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Old Arms

by Skyring 

Posted: 17 May 2004
Word Count: 2181
Summary: Skyring visits the Australian War Memorial

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I pressed the button, and light glowed over the quilt, showing it to be made up of squares, each one worked with an intricate design, each one bearing a message laden with emotion. A female choir sang from the small speaker, fading out as I read how the real choir had given regular performances until the members moved on one by one and it grew too small.

I moved on to the next display. So much to see. A series of photographs flickered on a table, mounted at an angle so that at once it was exhibit and projection screen. You could reach out and touch the table, your hand flashing white, black and grey as you stroked the historic wood of the table upon which Singapore had been surrendered.

The Australian War Memorial is like that. The exhibits, where they are at all durable, are mounted so that they may be easily seen and touched. You may trip over the trail of a field gun, reach up to stroke the elegant curve of a Spitfire’s wingtip, poke your head into the cramped confines of a tail-gunner’s turret. Signs warn to dissuade touching or leaning on particularly significant objects.

I ran my hands over the cold grey paint of two gun mountings, one from the first World War cruiser HMS Sydney, the other from the German raider SMS Emden. Now standing a few metres apart, they once spoke to each other in anger one far off day on a distant ocean. A sound and light show recreated the battle for us in old photographs and bursts of man-made thunder, brought back into the immediate present so that we children of later days could remember.

There is only one Anzac remaining now, a lone survivor of the event which occupies a whole hall in the Memorial, and names the vast new display area, the wide avenue running down to the lake, and a day that strikes a chord from the heartstrings of Australians everywhere. Almost from the moment you move into the building, that day reaches out to you, stirs you, holds you. Here, leaning almost casually in a corner of the entrance hall is one of the nation’s most sacred treasures, a boat from that first Anzac Day, 25 April 1915, when dawn over the Dardanelles saw Australians and New Zealanders rush ashore and up the steep and scrubby hills of Gallipoli.

A sign warns against touching, but one doesn’t need to touch to feel the sensation that echoes resonating from that ship’s boat, like bullets pinging and ricocheting off the frame, or piercing through the skin.

I find myself pierced the further I venture into the Memorial. There are places I cannot go without feeling the ghosts of the past, the hair rising up on the back of my neck when I see Will Longstaff’s eerie Midnight at Menin Gate, my eyes filling as I read the letters of families left behind in Australia, left behind forever in far too many cases.

This is not a war museum, though it is crammed full of guns and warplanes and tanks and uniforms. It is a war memorial, and there is little to celebrate any supposed glory of battle, but rather to tell the stories of the men and women who served and suffered and died, so that we who come after them, we who survive, may remember them, give thanks, and hesitate before taking up arms lightly.

The Australian War Memorial sits like a great grey stone lion under Mount Ainslie, staring down Anzac Parade and over the lake, past the white wedding cake of Old Parliament House, past the new one under Capitol Hill, and off to the mountains and sky beyond. The eye is drawn inexorably down and up again to some point above the distant Australian flag flapping lazily in the cold Canberra breeze.

Ted and Samantha joined me at the top of the front steps, and like countless other visitors, turned to see the sight, and like numberless others took a photograph. We passed through between the grey lions from Menin Gate, their stone skin cold to the touch, their cold eyes unblinking as they thought of the streams of young men they had seen march off to war.

You may see them still, many of them. Old and stiff in stiff old suits, a dignity and formality for their fallen comrades, whose names line the walls over the courtyard at the heart of the Memorial. They stare into the pool of remembrance, where the flames bubble eternally through the water, and the smell of rosemary is in the air.

We bumped into one of my old comrades, stiff and formal in a dark suit, a badge pinned to his lapel, and I thought of the days when we were both sergeants together in the old regiment. I introduced him to Ted and Samantha. Ted, once a soldier in the British Army, and for many years a guide on the battlefields of South Africa, where Australia was already at war a hundred years ago when our nation was born. Samantha, Australian and proud of it here, a nurse who looked with keen interest and kinship at the names and photographs of other nurses, and lingered long over that quilt as the light came and went, the sweet voices rising and falling.

