The car eased to a stop at the curb: it was time to disembark and pretend to be interested in yet another headstone. One of my earliest memories of my father is of his unrelenting research in to his family military history. All through my childhood, my father took me to innumerable graveyards to check headstones. As we stood graveside, he would tell me a brief story of the person buried within the ground, and I would stare off in to the distance wishing myself somewhere more 'fun'. Countless times I would observe him restlessly waiting for the mail to arrive. In the days before online digitisation, documents were sourced 'old school': via a cheque in the mail. This was my introduction in to the world of family military history research. It would take another 30 years for the seeds planted in my childhood to grow and for a larger question to appear: why? The aim of this article is to explore why, from the individual to the national, is conflict remembered with monuments, shrines, days of remembrance and aged photos on lounge room walls?

The scope of this article is limited to monuments present in the domestic landscape, and will conclude with two possible reasons why Australians feel and act so strongly about war memorials 100 years after our first major military engagement.

The Individual / Family

Something that became evident to me as a result of my father’s research, is that both sides of my family has a broad and deep line of military service. The Cowley’s have served from Gallipoli to Egypt, from Vietnam to Afghanistan, while on the maternal side service is centred in France with significant contributions to domestic wartime efforts. Three generations of the family have held rank high and low, died, disappeared or were maimed in one way or another. The one unifying thread through all the individual stories is one of remembrance. Each person who donned a uniform is remembered with reverence, sometimes despite challenging personal attributes, and whether or not that person was killed in action.

One of my great-uncles is such a person. Along with his father-in-law, my great grandfather, Private Julius Gibbs was arrested and found guilty of rustling cattle in and around Fremantle, WA, in 19161. Unlike my great grandfather, he narrowly avoided a custodial sentence in Fremantle jail. At the time of reporting in 1916, weeks before his enlistment, Gibbs’ notoriety had reached as far as the news presses of Adelaide, Brisbane and Hobart. His service record as a soldier of the 51st Battalion in France shows two periods of unauthorised absence. The third, and final, absence resulting in a determination on 25 April 1918 of missing in action then killed in action2. Private Gibbs was remembered fondly in newspaper dedications after his death. On the anniversary of his death in 1919, his widow placed a moving dedication in The West Australian newspaper3:

Dear husband of mine you sleep with the brave
Where no tears of your loved ones can drop on your grave
On the red field of battle you are laid far away
Still our tribute of love to your memory we pay

The image of Private Gibbs that now remains airbrushes his personal shortcomings in a way that seems considerate to a soldier and father who served and died overseas at the behest of his nation; as though any personal failings were automatically and necessarily absolved by the loss of his life in service to a proclaimed greater good. His service is recorded and displayed in detail in the Collie Museum, WA while his name is recorded both at the Villers Bretonneux Memorial and the Australian War Memorial. The placement of his personal effects within the Collie Museum was not the decision of his widow, but rather his children. This demonstrates that the desire to remember, and make individual stories widely known, reaches beyond the generation that first experienced the event.

The desire to research families and their military histories is well catered to by commercial and public entities. Websites such as GenesReunited and Ancestry both provide a vast array of records at the click of a mouse. In the case of GenesReunited, and extra fee is charged to access military records. Thankfully, family members in Australia are able to access records from both the Australian War Memorial (AWM) and the National Archives of Australia (NAA). Both institutions have a multitude of records that are digitised and ready for download. These public services put the record and deeds of family members within easy access of anyone who cares to conduct even a cursory search. Coupled with the AWM travelling displays, and the NAA Family History Days, the ability for an individual to compile a comprehensive family record has never been easier.

In the case of my uncle Gibbs, his personal and service records tell of a man who flouted the rules, both as a civilian and soldier, to the point of disciplinary action. There are conflicting accounts of whether or not he was buried, whether he was wounded in action, and when and if he went missing in action. Notwithstanding, his widow and six children would have felt his loss keenly. His family, both immediate and extended, has preserved his memory. His immediate family, having first hand experience of both the effects of war and his death, has ensured his service remains in the community memory. One hundred years later, his service stills remains a topic of interest to distant family members. In the digital age, it is possible to lift the dry details of a person off the page and recreate a colourful and fulsome account.

