AIH399 MAKING HISTORY
by Joshua Reid
- A glance into the longstanding history of Australian monument construction suggests that enough is enough.
- The dominant role of the Australian War Memorial in Australia’s commemorative past negates the need for two newly-proposed monuments along Anzac Parade in Canberra.
- History shows us that, contrary to claims made by supporters of the two newly-proposed monuments, the Australian War Memorial’s expansion to commemorate all conflicts has not diminished its commemoration of the two world wars.
- The erection of monuments along Anzac Parade dedicated to Australian involvement in the Vietnam and Korea conflicts cannot be used as justification for the proposed memorials to the two world wars.
Since 1915, the tradition of Anzac has remained one of the most prominent facets of Australian national identity. Even in 2012, almost a century after the beginning of the First World War, scores of Australians attend war memorials both in Australia and overseas. Each year on Anzac Day, the nation ‘stands still’ in an act of solemn remembrance for the sacrifices made during times of war. Practically every Australian town and city exhibits a memorial of some kind dedicated to Australian involvement in conflict. Typically, these monuments focus on either or both of the two world wars, though a great many towns have erected monuments that commemorate a host of other conflicts. Consequently, literally thousands of war monuments are spread throughout Australian towns and cities. In no city is the prominence of war memorialisation more apparent than in Canberra, which is currently playing host to a debate that is raging over yet another proposed set of monuments. The debate encompasses both the now-abandoned plan for two monuments to be erected on the shore of Lake Burley-Griffin and the newly-devised plan that instead places the proposed memorials at a vacant position towards the northerly end of Anzac Parade. A brief glance at the history of memorialisation in Australia, the role of the Australian War Memorial (AWM) in commemoration, and the history of public commemoration of the two world wars presents us with answers to the question: Do we need even more monuments?
A brief history of the proposal
The saga began in 2005 with the establishment of the Memorial(s) Development Committee (MDC). Led by retired Lieutenant Colonel Mike Buick, it was the MDC’s intention to erect two 20 metre high monoliths at Rond Terrace, on the shores of Lake Burley-Griffin. The MDC quickly began consulting with government bodies to secure approval for the monuments, which were intended to specifically and exclusively commemorate WWI and WWII. By 4 April 2007, Annabelle Pegrum of the National Capital Authority (NCA) had issued the MDC a letter of approval for the proposed memorials at Rond Terrace and agreed to reserve the Rond Terrace site until 30 June 2010.
In April 2007, the Department of Veterans’ Affairs (DVA) granted the MDC a $250,000 donation to help facilitate a design contest to determine the overall appearance of the proposed monuments. The winning design was submitted by Australian architect Richard Kirk and Associates.
As the MDC pushed ahead with planning and fundraising for several years, concerns among the general public started to mount. Moreover, in the face of steady criticism coordinated by the online group ‘Lake War Memorials Forum’, by 2011 the MDC appealed to the NCA for a change of location. The newly placed monuments, if the appeal is successful, will be situated at vacant positions either side of Anzac Parade. Despite the shift in location, the initial design of the monuments will remain largely unchanged, despite being scaled down to 12 meters in height in order to fit with the newly-proposed site along Anzac Parade.
Throughout the turbulent course of the memorials’ design and fundraising, supporters of the proposed 21 million dollar monuments defended their assertion that Canberra was (and still is) in desperate need of more war memorials. Supporters of the plan argue that WWI and WWII are grossly underrepresented within the current selection of memorials. MDC chairman Mike Buick agrees with this assertion, saying: ‘The sad fact is, although monuments to the Korea and Vietnam conflicts exist, the precinct does not contain dedicated memorials to the two major conflicts that helped shape our nation’.
Current monuments in Australia — not enough?
Whilst it is true that there is not a dedicated memorial to the two world wars on Anzac Parade, Australia’s overwhelming commemorative past has given rise to a number of monuments to WWI and WWII. These monuments are scattered across the national landscape, constructed over almost a century — their omnipresence, then, brings the necessity of these proposed monuments into question.