I didn’t have the strength to stand beside her there. The long halls are crammed full of displays and you simply cannot see them all in a day. As the hours pass the benches placed here and there are eagerly sought out by visitors resting their feet, before rising to spend more of their precious hours here. My legs were weak and I had to move on, to see the table, to take a bomber flight over the Third Reich, the vibration of the mighty engines rising again through our soles and shaking the hairs on the back of our necks as we listened to the cheerful voices of fliers long gone and saw the flash of bombs and guns as they completed another mission.

Guns point in all directions. Pistols and rifles in the display cases, cannons protruding from the wings of aircraft mounted overhead, field guns and antitank guns parked in the halls. “That’s the gun that shelled Paris.” I showed Ted a tiny weapon which barely came up to our knees, its slender barrel maybe a metre long. “Incredibly high muzzle velocity.” He smiled at my feeble joke.

There is an elegance, an art of war. The beautiful streamlined shapes of torpedoes and shells and fighter planes, their elegant curves drawing the eye with them as they move in the imagination, rushing through air or water, wheeling gracefully and diving on their targets.

And the paintings that line the walls, literally works of art – you could remove all the artefacts, leaving the paintings and statues, and still have a splendid gallery to lose yourself for a day. I found myself drawn to the paintings, admiring the soft watercolours, the bold oils, the works of artists whose respected names and famous pictures hang in the National Gallery over the lake. I simply had to sit down in awe when I saw a whole wall of pictures by Arthur Streeton, each one a jewel in subject, composition and execution.

But there is also another side to war, and at one stage, finding myself in a group of grey guns, mortars, tanks and vehicles, I was struck by the sheer brute ugliness of the machinery of battle. There was nothing, nothing positive about these squat functional shapes, cast in some hellish foundry in Imperial Germany and sent to the muddy fields of Flanders and France. These awful weapons, these hulking guns, they killed so many of our young men. The survivors of Anzac perished under their fire, and if they were not killed outright, they failed in the mud and cold and disease of the front.

The diorama of the stretcher-bearer brought out an emotional response. Crouched in a sea of mud, his face in his hands to hide the horrors, his body slumped in fatigue and shock, there is nothing glorious or artistic or elegant about him. His uniform is covered in dirt and blood and he is lost in time and space, remote in every way from those he left behind. I simply cannot pass by him without sharing his feelings.

There are places I cannot go. There is the displayed uniform of a doctor I once met, killed in Africa, and I remember her lively face, her voice now forever silent, and I move on, sick at heart.

There are places I must go, and I stand in silence before the unknown soldier’s tomb, under the mighty dome, in dim light filtered through stained glass, an insignificant insect under the gaze of the heroic figures standing tall and proud in the corners, their virtues listed for us. Courage, candour, chivalry.

There are places where I cannot remain. I am moved. Here is a corner, showing the effects of the war on Australians at home. An antique wheelchair for a limbless soldier, a stuffed cockatoo from the wards of a repatriation hospital, letters and diaries, and most poignant of all, the official forms from the War Graves Commission, asking next of kin for “60 characters, less spaces” to be engraved on the tombstone of their son, husband, father and friend. There is a stock of these forms, and visitors may write their own message. Very few of them can stick to 60 characters, less spaces, and all of them speak of thanks and remembrance.

I cannot stand there and write even a short message, My eyes betray me and the paper blurs, and I must put down the shaking pen. I cannot possibly stand there and construct a message where every letter counts, which would mark forever the grave of someone I loved. Others are strong enough to do so, but I must sit down and compose myself.

And I cannot stay for long before that quilt, made by service nurses in a prisoner of war camp, thinking of home, their families, those they cared for. The choir sings as I look at the faded squares and read how the members of that choir died, one by one, until there were too few to sing. Samantha reads on, but I cannot. I think of their courage and their kindness, they who gladly went overseas to care for the sick and hurt, and found themselves in need of care. Some survived brutal massacres and they all witnessed scenes of appalling suffering.