The Regional / Community

25 April 2015. This date marked the centenary of the Gallipoli landings. This day promised to exceed all previous attendance records at both dawn ceremonies and marches across the country. The Australian War Memorial hosted an estimated 120,000 people at the dawn service4. At gatherings in regional locations and small towns, the attendance was commensurately less than major centres, but no less earnest in sentiment. One such town was Gunning, NSW. Opting for a service with less fuss and less people, I attended the dawn service newly 'gonged up' with service medals from South Sudan. The service proceeded as expected: school children reciting verse and singing hymn; current and former service personal providing the main address; prayer; silence; and the rouse. The entire service took place next to an all-too familiar obelisk, neatly placed near the centre of town.

The practice of erecting monuments to great achievements and battles is 'as old as time'5. In his 1998 book Sacred Places: War Memorials in the Australian Landscape, Ken Inglis presents more than 30 years of research regarding war memorialisation on the Australian landscape. The book also describes, often with photos, the effort, and money Australians spent on remembering WWI. Inglis states there are 4,000 – 5,000 memorials in Australia depending on what is counted6. As with the modest obelisk in Gunning, many small towns across Australia feature some form of permanent structure, usually with the names of those who died listed as part of the design. Unique to Australia, many town memorials also list all the names of those who served and returned home. Memorials in cities and regional areas take many forms, from the simple to the grand. The first WWI memorial in Australia was an ANZAC Day memorial unveiled on 07 September 1915, located at Lundie Gardens, Adelaide7. The obelisk was surrounded by a small grove of wattles of varying types. This planting, together with the memorial, is considered early evidence of how Gallipoli, and WWI, became associated with national identity.

At the grand end of the scale sits the Shrine of Remembrance in Melbourne. The Shrine, opened in 1934, was designed to meet the needs of a community still grieving from the losses of WWI. In 1934, the war was still very much a memory for a large proportion of the Australian population. When first built, the Shrine adopted the role of national memorial, and today still provides only a memorial experience. The Australian War Memorial later assumed the mantle of national memorial on 11 Nov 1941. The Shrine is one of a group of memorials that changed the way people commemorated conflict; a shift from an idea of grand memorial to one of a sacred site8. The Shrine doesn’t just commemorate war, it commemorates Victorians and Australians in a context of war; those who served and those who stayed home supporting the war effort. The Shrine also provides a context to reflect on how conflict impacts a society financially, economically, politically and technologically.

The Shrine in Melbourne provides a grand structure in a prominent setting to provide a place for remembrance and contemplation. Other regional centres afford such opportunities in a more modest setting. Many towns and cities installed arches, avenues of honour (such as the impressive plantings in Ballarat and Toowoomba), swimming pools and public halls.

Perhaps the prevalence of memorials across the regional landscape is best summarised as providing a place of remembrance in place of the ritual of burial denied by distance9.

The National

The Australian War Memorial (AWM) in Canberra represents a national museum and memorial dedicated to the preservation of Australia’s war history. The Memorial houses an impressive collection of artifacts, personal effects, items of art and media and a voluminous archive library. The AWM is the brainchild of CEW Bean, who, while attached as a WWI correspondent, conceived of a memorial in 1917 to honour the deeds of Australian soldiers. The AWM was eventually opened in 1941 after delays resulting from the Great Depression and the onset of WWII. The AWM presents an imposing realisation of Bean’s vision to provide a place of remembrance for those who survived and remembered WWI, but also to act as a permanent, enduring place of reflection and education. As the AWM acts as a national repository, so too has it a heavy responsibility to shape the national narrative regarding conflict memorialisation. The attendance at the 2015 dawn service attests to the appeal of the AWM to an ever-growing audience: a new generation, removed from the original conflict that conceived the AWM, but no doubt linked in some way to those with historical and/or contemporary service.