As WW I drew to a close and members of the Australian Imperial Force (AIF) arrived home from overseas, Australians nationwide enthusiastically set about commemorating the sacrifices both of those who returned from the war and those who did not. Ken Inglis, in his book Sacred Places: War Memorials in the Australian Landscape, describes the onset of a ‘memorial movement’. Local committees were organized from town to town, monument designs were chosen, and fundraising commenced, events unfolded in a similar fashion to the newly proposed memorials at Anzac Parade (though without the controversy). Since this time, nearing 100 years, it is estimated that over 5000 Australian war monuments have been erected in honour of those who fought and fell. One merely has to look towards the Australian War Memorial in Canberra, the Shrine of Remembrance in Melbourne, or to any of the aforementioned local monuments scattered across the country in order to see that Australians have always commemorated both world wars adequately. The MDC is acting as if these monuments simply are not ‘cutting it’; it seems that, unless these new monuments are erected, Australians will run the risk of diminishing the efforts of those who fought in WWI and WWII. Nonsense!
History teaches us that Australians have always remembered and commemorated the sacrifices made, as evidenced by the masses of people who line the streets and utilize the war memorials that we already have on April 25th each and every year. The average attendance at commemorative ceremonies has steadily risen in recent history — a fact that highlights the complete absurdity of constructing even more monuments.
The AWM’s role in Australia’s commemorative past and present
In a 2011 article defending the proposed monuments, Mike Buick claims that a vast majority of the Australian public incorrectly perceives the AWM to be the national memorial to WWI and WWII; whereas, in reality, the national war memorial works to commemorate all conflicts that have involved Australians, thus creating a need for these two new monuments. But if, as Buick admits, for the past 70 years most Australians have perceived the AWM to be the national memorial to WWI and WWII, then surely, despite the other conflicts represented within its walls, it has become exactly that: i.e. if the nation perceives the AWM as its national memorial for the two world wars, it is. The AWM was originally intended to commemorate the Great War, though, in 1941, the AWM’s charter was broadened to commemorate WWII as well. In 1952, a further amendment was made to the war memorial’s charter, expanding the AWM’s commemorative scheme to encompass all conflicts in which Australians have been deployed.
Upon the amending of the charter in 1952, federal MP Wilfred Selwyn Kent Hughes described the main purpose of the AWM as ‘a memorial not only to the Australian servicemen who gave their lives in the 1914-18 war, as it is under the present act, but also to those Australian servicemen who were killed in the 1939-45 war and all other Australians who have given their lives on active service’. It is evident from this description, that it has never been the AWM’s intention to distance itself from commemorating individual wars, but rather to broaden its commemorative agenda while still maintaining the integrity of its core purpose of remembering Australia’s involvement in WWI and WWII.
The prominent position of the two world wars at the AWM is highlighted by the sheer number of items held that relate to each of these conflicts. There are over 260,000 items listed on the AWM website relating to WWI and WWII. When one compares this to the 42,000 items listed for the Vietnam and Korean wars combined, it is clear to see that the AWM has, since 1952, adequately presented the importance of the world wars. In no way has the AWM’s expansion to commemorate other conflicts diminished the importance of WWI and WWII in Australian history.
There is no doubt that the MDC holds a strong desire to memorialise those who served in WWI and WWII, an admirable desire, to be sure, but there is a clear issue of duplication here, which the MDC seems to be overlooking. The newly proposed monuments will serve little purpose, other than to detract from the pivotal, historic position that the Australian War Memorial has always held in the commemoration of all Australian conflicts — including the two world wars — in the nation’s capital. The sacrifices made during WWI and WWII are, of course, to be commemorated, though the construction of two 12 metre high concrete blocks somewhere along Anzac Parade will not further this commemoration in any real meaningful way.
The AWM’s annual report for 2011-12 states that approximately 25,000 individual visitors attended the Anzac Day dawn service at the AWM, trumping the previous report’s tally by approximately 5,000 attendees. Despite such strong numbers, the MDC still feels that a failure to erect the proposed monuments will be a lapse in appreciation for the sacrifices made. If anything can be learnt by numbers such as these, however, it is that Australians require no more monuments in order to show their appreciation to those who participated in WWI and WWII; to suggest otherwise simply is irrational.
