As Executive Manager and one of the creators of the Spirit of Anzac Centenary Experience, every piece and every corner of the exhibition is well known to Major General Brian Dawson (retired).
Yet for all the times he has walked through and performed tours over the past 18 months the exhibition has been travelling the country, there is one corner that always stops him in his tracks.
It’s an iconic photo of the 703 soldiers of the Australian Infantry Division’s 11th Battalion, taken on the steps of the Cheops Pyramid in Egypt in January 1915, just months before they were shipped off to the battlegrounds of Gallipoli. For Major General Dawson, it’s a picture that involves more than a thousand emotions.
Diggers about to embark on their journey to Gallipoli
“In that photo, you see these young men about to embark on a journey that would quickly become a grim reality,” he says.
“Some will never return and some will return, but it will impact on them forever.
“Having spent 40 years of my life in the army, the picture is a reminder of the significance of what a battalion is about. It becomes a family, and for those men who survived, that battalion would be their touchstone for life. That’s the story that image tells.”
The iconic photo is just one of the 200 artefacts from the Australian War Memorial featured in the Spirit of Anzac Centenary Experience, telling the many stories of the Australian experience of World War I.
Trooper Frank Fisher was the great grandfather of Cathy Freeman
With a population of 4.5 million in 1915, more than 300,000 Australian men enlisted to fight in the war, of which 62,000 never returned.
The free exhibition is now in its final stage, with tour dates in Orange and Newcastle in the coming month, before coming to an end in Sydney at the end of April.
Major General Dawson believes the exhibition has had an important role to play in not just commemorating the important war milestone, but also putting it into historical context for the significance the war had on that generation and the ones that followed.
“Federation had only taken place 13 years before, so for Australia as a young nation at the time, it was a formative experience,” he explains.
“The development of the Australian identity was still a work in progress, but what the impact of the war did was affect a whole generation, both physically and psychologically.”
There is also a special tribute to the Indigenous soldiers, who served at a time when they were not even counted as Australian citizens. One such digger was Trooper Frank Fisher, the great grandfather of gold medal-winning Olympic legend Cathy Freeman.
One of the most poignant artefacts is a pair of uncompleted socks, knitted by Nellie Blain of Victoria, then age 21, for her brother Trooper Arthur Blaine. He was killed in action in 1915.
Upon learning of his death, Nellie packed the socks away, keeping them in his memory until her own death at age 92. They are one of the saddest sights in all the exhibition.
Nellie Blain's half-knitted socks are symbolic of the grief experienced by many Australian families
“You can see it is something that probably affected Nellie for the rest of her life,” Major General Dawson says. “The fact she left them just as they were on the day she learned he had died shows how she dealt with her grief.”
As he prepares for the conclusion of the Spirit of Anzac Centenary tour in the days after this year’s Anzac Day, Major General Dawson reflects that the Australian experience of war remembrance is a distinctive part of our identity.
“Australia is unique in that it remembers through a non-glorification of wars,” he says. “I would never subscribe to that belief Australia as a nation was born on the terrible events of April 25 1915, but it was one of the important experiences that led to the modern identity we have come to know.
“It’s so important for Australians to have a sense of their history. If you understand our back story, you have a better way of understanding where we are today.”
The Spirit of Anzac Centenary Experience is showcasing in Newcastle, March 29 – April 4 and in Sydney, April 15 – 27. Entry is free.
(Feature image: Australian War Memorial / Flickr)