28 July 2015

WW1 Patriotism and Art in Melbourne

An exhibition exploring war is on at The Ian Potter Centre, NGV in Melbourne. Follow the Flag: Australian Artists and War 1914-45 brings together 150+ works of war art created by Australians. The exhibition, until mid Aug 2015, tells stories both personal and epic, and reflects on a diversity of attitudes and experiences of war. The exhibition showcases the work of famous Australian artists, including Albert Tucker, Arthur Streeton, Russell Drysdale and Joy Hester. There are paintings, works on paper, photographs, sculpt­ures and trench art (usually jewellery fashioned by soldiers from shrapnel). 

I was interested to see that “Follow the Flag” was an expression drawn from recruitment propaganda in 1914. Although it was right that Australia should go to the aid of Mother Britain in her time of greatest need, the series of posters suggested that young men had to be reminded of, and cajoled into their national duty. Like every other visitor to the exhibition, I felt extremely ambivalent. Would I have wanted my sons to serve their nation, with next to no pay? Absolutely …in teaching, medicine, nursing, making uniforms, translating or entertaining the troops! Would I have wanted them to learn how to use guns to kill other families’ sons? Absolutely not!

recruitment poster, 
published by the South Australian Government, 1915

“Come on boys, follow the flag!” This Victorian enlistment poster was published before conscription. Thus the poster was to encourage vol­unt­eers. But by 1916, Australia had just about run out of volunt­eers. In 1916 and again in 1917 Prime Minister Billy Hughes held national referenda on the issue of conscription. Hughes begged voters: “Don’t leave the boys in the trenches. Don’t see them butchered or you will cover Aus­tralia with shame.” Posters appeared thick and fast but in the end, both of the bitter and campaigns led to conscript­ion being defeated.

Paintings to look out for start with George Lambert’s famous Aust­ralian portrait called A Sergeant of the Light Horse 1920. This image of a Light Horseman matches the official account of the Australian Light Horseman who served in Palestine. If Australia had a distinctive type of soldier, they were “young men long of limb and feature, spare of flesh, easy and almost tired in bearing”. And “for all his unconventional ways, the Light Horseman was a young countryman leading a simple and peaceful life. He bears himself modestly … A felt slouch hat, a shirt with sleeves rolled to the elbows, long trousers”. Lambert was not the first artist to see a link between tough pioneering life on the Australian land and endurance on the European battlefields.

A sergeant of the Light Horse in Palestine, 1920
77 x 62 cm
by George Lambert

The most difficult art objects to look at were the photos of trench warfare and devastated landscapes. In August 1917 Frank Hurley was appointed as an official photographer and cinematographer with the Australian War Records Section. On his first day in Flanders, Hurley was faced with awful scenes of desolation. Everything had been swept away – only stumps of trees poked up. His photos of soldiers laying on stretchers and a disabled tank in mud remained powerfully evocative, even 100 years later.

I paid a lot of money for the glossy catalogue which beautifully reproduced the main art objects. But there was no sense of order in the chapters, World War One and Two were mixed randomly, and there ws no Index at the back. If I wanted to see a photo of the soldiers arriving home in 1918, I had to flick through all 134 pages and hope to catch a glimpse of the ship.

On 22nd July 2015, you can hear the Culture and War: ANZAC Centenary Lecture. The panel from University of Mel­b­ourne and the National Gallery of Victoria will examine how WW1 brought great social and cultural changes to Australian shores. The experience of soldiers travelling internation­ally, the national mobilisation, community loss and family grief were all important. And the impact of these changes will be revealed in the artwork of the period.


As part of commemorations for the ANZAC Centenary, many Victorian cultural organisations are examining the commitment and sacrifice of those who served in WW1. Other organisations include Melbourne Museum's The WW1 Centenary Exhibition, featuring objects from London's Imperial War Museums; War Pictures: Australians at the Cinema 1914-1918 at Aust­ralian Centre for the Mov­ing Image; Victorian Opera's Remembrance; and Arts Centre Melb­our­ne's Black Diggers.

True Jews and Patriots: Australian Jews and World War One 
At the Jewish Museum of Australia

Perhaps the most interesting of the smaller exhibitions is True Jews and Patriots: Australian Jews and World War One. It is on from July 2015–Jan 2016 at the Jewish Museum of Australia in St Kilda. “True Jews and Patriots” features intriguing untold stories of Australian Jewish experiences of the Great War. 100 years after WW1, this exhibition investigates the contributions and legacies of Jews who enlisted. It looks at the devastating impact of war on the soldiers themselves. And it shows how Aust­ralia’s Jewish community at home was shaped by the events of WW1.

If we moderns want to see the remarkable participation of C19th Aus­tralian Jews in Australian civil society, it can be best exemp­lif­ied by the career of Australia’s highest-ranking officer, Lieutenant General Sir John Monash. An engineer, civilian soldier and Australian-born son of Jewish migrants, Monash became one of the most celebrated Allied generals of WW1.

The courage and commitment of Monash and the Australian Jewish soldiers of all ranks are commemorated through first person accounts. Australian Jews went to war to secure the freedoms and democracy they enjoyed here. They wanted to participate fully in civil society and to secure these rights for their children. Visitors to “True Jews and Patriots” will recognise the remarkable history and situation of Jews in Australia. Examine a diverse range of original objects and arte­facts, including Sir John Monash’s combat boots, custom made uniforms, autograph books and photographs.


Andrew said...

For a moment I thought Australia had come of age by rejecting conscription for WWI, but it did not and we fell for some decades later. For anyone who is against war, the hardest thing to deal with is when a war seems just.

I will certainly see the exhibition at the museum.

Student of History said...

Some women handed out white feathers to young men not in uniform. Disgusting.

Hels said...


A person might have been against war in any circumstances, or against specific wars, or prepared to join in the war effort voluntarily. Or they might have been unfit, mentally or physically. Alas the WW1 posters didn't seem to take these nuanced moral positions into account.

I would say that as long as there was no forcible conscription, followed up by hefty gaol sentences for men who disobeyed, I could go along with volunteering. If the law wanted to treat all young men equally, conscientious objectors could have done community service for all the years of the war, earning no more than a soldier earned.

But you are so right about when war seemed just. Many people found bombing Vietnamese citizens back to the stone age obscene. But those same people might have felt war against Nazi soldiers to be moral.

Hels said...


I have no doubt that the start of war in August 1914 released a huge wave of enthusiastic support for Britain and an expectation that all Australian men would volunteer immediately. So the women who tried to shame men in civilian clothes with white feathers believed they had God, the church, the Parliament and the newspapers on their side.

The feather women were wrong. Men in civilian clothes might have been too old, too young, in a protected job, too sick to be accepted by army doctors, or utterly committed to never taking a human life. Australia’s greatest boxer, Les Darcy, was 19 and a contender for the world title. But he would not be conscripted by the army, received lots of feathers of cowardice, ran away from Australia and died in exile at 21.