Within a few years after the end of The Great War, there were very few towns throughout Australia that did not have their own war memorial. Many of them were simple stone figures of classless soldiers without rank, of sombre expression, resting on arms, reversed on a plinth.
Less frequently the memorialising function was allocated to a shady road; there each tree was given a plaque, dedicated to the name of a local lad who went off to war eg Ballarat’s Avenue of Honour (1917-19). The avenue consisted of 3,771 trees planted at regular intervals along 22km of the Ballarat-Burrumbeet Road.
Ballarat Arch of Victory, opening onto the Avenue of Honour
The planting of one tree for each enlisted person began in June 1917 with funds of £2,600, raised by the 500 “Lucas Girls” employed in the factory. The planting was carried out in phases over the next two years, until its completion in June 1919. Done by staff of the Lucas factory, with the support of local farmers, the planting included 23 species of trees. These exotic deciduous species were planted in single lines along either side of the road, at regular spacings of 10 - 12 metres. Each species was planted in blocks of 25 trees, on either side of the road. A timber plaque was originally attached to each tree, although in 1934 these were replaced by permanent bronze plaques.
Ballarat, Avenue of Honour, each tree with a personalised plaque
Following cessation of hostilities in 1919 and completion of the avenue of trees, the Lucas Girls next began planning and fund raising of £2600 for a commemorative arch; it was to provide an impressive entrance to the already existing Avenue of Honour.
This Arch of Victory was designed by HH Smith, Head of the Art School at the School of Mines Ballarat. It was a grand cement-rendered masonry structure, having one central arch flanked by wide piers 20metres in width, spanning the roadway. The 18 metres high arch, erected in 1920, was crowned by the Rising Sun symbol of the Australian Commonwealth Military Forces. And beneath it, the words Avenue of Honour and Victory were written prominently across the arch.
In addition to the initial costs, for the Avenue of Honour and the Arch of Victory, a further £400 was donated by the public to a Maintenance Fund, with a returned soldier employed to attend to the trees.
The Ballarat Avenue project required a high level of community participation because the work took place over a substantial period of time. The Arch of Victory and Avenue of Honour became emblems of civic commitment to the war effort, both projects being officially opened by Prince of Wales in June 1920.
Ballarat, memorial rotunda and wall, 1938
The Avenue of Honour at Ballarat set a precedent. It was soon followed by the planting of 91 similar avenues in Victoria, especially in Central Victoria, after the Great War ended. The Bacchus Marsh Avenue of Honour was dedicated in August 1918; 281 Canadian elms were planted alongside the 2 kilometres of road leading into the town. The dead soldiers of Bacchus Marsh were remembered in alphabetical order, allowing surviving family members to grieve for their sons, brothers and nephews together.
Other Arches of Victory, in the tradition of the grand Roman victory arches erected across major carriage ways, can be seen at White Hills Botanic Gardens Bendigo and in Murtoa. Clearly neither had the size nor prominent location of Ballarat’s Arch of Victory, but they were much loved in their grief-stricken rural communities
Bacchus Marsh, Avenue of Honour, each tree with a personalised plaque
The National Museum of Australia in Canberra says this country built more WW1 memorials per head of population than any other country. They suggested it was because so many men were buried overseas and the memorials were seen to represent their graves. I think that, had the bodies been returned to Australia, parents and widows would have had private graves to go to. But each community would still have needed public sites to memorialise the town's sacrifice and to honour Australian heroism.
Photographers Sarah Wood and Rosemary Simpson have recorded 23 heritage-listed memorial avenues from WW1 across Victoria, plus one or two great memorial arches. Their photographic exhibition, Avenues of Honour, was displayed at the Shrine of Remembrance in Melbourne until January 2011.