Remembering the Fallen – The Last Post Ceremony at the Australian War Memorial, Canberra

An image of the Australian War Memorial with a red poppy laying across the imageOn 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.

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The Australian War Memorial, Canberra: Celebration, Commemoration or Glorification of War?

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).

A group of high school students visit Canberra in 1980
Back in the good ol’ days of school excursions…

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.

A plinth with Lest We Forget carved into it at the Australian War Memorial, Canberra

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.

A World War 1 soldier salutes

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.

Old diorama models of a Gallipoli battle in World War 1
Old fashioned model dioramas have been retained to show how history used to be communicated

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.

A display from the Vietnam War at the Australian War Memorial Canberra
leaping into the Vietnam War

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.

Australian War Memorial - Postcard promoting the RAAF

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’.

A soldier from World War 1 - Australian War Memorial
What those eyes would have seen…

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?

An Australian recruiting poster from World War 1

The Basics

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.

A kangaroo as a military mascot in Egypt in World War 1
How did they get a kangaroo to Egypt in WW1? Mena Camp outside Cairo.

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.

An Australian Indigenous soldier in World War 1
An Australian Indigenous soldier in World War 1

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.

Some of the 1 787 Australian men who were killed at Sandakan, North Borneo in WW2.
Some of the 1 787 Australian men who were killed at Sandakan, North Borneo in WW2.

#canberra #travelinspo #anzac #australianwarmemorial #worldwarone #worldwartwo  #militaryhistory #wartimeheritage

Pearl Harbour – Why don’t we learn from history?

By now you guys may have twigged that I love history. My love is not based on any great intellect, it is more just a general fascination with how people lived and why things happened.

For history buffs, a trip to Hawaii would not be complete without a visit to Pearl Harbour and the USS Arizona Memorial.

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