Australian War Memorial: A place to remember

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Daniel Scott spends a day at the Australian War Memorial and comes away with a new reverence for our nation’s servicemen and women.

It is near impossible to fathom the scale of the sacrifice represented by the Australian War Memorial. To put it in perspective, imagine close to every inhabitant of one of the continent’s thriving modern cities, Darwin, wiped out in some cataclysmic event.

Lest we forget them, the names of 102,000 Australians who have died in war since 1885 are recorded in this monumental building. In a population as small as ours, most of us have a personal connection with at least one of them: a great-grandfather lost at Gallipoli in 1915; a grandfather who perished on the Sandakan death marches in Borneo during World War II; an uncle killed in Vietnam; or a mate who died in Afghanistan.

The Australian War Memorial is a solemn place, a place to remember our own.

British Prime Minister David Cameron lays a wreath at the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier in 2014.
British Prime Minister David Cameron lays a wreath at the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier in 2014. Photo: David Gray


“Here is their spirit, in the heart of the land they loved; and here we guard the record which they themselves made,” said the memorial’s founder, World War I war correspondent Charles Bean.

Yet, since opening in 1941, the sandstone edifice has evolved far beyond its role as a commemorative shrine. It has also become a captivating museum documenting Australia’s experience of war, both overseas and at home, and an important archive for research. Free to enter, the memorial draws close to a million visitors a year and in 2014 was voted number one landmark in Australia and the South Pacific in TripAdvisor’s  Travellers’ Choice Awards.

Since opening in 1941, the sandstone edifice has evolved far beyond its role as a commemorative shrine.

As we mark the 100th anniversary of the landings at Gallipoli cove and the birth of the “Anzac spirit”, the memorial not only provides a focus for honouring those Australians lost in conflict but also makes a significant contribution to understanding our nationhood. With its new, permanent exhibition Australia in the Great Warunveiled last December, there is more than enough in this national institution to fill a day.

Ben Quilty's portraits of men and women who served in Afghanistan fill a gallery at the Australian War Memorial.
Ben Quilty’s portraits of men and women who served in Afghanistan fill a gallery at the Australian War Memorial. Photo: Jay Cronan


7.30am: Arrive early to climb the ancient volcanic cone of Mount Ainslie, behind the memorial. It is a stiff 45-minute walk rewarded by panoramic views over Canberra, particularly striking when the city’s extensive parklands and nearby Red Hill are blushed by autumnal hues. Mount Ainslie forms part of the building’s quintessential bush setting, which includes stands of wattle and gum trees. From the top, the deliberate line of sight between the memorial and Parliament, on Capital Hill, is clear and Anzac Parade, with its broad central strip of crushed red house bricks (said to symbolise the blood shed on Australia’s behalf), can be seen in its entirety, reaching through Canberra to Lake Burley Griffin.

10am: When the memorial opens, get your bearings on a free 90-minute highlights tour, with one of the 300 volunteer guides, many of whom are former servicemen and women, with their own stories to tell.  Tours begin in the Orientation Gallery beside the entrance, with the Commemorative Courtyard containing the Pool of Reflection and the Eternal Flame the first stop. It is in the arched cloisters here that the names of Australia’s war dead are recorded in the Roll of Honour, the walls festooned with a blaze of red poppies left by visitors.  At its far end is the exquisite Hall of Memory, with its Byzantine-style dome, rising 24 metres above the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier. The intricacies of the glowing dome interior, six-million-piece mosaic adorning the walls and 15 stained-glass windows, were all the work of Melbourne muralist Napier Waller and were created in the 1950s. Set into an alcove at the back are Janet Laurence’s slender but arresting four pillars – denoting earth, air, fire and water and the cycles of creation and destruction – added in 1992.

11.30am: After grabbing a coffee at the onsite Landing Place cafe, make your way back to the new World War I exhibition, to the left on the upper level. Begin at the Gallipoli gallery, which includes George Lambert’s heart-wrenching 1915 painting Anzac, the landing, depicting the chaos confronting the Diggers in that Turkish bay. Throughout the Great War galleries, it is small exhibits, such as the identity disc belonging to the youngest Australian to die, Private James Martin, and a grave cross crafted from a biscuit tin, that are telling. The Western Front, in Belgium and France, where 46,000 Aussies were among 3 million who lost their lives, is portrayed through works by war artists including Arthur Streeton, personal and military memorabilia and powerful dioramas focusing on battles such as Mont St Quentin, in 1918. Created in the 1920s, the dioramas still resonate, summoning the hellish conditions with bodies strewn about the blasted landscapes. The story of more than 1000 Aborigines who fought in the Great War is also told in these galleries. Unable to vote and racially vilified back home, it was the first time many were treated as equals, serving alongside non-Indigenous soldiers and generally earning the same pay, only to suffer worse conditions after the war. Returning Indigneous Diggers from both wars were banned from RSLs for decades.

