australian War Memorial, Melbourne, vol. III, 1943, p.900. Copyright Australian War Memorial.


Source 2: Letter


Dear Sister …

Your parcel came to hand last evening about 4.30, contents: Tin Coffee & milk, already broken open, or burst open at one end, indelible pencil, broken in two, envelopes OK, tin of Chocolates with side bashed in, but alright … Yours is the only parcel I have received and I don’t think I would have received even that, only that you enclosed it in hessian. Accept my best thanks. Glad Trise and you (now) are the only two I have told I have been bowled over [on leave due to being wounded], don’t tell Mum – understand? I can’t say further, if I do my letter will be torn up, so you’ll understand. All my pals, or the lads I came over with are gone, but 7 out of 150 remain, it's simply scientific murder, not war at all. As for seeing Germans it's all lies; you never get close enough to do that, unless in a charge. I keep smiling, but I tell you it takes some doing, but I’m not meant to be killed, I know that, yet the premonition I had when leaving Sydney, that I would never see home again still hangs about me. One would be unnatural to go through uninjured, if I get out of it with a leg, and arm off I’ll be perfectly satisfied …

Well, the lads lost 9,500 in one and ¾ hours at Pozieres, picked up Reinforcements, and on 22 Oct, were sent to an even worse hell. The Somme, Mum’s letters from me will tell you all about that, the boys simply got butchered there … its simply murder … indescribable … I‘ve said enough here I suppose to get me 10 years imprisonment … … Eatables in France extortionate prices, same here [England] no butter or pastry or eggs procurable unless at prohibitive prices …

The whole of the bay and parts of the ocean are frozen here, taps can’t be turned on, prunes left in a dish after tea last week, could not be dug out of the dish – frozen into ice, even the Thames is frozen hard, this is the coldest winter for 78 years in England …

I’m no saint and to hell with religion after this war … If ever I get out of this soldier business I’ll cut my throat before I take it on again.

With best love to you all,
EO Neaves.



From private record, AWM 3DRL/3130(A).



Pte. Erle Neaves wrote the above letter while recovering in England from wounds. He returned to the front, and was killed in action on 6 November 1917 near Polygon Wood. He has no known grave. His brother was also killed in action. His mother in Australia died before the war ended.

Source 3: Film

Fighting in Flanders, Part I, Frank Hurley and Hubert Wilkins, 1917.

This film deals with the participation of the Australian troops in the third battle of Ypres during the autumn of 1917. The scenes include Australians preparing for the attack; being reviewed by Sir Douglas Haig before going in to action; shells falling amongst the ruins of Ypres, and then the battlefields over which Australians fought and incidents connected with the fighting.

Source 4: Photograph

Unknown Australian Official Photographer, Bapaume, 1917.

Unidentified Australian troops resting beside their rifles after the occupation of Bapaume, on 17 March 1917. They appear to be completely exhausted.

Source 5: Cartoon

Daryl Lindsay, Optimism, 1917.

An Australian soldier carries a load of wood in the rain and through the mud. Conditions on the Western Front were harsh, with many soldiers suffering from diseases in the trenches. A note by the artist on the reverse of this work says, 'Optimism "Well thank god at least there are no flies!".

Source 6: Painting

The Charge of the Australian Light Horse at Beersheba, 1917, George Lambert, 1920.

Late on 31 October 1917 the 4th Light Horse Brigade was ordered to gallop towards Beersheba and seize the town. Two regiments, the 4th and the 12th, made the charge. This bold and successful move was one of the last major cavalry charges in history. Lambert's work depicts the impact of men and horses on the Turkish troops and trenches. A tangled mass of horses and soldiers is shown against a backdrop of barren and undulating landscape. The buildings of the town are just visible on the horizon at left.

Source 7: Official History of the Australian Army Medical Services

Extracts from A.G. Butler, ed., The Australian Army Medical Services in the War of 1914-1918, Australian War Memorial, Melbourne, vol. III, 1943.

The Year 1917 stands out as as the period of the greatest advance in the surgery of war wounds to the head …
Chapter VI: "Some Surgical Problems of Repair and Re-Enablement", p.302.

