WARNING: Aboriginal and Torres Straight Islander viewers are advised that this article contains the image of a deceased person.
I had the day off from work today.
Given that I do not usually have a lot of time on the weekends to do things I want, I decided that having a Thursday off was an excellent reason to do something just for me. Hence, I did something I have been wanting to do since I came back from Europe and visited the Shrine of Remembrance in Melbourne.
As most of you will be aware, I spent the last week or so of last year's holiday doing a tour of the places that made up the Western Front of the First World War. This tour took us into Belgium and France and we visited the infamous sites of Passchendaele, The Somme and the Ypres-Sailent, and less well-known (but equally important) sites of Villers-Bretonneux, Fromelles and Hooge Crater, among many others. We visited many cemeteries and memorials to the missing as well, including the Memorial to the Wounded and Missing of the Somme, on which the name of my great-great-grandfather, J. A. Byers, M.C, is listed.
Since coming back to Australia, I have found myself interested in the way we remember the fallen, and - in particular - our obsession with ANZAC Day and the myths we ascribe to it. I have been wanting to go to the Shrine for a while now, as it was built between the two world wars (construction began in 1928 and the building was unveiled in 1934) and was actually built with input from many veterans of WW1, including the famous Sir John Monash. Due to the time of its building (it has been extended over the years, of course, to account for conflicts from the second world war onwards), I hoped it would be less a gaudy display of ANZAC mythology (as many are) and have a more realistic and balanced view of the Australia during WW1 and beyond. The memorials I visited in France are like this, able to strike a balance between honouring the dead, wounded and missing without glorifying the conflicts they were causalities of.
I am pleased to say that the Shrine strikes this balance perfectly. Gallipoli is just one of the many stories told within these walls, and the actual Shrine itself is a place of simplicity. Everything is done with purpose, there are no accidents in design, and each brick, plant, pillar and column has its own story to tell, but is part of the whole. I chose to go on a guided tour of the Shrine ($35, and worth every cent) and so got an in depth look into the building's history and the exhibits within it.
"Let all men know that this is holy ground. This shrine established in the hearts of men as on the solid earth commemorates a people's fortitude and sacrifice. Ye therefore that come after give rememberence."
- Inscription on the east wall of the Shrine of Remembrance.
While the Shrine has many wonderful stories on offer and plenty of historical knowledge to go around, there were particular things that stuck out for me.
The first was the staining on the building itself. The Shrine was constructed primarily of a material known as granodiorite, which contains iron ore which, when exposed to moisture, oxidises and produces reddish stains on the stone. You can see some patches of the staining in the photo above.
According to my tour guide, there was a time when effort was made to scrub the stains off the Shrine, however, over time the curators realised they were fighting a losing battle with nature and decided to let it be. My guide felt it added character to the building and was pleased they had been left there, and I agreed with him on the surface, however they stuck out for me for a different reason: they ensured the Shrine wasn't 'perfect'. This was something I liked a lot about the memorials in Europe: they were marked, scared, rough, gritty and real, that isn't to say they weren't maintained - they most certainly were - but they weren't white-washed, crystal-perfect structures that made a mockery of the bloody reality of war. Of course, many of the WW1 memorials in Europe were severely damaged twenty years later during the conflicts of WW2 (some, in fact, had to be rebuilt entirely) but, even those that were restored, had scars left bare. To me, the stains of oxidised iron-ore on the outside of the building have the same effect: they are not just an acknowledgement that nature will always win, but a testament to the fact that war is not perfect, pretty, or pleasant to look at, and that those memorials that honour it should be wary of being over-maintained.
The next thing that stuck out for me was the four statues in each corner of the Shrine. They represent Patriotism, Sacrifice, Justice and Peace and Goodwill, the values that Shrine strives to reflect in honouring Victorian war dead. Each statues depicts a Greek-goddess-like figure (not a specific goddess), being carried on a boat pulled by lions, with a child at the front. The boat represents to troop-transports the soldiers boarded as they left (for many, those strides across the jetties to the boats would be their last steps in Australia), the lions represent the courage of the soldiers, and the child represents future generations who will grow up knowing and remembering. I'm going to discuss each figure separately, as each of them struck me in a different way and trying to talk about them all at once would be confusing.
