When we were developing this website, we put a lot of thought into that picture at the top of our homepage. It shows construction at the Australian War Memorial and the caption reads, ‘While the Australian War Memorial’s $550m building program is well advanced, the Memorial has been equivocal on how it intends to properly recognise and commemorate the Australian Frontier Wars’. 

That equivocation is by no means recent. The Memorial’s problems with the Frontier Wars lace throughout the late Ken Inglis’s masterly and authoritative book (written with Jan Brazier), Sacred Places: War Memorials in the Australian Landscape (first published in 1998, third edition with new material, 2008). Inglis highlighted the Frontier Wars’ ‘absence’ from our history, pointing to WC Wentworth’s wistful 1853 comment, ‘History gave the makers of colonial Australia little cause to commemorate death in war’. 

After Inglis died in 2017, a memorial collection of essays about him and his work was titled, I Wonder, a phrase he often used, and which normally prompted rethinking about an issue or event on his own or someone else’s behalf. Which is just what we need to do about the Frontier Wars.

One striking feature early in Sacred Places is the discussion immediately after Gallipoli and the Great War on whether money being spent on memorials would be better devoted to the welfare of returned soldiers. That issue is still relevant today, since John Howard embarked on an orgy of commemoration at a time when the number of veteran suicides was increasing.

Our very first war memorial was erected at Anglesea Barracks in Hobart, Tasmania, in 1850, twenty years after the effective end of the Black Wars, where settlers had tried to eliminate Indigenous Tasmanians. Today, that would be called ethnic cleansing and/or attempted genocide. This memorial was not about that but about the men of a British regiment, the 99th (Lanarkshire) Regiment of Foot, who died in New Zealand’s Māori Wars in 1845-46. It is the only memorial built by British soldiers in Australia. 

Since then, there have been few wars Australia has not wanted to get involved in and few which were not worthy of a monument in some community somewhere in Australia. The Boer War (1899-1902) was the next to prompt the erection of memorials and it was not the first war to have not ended well. Given the role of Australian horsemen in the campaign, there were many sculptures of men on horses but obelisks listing the names of the dead were also popular.

The orgy of commemoration really started after Gallipoli, an event which was fought – unbeknown to the Australian participants – to enable Russians to export wheat so they could pay London bankers back the loans they had extended to the Russian Tsar. As we all know now, this commemoration was not just about the bravery of troops in an impossible situation but was also seen as a coming of age, where a nation is not a nation until it gives its people a blood sacrifice.  

Since then, we have had many wars to commemorate: Russia, with the British intervention against the Russian Revolution, where Victoria Crosses were awarded to Australians at the highest per capita rate for Australians in any of our wars; World War II; Korea; Borneo; Malaya; Vietnam; Iraq; Afghanistan; and a few peace-keeping operations as well. Robert Menzies tried to get us involved in Suez but was thwarted by Eisenhower’s intervention to stop the war before we could send anyone. Indeed, the most notable thing about Australia and Suez was Menzies’ humiliation at the United Nations when he tried to defend the British. 

One common theme in these many wars was the controversy over Indigenous participation in the forces, with their names omitted from memorials and the reluctance to let black Diggers join the Anzac Day March, or, if they were allowed to march, to go to the pub afterwards.

In 1994, the Veterans’ Affairs Minister, Con Sciacca, through the Australia Remembers campaign, helped shift the emphasis from Anzac to other wars. Paul Keating promoted Kokoda as another ‘sacred’ site worthy of commemoration, inspiring a tourist boom along the Kokoda Trail. Though Bob Hawke as prime minister had given over-commemoration a flying start in 1985, the orgy reached a peak while Howard was PM. Anzackery proliferated as Howard sought to define our entire history in terms of our wars. 

Perhaps the most profound impact of Sciacca’s Australia Remembers, however, was the revival of local Anzac Day ceremonies. The March and the Dawn ceremony were important, and the latter keeps growing, but increasingly Anzac Day has been seen through a distinctly local lens. For example, when the people of Marysville were recovering from the 2009 Black Saturday fire devastation one of the first big community events was an Anzac Day Parade led by Lieutenant-Colonel Nick Jans, a Vietnam veteran who served with the author. 

Anzac Day speeches also changed. When the author was asked to speak at the Port Melbourne 2017 Anzac Day Service the speech talked about 

the need to remember that the young men who enlisted were also products of a nation which was among the pioneers of universal suffrage, votes for women and trade union rights. It is this – not military exploits – which define Australia’s coming of age and which make it worth defending.
Alec Campbell, the trade unionist who at 100 was the last Australian alive to have served at Gallipoli, is a great example of that. As he said near the end of his life: “I wonder if the Prime Minister [John Howard] would give me a State funeral if he knew what I really stood for?”

Inglis also discussed the continuing tension between commemoration, memorials, and ways of memorialising and he cited debates about whether utilitarian or symbolic memorials were best. The difference is exemplified by Australia’s – and possibly the world’s – biggest war memorial. It was created by Sir Gilbert Dyett, who fought on Gallipoli, and was the first RSL President. This monument to the fallen gave work to the unemployed and left a lasting benefit to Victoria – the Great Ocean Road – which runs more than 240 kilometres between Torquay and Allansford and was built by returned soldiers between 1919 and 1932 and dedicated to soldiers killed during the Great War.

Along that winding road, picks, shovels, black powder – in some respects reminiscent of the workers’ wartime experiences – created one of the most remarkable war memorials anywhere in the world. Yet, reading Ken Inglis’s book, as our politicians race to get us involved in any military foray they can find, while also promoting the commemoration of more and more events, people and groups, you have to ‘wonder’ as Inglis suggested: why is it that only one group is left out – the warriors of the Frontier Wars – and when will those long-dead veterans of our very first war get their due place in the Australian War Memorial?  


This is an edited version of a post on the author’s blog

Related articles on Defending Country: ‘About Defending Country’; ‘Why the Australian Frontier Wars are important’; ‘What you need to know about the Defending Country campaign’.

Dec 4, 2023

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