War, what is it good for?

If there’s one thing that Australia does really well then it’s war memorials. Each one in the state capitals is appropriately impressive and solemn – the Art Deco wonder of Sydney’s with its glamorously-dead statue by Rayner Hoff as its focus; Melbourne’s Shrine of Remembrance that is so big you can walk around its roof; Brisbane’s elegant circle of columns. The national monument in Canberra is a focal point of the city, forming the axis that runs from the Parliament building, and housing a rather amazing museum beneath. Each one expresses how important war has been to this country and that there is glory in dying for one’s country. And whatever you think of that, there’s no doubt that these memorials are emotional places to visit.

But for all their grandeur, I prefer the simple memorials that you come across in country towns. The one in Hill End is a great example. Hill End is a very strange place, situated on the other side of the Blue Mountains from Sydney. It was a thriving gold town in the 1880s with a population of some 8000 people but it is now virtually abandoned. There’s a quirky old hotel, a bakery and a scattering of houses but the rest lies abandoned. Mobs of kangaroos graze in the old gardens of houses where foundations are often all that is left. And then there’s its modest war memorial. It’s a rudimentary affair – a brick platform with a machine gun on top, captured from the Germans in the First World War – and it’s so simple that it moves me every time I see it


Hill End memorial, thanks to Mattinbgn @ Wikimedia commons

Like many, I find the stories that come out of the First World War particularly affecting. For Australia, it was one of the very first conflicts that it took part in after becoming a federated nation in 1901. There was the gung-ho spirit of those going off to fight without knowing just how awful it would be. The innocence of those country towns is perfectly captured by composer Peter Sculthorpe’s Small Town.

I find the memorials in the small towns of France equally affecting. You only have to see the lists of names on any of the memorials to realise just how many men from small towns were killed, many from the same family. The memorials usually have a statue of a soldier, which makes them more touching. One in Lodeve, in the Herault, by sculptor Paul Darde shows a dead soldier surrounded by the women who represent the four seasons, all dressed in their 1920s best – fancy hats and all. It’s a strange piece of work, rather like the life-sized nativity scenes one finds outside churches at Christmas. Sentimental but affecting.


In Memory of the Fallen, artist Francesca Howard

This year I bought my own memorial to the First World War. In Memory of the Fallen was painted by the artist Francesca Howard (see other works here). I find it a powerful piece of work, the way it evokes the enormity of the war with its endless ribbon of red poppies, glowering sky of souls and renewed greenness of a land that had been desecrated. It touches me because my own grandfathers were in that conflict. My paternal grandfather was a young officer and I remember reading in his diary of the time he walked through the rubble of Arras, reflecting on the two deserters he has just seen who would be shot at dawn the next day. My maternal grandfather was an ordinary solider. Like many boys, he lied about his age and was sent out to the trenches where he was promptly blown up. As children my sister and I were fascinated by the funny indent at the back of his neck. We didn’t see him without his shirt on but when he died, the funeral director told my mother, “Goodness, he must have gone through something big with all those scars.” He never talked about it but the experience left other scars – he would never set foot in France again.

November is the month of remembrance.
Do you have a favourite memorial?
Categories: Architecture, Australia, Other, TravelTags: , , , , , , , , , , ,


  1. What an interesting and moving post, Colin. And what an amazing collections of memorials – they are all so different. So touching in their own ways. The ANZAC War Memorial in Sydney hit me physically; the classicism and grandeur of the Brisbane and Melbourne memorials contrasting so painfully with the simplicity and symbolism of the Hill End Memorial. Thank you for introducing me to all of them, as I was not aware of any. I am currently creating a history of art course on the art of World War One and Two and have a section on how the different countries chose to commemorate their dead. Because WW1 was a new type of war, they had to create a new type of visual language of commemoration. You probably know this, but it was the first time that all soldiers were buried together. In past wars it was often only the commanders that were commemorated at all, with the ORs being left, unmarked, where they fell. I will now include the memorials you have featured in my course.

    Like you, my Grandfather was in WW1 – at the battle of the Somme. He returned with dreadful shellshock, which blighted his entire life.

