A social history of  the Anzac Memorial in Hyde Park, Sydney

 Sarah Gregson

Jay Winter argues that memorials have ‘life histories’ comprising diverse and often conflicting interpretations of their genesis, construction, visitation and meanings.[1] In Australia, the continuing promotion of the Anzac Legend has underpinned the ubiquity of World War One memorials in cities and country towns around the country and continues to ward off presentiments of irrelevancy and ‘death’. While the official narratives about these war memorials highlight national unity, past glories and enduring relevance, in reality, many have ‘life stories’ encompassing class conflict, social debate and collective protest. The Anzac Memorial in Sydney’s Hyde Park is one such example.

 Throughout the 1920s and 1930s, stonemasons and architects all over the world were kept busy with commissions for war memorials, funded by energetic collections of donations for suitable markers of community sorrow, gratitude and admiration. No park or public place was safe. In Sacred Places, Ken Inglis considers the flood of moves to memorialise Australia’s war dead as sufficiently significant to be labelled a ‘movement’.[2]

Nevertheless, World War One was a period of enormous social conflict and its memorialisation proved similarly contentious. In Broken Hill, for example, the arrival of two guns for memorial purposes posed a problem for the local returned servicemen’s organisation, because their installation required a site safe from ‘the red-rag element [who] might vent their spleen on them.’[3] After languishing in the Railway Town station yard for several months, they were put somewhat inauspiciously on the tennis court behind the Soldiers’ Hostel. Although more prominently situated, the Anzac Memorial in Sydney’s Hyde Park has a correspondingly contested history. A fund to build a suitable memorial in Sydney was opened on 25 April 1916, the first anniversary of the Anzac invasion of Turkey, but commencement of construction was much delayed by controversy over the building’s eventual site and form.

Raynor Hoff’s Crucifixion of Civilisation 1932

Superficially, most of the discussion focused on two issues – the location of the shrine and the form it should take – but these prosaic concerns masked a more philosophical question regarding the extent to which the memorial should incorporate some practical utility or exist purely as a place of spiritual reflection and commemoration. Although a sharp political distinction cannot be drawn between protagonists, on the utilitarian side, Bruce McDonald, honorary secretary of the NSW Amateur Swimming Association, wanted a swimming pool constructed in the basement that would ‘benefit the health of thousands of city workers’, while ‘SPM’ wrote that, instead of a ‘useless structure such as has been hinted at by some architects and others [that would only be] of the imitative description’, the money would be better spent on a distribution centre for returned soldier relief.[4] Similarly, a meeting of the Women’s Unimproved Land Values League protested ‘against the expenditure of £75,000 and the alienation of any more of our park lands’ and, in a marvelous foretaste of future events, suggested that a building already under construction, namely the Sydney Harbour Bridge, could be designated a soldiers’ memorial. Indeed, the League’s resolution stated, ‘No more wonderful memorial could be offered by any nation.’[5] Even those of an antiwar persuasion found their views strongly articulated by Mr. P. McGirr, MLC, who said there were ‘too many guns in the parks already’ and that the money would be wasted ‘while women and children were starving’.[6] He found little support among his parliamentary colleagues.

 An interesting caveat to this debate was that, despite strong suggestions that the building have some practical purpose, there was considerable opposition to giving control of the memorial to the Returned Sailors and Soldiers Imperial League of Australia (RSSILA) because it was felt that the organisation’s functional plans for the building would detract from the memorial’s spiritual significance.[7] A ‘compromise’ position was detailed in legislation – the Anzac Memorial (Building) Act, 1923 – whereby it was mandated that no party political or religious propaganda could be disseminated from the building and that the building’s trustees were to be given the power to ‘occupy for office purposes separate portions of the memorial building [but that] no rent shall be charged in respect of such occupation.’ Of course, the state president of the RSSILA was a permanent trustee of the building.[8]

Other commentators emphasised the importance of the political messages embodied in the memorial. Keen for Sydney to have a state monument of comparable merit to the one envisaged for Melbourne, some concerned citizens petitioned the Legislative Council to delay construction until sufficient money and a suitable site had been found. However, this was more than mere interstate rivalry. In their view, the memorial should serve an ideological purpose, inspiring ‘the rising generation to emulate the spirit of the Anzacs in the Great War’.[9] Another correspondent was more forthright, thinking the memorial might upstage the regular Sunday ‘spruikers’ if it was put right in the centre of the Domain, so that when the groundlings have had their ears tickled by the blatant rubbish vented their each Sunday they may turn to the monument and there refresh themselves with thoughts of the great souls it commemorates.

