Poppies of Remembrance and Sorrow
Posted on August 12, 2015
Another day Down Under. Another day of lots of walking in cold, windy weather.
Today’s adventure was getting myself to the Australian War Memorial. It’s about three miles from the hotel. I had no trouble finding it. Canberra is easy to get around, on foot at least. I wasn’t about to drive since that meant learning to drive on the opposite side of the road…..something not on my list of things to try while I’m on a mini-holiday and Rocket-man is at work. Visions of me running straight into a Eucalyptus tree or any number of memorial statues around the city were enough to squash that seed of desire to learn a different skill. Maybe some other time…or in my next life!
I was met with a slap of cold air as I stepped outside shortly after breakfast.
Brrr. Well, at least it is not raining today.
The sun was shining, the sky a brilliant blue. There was a steady breeze keeping the various types of Eucalypts active under the windy conditions. Despite gloves, hat and my warm, wooly scarf, I was cold just five minutes into my walk.
It took me a good forty-five minutes to walk to the Australian War memorial. There was no need for a map as there were plenty of signs along the way; I knew I was on the right path. Again, up another long boulevard, mostly cutting through residential areas. Despite the cold I was enjoying the walk. I passed by homes that were quaint and well-kept and many that were quite the opposite. Piles of leaves and bark from the eucalypts covered sidewalks and driveways and most yards were devoid of any landscape color, which is what one would expect as it was still winter for another month. White cockatoos screeched from the treetops and Australian magpies, their song ending on a curious boing-like note, also filled the early morning air.
By the time I arrived at the Australian War Memorial my hands were thoroughly numb with cold and my head was pounding. I don’t often get headaches so I reasoned I must be very dehydrated. The lingering effects of jet lag coupled with four days of eight to ten-mile walks around town were catching up with me. Opened in 1941, the memorial is simple in design, imposing but not ornate. There are Art Deco elements in its design. It’s actually a national military war museum as well as a memorial to honor the men and women from the Commonwealth of Australia who so bravely gave their lives in wars dating as far back to the British Sudanese Expedition, the Second Boer War, and the Boxer Rebellion. Naturally, the memorial also honors those who sacrificed their lives in both World Wars, as well as the more recent involvements in Afghanistan and Iraq. In 2001 the memorial was further expanded with the addition of ANZAC Hall (ANZAC is the acronym for Australia and New Zealand Army Corps ) which displays an extensive collection of large military hardware. Another incredible fact about this memorial is the artist Napier Waller. He lost his right arm in World War I and he learned to write, create and work with his left arm. He created all the mosaic work (tiny, tiny mosaic tiles from floor to the domed ceiling) in the domed chapel, along with the beautiful stained glass windows adorning the chapel that contains the Tomb of the Australian Unknown Soldier. He finished the project in 1958.
There were only a few people walking about the large expanse of the memorial grounds which includes the memorial shrine, the Tomb of the Unknown Australian Soldier, and Memory Hall where the names of 102,000 men and women are inscribed on floor to ceiling bronze plaques. The bronze plaques are also literally awash in red; hundreds of silk red poppies, left by friends and relatives, are inserted in the cracks besides names of loved ones lost. It is both strikingly beautiful and immensely sad. While there looked to be plenty to see on the grounds I wanted the warmth of indoors at the moment. I was dismayed as I walked up the front steps of the memorial to note that the place didn’t open until 10 a.m. I looked at my watch. Oh dear. I’ve got another forty-minutes to wait? I walked back down the steps and around to the side of the building. That’s when I noticed a sign for Poppy’s Cafe.
Oh, thank heavens….there is a God! I made a bee-line to the cafe, which thankfully was open. Ah. This was where all the folks are. The small modern cafe was full of people and was lively with conversation. Within a few minutes I was holding a steaming hot latte in my cold hands. While I waited and warmed up, I connected to the museum’s Wi-fi in an effort to learn a bit about the memorial before heading into the building. For example, Charles Bean, Australia’s official World War I historian, was the guy behind the idea for a memorial to Australia’s soldiers.
Preferring art to things about war, I didn’t think I would enjoy a visit to a war museum. But, I had heard from enough people (and comments posted on Trip Advisor too) that it was a definite must-see. It turns out everyone was right. I spent over three hours there, not nearly enough time as one could really make an entire day of it. I wished my history buff brother-in-law would have been able to tour this with me. I’m sure I would have absorbed a lot more information about each exhibit with his knowledgeable commentary.
Suffice it to say that for me, most of the exhibits (particularly the extensive World War I and II exhibits) evoked sadness and heartbreak over so many lives lost…so many irrevocably broken families. At one point–while lingering over a large photo of an emaciated young Australian soldier held captive as a prisoner of war by the Japanese–tears welled up in my eyes. These images of war were getting to me. How is it that we, the human race, cannot seem to stop the cycle of death, war and destruction? How can we treat each other with such savagery, cruelty, madness, and inhumanity? How is it human kind continues to do so…still? We don’t seem to be learning a damned thing!
I was completely spent after a little more than three hours. I needed fresh air and sunshine. But before I walked outside I stepped into the museum’s gift shop. I purchased a red poppy lapel pin. I affixed it to my hat knowing it would serve as my daily reminder of this day.
It had warmed up considerably while I was in the museum and the intense (though winter!) Australian sunshine was quite a lift to my spirits. I decided to take a different route back to the hotel.
So up ANZAC Parade I went. It’s an exceedingly long boulevard, flanked with Eucalypts and New Zealand Hebe bushes, as well as many more war memorials all along the way. It effectively ends at the Parliament building some five miles up on the opposite end of the thoroughfare. In fact, it’s quite a beautiful view from the memorial to the Parliament House. I tried to shake the bleak, stark images of war and destruction out of my mind as I walked. I wasn’t having much luck I’m afraid. And, with all that is going on in the world, I doubt that I ever will. It struck me that perhaps that is another reason these museums are so critically important to the world. They serve not just to honor our fallen men and women soldiers but also as a somber, grim reminder of just how devastating and ugly war truly is. Can’t we learn from this?!
I let out a heavy sigh. I had to shake the sadness. So I picked up the pace and briskly walked back to the hotel with my sights on another hot coffee and a sweet treat to cap off the late afternoon.