Before the AWM was even a thought in Bean’s mind, another event had occurred that captured the imagination, and wartime support, of the Australian public. This event was unique, as it involved the repatriation of the only known soldier to Australia and concerned yet another great uncle: Major General Sir William Throsby Bridges.

General Bridges, who is credited with creating, naming and commanding the 1st AIF10, is best known within military circles as the first Commandant of the Royal Military College of Australia (RMC). As all junior cadets at RMC can attest, he is the only known soldier to be repatriated from WWI, a gallant and erudite soldier ostensibly returned in recognition of his faithful service, presumably, to country and empire. Beyond careful recitation of the inscription on his Burley-Griffin designed tomb, cadets are not particularly interested in why General Bridges came to be interred on the slopes of Mount Pleasant in Canberra. Indeed, the entire record surrounding this act is at best scant and speculative.

On 18 May 1915, General Bridges died of his wounds aboard the hospital ship Gascon. Following his death, he was buried in Alexandria, Egypt at Chatby Cemetery alongside four other Australians11. By September the same year, he was interred in to his final resting place, via exhumation and a State funeral service in Melbourne. The manner of General Bridges’ return directly informs what his return came to represent, if only for a brief period. There was no public discussion or debate regarding this topic, as the absence of conversation from the Hansard attests – save for the proposition in the House of Representatives on 23 June 1915 by the Member for Darling Downs, Sir Littleton Groom, to repatriate the body12. At the time of General Bridges’ death the ANZAC legend was not yet born. The Gallipoli campaign was barely months old but the death lists were mounting daily. By the end of the war, children predeceased parents in heartbreaking numbers, with the final death toll amounting to an average of 38 deaths per day for the full duration of the war13.

WWI represented a shift in how countries memorialised conflict. War itself was now industrialised in ever-inventive ways, with death and destruction on a scale few at home could comprehend. This shift in the conduct of warfare so too altered the mourning of those lost to it. For affected families, whose mourning was rendered incomplete, the nation needed something universal that could represent that final missing part of the process: a body. For a brief period, General Bridges represented an opportunity to process grief and go through the ritual of grief. His repatriation was a national display of reverence, with a grand State funeral in Melbourne, prior to transport by train to Canberra for final interment. Throughout, the public took the opportunity to privately farewell their own sons under the auspices of a national ceremony. As such, it was less a particular grief for Bridges than a grief that was simply permitted14.

As WWI wore on, followed by yet more conflict, the public debate for an Unknown Soldier continued. Eventually, on 11 November 1993, Australia interred an Unknown Soldier within the grounds of the Australian War Memorial. At this moment, General Bridges slipped into final obscurity. The unknown soldier provided an egalitarian outlet for grief and remembrance. His arrival confirmed for the public the very same contrast experienced by my own family between Uncles Gibbs and Bridges. As Prime Minister Paul Keating noted during his address that day: he is all of us. All of us is someone General Bridges could never be.

Why Remember?

The act of remembering war, and the war dead, is as deeply individual as the act of warfare is collective. The passage of neither time nor advancements in instruments of lethality has diminished the need for loved ones and communities to express grief and loss experienced at the hand of unforgiving violence.

The memorials that populate the Australian landscape in public spaces are no less personal than photos of loved ones on lounge room walls. In public spaces, every person so inclined has the opportunity to give and take from the memorial as their personal needs dictate without intruding on the personal needs of another person. This is particularly important for descendants of those whose remains will never come home to Australia. In the public space, memorials represent an overarching symbol of memory and a central place of gathering for the act of remembering. Public memorials are public in location and presence, yet deeply personal for those who view them. Within the home, the memory of those lost to conflict becomes personalised and private to the grieving family, expressions that are not always possible in public locations, especially when surrounded by ceremony and formality.

