Sydney’s ANZAC Memorial: Tribute to a Failed Dream

Visiting a war memorial is probably not high on the list of most vacationers, but I’m an Air Force wife, so paying my respects to Australia’s veterans was an obligation.

The ANZAC Memorial dominates the open grassy lawns of Sydney’s Hyde Park. Fundraising for the memorial started one year to the day of the Gallipoli invasion in Turkey during World War I, in which Australian and New Zealand (ANZAC) forces were decimated during an eight-month-long campaign. It was dedicated in November 1934, in front of crowds which overflowed the broad, grassy lawns of the park into the boulevards and side streets. While mourning their lost loved ones, they were secure that their sacrifices meant there would never be another war. This had been “The War to End All Wars.”

To an outsider, it seems strange that so many men chose to take up arms for England. After all, most of them were descendants of people shipped to Australia as criminals or undesirables by the British. But the love for Mother England was stronger than any grudge. Many of them still had blood ties to the Empire, and that home was threatened. Beyond that, this was the War to End All Wars, and fighting for that cause was hard to resist.

The monument is a tall, solid, imposing, Art Deco concrete structure clad in granite. Designed by Bruce Dellit, its sheer size and bulk would command respect. But while most war memorials glorify fighting and “noble death,” this memorial is far, far different. Carved into the corners are figures of soldiers, nurses, airmen, sailors – none of them in poses of glory. Their faces and postures reflect weariness and sorrow, the bitter reality of seeing what happens when politics and nationalism outweigh civility and humanity; the betrayal of the notion that a good fight has anything good about it.

Dellit worked with sculptor Rayner Hoff on the design of the interior. Hoff served in the trenches during the War, and was no more interested in glorifying war than was Dellit. In the center of the memorial is the sobering “Sacrifice.” The nude figure of a young man rests, arms outstretched, on a shield and sword, which is held by figures of women – the young man’s mother, sister, wife and child. Both Dellit and Hoff were determined to recognize that every person – soldier and civilian; man, woman, and child – served in some way and that all of their sacrifices were equally painful and important.

Around the walls, bronze reliefs depict the frenzied, confused, constant variety of wartime life: dispatchers riding on bicycles, soldiers firing howitzers, gassed and wounded men waiting for aid, mule transport drivers, nurses and stretcher bearers. The sculptures are positioned so that visitors must lower their heads and look down at them, a quiet requirement to stand in a position of respect. Stained glass windows are positioned so that a golden light continuously falls onto the sacrificed youth. Overhead, 120,000 gold stars line the domed ceiling, each star representing one of those who served during the War.

Over 21,000 ANZAC troops died during World War I. Another 50,000 were wounded. Some historians say that the War united Australians and New Zealanders into thinking of themselves as nations, in much the way WW2 did for the US a generation later.

There is a particular poignancy in the history of the monument. When it was dedicated in 1934, there was still the ideal and naïve belief that the horror of the war just ended would convince people never to walk that path again. They were proved wrong. In 1984, the monument was re-dedicated to honor all ANZAC troops who fought and still fight in the wars that followed.

The Memorial is open daily. There is no charge. A small museum under the memorial has evocative and eloquent displays which further carry the theme of the monument.

Photos:Returned Services League; Sydney/NSW Tourism