Relatives of the deceased soldiers organised a protest meeting at the Women’s Club because they felt the Hyde Park site would soon be overshadowed by city buildings, while others thought a harbour location would be more fitting – both concerns reflecting more broadly upon the ability of the memorial to comfort and inspire.

Delays over the building of the Anzac Memorial led the Lang NSW government to fund the construction of a provisional cenotaph in Martin Place, after intense lobbying by Hugh D. McIntosh, a boxing and theatre promoter who had been active in a number of organisations that raised money for the war effort.[10] Following the Greek memorialising tradition of an empty tomb to symbolise the absent soldiers’ bodies buried elsewhere, a theme usefully employed by Edward Lutyens for the Cenotaph at Whitehall, the Sydney version was built on a site that was strongly associated with recruitment rallies. Although criticised for its uninspiring design and location, the Martin Place cenotaph remains an important site of war memorialising because of the annual Dawn Service held there each April 25th.[11]

In 1929, Gordon Keesing, an architect and leading RSSILA official, summarised the reasons behind ‘Sydney’s Tardy Scheme’ for the memorials, urging unity behind the Hyde Park plan. Downplaying the RSSILA’s material interest in using the lower levels of the building for office space, Keesing assured readers that only one-seventh of the space and funds would be allocated for practical purposes – by far the greater part of the structure would have the character of a shrine at which people could mourn, remember and offer praise. Denigrating critics as parochial and uncultured, he cited the expertise of the memorial committee as reason enough to assuage doubters:

In Sydney we have none but the stodgiest idea of what a memorial is. Do not let our isolation from the world’s cultured centres, combined with petty local prejudices and personal preferences, further delay granting the very best side possible to the memory of those who departed this life in the service of their country – a site that has been chosen by experts, who have given unstinted time and work to their researches and deliberations.[12]

A competition was launched to find an appropriate design; from 117 entries, the winning submission was that of young Sydney architect, C. Bruce Dellit (1900-1942). Opposed to classical traditions, Dellit designed a concrete and granite building, art deco in style, with angular shapes and cathedral-like windows glazed in amber glass, intended as symbols of soothing light on dark grief. He commissioned sculptures from G. Raynor Hoff (1894-1937), an English artist who served in France and emigrated to Australia a few years earlier. Both men were strong exponents of peace – Dellit described war as ‘a scourge illimitable in its potentialities for destruction and appalling in its tragic consequences’.[13] Each corner of the building displays Hoff’s figures, representing the army, navy, air force and medical corps, and seemingly portrayed as he knew them – tired, overworked and downcast by the horrors they had seen and would still face.[14] Inlaid panels depict references to the campaigns in the Middle East and on the western front in France. Staircases from the north and south face lead to a circular walkway called the Hall of Memory. From there, with heads bowed in reflective mode, visitors can behold Hoff’s interior statue entitled Sacrifice which depicts three women holding up a dead soldier lying on his shield to symbolise war’s taking of the lives that women give. Even today, it can be ‘read’ as a powerful appeal for peace. Although certain aspects of the original design were deleted due to their cost, a pool of reflection was added to the northern façade with rows of poplar trees on either side. The pool was built with funds received by the City Council for Depression unemployed relief through which men received up to one month’s work.[15]

As the use of empty tombs as war memorials demonstrates, the absence of bodies over which to mourn was an important influence on both public and private war remembrance. Tanja Luckins describes the significance with which the wharf gates at Woolloomooloo became imbued, as the last place where grieving women had farewelled their lost soldier prior to embarkation. Each Anzac Day throughout the 1920s, women gathered at these ‘gates of memory’ to place personal tributes, in an atmosphere devoid of military pomp and ceremony and, indeed, men, save for the memories of their dead husbands, sons, fathers and brothers.[16] Bruce Scates’ work reveals the extraordinary efforts made by family members to get a picture of their dead soldiers’ grave or to send some emblem of Australia, like wattle or sand, to it. He suggests that the move towards a ‘democratic’ remembrance of equal sacrifice by an impersonal State marginalised more personal expressions of family grief that could so easily be read as a wider critique of the war itself.[17] In part, private ceremonies such as these were gradually superseded and sanitised by more official ceremonies, like those at the Hyde Park memorial, that were controlled in large part by government officials and the RSSILA.[18] As Alex King points out of English war remembrance, contributions to the process of memorialising in Australia were ‘acts of moral significance…[whereby the memorial demonstrated] that appropriate actions had been performed, and the dead properly appreciated, by the inhabitants of a particular place.’[19] In this way, they were suggestive of life moving on, not dwelling on past tragedies.

