Commemorating the end of the First World War

Advancing to Victory, 1918

Australian War Memorial

Shell-shocked: Australia after Armistice
National Archives of Australia

review by Rosalie Triolo

Two fine temporary exhibitions in different national institutions commemorate the 90th anniversary of the end of the First World War (1914–18) and offer powerful visual insights into Australian battlefront, home front and post-war experiences. As a pair, the two offer visitors and online viewers a valuable continuum of understanding, melding military history with social history, and international settings with local. Advancing to Victory, 1918, at the Australian War Memorial, focuses on various Australian military achievements in 1918, while also demonstrating the physical and emotional sufferings already experienced or yet to come for Australian combatants and their families and communities after the war. Shell-shocked: Australia after Armistice, at the National Archives of Australia, alludes to battlefront experiences and achievements, but focuses more on war's tragic aftermath for returning servicemen and nurses. The exhibition also conveys the wider Australian community's experiences, from war's declaration to long after the Armistice.

The colourful Victory Medal ribbon exhibition emblem and a British 18-pounder field gun draw visitors into Advancing to Victory, 1918. This is the sort of exhibition at which the War Memorial excels, displaying objects large and small, official and personal, aesthetically appealing and bluntly utilitarian. It includes three-dimensional artefacts (for example, weapons, uniforms, kits, battlefield relics, ceremonial items); artworks (busts, models, and paintings of battle scenes or individuals); maps; and film footage and photographs that show battlefield panoramas or close-ups, notable figures and ordinary soldiers and civilians. Some are on public display for the first time.
Chain mail mask
British Tank Corps crewman's protective chain mail face mask, about 1918
Australian War Memorial, REL23774
One object that was new to me makes several striking points. In front of the large exposed interior portion of a British Mark IV tank is a crewman's small protective chain-mail mask. This was constructed from a thin dark grey steel plate moulded to a face shape with vision slits for the eyes and a rectangle of chain mail suspended below the slits to cover the nose and mouth. The plate was attached to a leather hood, with cotton tapes to assist in securing it to the head. The mask's purpose was to protect the crew member from hot shrapnel or tank splinters resulting from enemy fire. The problems associated with the use of tanks in the First World War are well-known: their slow speed, poor manoeuvrability, frequent breakdowns, and hot and poorly ventilated interiors. The face masks, reminiscent of ancient and medieval protective wear, added to the confinement crewmen had to endure.
French woman outside her house
An elderly French woman, who remained in her house throughout the German attack on Villers-Bretonneux, 4 April 1918
Australian War Memorial, E02392

The exhibition emphasises suffering rather than glory. The numerous photographs of scarred landscapes and blank-faced soldiers walking past cloth-covered bodies, convey the extent of environmental destruction and human desensitising that had taken place by 1918. The inclusion of a photograph of an elderly French woman at Villers-Bretonneux is an acknowledgement of civilian suffering. Unable or unwilling to leave before the German attack in 1918, she had remained alone and without candle or lamp during the night of the battle.

Australians, too, remained after the battle, imposing their identities in the street signs they placed in Péronne: 'RooDeKanga', 'Dinkum Alley', 'Digger Rd'. The inclusion of these signs suggests how people look for what is familiar, humorous (even if grimly so) and comforting in times of trial. The exhibition could have made more of war's ordinary people and their responses in 1918. The bronze busts by Paul Montford of Lieutenant-General Sir John Monash, and by Barbara Tribe of Field Marshall Lord William Birdwood, are highly visible on entry to the exhibition and worth including for whom they represent and the works' artistic qualities. Although Henry Woollcott's Typical Digger is the first item in the exhibition, it is hidden inside a doorway. Almost all the visitors I observed headed immediately for the busts, missing the simple but effective artwork related to the 'ordinary soldier' and, therefore, the opportunity to consider whether or not diggers were 'typically' strong in profile, calm, stoic, mature in years and reflective, as the painting suggests. At what stages of the war were they more likely to convey such impressions, or be portrayed as such by artists? There was something of war-hardened weariness in the expression of the 'typical digger' and an awareness of his experience in the artist who created the work in Australia in 1919. Woollcott painted many portraits in that year in the United Kingdom and Australia, and all in the Memorial's collection exhibit a strong facial profile. One only of a recuperating soldier in 'hospital blues', Undaunted, has the larrikin grin. But nurses should have been represented — perhaps through inclusion of Woollcott's portrait held by the War Memorial, Nurse. Almost every one of the millions of men wounded in the First World War and taken to a rear-line hospital was nursed at some stage by a woman.