    May I say how incredibly honoured I am to have my painting included in this moving post. I painted it last year, the centenary of the start of the Great War, as I felt an awareness of all the souls who had died and suffered because of it.

    On the subject of other war memorials, my daughter is currently in her first term at Brighton university and for her first assignment she is choosing to focus on the Indian soldiers who were hospitalised in the Brighton Pavilion during WW1. (More than 800,000 soldiers from India fought for the Allies in WW1.) It is a fascinating subject as the soldiers were of different faiths and consequently had different needs. Separate kitchens had to be created to adhere to the different dietary requirements and new plumbing had to be installed so that the Hindus and Muslims could have separate water pipes. And the Chattri War Memorial was created to honour all the Indian soldiers who died from their wounds in Brighton.

    Thank you for such a thought provoking and touching post.

    • What great comments – and no, I didn’t realise that WW1 was the first time ALL the troops were buried in the same place. Isn’t that fascinating! Certainly part of the beginning of the Modern Age and the fight for equality. I think the memorials that are created are very powerful and your course sounds great. I’m certain there must be some great sculptures to reference, although, like the one in Lodeve, many were done much later. I will take a look at the Chattri memorial now – it seems amazing that the detail of so much of our recent history can be lost so it’s great to hear that something like that is part of a university assignment.
      I was so delighted to show your painting. It feels like the perfect example of how we can honour the past in our homes – I find your painting brings up so many different emotions, from sadness to optimism, and that is quite an accomplishment!

  2. Great Blog, Colin. I also find the simple and sincere memorials in country villages and towns very affecting. In Deal and Sandwich, here in Kent, local names may occur three or four times, reminding us of the sacrifices made by many families. Just watched the Remembrance parade in London and we were reminded what an elegant, simple and therefore very affecting monument the cenotaph is.
    Right now people from local cadet forces, The British Legion and many others will be going home from small remembrance parades in Deal and Sandwich. The rain held off but the weather was suitably autumnal. Again, great blog.

    • Thanks, Phil. Yes, I agree, the Cenotaph is so simple although I think it tends to get lost when the traffic’s passing on either side. But the smaller ones in towns and villages are always special. Remembrance is such an autumnal thing, isn’t it…

  3. A very beautiful post, Colin. It’s interesting how the simplicity of a memorial to such a great loss can make it more powerful. I am brought to tears whenever we visit the Runnymede War Memorial, particularly at times like Remembrance Day but also at Easter when flowers are often left by the names of those lost. There is a loneliness that pervades everything. These memorials are so important

    • I had a look at the Runnymede memorial – gosh, that’s quite some place, but a lovely balance of the built and natural landscape. I agree, these memorials are helpful in so many ways – from simple reflection to pure grief or anger – and always affecting. I love the one at Hill End because it looks like something the locals put together one weekend.

  4. The war memorial at Villers Bretonneux falls into the “grand” category. It was unveiled in July 1938. Bullet holes from the next war can be seen in it today.

  5. I’m very interested in the Spanish Civil War memorials. There’s one in my local park and there’s also one on the South Bank. People went from all over the world to fight ‘fascism’ despite the attitude of governments which were committed to non intervention. There was the feeling that fascism could be stopped in its tracks. It wasn’t of course. The memorial on the South Bank is perhaps appropriately very Stalinistic, big black arms and fists reaching towards the sky and it has this quotation from Byron’s Childe Harold’s Pilgrimage: ‘Yet Freedom! Yet thy banner torn, but flying, Streams like the thunder storm against the wind; The trumpet voice, though broken now dying; The loudest still the tempest leaves behind.’ I find the memorial and this quotation very moving.

    • Gosh, that’s poetry to make your chest heave (and interesting timing as I’ve just been telling myself to shift myself and read some Byron and Shelley). I haven’t noticed that memorial on the South Bank but maybe that says more about my attitude to the Spanish Civil War – i.e. that I tend to overlook it. Although I almost wept the first time I stood before Picasso’s immense ‘Guernica’ in Madrid. I wonder if there are many memorials to it in the UK? It was almost a private kind of war, for the Brits – a war of conscience…So thanks, Vicky, you’ve pricked my interest in that war and decent poetry!

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