Canberra is a city with many national monuments and buildings. None of them, however, hold as special a place in the hearts of Australians as the Australian War Memorial.
Located at the head of Anzac Parade, it commands a stunning view over Lake Burley Griffin, the Old Parliament House, and the new Parliament House. Anzac Parade is itself almost an extension of the War Memorial - lined with memorials dedicated to different branches of the Australian Armed Forces, as well as those who have fought with them. The memorial itself sits at the base of Mount Ainslie, set into native bushland.
It owes it's existence to the vision of Charles Bean, Australia's official historian in the First World War. His idea for a permanent war museum was alive as early as 1916 - in 1918, he wrote of how the museum would appear:
"on some hill-top - still, beautiful, gleaming white and silent, a building of three parts, a centre and two wings. The centre will hold the great national relics of the A.I.F. One wing will be a gallery - holding the pictures that our artists painted and drew actually on the scene and amongst the events themselves. The other wing will be a library to contain the written official records of every unit."
The memorial wasn't built exactly as Charles Bean visualised, however many of his ideas are visible today. Originally intended to be a memorial dedicated to the First World War, it's role was extended to include first the Second World War, then later all wars that Australia has an involvement in. It was completed in 1941.
Made up of several different galleries, the Australian War Memorial contains relics from all the major conflicts Australia has been involved in, from Australia's early colonial history, to modern wars, such as the Gulf War. The collection is varied and interesting, made up of things such as relics collected from the battlefield, journal and diary entries, donated items such as medals, and many works of art. There are several large dioramas, of incredible detail, which capture moments of heated battle. These are truly amazing to see. You can look at them for an age, and still find detail that wasn't obvious at first - from the dead soldier, body twisted and broken at the edge of a shell crater, to the soldier who's leg has broken through the roof of the trench he is attacking. These dioramas do an amazing job of showing one with no concept of battle, just how chaotic it could be. I can remember looking at one of these, and taking some time to realise that one particular muddy trench contained almost as many attacking soldiers as defending.
As well as being a museum of Australia's wartime history, the Australian War Memorial is also a place to reflect, and honour those Australian's who gave their lives in war. A significant inclusion is the Roll of Honour. Standing on both sides of the Pool of Reflection, bronze plaques list the name of every Australian killed in war - over 102,000 names are listed on these plaques. It is a place where you can come, and see the names of the dead, preserved for all time. Contrasting the tarnished bronze, are the red poppies, placed by people honouring their loved ones. It is a solemn place - you will not normally be disturbed by chatter and noise. All the time, the Eternal Flame burns in the Pool of Reflection.
At the end of this area, stands the Hall of Memory, a place designed for quiet reflection. A round, tall domed room, the walls and inside of the dome is a large tiles mosaic, and 15 long stained glass windows are set into the walls. At one end stand four pillars, representing the elements of earth, air, fire and water. It is a place where a pin dropping would echo off the walls. Until 1993, it was simply an empty room. However on Remembrance Day, 1993, the body of an unknown Australian soldier, killed in France during the First World War, was interred inside of it, giving it the focus that many felt was lacking.
In June 2001, a major extension to the memorial was completed. The ANZAC hall has been designed to hold the larger items in the memorial's collection, including the remains of Japanese Midget Submarines that attacked Sydney in 1942, military aircraft, and tanks. This new gallery has been designed with object theatre in mind - rather than simply looking at these items, they are used to tell a story.
A visit to this place is an amazing experience. It's easy to walk inside, and forget that what you are looking at, are items that have, for the most part, come straight from a battleground. There sits a bullet-riddled landing boat in one area, that was used for the beach landing at Gallipoli in 1915. It's simply an object, until you remember that there were men sitting in this very same boat, that each bullet hole could have ended the life of one of those men. This experience is repeated over and over throughout the memorial - simple objects are transformed, as you imagine the man wielding that object. From the crude weapons, created out of whatever was available on the front lines, to letters, sent to loved ones at home. Fifty-seven Victoria Cross medals are on display, each one with a story of it's own. Reading these stories of incredible heroism, the accounts of mind blowing deeds that their recepients carried out, is a humbling, and sobering experience.
The most important ideal that the memorial holds, is that it is not a place to glorify war. It is also not a place to gloat over the victories Australia has had. There is no reference to the 'enemy', and the soldiers who fought against Australian soldiers are treated with the same respect as Australia's are. In creating the memorial, Charles Bean understood that those who have fought in war, are often those with the greatest desire to prevent it happening again.
Each time I visit the memorial, I leave with even greater admiration for the men and women who have helped to secure the freedom that I take for granted. It is truly a chilling experience to sit, and hear recordings of men and women, as they tell stories of their time in Prisoner of War camps - hearing them as they describe the terrible conditions they endured, the death of their friends. And as I walk around, and see children exploring the galleries with their grandfathers, I realise that the greatest power this building holds, is that we will never forget the sacrifices made on our behalf.
Entry to the memorial is free, although a donation is appreciated. Free guided tours run daily, leaving the Orientation gallery at 10:00am, 10:30am, 11:00am, 1:00pm, 1:30pm and 2:00pm.
I would strongly suggest that if you plan on visiting, you leave at least half a day to look around. There is a lot
to look at, and a rushed visit really doesn't allow you to take very much in at all.
The memorial is open 7 days a week, closed only Christmas Day.
10am - 5pm daily.
9am - 5pm daily during NSW/ACT school holidays.
Address / Contact Details:
Australian War Memorial
Treloar Crescent, (top of ANZAC Parade)
Phone: (02) 6243 4211
Information gathered from the official web site, www.awm.gov.au The site also lists upcoming displays and events, and has an incredible amount of interesting information.