Inglis, KS, assisted by Jan Brazier: Sacred Places

KS Inglis, assisted by Jan Brazier

Sacred Places: War Memorials in the Australian Landscape, Melbourne University Press, Carlton, Vic., third updated edition, 2008; first published 1998; other editions

Takes the Australian history of war memorials from the colonial period, through the World Wars to Vietnam. The writer’s graceful (sometimes rambling) prose blends personal reminiscence, notably in the Introduction, titled ‘Holy ground’, with rumination on the significance of commemoration to the Australian psyche. He or his colleagues visited most of the 5000 war memorials around the country and many of those overseas. There surely need be no more books written on the subject of Australian war memorials.

The illustrations sprinkled through the book indicate both the common features of our memorials and the departures from the norm. For example, page 162 has a soldier with rifle from Beaudesert, Queensland, juxtaposed with the Archangel Michael at Angaston, South Australia. Inglis deals respectfully with a serious subject but just occasionally one detects a glimmer of humour.

It would be fascinating to have this subject explored in similar depth by an author who has no memory of our major wars (Inglis was born in 1929) but Inglis has done the job so well that the field may be taken as his. Among many reviews of the various editions of the book, one is here and another is here. And another. Paul Daley also writes about memorials and Richard Rubin writes in the New Yorker about American memorials to World War I. There is no bibliography in the book but 40 pages of notes give many references and useful comments.

Inglis’s chapter 9, ‘Australia remembers’, and his epilogue, ‘Towards the centenary of Anzac’, contain much thoughtful discussion of the changing significance of Anzac and related issues. Among other things, Inglis suggests that by the late 1980s Australian children were free to commemorate war and peace ‘without having any serious apprehension that those sentiments would be enlisted for some new conflict’ (p. 413). Then, at pages 443-45 he presents an extended argument as to why Anzac has taken on the characteristics of a ‘civil religion’. He then turns to a consideration of how Anzac plays in a multicultural Australia (pp. 448-57).

Further on, Inglis looks at the role of the Department of Veterans’ Affairs in proselytising Anzac, at the flood of books on military subjects and the conflation of sporting contests and teams and Anzac. He describes commemorations at Gallipoli as far back as 1965 and as recently as 2005. He mentions a long-time journalist observer of Anzac, Tony Stephens, commenting on the efforts of the then federal Minister for Education, Brendan Nelson, in 2005. Stephens, Inglis says, ‘was troubled by what Nelson wanted to put in children’s heads. “Wouldn’t it be nice’, he wrote, “if politicians could cease manipulating the Anzac myth?”‘ (p. 558)

Perhaps Inglis’s most perceptive comment flows from his noting the tendency over the last twenty years or so for people to place poppies in the niches of the Roll of Honour at the Australian War Memorial.

Pondering on such gestures, and more generally on the resilience of the Anzac tradition, speaks both of its elasticity and its plasticity; another cultural historian, Tim Rowse, observes its “porosity to new meanings”, and a political scientist, Robert Manne, offers a similar perception. “Although at the core of the Anzac story there are unchanging elements”, he writes, “one reason for its endurance has been its capacity to adapt to the temper of the times” (pp. 581-82).

Finally, we provide a link to a site which tries to identify every single monument in Australia, not just monuments to war but to everything. It is the life work of the Watson family and their friends. At the time of writing the total number of monuments stood at 23 004.

Update: David Wetherell in Quadrant in 2018 is critical of Inglis’ elision of religion from Sacred Places.

David Stephens

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