Canberra is a museum mecca. The Australian War Memorial, National Museum of Australia, the Royal Australian Mint, Museum of Australian Democracy and endless galleries will keep your brain active, mind boggled AND locked inside!
It’s time to get outside into the fresh air and explore Canberra on two wheels. A ride around Lake Burley Griffin, the centrepiece of Canberra, is just the ticket.
Growing up and going to school in Australia, the version of history we were fed was very English and very white. And that is just what we were expecting when we strolled into the Endeavour Exhibition – more of the same.
How wrong could we be?
It was about time that we received a more rounded version of our history and it was no less fascinating.
It is probably rare to read the words ‘giggle’ and ‘museum’ in the same sentence, but not if you visit the Behind the Lines cartoon exhibition at the Museum of Australian Democracy in Canberra.
This Museum, housed in Old Parliament House, hosts an annual best of political cartoons exhibition. The theme this year is ‘The Greatest Hits Tour’ with a not-so-subtle nod towards our Federal election held early last year.
No one and nothing is safe from the acid wit flowing out of the cartoonist’s pen and I am so pleased about that…
On the 25th of April every year, Australia pauses to commemorate ANZAC Day. This day takes the form of memorial services at the Cenotaph in every small town and village across the country, with very large and well-supported parades in our major cities.
An important part of the annual ceremony is the playing of The Last Post. A haunting bugle solo that never fails to bring chills and goose bumps.
Unlike once-a-year ANZAC Day, The Last Post Ceremony at the Australian War Memorial in Canberra is held every afternoon and, in my humble opinion, it is a must-do activity for every Aussie.
I had heard a little about the Last Post Ceremony at the Australian War Memorial (AWM) and when planning a visit to Canberra, it was high on my list of things to do. Unfortunately, even though I was booking two weeks ahead, it was already booked out. Bugger!
Booking tickets prior to visiting is now required for all parts of the AWM. I even rang the AWM to see if I could beg a ticket, but no joy and they advised that we would just have try to our luck on the day. Oh well, not to worry. There would be plenty of other things to see and do.
After three hours of military history, death, destruction and a few small doses of humour we were just about overwhelmed with the whole AWM experience. As we headed across the empty grounds and towards the carpark, it was nearing the time of the Last Post Ceremony, and I suggested to The Husband that we should try our luck and check if they could squeeze us in.
We were rewarded with a warm welcome and ushered back through the doors of the main AWM building and into the Commemorative Area.
The Commemorative Area is often seen in promotional images for the AWM. It is a large open courtyard with a ‘pool of reflection’ running lengthways along the courtyard floor and overlooked by two long, arched verandas. These verandas are home to a seemingly endless Roll of Honour listing the names of 102 000 soldiers and service people who represented Australia and lost their lives in over 100 years of conflict. It was incredibly sobering to walk and read the names knowing that each bronze name represents a heartbeat and a life cut far too short.
Where the bronze alphabetical panels join each other there is small crack and friends and family are welcome to insert a small poppy next to the name of the person who is significant to them. The scarlet poppies add a brilliant flash of colour amongst the sadness.
As we slowly walked and read, letting the sheer volume of names sink in, I noticed a lady in tears as she tried to explain to her young son the seriousness and significance of all the poppies. I dug into the bottom of my handbag and gave her a packet of tissues. Probably not a 100% Covid19-safe action, but she appreciated it.
But, back to the Last Post Ceremony…
The Last Post Ceremony is the final activity held at the AWM before the close of each day and it is both solemn and powerful. I am getting goose bumps just writing about it many weeks later.
The light was fading and the air was taking on that early evening cool that gets into your bones as a respectful hush fell over the small (and well-spaced) crowd. The Master of Ceremonies stepped up to the podium, welcomed us all and acknowledged any returned service people in the audience.
Four wreaths were then laid at the end of the pool of reflection and a bagpiper accompanied the laying of the wreaths. Love ‘em or hate ‘em, bagpipes have a plaintiveness about them that makes everyone pause.
Colonel Frank Colley saluted and read out the story of Private William Charles Pinneger Brown. At each Last Post Ceremony a service person’s life is featured, bringing an immediate human touch to the event and ensures the audience focuses on the people of the war, rather than the guns, tanks and planes.
Private William Charles Pinneger Brown was born in 1885 in Adelaide, South Australia. Before enlisting in the 10th battalion of the Australian Imperial Force in May 1916, he was a carpenter, married to Ethel with a couple of young children. In December 1916 he joined the 27th battalion in the trenches of France, only to be killed a little over four months later by an artillery shell. He was only 31 years old. Although it was recorded that he died at Bullecourt, his grave has never been located due to the tumult of a moving battlefront and destruction caused by constant bombardment.
