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II. La mémoire de guerre, de l’effacement au souvenir / War Memory, from Erasure to Remembrance

The Imperial Nature of the Australian National War Memorial at Villers-Bretonneux



Le monument aux morts, Australian National War Memorial, conçu par Edwin Lutyens fut érigé sur le site de la bataille de Villers-Bretonneux, dans la Somme en France et inauguré en 1938. Cet article étudie l’iconographie du monument ainsi que la cérémonie d’inauguration en soulevant la question de l’appartenance impériale de l’Australie. En examinant l’histoire de pro patria mori ainsi que les débats politiques en Australie dans la période entre les deux guerres, nous cherchons à souligner un fait souvent oublié par ceux qui soutiennent un nationalisme populaire, à savoir, que l’Anzacest lié à une identité de ‘Dominion’.

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“We met a convoy of wounded as we were coming down from the lines of action held by the Anzacs. Amongst the wounded was a boy who seemed too young to be found on the battlefield and it was clear that he was dying, so the King and I stopped to speak to him. Despite his pain the boy smiled and said “I know that it is all over for me. But I don’t mind because I know I am dying for you and the Empire. It will be hard for my poor mother in Queensland…”
General Gouraud (Anzac Day 1929).

1This paper will argue that the commemoration of Australia’s First World War participation is historically defined by a distinctly Dominion nationalism especially during the inter-war years when Australia was debating the politics of imperial belonging. The character of this nationalism derives from a complex relationship with Britishness as well as with the tradition of dying for one’s King and Country. The Australian National War Memorial that was raised on the battle site of Villers-Bretonneux in the Somme and opened in 1938 was the crystallization of an imperialist understanding of Anzac commemoration, which in recent years of popular Australian nationalist sentiment around Anzac seems to have been forgotten.

Forgetting and remembering

2The history of selective forgetting in Australia is significant. The under-represented history of aboriginal peoples and their treatment under colonialism is the starkest example. In 1968 W.E.H. Stanner famously attacked both historiography and social attitudes in Australia with his Boyer lecture on “the Great Australian Silence”. Stanner accused Australian historians of maintaining a ‘cult of forgetfulness’, where they consistently omitted aborigines from their histories. In 1981, Henry Reynolds made a similar point in his conclusion to The Other Side of the Frontier. Yet this time Reynolds compared the forgetting of colonial conflict with aborigines with the cult of remembering linked to Australia’s commemoration of the conflict of the Great War.

3"How, then, do we deal with the Aboriginal dead? White Australians frequently say that ’all that’ should be forgotten. But it will not be. It cannot be. Black memories are too deeply, too recently scarred. And forgetfulness is a strange prescription coming from a community which has revered the fallen warrior and emblazoned the phrase ’Lest We Forget’ on monuments throughout the land”(202).

4Reynold’s point was provocative – why has collective memory in Australia been so dominated by the official commemoration of the soldiers of World War I?

5For many, the traditional answer to this question is that Anzac Day was the “birth of the nation”. Let us briefly summarize the tradition here – The founding role of Gallipoli was apparently triggered by an article written by a journalist on Melbourne’s Freeman’s journal who in 1916 wrote that Anzac Day, the first commemoration of the battle of Gallipoli on April 25th, was ‘the birth of the nation’ (Crowley 239). It should be noted that the emphasis in this news editorial was on the commemoration date (April 1916) and not the battle (1915). A short time later the official war historian C.E.W. Bean wrote that “It was on the 25th of April, 1915, that the consciousness of Australian nationhood was born” (The Story of Anzac 910), suggesting that out of the fire of battle itself the nation somehow emerged.

6The continuation of this nationalist myth is well known in Australia where Anzac Day has been celebrated every year since 1916. Even recent histories uphold the theme. Frank Bongiorno, for example, writes about the social reality of a ‘national consciousness’ appearing amongst Australian soldiers when confronted with their British counterparts and British authority during the Great War (“Anzac Day”). Graeme Seale claims that the Anzac tradition is in part a folk tradition maintained by the celebration of the Australian soldiers and their mythical status as heroes. He also emphasises the ‘national’ character of this myth. “Anzac almost immediately came to stand for the official version of Australian identity, as refracted through the military experiences of its demotic representative, the digger” (Seale 17).