Typical digger painting
Typical Digger, 1919
by Henry Woollcott
Australian War Memorial, ART03585
The exhibition's text panels and captions are clear in meaning and of appropriate length. But is its title well-considered? To ask is not for one moment to downplay what Australians achieved militarily, nor to question acts of heroism or stoicism. Militarily, in 1918, the Allies advanced and, militarily, they were victorious. In too many other ways, however, there is little to celebrate, and the use of 'advancing' and 'victory' risks an over-statement that the exhibition items, text panels and catalogue are more careful not to claim. In the exhibition and in the accompanying catalogue, curator Peter Burness explains that the Australians:
had still been leading in battle and drawing praise for their high morale and irrepressible spirit ... [T]here was pride in the young nation's achievements and a new confidence about its place in the world.
But, he is careful to add:

[The diggers] had come through battles whose names are now synonymous with slaughter ... their dead lay strewn across numerous battlefields; and, among the survivors were tens of thousands who had been wounded, maimed or driven mad.

The Armistice brought victory, but little sense of triumph ... [And Australians] did not yet know the poignant truth, that it would all have to be done again by the next generation. (p. 21)

This conclusion is entirely fitting.

The National Archives of Australia exhibition, Shell-shocked: Australia after Armistice conveniently takes up where the Memorial left off. The Archives places smaller items in a smaller space, and discusses experiences that in some cases extended over decades.

The exhibition and catalogue argue that despite a military armistice, the First World War was not soon over for many participants; indeed, many people suffered for the remainder of often-shortened lives. Historian and curator Michael McKernan aptly chose the Legacy Club's early slogan as the title of his catalogue essay: 'After the war comes the battle' (p. 21). Both the War Memorial and Archives exhibitions make the point that jubilation on battlefronts and home fronts was mixed with sorrow and disbelief, especially for soldiers overseas confronted by devastation in the field or awareness of their wounded fellows in hospital. Many were questioning the worth of what they had engaged in. Shell-shocked exposes the debilitating physical and psychological consequences of war and the enduring grief of those who had lost loved ones.
Cablegram on end of Armistice
Cablegram notifying the Prime Minister's Department of the signing of the Armistice, 11 November 1918
National Archives of Australia, A981/4
View larger image

Documents in black and white are enlivened by clever lighting, strong poppy red and green backgrounds, and a variety of multimedia strategies. Enlistment and casualty figures on large boards confront the visitor at the exhibition's entry, and poppy motifs in circles of light on the floor are intended to direct viewers to the left. When I visited, several groups missed the cue and proceeded right and entered the exhibition through the exit. The visitor experience was more logical and powerful if viewers moved left to the cablegram notifying the Prime Minister's Department of the signing of the Armistice: 'Most urgent. Armistice signed 5 a.m. this morning'. The cablegram's blunt tone contrasts with references to celebratory events, such as invitations to a civic reception and banquet on the return of Prime Minister Billy Hughes. Nearby, David Low's cartoons laugh at Hughes's behaviour as Australia's representative overseas, while acknowledging his dedication to Australian interests.

Predictably, the exhibition includes examples from the 376,000 individual service files held by the National Archives. In addition to paper, the collections of the National Archives include diverse forms of ephemera, such as illustrated visual materials, and three-dimensional artefacts. Shell-shocked also draws on items from the Australian War Memorial and private collections. As part of its efforts to make more items available to the public, the National Archives has in recent years embraced multimedia research, promotional, display and teaching and learning approaches, and these have enhanced the experience of visitors as well as online viewers who can access much of the exhibition via the internet.

On-site visitors encounter letters and postcards, set alongside photographs of people, places, activities and objects; maps; design briefs and plans for commemorative structures (including Melbourne's Shrine of Remembrance and the Australian National Memorial at Villers-Bretonneux). There are three-dimensional artefacts such as the original keys to the Villers-Bretonneux Memorial, a slideshow display of some of Australia's community war memorials, and poems and songs at a designated 'listening post'.
ANZAC hospital ward
A ward for the totally and permanently incapacitated in an Anzac Hostel, 1919
National Archives of Australia, A7342/1