Memorials within the landscape are somehow now seen as sacred ground, whether or not the memorial is actually located on consecrated ground. Those who interfere with headstones and memorials are swiftly, and publically, condemned not just as criminals, but desecrators of the sacred.

As conflicts pass from memory to history, it is interesting to imagine why 100 year-old conflicts still engage the community in ways that contemporary conflicts do not. The Australian War Memorial frequently conducts regional tours of selected items from their collection. Invariably, these tours will invite the public, primarily children, to adopt the dress of soldiers of conflicts long passed. In describing his vision for the commemoration of WWI, the Director of the Australian War memorial, Dr Brendan Nelson said:

What we do through the centenary is incredibly important as it links our past with our future. The sacrifices of the past reflect who we were then, who we are today, and who we want to be for the future… The events that took place 100 years ago meant a lot to us then and means a lot for our future15.

Twice during his vision, the Director mentions the future, yet does not elaborate on what 'our future' means in the context of remembering a 100 year old war with exhibitions, travelling tours, displays and projections. Nor does this comment address why, almost as though the why is obvious and not requiring of an explanation. Without clearly articulating why, war memorialisation is at risk of becoming a ritual without thought; an act we do because we have always done it. Even asking why can seem to challenge the very foundation of war memorialisation. Yet, it is right to ask why. It is important to challenge why so much personal and public capital is invested in this enterprise. To that end there are two possible reasons why Australians fervently support and engage in war memorialisation.

The first reason is that memorialisation is part of our shared narrative as a country and as a community. My parent’s generation are the children of those who served in WWI who went on to serve in their own conflicts; in the case of my family, in Malaya, Vietnam, the Pacific and Singapore. This degree of memory and first hand experience of conflict leaves a powerful legacy. From the time the first news reports from Gallipoli were being read at home, the legend and myth was taking shape. By the end of May 1915, the New South Wales Department of Public Information had reproduced Ellis Ashmead Bartlett’s and Bean’s reports of the landings for use in schools16. At the onset of WWII, we saw children of the ANZACs engaging in their own conflict, living the memory of their parents and at the same time creating their own. Since 1914, Australia has experienced inter-generational memory and experience of war. The grandchildren of the ANZACs are now burdened with their own experiences of war; exploring what it means to be a part of a contemporary fighting force in complex and rapidly changing areas of operations so unlike their forebears in context, yet not in personal long-term effects.

The second possible reason for memorialisation in Australia is the lasting effects of totalising grief. During WWI, the relentless death lists in newspapers, diligently recording monumental loss, would have been enough to leave an indelible mark on contemporary and successive generations. Contemporary conflict and associated casualties are now live-streamed in to our homes with minute-by-minute media coverage of repatriation denied to grandparents. This mark includes an inbuilt, almost DNA-level, instinct to not bear it all again. War and conflict displaces and rips apart a fundamental aspect of society: the family and its place in community and society. Whether temporary or permanent, the ties that bind us to everything familiar are put on hold or severed forever.


This article has attempted to define why Australians passionately support and engage in war memorialisation. Research into this topic concludes the reasons why are elusive and spoken of in an 'assumed knowledge' manner. Memorialising conflict, and the lives lost to it, is important to both personal and national histories. In doing so, we must remember the full spectrum of the topic, such as the indigenous contributions portrayed in the current exhibition at the Australian War Memorial. It is equally important that the rush to reimagine a 100-year old war for a new generation does not crowd out contemporary veterans. Thankfully the mistakes made in relation to returning Vietnam veterans have not been repeated. However, stories of contemporary experiences still pale in comparison to those of 100 years ago in terms of public awareness. It is therefore encouraging that organisations such as Soldier On actively seek out current serving members to tell their stories through the Anzac Day Schools pack initiative. The act, and in some corners the business, of war memorialisation serves an important function in remembering our conflict history, and hopefully guiding us to a less bloody future. Perhaps a good place to start would be to place less emphasise in training continuums on the tactical to strategic implications of war, and instead place more the human cost.