7Furthermore, the Anzac phenomenon has often been targeted for its overt nationalism. The Returned Services League in particular were seen as having a right-wing conservative view that sacralised Anzac as the mythic coming into being of the nation. Recent assemblies at Anzac Cove in Turkey have been marked by the presence of patriotic Australians draped in flags at the Dawn Service. Anzac nationalism was adopted with increasing jingoism by veterans in the mid 20th century and was then attacked by the counter-memory of some on the left and feminists in latter decades, in particular the late 1970s and 80s (Inglis 1987, 55). More recently, a study co-authored by Henry Reynolds and Marilyn Lake has set out some of the problems with claiming Anzac Day as a celebration of national culture. In What’s Wrong with Anzac, the authors point out some of the less attractive sides of Australian Great War myths, including the racial overtones of the valiant digger legend as well as the use of Anzac troops by the British to put down an Egyptian revolt in 1919 causing many atrocities (Lake and Reynolds 162).

8Hence, while some histories have been actively forgotten or “disremembered” as Stanner would put it, other stories have been over-determined. Reynolds and Lake, like other critics, see Anzac as a hegemonic memory that distorts History. The critical view of the Anzac cult does not see it as representing the Nation through memory, but as skewing national identity towards the mythical imagination of the dead white male soldier.

9 It is not my intention in this paper to attack the nationalist myth of Anzac Australia. However, I wish to argue that within this nationalist version of the war campaigns of the AIF, the distinctly imperial engagement of WW1 seems to have been forgotten. Indeed, the particularity of Anzac commemoration is precisely that in many of its manifestations it bears the attributes of what could be labelled as‘Dominion nationalism’. To better understand this brand of nationalism, the imbrications of imperial and national in the early years of commemoration of WWI in Australia need to be deconstructed.

Nation or Empire?

  • 1  See Inglis (1998).

10My research on Australian memorials from the First World War has shown that not all Anzac memorials are nationalist. Heritage historian Judith McKay once wrote that WW1 memorials were an “expression of a newfound national identity” (McKay 2). Yet many Anzac memorials mention empire as the transcendent reason for Australians’ sacrifice. The inscription “For God, King and Empire” or for “King and Country” can be found on a great number of memorials1. While there are some distinctive memorials from the inter-war period that make reference to ‘Australia’ they are not the norm. Ken Inglis’ book on World War I memorials, Sacred Places, points out the particular confusion over imperial belonging at the time the memorials were built (roughly 1916-1935). Inglis states, “the imagined community invoked on memorials was still, as after the South African war, both Empire and Nation” (Inglis 191). When a memorial mentions that soldiers died ‘for king and country’ in the colonial context one can never be sure whether the ‘country’ referred to a strictly national and newly federated ‘Commonwealth of Australia’ or the greater notion of a global ‘British Nation’.

11It is important to recall that British imperialism was itself conceived as a type of ‘nationalism’ at the time. Historians often ignore the problematic of this term in settler societies at the turn of the 20th century. As Canadian historian Douglas Cole demonstrated, the term ‘nation’ could vary in reference between a geographical unit (even the colony of Queensland was called a nation in the late 19th century) and the more ethnically connoted global British Nation unified by its laws and institutions (160-165).

12Thus, the confusion over dying for “King and Country” relates to the looseness of the terms Country, Nation and even Empire in the early 20th century. Indeed, while the Australian colonies had formed a self-governing federal Commonwealth in 1901, a Dominion in fact, the First World War encouraged a resurgence of what Benedict Anderson has called British ‘official nationalism’. Anderson in chapter 6 of his book, Imagined Communities: Reflections on the Origin and Spread of Nationalism, traces the conversion of dynastic rule in Europe to the nationalist idea: where Victoria von Saxe-Coburg-Gotha, for example, became staunchly English in order to both modernise and preserve dynastic power (Anderson 88). As we know, this ‘anglicisation’ of British power was spread to the colonies, settler populations being seen as extensions of Britishness. The inner incompatibility of Empire and Nation in this process was glossed over in the case of settler Dominions by an official anglicized, ethnic pride. Hence while radical elements in Australia at the turn of the century may be speaking of an emerging nation, loyalists saw the Empire as a large global “nation” held together by language, ethnicity and deference to the monarch. This was characterized in Australia by the phrase “the crimson thread of kinship”.

