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The unknown War Memorial - the politics of remembrance

By David Faber - posted Wednesday, 16 May 2007

An unobtrusive war memorial stands at the heart of the well groomed Lundie Gardens at the western end of Adelaide’s South Terrace. Generally not much attention is paid to this cenotaph. Nor does it seem to have been accorded military honours since the Armistice which brought to a close “the War to End all Wars”. Certainly no ANZAC Day or Remembrance Day observances have been conducted before it in living memory.

Yet a moment’s attention to its three epigraphs immediately suggests that it is unique in the history of the Australian cult of commemoration of our war dead.

The ledge of its abacus bears a dedication to “Australasian Soldiers” inclusive of our Kiwi brethren, and the moulding beneath dates the assault at ANZAC Cove in “the Dardanelles”, the scene of the naval operations with which the Gallipoli landing was so imperfectly combined.


Clearly, as Professor Inglis, historian of our national cult of commemoration of the fallen notes in his Sacred Places, this cenotaph was erected before references to Gallipoli and the expeditionary corps became ritualised. Indeed a plaque fixed to the pedestal of the obelisk records that it was “unveiled by his Excellency the Governor General Sir R. Munro Ferguson, Wattle Day Sept 7th 1915”.

The men were still clinging to their foothold on that faraway peninsula within cooee of Troy, mythical locus of the most classical traditions of our culture concerning the tragedy of war. The following day the Adelaide Register reported His Excellency as declaring that:

“… this initiative had caused Adelaide to be the first city in the Commonwealth to erect a memorial to the landing of the troops on Gallipoli …”

The Wattle Day League, a “ladies auxiliary” in the language of the day, of the Australian Natives’ Association (ANA) planned the cenotaph. Nativist nationalism was nonetheless British to the boot heels advocating Boy Conscription, military preparedness and the rights of property.

Despite being scrupulously loyal to the monarchy, some conservative quarters suspected it of republicanism. The League was intended to promote the wattle as a national floral emblem, and it was historically successful. As recently as the last decade of last century the SA ALP distributed wattle seed as a symbol of nativist patriotism.

Walter Torode, a well known master builder then active in the city [where he built the stock exchange among other edifices] and its southern park side suburbs was the designer and builder of this human scale monument standing about seven feet tall as it was originally designed.


In those days before political correctness “gentlemen” were known to assist “ladies” in their work, advising or even holding office in their associations. We may consider this anomalous, but that would be anachronistic. The ladies’ auxiliary was a feature of the life of many organisations within living memory.

The President and historian of the League was William Sowden, the antisocialist editor of the Adelaide Register. Its editorial line was so virulent that one competitor, the Adelaide edition of Truth, described it as “the official organ of the Tory Party”.

He had founded the League as Vice President of the ANA in 1889, obtaining in that year the approval of the Association’s SA Board for “the formation of a ladies society in conjunction with the ANA”. In March 1890 the SA ANA Conference ratified the formation of the League as “a body of ladies working to advertise the objects of the ANA … to be managed independently ... by a committee of ladies and gentlemen”.

The shock of the unprecedented casualty lists from the Middle East inspired the cenotaph. Scott, who later recalled the “personal grief at the very long lists of losses”, remarked that “the casualty lists had thrown into mourning homes in all parts of the country”. He eloquently recorded the impact in early May 1915 of reports from Ashmead Bartlett and others.

As Torode told those present:

An inspiration was given to me when the sad news came through of the attempted landing of our troops at Gallipoli and the bravery of our men, to create in memory of them an evergreen memorial. An appeal was made to the general public, resulting in all material and labour being given free of cost. Thus Wattle Grove in Sir Lewis Cohen Drive off South Terrace was brought into being … It was my privilege to design the outlay of the garden, Obelisk, and Pergola …

Today only a remnant stand of wattle marks the original site of the Dardanelle’s Cenotaph on Sir Lewis Cohen Drive, an extension through the South Parklands of Morphett Street. Torode conceived the facility among other things as an amenity for Torode’s nearby park side developments so that in years to come “Wattle Grove will be an attraction to citizens and visitors and a pleasant resort on summer evenings.”

Torode incorporated other features of his original conception in the Cenotaph itself, both by inclusion and exclusion.

Portions of the stonework had been polished, while others remained in their rough state: purposely designed to commemorate the rough landing which their heroes had experienced at Gallipoli.

The cross which today surmounts the ensemble is a later addition because at the time “they had not deemed it necessary to mark the obelisk by a cross, because the brilliant southern constellation, celestial emblem of sacrifice, forever cast its inspiring light upon Australia”.

No irreligion was intended, rather an emphasis on nativist civic piety towards those who had fallen in the military service of the community. Torode was after all a Congregationalist Sunday school superintendent.

Another feature conspicuous by its absence today was also mentioned by Torode, one that was, later, not uncommon at other war memorials around the country, for example at Salisbury, South Australia. Torode emphasised that:

He had intended to mount three rifles at the apex of the monument, but had been advised not to do so, because in time to come, when the war was over, the impression given by the obelisk should be one of peace and not conflict. He had acted upon that advice [Applause].

It is important to note that the inaugural cenotaph erected to the ANZACs was studiously devoid of the religious and military iconography which not a few Australians now find alienating.

The Australia of today is as likely to meditate upon the reflections of historians, philosophers and poets as to pray with Christian clergymen, as was conventional when the ANZACs sailed away.

Nowadays Australians are as likely to be irreligious as religious. Is not the sensibility of unbelievers of goodwill to be recognised and respected also? If a religious component is to be retained in ANZAC Day, cannot Buddhist chants, Hindu mantra and Muslim prayers be offered as we strive to contain the risks of community division arising from fundamentalist zealotry?

If the fossilisation of our cult of remembrance is to be prevented, we must let it develop with our national life and culture, and that requires us to periodically review in a kindly spirit the rites we practice.

The invitation extended to Turkish servicemen to march on ANZAC Day in Adelaide in 2005 is an example of the evolution of our rites of commemoration, a fitting recollection of the humanity of Ataturk towards our fallen, and a reminder of the ever present controversiality of history in regard for example to such issues as the Armenian genocide and the on going Turkish occupation of Cyprus.

What then, above and beyond the circumstances of form, is the essence of ANZAC Day? Surely it is to remind us of the high price of even the most defensible of wars.

It needs to be remembered, as Winter has shown, that the original social function of the Great War cult of remembrance and thus of ANZAC Day was mourning, just as according to Cochrane its original political function was recruiting to fill up the ranks rent by warfare in an industrial age.

It is unlikely that many present in the South Parklands on Wattle Day 1915 objected to the patriotic objectives of officialdom, any more than their predilection of the Southern Cross was a sign of an irreligion few if any would have felt in that still evangelical age. Never the less, only so long as the primary social function of mourning was respected could it include the political and religious functions of remembrance.

The public recognition of the human cost of battle was, from the very first, the enduring bequest of the survivors of the Great War to subsequent generations. This is the context of the now ritual remark that ANZAC Day does not exist to glorify war. We must keep more faith with this concept than the powers-that-be have done lately.

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About the Author

Dr David Faber acts as historian for the Australian Friends of Palestine, Adelaide SA. AFOPA can be reached at

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