A cabinet of wartime curiosities

Heirlooms ... soldiers' effects illustrate infantry suffering.
Heirlooms ... soldiers' effects illustrate infantry suffering.

In 1990 the Council of the Australian War Memorial commissioned me to write a history of the Memorial from its inception in 1917, to be published in time for the 50th anniversary of the opening of the building in Canberra in November 1991.

Relishing my task, I quickly discovered that I would not be able to cover the creation and maintenance of the Memorial's magnificent collections and recommended a companion volume on the collections as a two-part tribute to the people who had created the Memorial and the people who had held fast to their vision. The Memorial's then director, Brendon Kelson, warmly embraced the idea. The second volume has been a long time coming but perhaps it is even more welcome because of that.

This is not the book that I envisaged. I had thought each of the Memorial's expert curators, then leaders of their professions in art, photography, archives and so on, would collaborate in individual chapters explaining the growth and development of each part of the collection. Instead, the assistant director of national collections at the Memorial, Nola Anderson, is the main author, assisted by 13 other writers.

There is a three-part structure to the book. Each chapter begins with a chronological narrative about collection-building - the First Official Collections, Bringing the Collection Home, two chapters for World War II and so on. Her narrative is followed, in the same chapter, by considered accounts of collection highlights from the period under discussion. Then come paragraph-length ''stories from the collection'', picking out iconic or inspiring individual items. It might be ''Iven Mackay's watch and whistle'' or ''diaries of Arthur Shephard'' and so much more.

For those who know the story of Australia at war there will be much that is familiar and much to surprise and delight in this book. Newcomers to the story will be astonished and also delighted, I suspect. Both classes of readers will be properly amazed and pleased by the lavish nature of the publication. Illustrations abound, all in colour, and the quality and elegance of the illustrations is truly impressive. Readers will need to sit carefully at a table with this book for it is heavy and could do damage if not handled carefully, but they will turn its pages with pleasure.

Anderson's straightforward narrative at the opening of each chapter follows accurately the story of the creation of the Memorial, with its enthusiasms, delays, neglect and passion. She rightly gives most of the credit for its creation and building to the twin founders of the Memorial, Charles Bean and John Treloar, and while chiding Treloar for ''overwork'' and ''inability to delegate'' she shows little concern for the tragedy his life became towards its end.

Correctly, though, she acknowledges that in his passion for work and for the Memorial, and in his increasing obsession, he undoubtedly gave his life for the institution. She makes little allowance for the chaos his death on the job caused the Memorial and glides over the ''de-accessioning'' of important parts of the collection that followed his passing. Her account is more a celebration than an analysis.

It is the specialists who bring passion and excitement to this book. Peter Burness, the historian and curator, has worked at the Memorial since the 1970s and is a man of wisdom and compassion. His entries here are a highlight. In a three-page essay on ''Private Giles's uniform'', for example, Burness is able to show the passion of those who were dreaming of a mighty museum of world class in the national capital (as yet unbuilt, even unplanned) as the war raged around them. He also shows their humanity.

One of Charles Bean's friends suggested to him that he focus more on the life of the everyday Diggers in his commentary on Australia in the war.

''It is true'', he wrote, ''it has never been written up because I don't know the life.'' And he set about putting that to rights.

We all have an image of the infantry in those awful years. Standing for days in waterlogged and muddy trenches, launched into battle on the whistle or command of an officer, rarely dry, always uncomfortable, facing horror and annihilation every moment of front-line existence. What better way to show this than to strip a soldier of his uniform as he came out of the front line, for display, say, even a hundred years later?

Mud-encrusted puttees and torn breeches, mud smeared on the old tunic and helmet, it is testament in this one showcase to all the awfulness and horror each individual soldier endured. Burness's words sing in describing this cherished item, but it is the genius of this book to allow ample illustration of the words. Each item of Giles's uniform is pictured for us in nine moving, detailed photographs. Private Giles, ''a Victorian boy'', represents the infantry who suffered so much. Visitors to the Memorial have been seen gasping at the ordinariness and the insight Giles's uniform allows us. Now all can experience it in this book.

In focusing on Burness and Giles, I am not meaning to suggest that the rest fails to meet this high standard. For there is much else to cherish and remember in the individual ''stories from the collection'': the brilliance of Monash in planning his battles as we look at his notes and maps; the humanity of POW doctor Rowley Richards as we look at his secretly kept and miraculously preserved diaries; William Dargie's remarkable portraits of ordinary men at war showing their determination and their exhaustion in the New Guinea campaign. The whole book can be described as a true ''cabinet of curiosities''.

Congratulations to all involved in this remarkable book. It is a more-than-worthy companion volume to Here Is Their Spirit: A History of the Australian War Memorial 1917-1990.

It is curious, though, that my book is relegated to one mention only in a rather obscure footnote.

Michael McKernan is a historian and was assistant/deputy director at the Australian War Memorial 1981-1996.


Nola Anderson

Australian War Memorial/Murdoch

Books, 612pp, $90

This story A cabinet of wartime curiosities first appeared on The Sydney Morning Herald.