During the early spring of 1917, operating teams were fully organised with surgeon, anaesthetist, nurse and trained orderly … They were grouped as close to the front as possible …

These arrangements were fully tested during the Third Battle of Ypres …
Chapter VI: "Some Surgical Problems of Repair and Re-Enablement", p.304.

In busy areas eight operating tables were available. As each team was capable of dealing with at least 12 severe head wounds in its 12 hours on duty, a total of 220 to 250 patients could be dealt with in 24 hours ...
Chapter VI: "Some Surgical Problems of Repair and Re-Enablement", p.306.

At the beginning of 1917 … the Australian Government negotiated with an American firm to provide an expert and make available the patent for a type of [wooden] limb … In March 1917 the Director of Medical Services Australian Imperial Force was informed that the factory at Caulfield [Australia] was working and that both arms and legs could be fitted in Australia … [T]he accumulation of limbless Australians in Engand, waiting with nothing to do, was found most detrimental to the interests of all concerned and General Howse was insistent that the supply [of wooden limbs] in Australia should be expedited … “Am sending you by hospital ship a certain number of unfitted legless men (the first batch). Shall be glad when you are able to deal with all limbless, as they take such a long time getting ready to be fitted. Possibly you will be able to send me a cable when you are ready for more legless.
Chapter XV, "Medical Problems on the Home Front", p.768.

From a body of apparently normal men subjected to the Pozières bombardments (and similar experiences later) there arrived at the aid posts and ambulances men suffering from confusion, signs of mental and physical exhaustion, acute fears, phobias, amnesia, tremor … deafness, speechlessness, visual defects and so forth … “shell-shock”.
Chapter II: "Moral and Mental Disorders in the War of 1914-1918", p.114-5.

Source 8: Leaflets

a) E.J. Dempsey, Claude Marquet & W.R. Winspear, The Blood Vote, 1917.

This black and white conscription referendum leaflet in favour of a ‘No’ vote referred to a mother’s guilt.

b) Fred P. Morris, A Mother’s Lament, 1917.

This pro-conscription leaflet was written in response to The Blood Vote.

Copyright statement

For all copyright enquiries relating to the above sources write to:

Head, Research Centre
Australian War Memorial
GPO Box 345
Canberra ACT 2601

The war that shaped Australia


“My Dear Mother … I entered this war with the knowledge that I had a rather small chance of coming out of it alive. I was under no false impression – I knew I had to kill – and perhaps be killed. Since I commenced flying I have spent probably the happiest time of my life … Above all, Mother dear, I have proved to my satisfaction that I was, at least, a man.”

Brothers and members of 453 Squadron RAAF, 402823 Flight Lieutenant John William (Jack)


Twenty-year-old John “Jack” Yarra wrote this letter to be sent to his mother in the event of his death. He was killed six months later.

Australia’s attention is currently focused on the Centenary of the First World War, and one might be forgiven for assuming that Yarra was talking about the Great War. Certainly many of the young Australians who served and died in that terrible conflict expressed similar thoughts when they went off to war. But it was Yarra’s father who was a decorated Gallipoli and Western Front veteran. As for Jack Yarra, he was just one of the millions who perished in what became the most destructive war in human history – the Second World War.

This year marks the 75th anniversary of the outbreak of the Second World War. Sunday, 3 September 1939, was Fathers’ Day, but for most Australians the day was filled with anxiety and apprehension rather than celebration. Church congregations at morning services seemed larger than normal, and families gathered around radios waiting for what seemed like the inevitable. The Great War, fought between 1914 and 1918, was supposed to have been the war to end all wars, yet once again the world was on the brink of conflict.

At 9.15 pm Australian Prime Minister Robert Menzies delivered an address to the nation: “It is my melancholy duty to inform you”, he began, that as a result of Germany’s invasion of Poland, “Great Britain has declared war upon her, and that as a result, Australia is at war.” It was never doubted that Australia would play an active role in the war to come.

While the causes for the outbreak of war in 1914 are still hotly debated, as recent discussions in Britain and Australia have shown, there is no ambiguity about the outbreak of the Second World War. Both Britain and France followed a policy of appeasement with Nazi Germany and Fascist Italy during the 1930s and were unwilling and unable to intervene militarily against their subsequent aggression. However, following the German invasion of Poland on 1 September 1939, Britain and France, who had made Anglo–French guarantees to defend Poland, delivered an ultimatum to Hitler demanding the withdrawal of German forces. Germany had three days to comply; it did not. On 3 September, Britain and France declared war on Germany. About an hour later, Menzies delivered his announcement.