Private Brown was one 62 000 Australians who died during World War 1. That’s a pretty powerful number when you consider that Australia’s population in 1918 (by the end of the War) was only around 4.9million. A further 156 000 people were wounded, gassed or taken prisoner during the war.
The Ceremony then moved on the Ode. The Ode comes from For the Fallen, a poem by the English poet and writer Laurence Binyon.
“They shall grow not old, as we that are left grow old;
Age shall not weary them, nor the years condemn.
At the going down of the sun and in the morning
We will remember them.”
You could have heard a pin drop…except for a pair of larrikin white cockatoos who chose that moment to dive bomb the ceremony and generally create a raucous racket, screeching and squawking as they wheeled above our heads. I couldn’t help but smile at the Australianess of this and our endless desire to poke fun and not take ourselves too seriously. (I note that in the YouTube clip of this ceremony, the cockatoos have been completely edited out!)
A lone bugler stood to attention at the edge of the courtyard and played the forlorn Last Post. A moving and fitting end to the Ceremony. As the last echoes resounded around the verandas, the piper and dignitaries turned and walked into the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier and the doors closed solemnly behind them.
What a powerful way to end a visit to the AWM.
Maybe war and military history is not your thing and I understand that completely. Can I recommend that you skip all the displays and body counts, touch screens and dioramas in the AWM itself, and just attend the Last Post Ceremony?
It is a must-do activity and a fitting way to remember those who have served our country – past AND present.
Lest we forget.
What: It is possible to have your own family member recognised at the Last Post Ceremony. Simply lodge a request on their website. Be prepared to wait though, as it may take up to three years for your soldier’s turn to come around. You can also lay a wreath during the Ceremony itself. When you arrive, see one of the ushers and they will tell you whether all the positions have been filled. You do not need to be a family member to participate and they provide the wreaths.
Where: Treloar Crescent, Campbell (a suburb of Canberra).
When: The Ceremony runs for around 20 minutes and starts at 455pm. Book your ticket here.
Why: To pay homage to those who made it possible for us to live in freedom and in peace.
How: We stayed at the Quest City Walk right in the heart of Canberra. The location was perfect with easy walking distance to lots of restaurants and shops. We booked via AirBnB and at $139, it was very good value. (As an Airbnb Associate, I earn a small commission when you book through this link and it doesn’t cost you anything extra.)
Who: All Australians – young and old.
Related Posts: For more information about what else to see at the AWM. Read on.
Related Blogs: If you can’t make it in person to Canberra, then watch the Last Post Ceremony broadcast live everyday on the AWM YouTube channel or Facebook page.
Read About It: For an interesting and heart-breaking read about a soldier in World War 1, grab a copy of Crack Hardy by Stephen Dando-Collins. The story relates to Dando-Collins’ great uncles who enlisted in WW1 and none were unchanged by the experience. Highly recommended. Go straight to Book Depository.
With the whole Covid19 kerfuffle severely clipping my international-travel wings, a good alternate travel fix is to explore my own backyard and sights and sites last visited 40 years ago.
What possibly could have changed in that time?
While trying to recover from the shock of 40 years passing in the blink of an eye, I plotted out a break-neck-speed itinerary to visit Canberra in the Australian Capital Territory (ACT).
For the uninitiated, Canberra is the political capital of Australia and the seat of our Federal Parliament. Every school student in Australia, often during high school, is encouraged to make the pilgrimage to this political and bureaucratic mecca. Thankfully there are many more interesting things to see than just watching our politicians grandstanding during Question Time and as I planned our itinerary, I was determined to revisit a couple of places from my own (ancient) school excursion.
First stop, the Australian War Memorial.
Walking past military sculptures and memorial plaques, and up to the imposing façade of the Australian War Memorial, I knew I was in for a war inundation. I enjoy history and I especially enjoy learning about the times, and lives, of people who made our country what it is today. For better or worse, war leaves no place and no one untouched, even when those wars are far from our shores.
In front of the large ‘Fully Booked’ signs, the ushers were turning away tonnes of people and I was a tiny bit pleased that I had booked our tickets well in advance. The Memorial was all over the new normal Covid19 regulations with plenty of hand sanitising stations, additional ushers encouraging social distancing and handing out free stylus’ so you didn’t have to touch the touch-screens to access information.
After a quick stroll along the balconies of the Commemorative Area, we wandered into the Museum proper and straight into World War 1. World War 1 is a significant focus of this complex as the concept of an Australian war memorial developed straight after the war’s end in 1918. Charles Bean, a war correspondent and historian during World War 1, lobbied hard when he returned to Australia for some sort of memorial to act as a shrine to the memory of the men and women who served.
