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Australian War Memorial

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Historically Commemorating the Soldiers from Down Under

Nestled in the heart of the capital city of Canberra, across the Molongo River from Parliament House is the Australian War Memorial. It’s fitting that such a solemn tribute to Australia’s fallen should be within eyesight of those with the power to send future generations of young Diggers into conflicts around the world. The Memorial is both a shrine for those who have made the ultimate sacrifice, and an interactive museum — many locations today do a good job of serving as one or the other, but rarely both at the same time. Here, both Australians and tourists alike can learn about the history of the Australian Defense Forces for the lowly price of free admission and year-round operation.

First World War Small Arms Display, hand grenades in back, grenade-launching variant of SMLE No.1 at center, mortar on silver rod to simulate being fired.

When looking at the context of the First and Second World Wars, in addition to Vietnam and Korea, it’s unfortunately not hard to marginalize Australia’s role in these conflicts entirely — especially when considering such gargantuan campaigns as the Western Front and the Normandy invasion. But to do so would neglect a country that fought just as bravely and suffered horrendous casualties throughout these same conflicts. When observing the Australian commitment from an American perspective, the people of Down Under have almost mirrored American experience in warfare from the beginning of the 20th century — entering into the First World War as an inexperienced army, fighting in the Pacific Islands, suffering savage treatment of POWs, participating in the Korean and Vietnamese conflicts, and most recently contributing to the Global War on Terror (GWOT) with conventional and special operations forces.

A hand-sculpted panorama of a First World War trench scene, depicting a Digger Lewis machine gun section engaging the German line while the A-Gunner reaches for another drum and is supported by the riflemen on the right.

The Australian War Memorial takes this mission of telling the story of the Australian “Digger” head on and does an outstanding job of it on multiple fronts. The museum is truly enormous, encompassing the history of the Australian Defense Forces from their early baptism by fire, along with the New Zealanders at the battle of Gallipoli and goes into excruciating detail of every conflict since then, continuing to the present day of Iraq and Afghanistan. To read every display plaque, watch every video clip, and scroll through every interactive display would certainly take a visitor all day. Augmenting the information side of the house are the small arms, uniforms, heavy equipment, and many more artifacts that are placed throughout the halls. In many locations the museum staff have used personal stories and items accompanying photographs of the Diggers that actually used them.

An Australian SAS reconnaissance vehicle from Afghanistan, this one damaged from an IED on the right bumper but the team survived. Note the passenger seat-mounted FN-MAG and the .50-caliber M2 behind it.

Above the overall layout and display construction in the museum are three specific points in the museum that I believe the curators have done very well. The first is the incorporation of digital interactive displays throughout the collection. Many museums have long since seen the benefits of working with technology or digital media in order to keep visitors more engaged. The problem is how to work the tech side into the displays in a way that’s beneficial and educational, but not distracting. The Australian War Memorial does a good job of balancing this dichotomy. Looking up information about a particular item in detail is as simple as pressing on a picture of it on an unobtrusive screen nearby. Another example is an interactive map at the beginning of the museum, detailing the Gallipoli beach landings and ensuing battle. Visitors can scroll and zoom out of the three-dimensional map as if it were a Google Maps file, but in this case, it takes up the entire wall.

One of the more sobering displays in the museum is of Australian POWs who perished at the hands of their Japanese captors. Every mugshot here is a Digger who didn’t survive one of the many death marches they were forced to endure.

Second are the panoramas built to scale of the different conflicts where the sculptures and modelers have taken a particular battle scene and placed them inside glass cases, where viewers can look over a platoon or squad fighting for their particular sector of the line. More intense than observing a life-size display of dummies or even a wall-size photograph, one gets the eerie feeling of having a front seat view into a WWI trench, or Diggers about to run onto a beach in the Pacific. The figures are detailed enough to actually look realistic, unlike a life-size dummy that one knows is a mock-up.

An entire room is dedicated to the contributions of Australian air power in the Pacific.

Finally, something that should resonate well with GWOT veterans are the sections that deal with the Australian commitment to OIF and OEF. One portion of this is a temporary exhibition dedicated to the history of the Australian Special Air Service, including GWOT operations, while another is dedicated to the overall Australian commitment to Iraq and Afghanistan.

A cross-section of the 9mm Owen submachine gun in use during the Second World War.

Different military museums have tackled the daunting task of portraying the last two decades of warfare in entirely different ways. One issue they face is whether this is indeed history, or is the story not yet over and thus not yet ready to be told? Only time will tell, as current geopolitics continue to evolve. But the Australian War Memorial decided it’s absolutely worthy of several significant exhibits. One that caught my eye was a wall screen showing a soldier’s helmet camera footage while on patrol in Afghanistan. I haven’t seen such footage incorporated into a military museum as of yet, and I think the Australians have taken an initial step in trying to display this kind of media to the public in a way that can show being on the ground in some of these conflicts that wasn’t possible in past wars.

Taps is performed at the end of the day with a family laying a wreath. In the background are a bagpipe player and the master of ceremonies.

When it comes to the display of small arms, despite the country’s own political climate toward firearms of any types, the vast array of historic and even current small arms and light weapons are spread across the museum for visitors to examine. From the First World War, there are entire wall displays of all the accoutrements used in the trenches, ranging from hand grenades, Lee Enfield No.1s outfitted with muzzle wire cutters, rifles designed to shoot remotely over a trench, Lewis light machine guns, and, of course, the “Devil’s Paintbrush,” or the belt-fed Vickers and Maxim heavy machine guns. Moving into the Second World War, the museum has enough Australian Owen submachine guns to make you want a parts kit for one back in the United States. The Owen story is one of Australian ingenuity wherein a young soldier designed a .22 LR submachine gun and through a series of unfortunate events, it came to butt heads with the government-funded “Australian Sten” or “Austen,” which the Owen beat in trials with flying colors and was adopted as the military’s submachine gun. Moving into the special operations exhibits, the displays are filled with suppressed designs, various Colt M4 configurations, an M14 EBR that SASR modified, and, of course, all your classic HK masterpieces used by many of their counterterrorism forces.

For almost every name on the metal plates, there are perhaps double the amount of symbolic poppies, a Commonwealth symbol of respect for the fallen, originating from Flanders fields in the First World War.

I was very happy to see the amount of small arms that were on display in the museum, especially when comparing the displays to the national military museum in Britain, the Imperial War Museum. There, the existence of small arms is almost ignored, to the point where one wonders how the British Tommy ever overcame the Third Reich without rifles or machine guns. Unfortunately, a politically charged atmosphere in the United Kingdom has decided to write out the contribution that small arms have made in British military history for the sake of not wanting them to exist at all. This has certainly not been the case with the Australian national military museum.

At the end of the day, we concluded our museum visit with a solemn ceremony of “Taps” that happens every day at the War Memorial reflecting pool and chapel. Overlooking the chapel are metal plates bearing the names of every Digger killed in action, from prior to the First World War, up until today. Being a smaller country, having a wall like this is manageable inside the courtyard, whereas in the United States a similar wall would perhaps cover the entirety of the National Mall in Washington, D.C. Every day, certain select family members of those killed are invited to place a wreath in memory of their relatives, while an orator reads a small story about the lives of one of them. Some families are honoring their grandfathers who fell on the Kokoda Track in the Second World War, while others might be honoring a fallen soldier from Afghanistan several months prior. In this fashion, the sacrifices of every conflict are represented and honored.

The Australian War Memorial

Treloar Crescent
Campbell ACT 2612
10 a.m. to 5 p.m. daily
Closed Christmas day
+61 (02) 6243 4211

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