The role of the Australian War Memorial

What has the Australian War Memorial got to do with the Australian Frontier Wars?

Peter Stanley
You mob wrote down the colonial records, the diaries and newspapers. You do the work. You tell that story. It’s your story. (Indigenous colleague of the author, David Marr, Killing for Country, 2023, p. 409)

When I joined the Australian War Memorial in 1980, I had spent the previous year (as one of Prime Minister Malcolm Fraser’s ‘dole bludgers’) researching the British army in colonial Australia, the subject of one of my early books.

One of my first tasks on commencing in the Memorial’s ‘History and Publications Section’ had been to begin to read Charles Bean’s concise official history, Anzac to Amiens. I already knew that Bean’s claim of Australia in 1914 that ‘war never had happened there’ was unjustifiable. Though, in the previous decade, Bean had as a journalist written apprehensively of a ‘race war’ in the Pacific between the ‘Anglo-Saxon’ and the ‘Oriental’, he seemed not to be aware that a ‘race war’ had once consumed his birthplace: ‘martial law’ had prevailed around Bathurst just 50 years before his birth. This seemed to be a perfect example of the ‘great Australian silence’ over what historians were just then beginning to describe as ‘frontier conflict’.

As a dole-bludging aspiring military historian—I regarded unemployment benefits as a sort of research grant—I had spent 1979 in the National Library researching what became The Remote Garrison. By the time I commenced at the Memorial, I knew of the British troops’ part in Australia’s settlement, of the early expeditions around Botany Bay, of guerilla warfare on the Hawkesbury, martial law around Bathurst, the campaigns of the (military) Mounted Police, and the ‘Black Line’ in Van Diemen’s Land.

Although frontier violence had also been perpetrated by armed civilians and colonial police forces, and for longer, these unnamed actions were then not seen as part of Australian military history.

I had arrived at the Memorial at precisely the moment when, impelled by a new Act and under dynamic leadership, it had embarked upon what became its renaissance as a cultural institution and a force for change in the study of ‘the impact of war on Australian society’. We expanded its research grants scheme (to prime publishing in a moribund field), published books and a journal and held annual history conferences at which research was debated and disseminated.

I self-confidently spoke at the 1981 conference, presenting a paper based on my work on British soldiers in colonial Australia. My paper dealt with ‘Major Nunn’s Campaign’, the expedition led by James Nunn of the Mounted Police into the Liverpool Plains in 1838, to suppress resistance to pastoral expansion. Nunn’s 20-strong party had chanced upon a Kamilaroi band on the Gwydir River in January 1838, a clash later called the Slaughterhouse Creek massacre, in which up to 50 Kamilaroi died.

Major Nunn described his men as ‘acting under orders’. Why, I asked, was this episode not part of Australia’s military history?

I’ve been asking that question ever since, both as a member of the Memorial’s staff until 2007—I became its first and so far only Principal Historian—and as a professional and academic historian since. Meanwhile, the literature on what was soon called ‘frontier conflict’ grew, and Australian historians and those who reflected honestly upon our country’s history came to accept that far from being sporadic or incidental, intermittent but inevitable violence had occurred in all parts of Australia as successive movements extended settlement into Aboriginal lands.

For me, the turning point in recognising this as war came within the decade. In 1988, the Memorial’s contribution to the bicentenary of white settlement, a book, Australia: Two Centuries of War and Peace, included Richard Broome’s chapter ‘The struggle for Australia’. Two years later, Jeff Grey’s pioneering A Military History of Australia devoted an entire chapter to warfare on the frontier, as did John Coates’s An Atlas of Australia’s Wars (2006).

That Jeff Grey and Lieutenant-General Coates were hardly red-raggers surely indicated that the question of whether frontier conflict was part of Australia’s military history had been sorted. This growing recognition encouraged me to hope that Australia’s first and longest war would be recognised by the Memorial’s galleries. I snuck in a depiction of the Slaughterhouse Creek massacre into the Colonial Conflicts gallery, opened in 1986. No-one objected (or, perhaps, noticed).

For 40 years, though, successive Memorial managements either evaded the question, gave no coherent explanation or took refuge in a barren legalism. For example, they often claimed that the Australian War Memorial Act 1980 prevented the inclusion of frontier conflict because it only allowed the Memorial to present the history of military units raised in Australia. Despite the magnitude and duration of conflict, that definition excluded violence perpetrated by civilian stockmen or colonial police.

Yet, Major Nunn’s Mounted Police had been raised in Sydney in 1825: it fulfilled even the most limited legal definition. Such timidity was tantamount to denial: it seemed that a blind devotion to the celebration of Anzac was an obstacle to acknowledging the facts.

Having left the Memorial in 2007 I was free to publicly espouse these arguments—and did. The Memorial continued its obduracy: in 2013 its new Director, Dr Brendan Nelson, said that Frontier Conflict would never be represented ‘on his watch’. It wasn’t, but towards the end of his term, Dr Nelson began to purchase works of art (by prominent Indigenous artists such as Rover Thomas) depicting colonial massacres. This symbolic gesture was expensive: the works cost hundreds of thousands of dollars. Despite Nelson’s ostensible opposition during the Anzac Centenary to recognising frontier conflict, his art buying heralded a portentous change.

In September 2022, during a media conference called to announce (of all things) the Memorial’s new geothermal heating system, Dr Nelson (by then its Chair of Council) announced in response to a journalist’s question that actually, the Memorial now did intend to represent frontier conflict and that in a ‘much broader, much deeper’ way. The intention to change was repeated and amplified by Nelson’s successor as Chair of Council, the Hon. Kim Beazley.

It seems that after a very long wait—during which frontier conflict has become accepted as both real and relevant to the Memorial’s purpose—the Memorial is at last prepared to embrace the facts of history. How will it respond to that challenge?  The question is now not ‘whether’, but ‘how?’

Promotional poster for The Australian Wars, 2022, dir. Rachel Perkins (used with permission SBS). It seems clear that changing attitudes at the War Memorial were influenced by the Memorial Council’s viewing of this documentary in 2022.