That is not patriotism, and it's a shame that neo-Nazis (a reincarnation of one of the very forces and principles Allied forces [including Australian and New Zealand] fought against less than 100 years ago) have stolen this word from those who are true patriots. These thoughts struck me as I looked at the figure of Patriotism, because the patriotism she represents is so far removed from the interpretation that has saturated main-stream media since the rise of the far-right.
It would also be wrong to suggest that it was only British or British-descent soldiers who volunteered for Australia during the first world war. Given the gold rushes of the mid-1800s, there were people of many varying nationalities all across Australia, and particularly in Victoria, who would have enlisted, as did many Indigenous people, despite laws banning them from doing so. Indigenous Australian soldiers were commemorated on a coin within a set released by the Royal Australian Mint in 2016 (the coin set marked 100 years since the major battles of 1916, including The Somme), however there is still a national reluctance to acknowledge these men (it's a shame and a disgrace that we don't) and many of their descendants are still fighting for compensation and pay denied them when they returned from service.
So, with all these things in mind, remembering the mixed nationalities of the Australian soldiers who fought, thinking about where they came from and the many, varied reasons that drove them to enlist, the figure of Patriotism may seem out of place. Plenty of men, of course, enlisted out of duty and devotion to 'King and Country' (which fits with the narrow ideas of what patriotism is today), while others did so in response to propaganda that promised them the ability to see the world, and yet others saw a stable job, with good pay (Australian soldiers were among the highest paid during the first world war), and others yet saw a chance to catch up with friends and relatives still in Europe. Yet, even those men who enlisted for reasons that might not be considered patriotic, each man (and, of course, the many women who served) who entered into the conflict of WW1 did so willingly - the Australian force was made up entirely of volunteers - and, regardless of their original motivations for enlisting, did what was required of them on the terrible battlefields of Europe and Africa, and many of them paid the ultimate price. The figure of Patriotism on the Shrine of Remembrance represents the act of patriotism, rather than the declaration of - these men stood shoulder to shoulder on the many fronts of the war, representing their fledgling nation in a baptism by fire. They gave rise to the modern notion of what it means to be Australian - before it was stolen by racists, bigots and greedy politicians - and did it out of simple necessity and a desire to belong.
It wasn't just families either: merchants and businessmen would have felt the pinch as a whole generation of young men - men who would have worked in their stores and factories, learned their trades and, one day, taken over their businesses - was wiped out and they were forced to look elsewhere. Sacrifice was evident in those soldiers who did make it home, only to find that home had changed and they were expected to accept it and fit right back in, whether or not they were able to.
There was a sense of social sacrifice after the first world war as well, where what had been considered moral, acceptable, ethical and desirable turned sharply. Those who had previously enjoyed positions of comfort and privilege found themselves dealing with the same things as those they considered their social inferiors, while - on a wider scale - the public had to deal with the reality of what 'coming home' actually meant, and provision had to made for men who had lost limbs, been blown deaf, suffered gas blindness, or lost parts of their faces to shells, bombs, guns and bayonets. This social sacrifice was not, in essence, a bad thing, as it forced society to move forward and reevaluate what was important, but it didn't come quietly and many struggled to adjust as old collided with new and values changed.
Peace and Goodwill
The future aside, the end of the first world war was seen as a herald to a more peaceful time, and the figure of Peace and Goodwill stands there as a testament to the hopes and dreams of many that we were finally done with war. While the future put paid to this, my guide told me an interesting fact about Australian peace-keeping missions: since the end of WW2, there has been at least one Australian, every day, somewhere in the world, on peace-keeping duties. Of course, peace-keeping is a contentious issue (but I won't delve into that here) but, as our army has evolved for the changing times, so too have the missions we involve ourselves in, and peace-keeping now is just as much a part of our armed services as front line combat, if not more so.
So, there you have it, my thoughts on what struck me at the Shrine of Remembrance today. If you want to go and have a look at the Shrine yourself I would highly recommend it; entry is free and there is a short, three minute ceremony every half-hour, which simulates the 'Ray of Light' that falls on Remembrance Day each year and is well worth seeing. If you want a more detailed history of the building and its contents, book a guided tour (either online or at the desk in the visitors centre) for $35 - all proceeds go back into the Shrine's education programs and it is well worth the money.
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Me With No Apologies.