The war lasted six long years. It was a clash of ideologies. It was a conflict that the western Allies – principally the British Commonwealth and the United States – had to win to preserve democratic rights and personal freedoms. On the Eastern Front the war between Nazism and Communism became a struggle of near extermination. The Allies’ hard-fought defeat of Germany, Italy, and Japan came at a heavy cost. Parts of Europe, Asia, and the Pacific were devastated, tens of millions of people were displaced, and at least 60 million people died, including an estimated six million who perished as a result of the Holocaust.

Australia played its part in the Allied victory. From a population of just seven million, almost one million Australians – men and women – enlisted and more than half a million served overseas. They were posted across the world: from the deserts of North Africa to the Arctic convoys to the Soviet Union; from the skies over occupied Europe to the jungles of Malaya and New Guinea.

Closer to home, the Japanese occupied Australian New Guinea, and the Australian mainland was bombed nearly 100 times during the course of the war. Northern Australia bore the brunt of this assault but the Japanese also attacked Sydney Harbour and Newcastle. Some Australians understandably feared a Japanese invasion.

The burden of Australia’s participation fell heavily on many families. All three sons of Alfred and Harriet Yarra’s six children enlisted. Their two eldest would be killed. Jack Yarra enlisted in the Royal Australian Air Force (RAAF) in late 1940. He trained in Canada and became a decorated Spitfire pilot. He flew in the defence of Malta before being posted to Britain. He was killed flying off the coast of Holland on 10 December 1942. Robert “Bob” Yarra also joined the RAAF. He was posted to Britain, joining his brother’s squadron, and on 14 April 1944 he was killed when his plane was shot down over France. The youngest Yarra son, James, volunteered for the army and fought on Borneo in 1945. The boys’ father, Alfred Yarra, enlisted in his second war, and served in the army.

Jack and Bob Yarra were two of the approximately 40,000 Australians killed during the Second World War. More than 30,000 Australians became prisoners of war.

On the home front the Australian government mobilised its population, economy, and industry for total war. Prime Minister John Curtin’s mantra became “All-in!” Rationing was introduced and the federal government enacted a series of unprecedented restrictions and controls over the daily lives of Australians.

It was also a time of great social change – most obviously for women. More than 66,000 enlisted and thousands more began working in factories and other traditionally male occupations. Many women gave up their positions when peace came in 1945 but fostered in their daughters the spirit of independence and equality that helped drive the women’s movements of the 1960s.

Indigenous Australians serving in uniform likewise began to experience a greater level of equality with white Australia. At least 3,000 Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples served directly in the military and thousands of men were employed as labourers in northern Australia. This interaction, of course, was reciprocal; for the first time many white Australians were exposed to and developed an appreciation for Aboriginal customs and traditions.

Informal group portrait of Aboriginal servicewoman, 95994 Aircraftwoman Alice Lovett, a member of the Women's Auxiliary Australian Air Force (WAAAF) (centre) and two civilian Aboriginal friends, Mary King (left), and Eileen Watson (right).


Australia also saw a period of engineering and technical achievement. For a country that was yet to build a mass-produced motor car, Australia’s industry rapidly modernised and expanded during the war. The country manufactured aircraft, landing craft, and armoured vehicles, and this industrialisation helped form the basis for Australia’s economic prosperity in the years following 1945.

Australia came out of the Second World War confident and with an independent outlook. It enjoyed a more sophisticated relationship with Britain and found in the United States a new and powerful ally. The influx of postwar migration from Britain and war-torn Europe forever diversified Australia’s population and society.

Australia may have emerged from the Great War with a sense of national identity, but it was also a divided society and one in mourning. Australia experienced great losses in the First World War, too, but it was the Second World War that shaped modern Australia.


Karl James

Dr Karl James is a senior historian at the Australian War Memorial, Canberra.

This article was first published in the Sydney Morning Herald on 5 September 2014

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