On October 5, 1918, Australian soldiers fought their final infantry battle on the Western Front at Montbrehain in France.
At a cost of 5500 men killed and wounded over 17 days, the Australians played a major role in breaking through the German Army’s formidable Hindenberg Line.
By late October, all five Divisions of the Australian Corps were exhausted and resting after six gruelling months of non-stop fighting.
There was one group of Australians, however, whose task was getting bigger by the day. It was the Australian War Records Section (AWRS), a unit charged with collecting battalion records and battle relics for planned post-war museums.
Established in London in May 1917 with 23-year-old Major John Treloar leading a staff of four, the AWRS steadily expanded its networks of field officers and collection depots in France and Egypt.
By 1919, it had a staff of 600.
About this time 100 years ago, stretcher-bearer cum official war artist Louis McCubbin joined the AWRS’s modelling section that was to create battle scene dioramas (that subsequently featured in the Australian War Memorial in Canberra).
Australian Imperial Force commander William Birdwood had injected inter-unit rivalry into the collection of “war trophies” in December 1917, writing: “I now ask that each member of the AIF should contribute at least one trophy to his unit’s collection in the museums.”
By February 1919, 25,000 objects were waiting to be shipped to Australia from the Millwall Docks, from captured German artillery and machine guns, a tank and several aeroplanes to trench signs, smaller weapons, uniforms, flags and souvenired material.
Thousands of these war relics found their way to local war memorials that sprang up in cities and towns across Australia carrying the names of locals who died overseas or returned home.
The late historian Ken Inglis, in Sacred Places, War Memorials in the Australian Landscape, said: “By the end of 1921 about 500 artillery pieces, 400 trench mortars and 4000 machine guns were installed beside, or within, or on top of, just about every kind of monument.”
Professor Inglis wrote that “all over Australia the theme of war memorials was universally the mourning and honouring by name of the men who went to the war from this place.”
He added: “A cautious guess would put Australia’s war memorials at more than four thousand.”
The memorial movement began in local communities well before the war ended. Memorials were unveiled in Balmain, Newcastle and Manly in 1916 and more than 60 were completed before 1918.
Historian Michael McKernan, in Anzac: Then and Now, said: “Australia is perhaps the only nation to have attempted to list all its war dead. It was the vision of national commemoration that each life was freely offered and sacred and thus should be recorded and recalled.”
Much of the AWRS material ultimately formed the collection of the Australian War Memorial which introduced principles for exhibiting relics that included avoiding “glorification of war and boasting of victory.”
Australia is perhaps the only nation to have attempted to list all its war dead.- Michael McKernan
Among Australia’s state, suburban and country town war memorials there are shrines, cenotaphs and obelisks; statues of soldiers, arches and gates; gardens, drinking fountains and avenues of honour.
They carry words meant to give comfort to families who lost relatives and respect to all who volunteered.
Ballarat’s avenue of honour had 3900 trees, one for every soldier, sailor and nurse from the town, and visitors were urged to “remember those who bowed beneath the strife.”
Broome’s original memorial included a German 77mm field gun while Burnie’s obelisk was visible to all entering the Tasmanian town by boat, rail or road.
Most memorials came through public fundraising; but those in Kapunda and Angaston in SA were gifted by wealthy pastoralists.
At Callan Park Mental Hospital, Aboriginal soldier and prisoner-of-war Douglas Grant designed a memorial in the shape of the Sydney Harbour Bridge that was unveiled in 1931 by the NSW Governor.
Ken Inglis pointed to ‘competition’ in Victoria’s Western District: “Town after town … put up grand monuments which were at once tributes to the soldiers and essays in conspicuous emulation.”
Gatton’s “Weeping Mother” statue in Queensland is a stark symbol of grief while Thirroul’s memorial in NSW, with its soldier and a drinking fountain, was described by visiting writer DH Lawrence as “naïve but quite attractive.”
Honour rolls of those who enlisted, in schools, community halls and council offices, became the most common form of memorial.
New memorials and exhibitions are belatedly commemorating Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander servicemen and women.
They include a range of local honour boards and state memorials in towns and cities from Cherbourg in Queensland to King’s Park in Perth. More recent additions include a war memorial in Adelaide’s Torrens Parade Ground and a major artwork in Sydney’s Hyde Park.
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