A visit to the Australian War Memorial is always a sobering experience, even though in the school holidays it is full of kids tearing around the museum and trying to skim coins along the reflecting pool. It’s easy for us to become detached from war I feel, living so far away from most conflict zones and with a relatively small military, even though we have troops deployed in Afghanistan and on a number of peacekeeping operations at the moment. When I was in America, travelling over Christmas, there were so many servicemen and women travelling around in uniform and it was just so visible, where here it’s something that we usually only see at Anzac Day parades, viewing it through more of a historical lens as part of our nationbuilding narrative.
We visited the War Memorial on Tuesday, which, for those following the news, was the same day as an announcement of another Australian fatality in Afghanistan. A group of officers attended the Memorial while we were there, with drummers to pay salute, and one of them was in tears. Whether he was a friend of the soldier who was lost or just moved that a fellow soldier had been killed, I don’t know, but it certainly repositioned the perspective I had on visiting the memorial and dragged it back into the present day somewhat.
I can’t say I’m big on military history, so downstairs in the museum I tended to “skim” the exhibitions, picking up tidbits here and there. But the memorial walls are quite staggering. When you look at the number of troops who were killed from Australia in WW1 and WW2 it is really significant. The numbers are mindblowing, especially when you consider the small population Australia had at that point in history (and still has, really…). You don’t need to go to Canberra to see the impact that this had… if you drive around the country, in any small town you will find memorials with the names of the war dead. Tiny towns in a remote frontier land where large numbers of young men never returned. The ‘populate or perish’ policy that was implemented here after WW2 makes a lot more sense when you look at the numbers.
From the War Memorial website:
For Australia, as for many nations, the First World War remains the most costly conflict in terms of deaths and casualties. From a population of fewer than five million, 416,809 men enlisted, of which over 60,000 were killed and 156,000 wounded, gassed, or taken prisoner.
I believe my great-grandfather’s name is up there on the wall somewhere, as he was a WW1 casualty. My grandfather fought in WW2 in the Middle East and in Borneo, based in Balikpapan (I really should go there next time I’m back in Indo… everyone in my family mispronounced the place name so badly I didn’t realise where they were talking about until recently!).
Leadlight in the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier
The roof in the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier
The Memorial is one of the landmarks of Canberra and also provides a good lookout point over the Parliamentary Zone towards New and Old Parliament Houses.