  • 2  There was also the considerable support for the Chinese Labour Corps recruited by the British and (...)

13The Great War was the test of a particular imperial citizenship – Australians just as New Zealanders, Indians, Canadians, Newfoundlanders and South Africans were enjoined to fight for the Empire2. They too were “British subjects” defined in the ultra-traditional way as those who were ready to fight and die for their “king and country”. As we know all did not accept this official pro patria mori in Australia, as many communities rejected imperialist demands resulting in the defeat of the two conscription referenda in 1916 and in 1917. Thus there was not a consensus on official British nationalism in Australia.

  • 3  The United Australia Party combined conservative politicians and Labor dissidents and governed Aus (...)
  • 4  I discuss this in my article, “Anzac Day: The Invention of a Memory” (Gilfedder 1995).

14While there are arguments for identifying a particular outpouring of Australian nationalist sentiment during and after the Great War, this was precisely what was being debated. The Statute of Westminster granting Australia Dominion status had been signed in 1931 but political loyalism in Australia prevented its ratification until the 1940s. In the 1930s in the context of the Great Depression, where Australia, dependent on British trade suffered mass unemployment reaching 29% in 1932, the belonging question alimented political positions. To schematize, the Conservative parties3 were loyalist and imperialist, whereas the Labor party (who had previously embraced the War effort and then split) developed a particular ‘nationalist’ discourse, arguing for Australian interests against imperialism. The rift was exacerbated by events in Ireland’s civil war and the push for independence, and Australian politics was intermeshed with bitter religious sectarianism between Protestants and Catholics. For many on the ‘Left’ at that time, the Anzac story was precisely an argument in favour of not blindly following British rule. Whereas, for loyalists Anzac was an expression of the traditional duty of a British subject and indeed proof of Britishness. These sectarian dividing lines were at their most intense in the interwar years and remained in weaker versions in Australian politics for many years to come. However, for many, Anzac Day itself was seen as a point of convergence between these sections of society4.

Villers-Bretonneux: an imperial monument?

15What does the memorial inaugurated at Villers-Bretonneux in 1938 tell us about these debates over imperialism?

16The Australian National Memorial was to be this country’s Marathon, dedicated to the nation’s heroes in situ, 14,000 miles from their home. Villers-Bretonneux is the site of a famous battle where AIF troops who had been instrumental in breaking the Hindenburg line recaptured the village in 1918 and advanced to fight the Battle of Amiens. The memorial commemorates all the Australians who fell in the Somme but also mentions the 11,000 Australian who fell in the 1918 battles. It particularly commemorates those who have no known grave.

17The memorial was planned as part of the series paid for by the Imperial War Graves Commission, which had been formed during the War to create cemeteries for soldiers of the Empire. The Commission had the enormous task of rearranging and caring for soldiers’ cemeteries as well as initiating a kind of symbolic monument which could somehow represent the memory of the over one million war dead. The Australian National Memorial was the last of the Commission’s memorials. A competition was held for a design in 1925 and was won by New South Wales architect William Lucas. The winning design was however overruled and British architect EdwinLutyens was asked to complete a design, aided by British-born Australian General Talbot Hobbs. After some financial difficulties the Lutyens memorial was inaugurated in July1938 by King George VI, in the presence of the President of France, Albert Lebrun, and the Deputy Prime Minister of Australia, Earl Page.

