Geoff Ginn

Memorials are to be gazed at, but even a fleeting glimpse of any of Queensland’s war memorials suggests their extraordinary presence in the cultural landscape. Townships and settlements may dwindle and suburbs expand, but the stone column or digger, the park gates and honour boards, remain as something fundamental and enduring.

Lest We Forget

A memorial is essentially an aide to memory, a deliberate legacy of something strongly felt. From colonial conflicts and the two world wars to Korea, Vietnam, peacekeeping operations and Iraq, the Australian ‘civil religion’ of war commemoration has honoured wartime service through monuments and ceremonies. In the process many places and features in Queensland’s landscape have been consecrated as ‘sacred ground’. 

Every memorial has its own history and thereby occupies its setting in specifically meaningful ways. Relatively few are entirely ‘official’: most came from local voluntary committees, and many have appeared decades after the event they remember. Seedlings from the original Lone Pine at Gallipoli were distributed by the Rockhampton City Council and RSL in 1988 as a Bicentenary initiative ‘as living links between veterans ranging from the ANZACS of 1915 to Vietnam ex-service personnel’, and a piece of volcanic rock from the Kokoda Track was mounted outside an RSL hall in Corinda, Brisbane, in 1993. 

Queensland’s war memorials are also remarkably diverse. Captured artillery pieces and the iconic figure of the Australian digger, the war trophy and the remembered hero, are the two most familiar forms they can take. Columns, headstones, cairns and obelisks of stone and cement; decorative arches, water troughs, memorial pools, fountains and clocks;  ornate honour boards in railway stations, shire halls, soldiers’ clubs and school rooms; park gates, benches, bandstands and rotundas; plaques and inscriptions, friezes and mosaics; Gallipoli pines and avenues of bottle trees and jacarandas: all these and more serve as markers for wartime commemoration.

Places in the heart

Where were these memorials placed? Focal points in the daily life of the local community were preferred, making plain the memorial’s occupation of the figurative heart of townships, suburbs and cities, set in open spaces where crowds could gather and often elevated to raise the eyes of spectators in attitudes of reverence. The committee at Wondai in 1920 declared their intention to erect their monument ‘in the Park which is situated in the most public site in town.’ The Maryborough memorial unveiled in 1922 ‘may be seen from a great distance,’ wrote the local newspaper, ‘and its central position at the intersection of Bazaar and Sussex Streets, brings it continuously before the eyes of the people.’ ‘Unless some people bumped up against a monument they would forget what was done for them in the years 1914-18,’ urged one supporter of the plan to place Toowoomba’s memorial at the city’s central intersection in 1920.

Memorials occupy central intersections or reserves in Ingham, Mundubbera, Mareeba, Cairns, Bowen, Barcaldine, Bundaberg, Gracemere, Beaudesert, Aramac, Boonah, Yandina, Sarina, Atherton, Coolangatta, Blackbutt and many other townships. Others such as at Gayndah, Yungaburra, Ravenshoe and Murgon occupy median strips in the main street.  Similarly, in country towns and busy cities war memorials are linked to centres of public life: post offices, School of Arts halls, in the school grounds or immediately outside the railway station. Anzac Square, the most imposing memorial precinct in Queensland, was conceived as a grand forecourt to Brisbane’s Central Station.

Other memorials are deliberately aloof from daily business and everyday affairs. The Herberton memorial stands prominently on a hill above the main street: ‘The Stanthorpe and Toowong memorials also overlook their surrounds from hills,’ writes Judith McKay, ‘but more remote from the centre of activity. The wilderness setting of Stanthorpe’s [memorial] was itself symbolic – of the rugged bravery of our soldiers and the rugged cliffs they fought over at Gallipoli. The memorials at Mackay and Hamilton overlooked rivers, while Cardwell’s memorial looked out to sea. The Digger at Cairns stood facing the esplanade. The sea, like the wilderness, had symbolic references to Gallipoli.’ Memorials are sites of contemplation, mourning and reflection, and so parks and memorial gardens beautified with shrubs, palms, bottle trees and native pines are also commonly found.