 Emblems of nationhood were an intrinsic part of war memorialisation but the choice of symbols was often contested. Initially, the focal point of the Hyde Park Memorial was to be an image of a woman, symbolizing the young, pure, democratic nation but the suggestion caused such a furore that it was replaced by the figure of a naked, male soldier.[20] Gender, class and sectarian divisions were also never far from memorialising debates. Just as the RSSILA had always maintained a veneer of being ‘non-political’ so as not to alienate sections of its diverse constituency, memorial committees and the artists they commissioned sought images and themes they hoped would have universal appeal. In a departure from more traditional classical models,[21] Hoff wanted his art to reflect women’s, as well as men’s, experience of war and to represent and legitimise the suffering of women relatives of dead soldiers. In this, Jeans argues, the Hyde Park memorial ‘is an important piece of evidence about the twentieth-century search for a newly meaningful language of symbols to replace the old’.[22] For Inglis, Dellit and Hoff were only partially successful – the rising sun symbol, skyscraper references and the use of amber glass were modern allusions but other features, like the Roman dome and hall and Hoff’s use of Grecian caryatids in Sacrifice, took familiar classical forms.[23]

Raynor Hoff’s Sacrifice, 1932, Anzac memorial Hyde Park, Sydney

 Hoff also produced two statues for the memorial that were never installed – Crucifixion of Civilisation (see above) and Victory After Sacrifice. Christian opposition, particularly from the Catholic Church, was provoked by Hoff’s depiction of Australia as a naked woman on a cross. According to an article about the memorial at the time of its rededication in 1984, Archbishop Kelly had fulminated that the statues ‘reeked of animal passion’, were meant ‘only for Protestants’, and were proof that ‘the devil was in the streets’.[24] In the absence of these works, there is a sense in which the building remains unfinished. As Paul Sheehan points out, this was Dellit’s view; he described the building without these sculptures as ‘like a countenance without an eye’.[25]

 The Anzac Memorial in Hyde Park was eventually opened in 1934 by the Duke of Gloucester. Although attended by a large crowd, the ceremony was dominated by official forms of remembrance and, unlike Melbourne’s Cenotaph, was not challenged by an antiwar protest. Since that time, its place in the cultural fabric of the city has waxed and waned in tandem with the political context of the time. In a graphic reminder that World War One was not ‘the war to end wars’, the act governing the Hyde Park building was amended in 1984 so that it could become the ‘principal State war memorial’, rededicated to commemorate those who served in all wars. A number of refurbishment projects have also been undertaken by successive State governments, as parts of the building have fallen into disrepair.[26]

 Rising attendances at Anzac Day ceremonies in England, France, Turkey, Australia and elsewhere suggest that memorials like the Hyde Park building have a stimulated, maintained or regenerated significance for many people.[27] In addition, as Ken Inglis noted recently, new ones keep coming.[28] Notwithstanding that trend, Taylor points out that, alongside official ceremonies, part of the history of most war memorials are the ‘unauthorised’ and diverse forms of remembrance and protest they can attract.[29] For example, the Hyde Park memorial has been vandalised on a number of occasions by people with divergent political motivations. During World Youth Week in 2008, graffiti artists sprayed the memorial with the message, ‘Ratzinger rules’, in an obvious reference to the current Pope’s German nationality.[30] Recently, it was also feared that the memorial would become the focus of white supremacist protest on Australia Day in the wake of the Cronulla riots.[31]

In the current political climate and as the unpopularity of Australian involvement in Iraq became a contributing factor in the defeat of the Liberal Party at the 2007 election, the Anzac memorial has taken another ‘life’ turn, becoming the site of new forms of antiwar sentiment with which Dellit and Hoff would perhaps have some sympathy. At a demonstration against Australia’s involvement in the first Gulf War in the early 1990s, I was among a number of participants who sat on the Anzac memorial steps to wait for the march to start. We were upbraided by a memorial official who demanded we ‘show some respect’. In our own way, we were. In the same vein, it is ironic that undoubtedly the largest crowd outside the memorial, dwarfing even its inauguration ceremony, had gathered to protest against the outbreak of a second invasion of Iraq and the presence of Australian soldiers in that conflict. Lest we forget.