World War 1 was also especially significant because it was the first war our country fought as a federated nation. Australians did actively participate in the Boer War and other wars, but the First World War was the earliest call of the Mother Country (Great Britain) to defend democracy.
As I strolled the various displays I realised a LOT has changed over the past 40 years and many of the stiff and clumsy diorama models (cutting edge in their day) had been replaced or complemented by sound/light shows, touch screens and tactile displays. Far more appealing and interesting for school students and general visitors of any age!
From World War 1 we stumbled into the more modern wars of Vietnam, Korea, Afghanistan, Iraq and East Timor (more of a peace-keeping mission than a war) before finally moving into the large display of World War 2 machinery and memorabilia. Yes, the lack of chronological order will not please the Purists.
There is no way you could see everything and read every description in your allotted two hours. I was very interested, but admit to becoming quickly overwhelmed by all the different dates and battles. I love the history, but do not love the equipment of war and the endless guns and tanks and planes leave me cold. I guess I am more interested in the human stories of both those who went to war and those who were left at home.
Soon our time slot was up and we were invited to leave the Galleries in the main building. No one was forcing us out, but we had to leave to make space for others to come in. Last stop was the extensive souvenir shop. If you hadn’t had enough war in the past two hours, you could buy some to take home. A poppy and a postcard were enough for me.
But we weren’t done yet…
In my flurry of organisation, I had also booked us in to the Anzac Hall, found behind the main War Memorial building. This is a smaller space with a focus on audio-visual shows. They have three presentations:
G for George: About WW2 bombing raids over Germany
An aerial dogfight from WW1,and
Submarines sneaking into Sydney Harbour during WW2.
But I was done. I was all worn and warred out.
Standing on hard surfaces for three house straight was exhausting and my brain was full-to-overflowing with dates, battles, body counts and questionable leadership activities. Perhaps if you lived in Canberra you could make multiple short visits and ‘do’ one war at a time. That way you would have time to process the who, what, where and when. I wouldn’t bother trying to work out the ‘why’.
I walked away from the Australian War Memorial in the early evening dark impressed by what I had seen, but shaking my head at:
The devastation and senselessness of war.
The unnecessary cruelty and barbarity of some people during wartime when they put aside any sense of shared humanity.
The fact that no one really wins. Everyone is hurt in some way or other. Even the victors pay a high price.
Do we really learn from places like the Australian War Memorial? Does it, even in the smallest way, stop us from doing it all over again?
Or do we simply say ‘how sad’ and step back into the comfort of our freedoms and democracy, and do it all again?
The Australian War Memorial is lobbying hard for a $498million redevelopment and expansion. I wonder, is that really necessary? Don’t we already have enough in place to honour the memory of the brave?
What do you think? Commemoration? Or Glorification?
What: The Australian War Memorial has three main areas to visit: The Galleries, Commemorative Area and Anzac Hall. It has extensive landscaped grounds with sculpture, memorials, military equipment and a coffee shop. Entry is free.
Where: Treloar Crescent, Campbell (a suburb of Canberra).
When: Open from 10am-5pm, every day except Christmas Day. We visited during Covid19 and it’s now a requirement to book your tickets to the different areas in advance. Book in here.
Why: For ordinary people like me, the ‘why’ is to understand more about Australia’s involvement in a whole range of wars, as well as commemorate the service and sacrifice of others. For the military buffs, the Australian War Memorial would be like having all your Christmases come at once.
How: We stayed at the Quest City Walk right in the heart of Canberra. The location was perfect with easy walking distance to lots of restaurants and shops. We booked via AirBnB. (As an Airbnb Associate, I earn a small commission when you book through this link and it doesn’t cost you anything extra.)
Who: The Galleries appeared to be highly accessible for everyone. There are stairs up to the Commemorative verandas, but perhaps there is a lift somewhere – which I didn’t see. Their website is not clear on physical access.
Related Posts: For a little more military history, but on foreign soil this time, read about our visit to the Pearl Harbour Memorial in Hawaii. An amazing site.
Related Blogs: For another person’s perspective on the Australian War Memorial, have a look at Why You Wander blog. She visited pre-Covid19 and mentioned the availability of guided tours. That would be an excellent activity.
Read About It: For an interesting and eye-opening read, grab a copy of Well Done, Those Men by Barry Heard. He talks about his experience in the Vietnam War and massive personal repercussions afterwards. I never really knew much about the Vietnam War and how the soldiers were treated when they got back to Australia and this book, with some gentle humour in places, explains a lot. Highly recommended. Go straight to Book Depository.