I am not made of stone. I am not strong enough to remain, like the Menin Gate lions, and think of those who passed this way, who passed away.

I stand for a moment at the entrance, looking out on that postcard view, the warm glow of the setting sun sinking over the mountains, the Last Post keening in my ears. The broad avenue is lined with smaller memorials, children to this one, commemorating participants of other conflicts. Vietnam, Tobruk, Korea, the heroic figures of the Army memorial, the rushing, sounding water of the Navy memorial opposite. The soft green of the service nurses memorial, its gently curving walls in contrast to the angular shapes surrounding it. The Australian trees and the New Zealand shrubs march together down the Anzac Parade, ending in the most recent addition, the New Zealand memorial, the handles of a Maori flax basket, one on each side of the avenue, our two nations sharing the load.

The memorials end there, but in spirit they pass on into the country, where every city, every town, every township has a memorial, a shrine, a digger eternally standing guard, a man of stone who is strong for us, who can accept on our behalf the endless thoughts and memories.

Close at hand, where the avenue ends, are two more memorials, here in Australia’s heart. One from Greece, a shattered column and a twisted girder, and the other from Turkey, an elegant, enfolding space where Kemal Ataturk, who led our enemies on that first Anzac Day, gives we Australians fresh strength with the words that mark the graves in Gallipoli. I cannot remain unmoved when I read those words, and I doubt that Ataturk wrote them without his paper blurring before him, for he couldn’t stick to 60 characters, less spaces.

Those heroes that shed their blood and lost their lives. You are now living in the soil of a friendly country therefore rest in peace. There is no difference between the Johnnies and the Mehmets to us where they lie side by side here in this country of ours. You, the mothers, who sent their sons from faraway countries wipe away your tears; your sons are now lying in our bosom and are in peace. After having lost their lives on this land they have become our sons as well.

Oh, that our arms could hold and comfort our fallen children.

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Comments by other Members

scottwil at 05:45 on 18 May 2004  Report this post
Absolutely terrific. It made the hairs rise on the back of my neck and I can't think of a better compliment than that. Wonderful writing, moving, emotive descriptive. I've run out of adjectives.

Jubbly at 07:20 on 18 May 2004  Report this post
Skyring, this is wonderful, beautiful, moving writing. The subject matter is so ripe for emotion and you have conveyed it in the most elegant way. I was in tears by the time I got to the line, 'a digger eternally standing guard'. I too had goosebumps as I read. I'm Australian and my grand mother was born on Anzac day and every birthday I remember as a child, was spent watching the march on TV, smelling the strong aroma of the rosemary pinned to our clothes and listening to her tell the tales of her late hubands adventures at Gallipoli. He survived but his brother comitted suicide a few years later. This is powerful writing, the very best.



Skyring at 10:55 on 18 May 2004  Report this post
Thanks for the kind words. I can't read my own writingwithout a prickling of tears for those who never came back and are so well commemorated by this wonderful memorial. The Dawn Service on Anzac Day on a chilly Canberra morning is also a moving experience, with thousands of people filing into the great green area around the Stone of Remembrance in the dark. Every year there are more people attending, and it all seems to be driven by the youngsters.

Every year the suphur-crested cockatoos swoop and whoop through the solemn service, chasing each other and tumbling gaily through the air. I am reminded each time of the larrikin diggers who left for the grand adventure, and think that here are their spirits returned to us.

But I left the best part to the very end, for those words of Kemal Ataturk to his former enemies are so gracious, comforting and serene that they cannot possibly be improved upon.

Nell at 16:18 on 29 June 2004  Report this post
Hi Pete,

I can only echo Sion and Jubbly, this is beautifully written and incredibly moving. I was going to say 'finely judged', as a lesser writer might have strayed into a sentimentality that was overpowering, but that suggests calculation, and this feels only as if you've described your emotions with truth and accuracy, and by so doing made the reader feel them too. A memorable piece.

Best, Nell, aka Plume.

jacks_domino at 13:51 on 25 July 2006  Report this post
Just the type of writing I love to read! Sincerely brilliant!

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