[1] Jay Winter, Sites of Memory, Sites of Mourning: The Great War in European cultural history, Cambridge University Press, Cambridge, 2007 (first published 1995), p. 79.
[2] Ken Inglis, Sacred Places: War Memorials in the Australian Landscape, Melbourne University Press, Carlton South, 1998, p. 124.
[3] Barrier Daily Truth, 14 June 1921.
[4] The Guardian, 17 July 1929, The Sun, 17 April 1929
[5] Labor Daily, 22 March 1929.
[6] The Sun, 21 March 1929, The Guardian, 20 March 1929.
[7] R.W Russell protested to the Town Clerk that RSSILA officials were an unrepresentative clique who were ‘only building a “den” for their exclusive selves’. In his view, their cars and trucks, telephones, typewriters and lavatories as well as the ‘smoking, laughing and shouting’ would ‘defile’ the shrine. Letter, R.W. Russell to Town Clerk, Sydney, 5 October 1934, file no. 4283/34, City of Sydney Archives.
[8] See Anzac Memorial (Building) Act No. 27, 1923, clause 8, sections 1 and 3, copy of the Act in City of Sydney Archives, Anzac Memorial file.
[9] Petitioners included various branches of the RSSILA, the Australian Legion of Ex-Servicemen’s Clubs, the Town Planning Association, the Anzac Fellowship of Women and the Institute of Local Government Engineers. Labor Daily, 27 March 1929, Sydney Morning Herald, 27 March 1929.
[10] Although never having served in the AIF, McIntosh was briefly president of the NSW Returned Soldiers Association. Soldier, 30 June 1916. He was also the treasurer of the memorial fund. See J. Wells, Boxing Day: the fight that changed the world, HarperSports, Sydney, 1998, pp. 2, 237 and J.T. Lang, I Remember, Invincible Press, Sydney, no publication date, circa 1956, p. 283.
[11] William Taylor, ‘Lest We Forget: the Shrine of Remembrance, its redevelopment and the heritage of dissent’, Fabrications, vol. 15, no. 2, December 2005, p. 98.
[12] G.S. Keesing, ‘Anzac Memorial: Sydney’s Tardy Scheme’, Sydney Morning Herald, 7 February 1929. Keesing’s comment on the stodginess of Sydney’s memorialising was perhaps a swipe at the minimalist Martin Place cenotaph which incited much public derision.
[13] S. Elliott Napier (ed), The Book of the Anzac Memorial NSW, Sydney, 1934, p. 45.
[14] Inglis, Sacred Places, pp. 310-311
[15] City Engineers Annual Report, Sydney, 1934, p. 24.
[16] Tanja Luckins, The Gates of Memory: Australian People’s Experiences and Memories of Loss and the Great War, Curtin University Books, Fremantle, 2004, pp. 177-181.
[17] B. Scates, Return to Gallipoli: Walking the Battlefields of the Great War, Cambridge University Press, Cambridge, 2006, pp. 15-20.
[18] See Joy Damousi, The Labour of Loss: Mourning, Memory and Wartime Bereavement in Australia, Cambridge University Press, Cambridge, 1999, esp. pp. 36-37.
[19] Alex King, Memorials of the Great War in Britain: The Symbolism of Politics and Remembrance, Berg, Oxford, 1998, p. 27.
[20] Richard White, Inventing Australia: Images and Identity 1688 – 1980, Allen and Unwin, St Leonards, 1981, p. 136.
[21] See, for example, P. Londey, ‘A Possession for Ever: Charles Bean, the Ancient Greeks, and Military Commemoration in Australia’, Australian Journal of Politics and History, vol. 53, no. 3, 2007, p. 347.
[22] D.N. Jeans, ‘The Making of the Anzac Memorial, Sydney: Towards a Secular Culture’, Australia 1938: A Bicentennial History Bulletin, no. 4, November 1981, p. 59.
[23] Inglis, Sacred Places, p. 307.
[24] Daily Telegraph, 28 March 1984.
[25] Paul Sheehan, ‘Peace offering that shocked the church’, Sydney Morning Herald, 19 April 2004.
[26] Sun-Herald, 18 April 2004.
[27] Scates, Return to Gallipoli, pp. 188-209; ‘Dawning of new Anzac era’, Northern Times (Brisbane), 28 April 2006; ‘Anzac spirit strong in Dapto’, Illawarra Mercury (Wollongong) 23 April 2007; ‘Dawning of a new era’, Newcastle Herald (Newcastle), 27 April 2006; ‘Anzac Day services go global’, Courier Mail (Brisbane) 13 March 2008
[28] “Urge to grieve’ leads to more sacred places’, Canberra Times (Canberra) 9 April 2008. The rededication of Sydney’s Anzac Bridge is a case in point.
[29] Taylor, ‘Lest We Forget’, p. 96. Also see, for example, ‘Outrage over graffiti attack on memorial’, Daily Telegraph, 11 February 1999; ‘$1m wall to protect memorial/Anzac Day 1999’, Daily Telegraph, 24 April 1999; ‘Memorial desecrated – Anzac Day 2002: Lest we forget’, Daily Telegraph, 25 April 2002
[30] The Australian, 16 July 2008
[31] ‘RSL slams neo-Nazi Australia Day hijack’, Daily Telegraph, 10 January, 2008.