Flags fly in front of the Australian War Memorial.
Flags fly in front of the Australian War Memorial. Photo: iStock


1pm:  Have lunch at adjacent cafe Poppies , where there are mains including roasted salmon with feta, red peppers, olives and cherry tomatoes, paninis, and a small children’s  menu. Follow it up by walking through the sculpture gardens, which include an Animals in War statue – a desecrated horse’s head – and a monument to servicewomen. Among the Australian women to have died in war, one of the most significant losses occurred with the sinking of the Vyner Brooke, off Singapore, in 1942, when many of the 65 nurses on board drowned or were shot on the beach by the Japanese.

2pm: Begin the afternoon in the World War II gallery. Almost a million Australians served in this war – 39,000 paying the ultimate price for their involvement. It was also the first time in postcolonial history in which the mainland came under attack, through Japanese air raids on Darwin and Broome in 1942. The experience at home and in south-east Asia and the Pacific are vividly brought to life here. Poignant exhibits include Auschwitz-like rows of photos of some of the thousands of POWs forced on to the Sandakan death marches through Borneo, in 1945. Only six Australians survived.

3pm: In Anzac Hall, at the back of the memorial, and reached via Aircraft Hall, where one of three Japanese Zero submarines to enter Sydney in 1942 is displayed, there are regular sound and light shows. They include Over the front: The Great War from the Air, a compelling combination of archival, re-enacted and computer-generated scenes, directed by Peter Jackson and narrated by Sam Neill, relating the story of Anzac airmen in the 1914-18 war.

Part of the World War I exhibition.
Part of the World War I exhibition. Photo: Jeffrey Chan


3.30pm: Heading downstairs at the memorial, Australia’s involvement in armed conflicts is brought up to date in galleries devoted to the Korean War, Vietnam and the country’s role in recent peacekeeping operations from Somalia to East Timor. It is also where you can temporarily lose the kids, in the Discovery Zone. Here, they can put themselves at the controls of an Iroquois helicopter in Vietnam or explore the interior of a submarine.  But most moving of all the exhibits below ground are artist Ben Quilty’s paintings of our servicemen and women, from his time embedded among them in Afghanistan, in 2011. The emotional scars of post-traumatic stress are etched into the faces in nearly every portrait.

4.30pm: Return upstairs to dwell in the cloisters of the Commemorative Courtyard, perhaps affixing your own poppy to the Roll of Honour, in the late afternoon sunshine. Reading down the neat lines of names, the enormity of Australia’s loss is writ large and provides a fitting prologue to the Last Post ceremony.

4.55pm: If the singing of the national anthem, at the beginning of the Last Post ceremony, doesn’t rouse you, then the breathy sound of a lone bagpiper playing the lament that follows, will.

The recently opened World War I exhibition at the Australian War Memorial.
The recently opened World War I exhibition at the Australian War Memorial. Photo: Jeffrey Chan


In 2013, former Howard government minister and memorial director Dr Brendan Nelson broadened the ceremony to encompass the story of one of Australia’s war dead, recounted each afternoon by a current defence force representative.

The effect has been to personalise and, paradoxically, universalise the service, bringing an identifiably human face and character to one name from the Roll of Honour, and allowing relatives and friends to pay their respects by laying wreaths in front of the Pool of Reflection. Learning of one Digger’s journey helps underline the momentous sacrifice made by tens of thousands of Australian men and women, including a great many Aborigines, who laid down their lives in two world wars and many other conflicts.

The ceremony closes with the playing of the Last Post on a single bugle, a familiar, mournful sound evoking countless military funerals. As the resolute bugle call reverberates around this most significant of national shrines, it ushers to an end another day at the Australian War Memorial.

The Commemorative Courtyard at the Australian War Memorial is a serene place for contemplation.
The Commemorative Courtyard at the Australian War Memorial is a serene place for contemplation. Photo: Alec Van der Velde




The Australian War Memorial is at the top of Anzac Parade, Campbell, ACT. Underground parking at the memorial is free for four hours. On weekdays, bus route 10 links the city centre and the memorial; on weekends it is served by bus numbers 930/931. The memorial is open daily from 10am to 5pm, except Christmas Day. Entry is free. Free tours are offered by volunteers at regular times throughout the day.


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