Thursday, 24 April 2014

Anzac Memorial Park

Earlier this year I spent a couple of days at Milmerran, a little town on Queensland's Darling Downs.  It has a population of a few hundred, surrounded by cattle farms and increasingly by CSG wells.  I was there for work, but I did get time to have a little walk around town (it didn't take long) and found this place.

It's called Anzac Memorial Park, and it sits on Milmerran's main street, just out of the little strip of shops that passes for a town centre.  It's nothing that special - it has a few little bits of play equipment, a band rotunda, a public toilet, some nice trees and open lawns, a few benches here and there.  Pretty much like any park in any town or city in Australia.

It also has this - a monument engraved with the names of all the local young men who lost their lives in the First World War.  Around the base has been added a second list of names, of those who died in the Second World War.

This memorial is obviously well cared for.  The mould has been cleaned off the stone.  All the names are still legible.  A circle of shrubs has been planted around it quite recently.  The lawn is well mowed and it stands out as a feature of the park's centre.

These things are so commonplace that we hardly notice them.  Pretty much every town, city and suburb in Australia has a memorial park or garden, or a stone set up in a public square, commemorating its own local dead.  In Sunnybank, where I grew up, there was a honour roll in the community hall and the streets were also named after the people on it. Not far from where I live now Yeronga Park is bisected by Honour Avenue, a pathway on either side of which are planted huge fig trees bearing the names of local lads who did not return from the Great War.

All over Australia people did the same stuff in 1918 and 1919, building monuments, planting trees, consecrating gardens in memory of the dead. These things are still with us, and are still loved.

There's a brilliant example in Mt Gambier, South Australia.  It's not officially a war memorial, but in 1918 the end of the war left a lot of men with time on their hands, wondering what to do next.  The answer was a grand plan, to build a retaining wall, walkway and lookout overseeing the beautiful Blue Lake.

After months of planning, led by a man named Arthur Rook, 800 local men staged a working bee and built virtually the whole thing in one day, supported by 300 women supplying refreshments and encouragement.  Planners, architects and engineers would kill the idea on sight these days, but the project worked and it's still standing in all its chunky glory with the names of its builders engraved in the stones they laid.

There's another in a tiny town called Dartmoor in rural Victoria.  Like my neighbours here in Yeronga, after the Great War they planted trees, in their case at the entrances to the town along which the young recruits marched to sign up and get shipped off to foreign parts.  However in the late 1990s, when money was floating around for such things, the trees were inspected and many were found to be diseased.  Instead of just cutting them down, the local Council and RSL engaged chain saw artist Kevin Gilders to turn them into a series of sculptures which now line the main street, depicting the various services engaged in the war and other war-like themes.

What is it about the Great War that, almost a century later, still inspires us to care for and restore literally thousands of monuments across the country?  What sustains this outpouring of grief and care?

The two world wars were the last, and the largest, fought by citizen armies.  As the Great War broke, young men (in response to considerable emotional blackmail but by their own choice since there was no conscription in Australia then) flocked in droves to the recruiting offices, were signed up, given basic training and shipped off to Europe to serve in the trenches.

The first war, in particular, featured comparatively simple technology.  Planes were a small element in the war, tanks were still primitive and unreliable.  The war was fought by young men with minimal training firing inaccurate rifles.  Erich Maria Remarque tells us that the most effective weapons in hand to hand combat were the folding shovels designed for digging trenches.

Such warfare, stretched over years of intense conflict, took a frightful toll.  Altogether around 10 million soldiers died in the first world war and over 22 million were wounded, not to mention at least six million civilian deaths.  Something like 60,000 Australian troops were killed and over 150,000 were wounded - somewhere around 3% of the population.  Everybody knew someone who was killed or injured.

This meant that the memorials were not empty, formal acts of patriotism, they were intensely personal acts of devotion.  They were created by the parents, siblings, cousins and neighbours of the deceased.  Their unveiling was often witnessed by those who had watched them die.  There were tears, there was pain that would not go away, there were vacancies at the dinner table that would never be filled.

The trees, monuments, parks and sculptures would never replace them, but at least they honoured their memory.  They showed that those who survived, those who had the good fortune not to lose anyone, understood and appreciated what had happened.  This was also expressed in more practical ways.  The widows and orphans were cared for by those who returned via Legacy and the RSL.  The men who suffered PTSD, not known by that name then but well understood nonetheless, were treated with sympathy. Allowances were made, bouts of drunkenness overlooked, jobs preserved.  Returned soldiers were given scholarships and an education.

The impact of all this was so huge that today, nearly a hundred years on, we still remember it.  We still care for the memorials, even though the names no longer mean anything to us.  We still march on Anzac Day, in increasing numbers, to remember what they did.  Their deeds are among the foundation myths of our young nation.

The thing is, it couldn't happen today, could it?  Warfare now is a high-tech business.  Our government has just signed up to spend $24b on 58 fighter planes.  Our firearms and artillery are so accurate and have such amazing range that we can kill people without ever seeing them.  Wars are no longer decided by the bravery of soldiers using rifles and folding shovels.  They are decided by who has the best (or should I say worst?) toys.  Our most powerful toys are so awful they could wipe out the whole planet without a single soldier going near them.  Poorly armed people only win wars these days because the well armed refrain from intervening for fear of sparking a war where these terrible toys might end up being used.  Or sometimes, just because the well-armed don't really care.

War was never really as romantic as it was portrayed in the movies.  It was always about maiming and killing people in order to make them do things they wouldn't choose to do of their own accord.  Now, like so many things in our world, it's done by highly skilled, specialised professionals.  The citizen armies of the first and second world wars are things of the past.  I'm not sure if we should celebrate, or weep...
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