18The memorial imagined by Edwin Landseer Lutyens, the eminent official architect of the Imperial Graves Commission, was solemn and harmoniously proportioned. Lutyens had designed the entire imperial city of New Delhi as well as the Cenotaph on Whitehall in London and the British war memorial at Thiepval in France. He also designed the India gate, the national monument of India, which is a memorial to the 90,000 Indians who lost their lives in the First World War and the Anglo-Afghan war. In addition, he was the architect of the monument to WWI Irish soldiers in Dublin.

19Lutyens was the aesthetic reference for World War I commemorative architecture representing a kind of tastemaker of the Empire. Indeed in New South Wales, his designs were recommended by the War Memorial Advisory Board formed in the 1920s to regulate designs, as many of the local soldier memorials were considered inferior. “New memorials” it was advised, “should follow classical designs such as those of Sir Edwin Lutyens” (Inglis 1987: 2). Lutyens combined classical references such as arches, blocks and columns as well as neo-classical proportion with a modern, stripped-back design. This fusion of ancient and modern was deemed appropriate for memorial architecture as classical references could recall the ancient mode of a citizen’s duty to his country, while modernity expressed the speed and dynamism of the Machine Age. Classical architecture was also useful in avoiding differing religious references in an Empire that still covered the world – it was deemed as neutral.

20The Villers-Bretonneux memorial comprises a sandstone tower flanked by two walls on which the names of the dead have been inscribed. Each wall terminates in a neo-classical portico bearing carved Australian flags. Over the entrance to the tower there is a carved Rising Sun, the emblem of the Australian Imperial Forces. The memorial thus bears official Australian iconography (rather than such British emblems as lions which we can see, for example, on the Shrine of Remembrance in Melbourne) and includes a plaque in French, N’oublions jamais l’Australie, provided by the municipality of Villers-Bretonneux. One must note also the inclusion of ‘national’ in the official name of the memorial.

21Despite these ‘Australian’ markers, however, the choice of Lutyens, as well as the imperial tone of the opening ceremony, mark this memorial as testimony to a Dominion Anzac nationalism. The conditions of its inauguration attempted to reset Australian identity within the framework of Empire and above all within the particular idea of imperial citizenship as loyalty to the sovereign.

22On 22nd July 1938, King George VI opened the memorial, an exceptional presence. The British Memorial at Thiepval had been opened in 1932 by the then Prince of Wales (future Edward VIII) as King George V was ailing. It was indeed a rare opportunity for the monarch of the United Kingdom and Other Realms to pay tribute to some of his ‘imperial subjects’.

23The inauguration of the Villers-Bretonneux memorial suggests that Anzac nationalism during the inter-war period was recuperated by a late British imperialism. While the soldier bravado of the Great War encouraged new national sentiment and even anti-English stereotypes such as ‘the Digger’, this could also be subsumed into the imperial imagination. The Anzacs were heroes of the Empire for loyalists, their sacrifice indeed sealed the almost ‘sacred’ pact between the soldier and his king. This ancient concepthad been central to the war recruitment campaign and was indeed given as the ‘transcendent’ reason for sacrifice, the official justification for 60,000 Australian deaths. In 1938, it was now time for the imperial centre to recognize the effort of its margins. It was also time for the King to re-address his imperial subjects in the light of a looming war with Germany.

24The German historian Ernst Kantorowicz traced the history of dying for one’s country from its early Greco-Roman roots up to the Great War. He explained that while in Ancient Rome a soldier was required to die for Rome, in the Middle Ages vassals were asked to fight for their lord (Kantorowicz 1931). It is the combination of these two ancient traditions that culminates in the adage “To die for King and Country”. Australians as British subjects were pressured to join up, for a British subject was defined as, “one that owns King George V as his king” (Anzac Day – Manual for Schools). Thus sacrifice was central to this imperial concept of ‘British nationalism’. The dying soldier who is quoted at the beginning of this article exemplifies the relationship between the imperial soldier and his sovereign. The scene recalls a medieval, chivalric rapport between lord and vassal. The boy from Queensland, like some ancient knight, is quoted as saying in his dying breath, ‘I don’t mind dying for you and the empire…’