Moving memories

Problems arise when memorials intended for quiet contemplation occupy the centre of busy cities such as Toowoomba. First erected at the intersection of Ruthven and Margaret Streets in 1922, the stone column of the Mothers’ Memorial was raised by local efforts led by grieving mothers of the Darling Downs, who gathered subscriptions and pressured local authorities to secure this central site. Not only was this point the symbolic heart of Toowoomba, but it had been the spot where their sons had been roused by songs and speeches during recruiting rallies. Here mothers had farewelled their ‘boys’ as they marched away.

By the 1980s, the memorial had served for sixty years as the focus of Toowoomba’s war commemorations. It was lettered with the names of 708 fallen soldiers from the world wars, Korea and Vietnam, and solemn crowds still gathered at its base each April and November. But suggestions were made that a more amenable setting for quiet contemplation might be found in reclaimed parkland on East Creek approaching the city centre; a more efficient flow of central traffic was seen as another benefit. ‘MOVE IT’, announced the Toowoomba Chronicle when a council committee resolved to do just that in November 1984. Local opinion was deeply divided on the proposal, resulting in a prolonged and emotive debate. 

In late 1985, as dissent continued, the Memorial was dismantled and removed to an open lawn setting at East Creek Park, surrounded by paving and formal gardens. Many would argue the site is more peaceful and spacious, but it no longer commands the daily attention of the city. Ironically, in the decades since the original site has been pedestrianised by street plantings and traffic calming, and now hosts the city’s Christmas tree each year. 

Silent witnesses

What do these memorials say? Many feature universal symbols that explained Australian sacrifices in grand historical or mythic terms. Pools of water, fountains and drinking spouts symbolised renewed life and cleansing; laurel wreaths, palm trees and lions evoked victory and military triumph. Columns were statements of honour, while broken columns and urns spoke of death. Lanterns, torches and images of the rising sun suggested eternal life, remembrance and more directly the dawn landing at Gallipoli. Other memorials make even plainer statement: the faces of the clocks in Goomeri and Jandowae have ‘Lest We Forget’ (the most common inscription of all) instead of numbers. The armed angel (‘winged victory’) in Queen’s Park, Maryborough is uncharacteristically belligerent, as is the American eagle in Newstead Park, Brisbane, while the Weeping Mother Mausoleum in Gatton is crowned by a pensive figure holding a scroll marked ‘Their Name Liveth for Evermore’.

Most revered of all is the stoic figure of the digger himself, repeated with small variations nearly sixty times in towns and suburbs across the state in marble, stone and cast metal. Most wear slouch hats, although caps and tin hats are also to be seen. The digger at Beaudesert is relaxed, with pipe in hand and tunic unbuttoned. The most animated is at Atherton: with helmet, gas mask, haversack and rifle with bayonet fixed (and later broken off).

The digger, the captured gun, the column and the obelisk, arches, clocks and fountains, flags, rifles and swords: Queensland’s war memorials, silent icons in parks and street corners, are vessels of sorrow and loss, patriotism and pride.

References and Further reading (Note)

Geoffrey Ginn, ‘Holy ground and mortal promises: the campaigns for the Mothers’ Memorial, Toowoomba’ Journal of Australian Studies 34/3, 2010

References and Further reading (Note)

Queensland War memorial register,

References and Further reading (Note)

Department of Veterans’ Affairs, Queensland State Office, Brisbane City Memorial Walk (undated booklet)

References and Further reading (Note)

K.S. Inglis, Sacred places: war memorials in the Australian landscape (3rd edition) Melbourne, Melbourne University Press, 2008

References and Further reading (Note)

Shirley and Trevor McIvor, Salute the brave: a pictorial record of Queensland War Memorials, Toowoomba, USQ Press, 1994

References and Further reading (Note)

Judith McKay, ‘Lest We Forget: a study of War Memorials in Queensland’ (First and Second Reports) report to Returned Services League, Queensland Branch, 1983 and 1985