Canberra Remembrance Day 2021: 80 years since Australia War memorial was opened

Remembrance Day at the memorial 1941. Video: Cinesound

What a difference exactly eight decades make.

On November 11, 1941, the Australian War Memorial was opened. The nation was about to be engaged in a life or death struggle with Japan - but the Japanese ambassador was one of the guests. Might he have known what his country was about to unleash at Pearl Harbour?

In the black-and-white archive footage of that Remembrance Day, wide fields stretch away into what would become Canberra suburbia.

More than 5000 people attended, including the prime minister John Curtin. The pall of war hung over the ceremony because Australians were fighting in Europe and North Africa.

Spool forward 80 years to the day.

Japan is our ally. The empty fields stretching from the Memorial are filled with neat houses.

There is still a crisis, though far short of a world war. Today's crisis means that only 500 people will be at the Remembrance Day ceremony, chairs neatly spaced apart. The Prime Minister will not be there.

And the building itself has expanded far beyond its 1941 boundaries. There are, after all, many more people to be remembered. Nearly 40,000 Australian troops died in the war being fought when the Memorial was opened.

On this day for remembering the diggers at Gallipoli and their comrades, the mechanical diggers will be silent at the eleventh hour of the eleventh day of the eleventh month when the guns fell silent in 1918.

Even in 1941, when the Memorial was opened to the public, expansion was being considered.

It was clear that "the war to end all wars" did no such thing.

In 1941, the government extended the Memorial's charter to include the Second World War, even as they can't have known who the victors would be (and at that stage Hitler looked unstoppable as his troops stormed (fatally, as it would turn out) towards Moscow).

This year's ceremony is pared down. Construction has deprived it of the parade ground looking down towards Parliament.

Instead, it was to be held in the sculpture garden. Diplomats laid wreaths on Wednesday in a flow of individual arrivals through the morning.

White plastic chairs were being laid out safely apart. No masks were to be required at the outdoor ceremony.

Even with these strictures, it is still a more elaborate ceremony than the one at the height of the pandemic last year when only 200 people were allowed.

Part of the crowd at the 2019 Remembrance Day in Canberra. Picture: Karleen Minney

Part of the crowd at the 2019 Remembrance Day in Canberra. Picture: Karleen Minney

In 2019, when nobody dreamed of what was about to happen, the crowds stretched right down to Lake Burley Griffin as veterans marched in the scorching sun. That sun, too, is unlikely this Remembrance Day.

In the revolution in our habits since November 11, 1941, this year's ceremony will be watched by many on the War Memorial's social media video feeds.

Some things haven't changed. The original design was controversial - just like today's expansion.

In 1927, a competition for the best design failed to come up with a clear winner. Only one of the designs was within budget. The other 68 designs bust the financial ceiling.

The organisers decided on a compromise and got two of the architects to work together, one of them being the less imaginative John Crust who was - uniquely - within the spending limit. His design was described as "frugal and ingenious".

The other favoured architect was by all accounts flamboyant. Emil Sodersten contributed the (flamboyant) domed Art Deco grand vision.

The quieter Crust came up with the cloisters for contemplation.

The collaborative design was accepted but the two fell out. Sodersten walked out in 1938, leaving the steady Crust to do the heavy lifting. Sodersten then served in the Royal Australian Air Force in New Guinea until 1945.

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He would climb to the top of Mount Ainslie and paint watercolours of his creation.

His granddaughter said: "He loved it. It was his baby, and he put his blood, sweat, and heart into it. He gave it everything."

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This story The Australian War Memorial at 80 - almost a world away first appeared on The Canberra Times.