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
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.
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.