In most of the towns and villages throughout Australia and New Zealand, there is usually some sort of war memorial to those who died during World Wars I and II. There also those that are dedicated to later conflicts as well.
Some of those memorials are quite elaborate whilst others very simple. I have even come across a few where there’s a memorial but the town and the people who lived here have long gone. What we don’t have in Australia are war cemeteries, such as those in Britain, France, Korea, Papua and New Guinea, Japan and Malaya. All of these are maintained by the Commonwealth War Graves Commission.
Although there are many memorials and war cemeteries that can be visited throughout the world, in this special part ANZAC-themed issue I have opted to write about just two that I have experienced.
The National Anzac Centre (NAC) at Albany, Western Australia can certainly be visited in your recreational vehicle but for the other at Ypres, Belgium you’ll have to get on a plane to Europe and maybe a motorhome for travelling around when you arrive. Highly recommended, I have to say.
NATIONAL ANZAC CENTRE
Up until a few years ago, I had never visited Albany in the southwestern corner of WA but, apart from the scenic delights, I was surprised to learn that it played a part in the original ANZAC story.
Although those men and women who made up the original ANZAC forces came from all over Australia and New Zealand, the last sight of the Antipodean lands for many was the deep-water port of Albany. For it was from here in late 1914 that two large convoys of ships were formed up in King George Sound to carry those young men and women off to the battlefields of World War I.
It’s quite easy learn all about this with a visit to the National ANZAC Centre which is located within the grounds of the heritage-listed Princess Royal Fortress. That itself is of interest. Although nothing to do with the ANZAC forces, the pre-Federation fortress was only one of two built to protect intercontinental trade routes and was financed by all Australian colonies existing at the time, something of a rare feat. A short walk reveals all kinds of interesting historical facts.
Established in 2014, the NAC building is built on concrete stilts and designed to overlook the King George Sound. Inside a mixture of multimedia, interactive technology and historical artefacts tells the story of the first ANZACs in a commemorative way that pays tribute to those who served but also catches the flavour of the times.
The National Anzac Centre is not a war museum as such, but rather a place of reflection. I particularly like the simple water feature that slowly scrolls through the 41,265 names of all the Australians and New Zealanders who were on the first convoy.
I also like the way the ANZAC story is told in a straightforward manner that does not
in any way glorify war, but rather pays a fitting commemoration to those who gave their lives to the conflict.
Outside the NAC, the Convoy Walk which connects the Convoy Lookout to the fortress playground has a considerable amount of interpretive detail about the ships in the convoys, not to mention a great view at the top. You may also see some native wildlife if you are lucky.
IN FLANDERS FIELD
Ypres, a town in Belgium, occupied a very strategic position during WWI. It became relevant to Australians because of their involvement in the Third Battle of Ypres, perhaps better known as the Battle of Passchendaele.
During WWI much of Ypres was destroyed but since then has been painstakingly rebuilt. Of interest to all Australians is the Cloth Hall, originally built in the 13th Century but now an exact copy. Today the Cloth Hall houses the In Flanders Field Museum, named after the poem by Canadian John McCrae. It details much of history of WWI conflict around the Ypres area with an emphasis on the futility of war, as seen through the personal story of four individuals. Part interactive, part historical artefacts, it is done very well. Taking a stroll around the museum is helped greatly by portable English translators.
To be found in Ypres is the Menin Gate Memorial to the Missing. It commemorates those soldiers of the British Empire, except for Newfoundland and New Zealand, who died in the Ypres Salient before August 1917 and have no known grave. If any unknown graves are subsequently identified, then those names are removed from the Gate’s memorial. Newfoundland (not part of Canada at the time) and New Zealand have their own separate memorials.
Menin Gate should be visited twice, once during the day and then later at 8pm if possible. The memorial was opened in 1927 and every evening since then (bar WWII), the road traffic is halted and the Last Post is played by the local fire brigade in memory of those British Empire soldiers who died during WWI. It’s a moving occasion.
There is sometimes a wreath laying ceremony as well. On the evening we were there, the director of the Australian War Memorial, the Hon Brendan Nelson, took part in the ceremony, which for us made it a bit more special.
Just a little footnote here, there was an original Menin Gate and the sculptured lions that 'guarded' that gate were given to the Australian War Memorial in Canberra, where they still are at the entrance.
There are quite a few war graves cemeteries around Ypres but if time is short, then the largest of them all (in the world) at Tyne Cot is recommended. Tyne Cot is not a typical French name, and is thought to have come from the Northumberland Fusiliers because of the resemblance between the German concrete pill boxes and the Tyneside workers’ cottages (Tyne Cots).
It was the scene of heavy fighting during the Battle of Passchendaele in 1917, hence the pill boxes. It’s here also that the names of the British soldiers who were lost after August 1917 and the New Zealand contingents are to be found.
Taking a slow walk around the graves and memorials leaves one thinking about not only the stupidities of war but also the brave men who gave their lives — and some of them were very young. To give you some idea of statistics, there are 11,965 graves at Tyne Cot and only about 3605 are identified.
On my trip to Belgium and France, I did not have the opportunity to visit the French town of Villers-Bretonneux. It’s where the main memorial is to the Australia military personnel who were killed on the Western Front during WWI and where the very newly opened Sir John Monash Centre is located. Anyone with an interest in WWI history, either personal or otherwise, should certainly head there.
Even the local school L’Ecole Victoria (named in honour of the Victorian school children who raised money in 1919 to rebuild the school) has a sign (in English) which reads “Do Not Forget Australia”.
From a visit to the Normandy D-Day WWII invasion beaches, I know the French don’t w ant anyone in any way to forget what other nations’ peoples have done for their freedom. In fact for anyone’s freedom, wherever it was in the world, and neither should we.
In Flanders Fields the poppies blow
Between the crosses, row on row,
That marks our place; and in the sky
The lark, still bravely singing, fly
Scarce heard amid the guns below.
We are the Dead, Short days ago
We live, felt dawn, saw sunset glow
Love and were loved, and now we lie
In Flanders Fields
Take up or quarrel with the foe
To you from falling hands we throw
The torch; be yours to hold it high
We shall not sleep, though poppies grow
In Flanders Fields
John McCrae, May 1915