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A history of the Australian War Memorial

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The Australian War Memorial today serves as “a shrine, a world-class museum and an extensive archive. It commemorates “the sacrifice of those Australians who have died in war” and assists visitors to “remember, interpret and understand the Australian experience of war and its enduring impact on Australian society”. While most who live in Canberra know the Australian War Memorial well, the story of its origins and development is perhaps less well known.

The idea for the Australian War Memorial is attributed to Charles Bean. Like so many who served, Bean’s life was profoundly affected by his experiences during the First World War. In turn, his dedication to conveying the war as he saw it has shaped our understanding of the Australian experience of war over the past century.


Bean working on files during the writing of the official history of the First World War. Photo courtesy of Australian War Memorial. (A05389)


Elected by his journalist colleagues to be the Australian official war correspondent in 1914, Bean served alongside the troops at Gallipoli and on the Western Front. It was during his service on the Western Front that Bean conceived of the idea of a memorial museum to tell the story of the soldiers he witnessed suffer so much. The idea for a military museum was perhaps also influenced by a childhood visit to a hotel once run by a Waterloo veteran which contained a large room with a display of battlefield relics. Of this hotel Bean wrote:

We used to steep ourselves in the contents of the glass cases and…we used to pick up imagined relics in the fields around the farms…probably bits of farm harness – to make our own museums.” ~ Here is their Spirit: A History of the Australian War Memorial 1917-1990, Michael McKernan.

The foundation work for the Memorial collection began with the creation of the Australian War Records Section in 1917, set up to ensure Australia would maintain its own collection of war records and relics. Lieutenant John Treloar, was appointed officer-in-charge. Treloar later became the Memorial’s first Director serving in that position from 1920 until his death in 1952. As well as collecting relics and records the AWRS also commissioned war artists and official photographers who have contributed so much to our visual record of the war. Under Treloar’s leadership the Australian War Records Section collected some 25,000 relics from the First World War.

Among the staff of the AWRS was an enthusiastic Corporal named Ernie Bailey. Passionate about his work he walked, cycled and hitched rides on passing vehicles, visiting units and collecting relics. In May 1918 two French mortar bombs were handed to the War Records Section. Bailey was killed while removing the explosives out of one of the bombs. Bean wrote to his widow Emily “it is his work that thousands upon thousands of Australians will see as they walk down those galleries…[of] the Great Australian Memorial.” Corporal Bailey was the only member of the AWRS to be killed on active duty, he was 32 years old.


An aerial photograph of the Australian War Memorial, 1945. Photo courtesy of Australian War Memorial. (100793)


Though planning for the Australian War Memorial had begun in earnest during the war through the work of the AWRS it took many years for a permanent building to be opened in Canberra. In the interim, the Australian War Memorial opened exhibitions in Melbourne between 1922 and 1925 and in Sydney between 1925 and 1935. Meanwhile, in 1927 an architectural competition calling for designs for the permanent building failed to produce a winning design. Two entrants, Sydney architects Emil Sodersteen and John Crust were invited to submit a combined design which ultimately formed the basis for the building which was constructed.

The inauguration stone for the site on which the Memorial now stands was unveiled by the Governor General on Anzac Day 1929. By the time the Memorial opened on Remembrance Day 1941 the Second World War was underway. The decision was made to extend the charter of the Memorial to include the Second World War and in 1952 all Australian wars were included.

A key part of the vision for the Australian War Memorial was the inclusion of the Hall of Memory and Roll of Honour. Bean had originally hoped to include the Roll of Honour, with photographs of each individual, inside the Hall of Memory, but this proved impossible. The Hall of Memory was completed in 1959 with the Roll of Honour installed in the cloisters in 1961. At the heart of the Hall of Memory and indeed the Memorial itself is the Unknown Soldier, carried from the battlefields of the Western Front and entombed in 1993. This was a significant moment for the Memorial, the Dawn Service on Anzac Day this year may prove to be another.

Although all who served in the First World War have now passed those who visit the Memorial today can still gain a glimpse of the personal experience of the war and the voices of those who served. Visiting the Memorial it is hard not to walk away without a sense of connecting with at least one of the relics and by extension the people who served. For me, and I am sure others, that relic has always been steel lifeboat used to land men of the 13th Battalion on 25 April 1915. The lifeboat remains a feature of the redeveloped First World War gallery. Charles Bean once wrote that:

The purpose of the Memorial is to preserve the memory of the men and women of our fighting services who gave their lives in our country’s wars. The display of relics and pictures in the galleries is a vivid means of keeping their memory green.” ~ Here is their Spirit: A History of the Australian War Memorial 1917-1990, Michael McKernan.

Having visited the Memorial many times and served as a volunteer guide I believe it remains true to its purpose as envisaged by Bean, it is still ‘keeping their memory green.’

Feature image courtesy of Shutterstock.

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