The National Gallery of Victoria is currently showing around 150 works of art, created by Australian artists that show Australia’s life at war. This exhibition is part of the commemoration of the centenary of Gallipoli and titled ‘Follow the Flag: Australian Artists at War 1914–45’. These works are displayed in five separate gallery rooms and show art works that range from recruitment propaganda posters, to various war artists views of WW1, photographs and illustrations of WW2. Some are by famous artists who were official ‘war artists’ and others by people who happened to be ‘on the spot’ at places like the liberation of the Belsen Concentration Camp or at various places on the Western Front. I found a few works that had special significance to me.
One of the paintings was of a boy soldier at Gallipoli in WW1. It’s staggering to now think that young kids were allowed to go to war. The Australian Army’s enlistment age was 21 years or 18 years with the permission of a parent or guardian. However, boys aged 14-17 could also enlist as buglers, trumpeters and musicians. Many gave false ages in order to join as soldiers. Their numbers are impossible to determine. Enlistment of boys was normal practice for the Navy and several died on service during the First World War.
The explanatory notice by this painting explained that the average age of soldiers at Gallipoli was 26 years of age. By comparison in my recent post on my family’s experience at war (see here), I told how I was just 20 when I arrived in Vietnam. The average age of Australians in Vietnam was around 22 years of age. We were much older than boy soldiers, but the average age of soldiers in Vietnam was the lowest of any war in which Australians have fought.
Another painting was of the camp at Etaples in France where my Grandfather was posted as an instructor for a few months after being wounded in WW1. He was commended by his CO as being a very competent instructor. This is the first time I have ever seen an illustration of this large camp that was hated by most of the people who spent time there.
Étaples is a very old fishing town and port in France. The enormous Army Base Camp of WW1 was the largest of its kind ever established overseas by the British. It was served by a network of railways, canals, and roads that connected the camp to the southern and eastern fields of battle as well as to ships that carried troops, supplies, guns, equipment, and thousands of men and women across the English Channel. It was a base for British, Canadian, Scottish and Australian forces. The camp was a training base, a depot for supplies, a detention centre for prisoners, and a centre for the treatment of the sick and wounded, with almost twenty general hospitals. At its peak, the camp housed over 100,000 people; altogether, its hospitals could treat 22,000 patients. With its vast conglomeration of the wounded, of prisoners, of soldiers training for battle, and of those simply waiting to return to the front, Étaples was regarded by many as a dark place. The rough treatment of troops as a result of the over-whelming British imposed officer – other ranks class system caused much tension and even a mutiny with Australian and New Zealand troops.
As with the illustration of Etaples, I had never before seen a photo of the famous WW2 photographer, Damien Parer. He had taken nearly all of the photos that we now have of Australians fighting on the Kokoda Track in New Guinea. It was through his work that I was able to envisage the courage and hardships encountered by the troops when I was walking the Kokoda Track in 2002 (see here). I have used some of his photos to illustrate war-time views in some of the talks that I have given on my experience along the track.
Damien Parer was born at Malvern in Melbourne, near where I grew up. He was youngest child in a family of ten children. He had a life long interest in photography and by the outbreak of WW2 he was appointed as official movie photographer to the Australian Imperial Force. He became famous for his photography of the Second World War, and was killed by Japanese machine-gun fire at Peleliu, Palau in 1944.
We should be very grateful firstly, that people had the artistic ability to create these works of art and used it to record the events that they witnessed. Secondly, we should appreciate the fact that these works were kept and not discarded along the way. Through them we have a distinct way of remembering the people and events that have shaped our history.