The AWM has strived to successfully facilitate the commemoration of all Australian conflicts since updating its charter in 1952. Since then, Australians have rarely questioned the commemorative efforts of the AWM, as evidenced by the strong reputation that it holds within Australia and the strong number of visitors that it attracts throughout the year. If the AWM has failed to adequately commemorate the world wars, why has there not been any form of public outcry over the past six decades for separate monuments to be erected?
Using the Korean and Vietnam war monuments as justification
The MDC and other supporters of the new monuments have attempted to use the existence of Korean and Vietnam war monuments on Anzac Parade as one of their main justifications for the construction of their newly proposed monuments. Lt. Col. (Ret) Mike Buick of the MDC has argued that it is a ‘sad fact’ that, whereas monuments to Korea and Vietnam stand on Anzac Parade, there stand no monuments to WWI and WWII.
While it is true that there are no monuments dedicated to the world wars on Anzac Parade, the Korean and Vietnam war monuments simply cannot be used to validate the construction of these new memorials. In this instance, history shows us that the individual monuments to Korea and Vietnam were born out of a strong desire to mitigate important issues within Australian military commemoration. On Vietnam Veterans Day in 2011, Prime Minister Julia Gillard vilified the postwar treatment of the 60,000 Australians who served in Vietnam stating: ‘This was Australia’s longest war, yet we treated the returning veterans with shame. And so, we remember’.
Similarly, while speaking to a group of Korean War veterans in Kapyong, the prime minister expressed regret at the way veterans of the Korean War were not granted the honour and recognition that they deserved upon returning home from duty. Veterans of Korea and Vietnam were largely ‘forgotten’ and, in the case of the latter, ‘shunned’ — a contributing factor that led to the establishment of individual monuments. It also was felt by some veterans that their contributions were overshadowed at the AWM.
Visiting the AWM immediately gives one an appreciation for the staggering amount of relics on display that relate specifically to WWI and WWII. There are around 150 different plaques commemorating specific units of the two world wars, yet only a handful are dedicated to units who served outside of these conflicts. This underrepresentation has justified to many interested parties, including the government, that the construction of monuments to each of these conflicts along Anzac Parade was justified.
Looking to the future
Australians must look to the past in order to put ideas like these proposed monuments into perspective. Commemoration of sacrifice during times of war is important, of course, and those who served deserve much recognition and respect. Yet, to claim that WWI and WWII are somehow underrepresented and in need of yet more memorialisation is misguided. Thousands of war monuments across Australia pay great homage to those who fought in the two world wars, so the fact that Anzac Parade is without such monuments does not nullify their contribution to Australian commemoration, nor justify this new commemorative venture. The longstanding history of the Australian War Memorial and its astounding commemorative efforts ensure that Australians have a fitting place in Canberra to show their appreciation for the veterans of WWI and WWII. Since its opening in 1941, and through its expansion in 1952, the AWM has served as the true home of world war commemoration in Australia. History tells us that the Korean and Vietnam conflicts cannot and should not be used as justification for the erection of additional monuments to WWI and WWII, due to the unique and regretful ways in which veterans of these wars were treated upon their return home. Policymakers and the general public must look to Australia’s long commemorative history and its current commemorative locations and acknowledge that there is no need for the continued construction of duplicate war monuments.
Selected further reading:
Lake War Memorials Forum Website: http://www.lakewarmemorialsforum.org/
Memorial(s) Development Committee Website: http://www.mdc.org.au/
Sabra Lane, ‘Gillard Laments Treatment of Forgotten Veterans’, ABC News Online, 25 April 2011, retrieved 12 October, 2012, http://www.abc.net.au/news/2011-04-24/gillard-laments-treatment-of-forgotten-veterans/2604692
Mark Dodd, ‘PM notes shameful treatment of Viet vets’, The Australian Online, 19 August 2011, retrieved 12 October, 2012, http://www.theaustralian.com.au/national-affairs/pm-notes-shameful-treatment-of-viet-vets/story-fn59niix-1226117737913
© APH Network and contributors 2012. All rights reserved.
Citation: Joshua Reid, How Australia’s longstanding Commemorative History questions the Need for more Proposed War Monuments. Australian Policy and History. October 2012.