Canberra's war memorial museum offers exhibitions as a tribute to the warriors who willingly gave their lives on foreign soil to protect Australia, writes Bruce Holmes.

Before entering the Australian War Memorial building in Canberra, there is much to see in the Sculpture Garden.

A stainless steel lattice column represents an anti-aircraft beam in the Bomber Command Memorial; there's a bronze figure of "Weary" Dunlop, the doctor who bolstered morale in Japanese prisoner-of-war camps, and a Lone Pine tree raised from the seed of a pine cone sent home by a soldier at Gallipoli, planted in 1934.

My favourite is the sculpture of John Simpson Kirkpatrick, the legendary stretcher bearer, his donkey carrying a wounded soldier. Three weeks after landing at Gallipoli, Simpson was killed by a Turkish bullet.

As Anzac Day approaches, we remember the soldiers of the Australian and New Zealand Army Corps, part of an Allied expeditionary force that in 1915 attempted to capture the Gallipoli peninsula. Against all odds, the campaign was doomed, yet from the tales of bravery there the Anzac legend was born.


The Australian War Memorial functions as museum, research centre and memorial. My intended visit of a few hours soon turns into a full day.

The World War I section has a Gallipoli gallery featuring original letters, photographs and diaries, but it's to the dioramas that visitors seem inexorably drawn. More art than battlefield models, these were created in the 1920s and portray significant battles such as Lone Pine, the Somme and Dernancourt.

Down on one knee gives the best perspective, the diorama taking on a life of its own. Sense what it was like in the trenches, facing the bayonets or riding in cavalry charges.

Popular too is the man in the mud diorama, depicting a soldier on the Western Front with his face in his hands, evoking the despair of trench warfare.

Anzac Hall offers a different perspective with its exhibition Over the Front: the Great War in the Air, featuring three Allied World War I aircraft and two rare German fighter planes.

A film presents a dramatic re-enactment of an aerial dogfight and there are interesting artefacts, including the left flying overboot of Manfred von Richthofen, the Red Baron, and the control stick salvaged from his Fokker aircraft after it was shot down in France in 1918, arguably by gunners of the Australian 11th Battalion.

Anzac Hall also has the Avro Lancaster B1 bomber, known as "G for George", which flew 90 missions over Germany and occupied Europe in World War II. The Striking by Night exhibition, a sound and light show, re-creates a bombing raid on Berlin.

The World War II galleries display objects from Australia, such as a 1940 Studebaker Sedan, as well as battlefield relics such as the Chevrolet lorry, Breda anti-aircraft gun and Dingo Scout car.

Conflicts 1945 to Today features an Iroquois helicopter, complete with a multimedia "helibourne assault" experience in the Vietnam gallery, the modern-day Kapyong diorama, with digital technology evoking the sights and sounds of a battlefield in Korea. The gallery of recent conflicts displays the uniform worn by a private in Iraq, giving visitors a sense of what Australian soldiers in the 21st-century wear and carry.

The Discovery Zone educates the young with five environments: a World War I trench, a Second World War backyard at home, an Oberon class submarine, a helicopter hovering in a field in Vietnam (that you can sit in) and a peacekeeping mission. Intended for school groups, it's open to the public between 12.30pm and 1.30pm weekdays and all day at weekends and in school holidays.

But art and museum aside, the Australian War Memorial is above all the place where those who have given their lives for their country are remembered.

Red paper poppies inserted next to many names on the Roll of Honour show the significance for visitors.
Red paper poppies inserted next to many names on the Roll of Honour show the significance for visitors.

Within the Hall of Valour the 99 Australians who've been awarded the Victoria Cross are honoured for their bravery, and surrounding the courtyard is the Roll of Honour, where are inscribed in bronze the names of Australians who have died in war since 1885: more than 102,000 people. Red paper poppies inserted next to many names show the significance for visitors.

Within the Commemorative Courtyard lies the Pool of Reflection and Eternal Flame and at the end the Hall of Memory, with its stained-glass windows and large mosaic.

In this solemn space lies the Tomb of the Unknown Australian Soldier, brought home from a cemetery in France and interred here on Remembrance Day 1993, with soil from the battlefield of Pozieres scattered upon the coffin.

Having stood at the Menin Gate in Belgium, I'm intrigued to see the two stone lions standing at the entrance to the Australian War Memorial, lions that once stood at the gateway of the Menin Road and were donated by the city of Ypres.

Finally, for the closing ceremony each day, the crowd stands in silence as either a bugler or piper stands resolutely beyond the Pool of Reflection and the sounds of The Last Post echo through the annals of history.

Getting there: Canberra is a 280km-drive from Sydney.

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