The King’s Speech

25In his inaugural speech at Villers-Bretonneux, George VI replied to the Australian soldier who had fought with Britain. The King explained that the memorial was an “emblem of comradeship which was the watchword of the British Empire” (“Villers-Bretonneux”). The emphasis is on Australians as belonging to the Empire: “Men came from all corners of the earth to fight for ideals that are common to the Empire”. George VI expresses gratitude to Australian fighting men, a gratitude that is presented as personal. “As your King I feel a great pride in unveiling it (the memorial) – pride and the deepest sense of reverence and gratitude.” Thus the King, though not the actual King for whom so many died, was fulfilling his role in the British tradition of pro patria mori. The King’s speech is all the more significant as it is delivered on the eve of the Second World War, a conflict in which Australians were once again enjoined to fight for King and Empire. While the royal tour of George VI had the purpose of cementing l’Entente cordiale between Britain and France in these testing years, it also served to realign imperial order on the eve of War. George VI would deliver his famous speech broadcast from Buckingham palace one year later in September 1939 calling the Nation and the Empire to war, and stating: “It is to this high purpose that I now call my people at home, and my peoples across the seas, who will make our cause their own” (“King George VI Addresses the Nation.”).

26Thus the Australian National Memorial stood as a testimony to this Dominion nationalism that defined the official identity of the settler nation. The enthusiastic cries of God Save the King and waving of Union Jacks at Villers-Bretonneux in 1938 were a performance of Australian loyalism which at home would be useful in combating the disgruntled Australian nationalists on the left who had mobilised for the anti-conscription campaigns of 1916 and 1917.

  • 5  Many soldiers and soldiers families returned there on pilgrimage in the inter-war period despite t (...)

27It should be noted that while the builders of the Villers-Bretonneux war memorial had hoped for a lasting symbol of Australian heroism, the site was far less visited in the 20th Century than Anzac Cove in Turkey. Gallipoli, not Villers-Bretoneux, emerged as the Australian Marathon, an imagination that figured the site of the primary sacrifice in this ill-fated battle as somehow part of Australian national space. Gallipoli became the place of sacralised nationalist memory whereas the more official Villers-Bretonneux, somewhat forgotten, had a more chequered history as a place of pilgrimage, as Bruce Scates has shown in his social history of visiting battlefields5. Meanwhile, the Australian War Memorial in Canberra inaugurated a few years later in 1941 has a far more nationalistic nature, lying as it does so centrally in the rhetorical space of Australia’s planned capital Canberra. Between the wars, Anzac commemoration was at the heart of the tensions in Australia’s postcolonial imagination, and the Villers-Bretonneux memorial, opened in the pomp of Empire loyalty, can be read more as a reminder of the imperial imperative of Australia’s Dominion status between the wars than of independent Australian nationalism.

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1  See Inglis (1998).

2  There was also the considerable support for the Chinese Labour Corps recruited by the British and the French.

3  The United Australia Party combined conservative politicians and Labor dissidents and governed Australia for most of the 1930s. One should also note the presence of paramilitary empire loyalists such as the ‘New Guard’. See Knightley (2001).

4  I discuss this in my article, “Anzac Day: The Invention of a Memory” (Gilfedder 1995).

5  Many soldiers and soldiers families returned there on pilgrimage in the inter-war period despite the great expense of such a journey. (Scates 99). Also, Linda Wade’s research traces how the City of Melbourne adopted the town of Villers-Bretonneux in 1921 and instituted the collect of significant funds for the rebuilding of the town (Wade n.p.).

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Deirdre GILFEDDER, « The Imperial Nature of the Australian National War Memorial at Villers-Bretonneux »E-rea [En ligne], 10.1 | 2012, mis en ligne le 20 décembre 2012, consulté le 03 décembre 2021. URL : ; DOI :

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Université Paris Dauphine; Ciclas.
Deirdre Gilfedder is Maître de conférences/Senior Lecturer at the University of Paris Dauphine. She has published widely in the area of memory studies related to Australia in particular about monuments of the First World War, Anzac Day but also the Stolen Generation and more recently has developed research on nation branding in Australia.

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