The exhibition focuses on the personal, social and economic consequences of the war for individuals and families. James Fleming and Arthur Cox, for example, never recovered from their wounds and lived in discomfort for the remainder of their lives; the Shady family experienced the miseries of soldier settlement. German internees, often overlooked as victims of war, endured stigmas of disloyalty not only during the war but long after it was over. The efforts of individuals, families, community groups and governments, including the Department of Repatriation, to support the health care, education and training of returned soldiers and their families are also considered. Some stories are only available 'on-site'; others remain available electronically through a touch-screen internet portal, Anzac Stories. These include the service records of AB 'Bert' Facey, whose life is told in the book, A Fortunate Life. Another notable family is the Lovett family. Five Lovett men, all of Indigenous descent, enlisted and survived the war, with four serving again in the Second World War.[1]

Women are well-represented in the exhibition, catalogue and online. The soldier fiancé of nurse May Tilton was killed during the war; she returned to Australia after overseas service, took charge of a baby health centre for 19 years, and never married. Perhaps, as she looked after other people's children, she reflected on what might have been. Sister Rachael Pratt, who was hit by shrapnel while tending wounded soldiers during a raid, suffered from her wounds, contracted chronic bronchitis and developed war neurosis. By 1939, she had 'lost all her self-confidence ... has no companionship' and was declared 'Totally and Permanently Incapacitated'. Annie Munro was included not only because her three sons died but because her request to the government for funding to assist in travelling to see their graves overseas was disallowed, as a precedent could not be set. Most relatives of the dead never stood at the overseas resting place of their loved one. This point is made powerfully through the story of Jack Fothergill's mother, who, every Anzac Day for 30 years, placed a poem in the Melbourne Argus 'In memoriam' notices. In 1923, she wrote, 'Darling Jack, if I could only see your grave I would die happy'.
Millinery class for war widows
A millinery class for war widows, 1919
National Archives of Australia, A7342/1

A King's Memorial Scroll was the most poignant exhibit for me. Succinctly alluding to why Australia as a nation and many individuals became involved in the war, it also sums up the waste of the war and attests to the anger and frustration felt by many after it. Owen Gorman had received a scroll for the death in 1917 of his son, Charles. Owen refused to accept it and all official mementos sent to him as the next of kin of a soldier killed. Before returning the scroll, he wrote on it in relation to 'a brave life given': 'By whom? For whom? — was my son led out to his martyrdom? God will answer. [triple-underlined, then signed] Owen Gorman'.

Again, the exhibition title raises questions. While it was clear that the Archives was using the term 'shell-shock' to describe a host of distressing war-related experiences, the neurological medical condition described as 'shell-shock' deserved more attention.

The exhibition catalogue concludes that 'a legacy of unresolved grief experienced by thousands of mourning families during the interwar years persisted through the generations, and still affects people today' (p. 39). Certainly the scars of the First World War affected the way members of that generation behaved and raised their children, in turn affecting the raising of the next. The best means of ensuring that experiences as tragic as wars do not repeat themselves is to learn from them, understand their causes and consequences, and seek to resolve conflict in other ways. Individually and as a pair, Advancing to Victory, 1918 and Shell-shocked: Australia after Armistice offer the public that wisdom.

Rosalie Triolo is the history education lecturer in the Faculty of Education at Monash University, Melbourne.

1 In Anzac Stories, the viewer wonders whether the omission of reference to the Lovetts' Indigeneity at the start of the family's record is intentional or an oversight. In a hardboard exhibition display and in the catalogue, the Indigeneity is foregrounded — also how the Lovetts received the same pay and generally the same treatment as all other soldiers during the war, but less so afterwards, struggling to receive entitlements and subjected to other discriminatory federal and state legislation.

Exhibition: Advancing to Victory, 1918
Institution: Australian War Memorial
Design: CambellBarnett, with Xsquared
Exhibition space: 100 linear metres


Australian War Memorial, Canberra, 24 October 2008 – 11 February 2009
Catalogue: Softcover, 44 pages, RRP A$9.95

Exhibition: Shell-shocked: Australia after Armistice
Institution: National Archives of Australia
Development team: Tracey Clarke, curator; Mick Fogarty, researcher; Caroline Webber, project manager; Dr Michael McKernan, historian
Design: Thylacine Design and Project Management
Exhibition space: approx 260 square metres


National Archives of Australia, Canberra, 8 November 2008 – 27 April 2009
The Shrine, Melbourne, 12 June 2009 – 26 July 2009. National tour early 2010 subject to funding.
Catalogue: Exhibition catalogue by Michael McKernan, Tracey Clarke and Mick Fogarty, RRP A$20