Upon entering any country town in Australia it is evident that the local war memorial stands with great importance. In most country towns across Australia, the local memorials are the focal point of the town and are almost always centrally located. I live in Warrnambool, in South West Victoria and see our local memorial at least three times a week whilst travelling around town. Apart from the great aesthetic value the community receives from our memorial, it of course serves a much deeper role of significance, to honour those who have fought so that we may be free.
On the 11th of November this year, I attended the Warrnambool Remembrance Day Ceremony. War veterans of various ages and backgrounds were in attendance for united reasons, to remember the comrades they lost and to honour the bravery of those who died. It is on this day, and ANZAC day, that we officially commemorate not only those who died in World War I, but all wars in which Australian soldiers have served. The ceremony made me think about how we have commemorated in the past and why we will continue to commemorate the loss of Australian lives in world conflicts. It occurred to me that our local war memorials are almost certainly the best places to look for answers to these questions.
In my hometown of Warrnambool and in the surrounding South West region, there are many different types of war memorials. The Warrnambool War Memorial, affectionately dubbed the ‘dirty angel’ due to the unfortunate placing of the figurehead angel’s hands, towers above the hill facing the foreshore. In the nearby town of Mortlake, an Avenue of Honour commemorates the loss of local lives. The large avenue, which has approximately 200 trees, has a tree with a plaque for every fallen soldier.
It is no wonder that our local community felt such a strong need to commemorate the dead after World War I; the Gallipoli landing hit the town of Warrnambool and the surrounding district hard. Casualty Lists, which were first published in the local newspaper, The Standard, on May 3, 1915, in the wake of the Gallipoli landings indicate that 141 locals were killed and 252 injured during the war. The first Warrnambool soldier to die was Private George Coulstock, aged 21. Considering that the population of Warrnambool was fewer than seven thousand at the time, these figures dealt a devastating blow. Yet the courage and determination in the face of hardship demonstrated by the ANZAC soldiers will never be forgotten and the hundreds of war memorials around Australia will see to this.
Like most First World War memorials around Australia, the memorials around my district are typically granite or marble monuments. In a Deakin University study of war memorials around the South West district written in 1996, it is believed that quite often these memorials served the whole community in the way a tombstone serves an individual family. This may have been due to the enormous scale of casualties and the fact that fallen soldiers were buried overseas. Most World War I memorials were constructed in the 1920’s by local communities with fresh and vivid memories of the war.
In comparison to World War I memorials, most of the memorials built to commemorate Australian loss in World War II were functional structures such as swimming pools, schools, parks and hospitals. Perhaps this was because there was a smaller scale of casualties and therefore the community did not feel the same need for a ceremonial memorial but wanted something more practical to remember those who had died.
Possibly the most significant memorial in the Warrnambool area is that of the Lone Pine tree in the Botanic gardens. On the 6th of August, 1915, the Australians took Lone Pine. The battle was described by C.E.W Bean, the official observer on the spot as ‘a deed of self-sacrificing bravery which has never been surpassed in military history’. At Lone Pine the Turks lost 7,000 men; the 1st Australian Infantry Division, 4,600 strong at the outset, lost more than 3,000. Seven Victoria crosses were won by the 1st Australian Brigade.
Lone Pine got its name from the fact that the Turks had cut down for firewood all but a single tree on the ridge. It so happened that on the very morning of the attack this last tree was also felled.
A local soldier, Keith McDowell of the 24th Battalion brought home a pinecone from the famous tree. He gave the pinecone to a relative, Mrs Emma Gray of Grasmere, who kept it on her mantelpiece and planted the seeds twelve years later. Five of the seeds germinated but one later died.
The tree in the Warrnambool Botanic gardens, which stands at twenty metres tall, is in a fenced enclosure bearing a plague that reads:
THIS TREE WAS RAISED
FROM A SEED BROUGHT
FROM LONE PINE GALLIPOLI
AND WAS DEDICATED TO THE A.I.F
ON JANUARY 21ST 1934.
The Warrnambool Lone Pine tree is listed on the National Historic Tree register. Since the planting of the Warrnambool Lone Pine tree, there have been a large number of similar trees planted around Australia, these have been derived from the next generation.
Eighty-seven years have passed since the Gallipoli landing and yet Anzac Day and Remembrance Day services continue to grow in numbers each year, despite the decreasing number of war veterans in attendance. So why do we continue to commemorate after so long? Perhaps the onset of the "War on terror" has once again brought the relevance of previous Australian loss back into our homes.
The hundreds of war memorials around my district stand as a constant reminder of the terrible conflicts we have faced as a nation. Their beauty and most importantly their significance will always play an important part in the history and future of country towns in Australia. The ANZAC spirit and the spirit of the thousands of other Australian soldiers who have died serving our great nation will never be forgotten. Lest we forget.
Dervon, Kit Gallipoli One Long Grave, 1986, Time-Life Books Pty Ltd, Sydney.
Howard, Ann Australia and World War 1, 1983, Bay Books, Australia.
Moorehead, Alan Gallipoli, 1956, Hamish Hamilton Ltd, Great Britain.
Yule, Peter, We’re doing our share for the boys over there, 1996, Deakin University, Warrnambool.
Warrnambool Standard, ‘Warrnambool Celebrates 150 years’, July 1, 1997.
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