The Politics of Forgetting and Remembering Indigenous Fighters

Discussion paper

To begin with a couple of telling anecdotes…

• In the small town of Koné on the north-west coast of New Caledonia there stood for many years a war memorial with a statue representing a ‘poilu’[1] – a French soldier of the First World War. Early in 2010 the statue was vandalised and taken away for repair.[2] Faced with holding the commemoration ceremony of May 8, the mayor, Joseph Goromido,  decided to erect a temporary replacement, a large wooden sculpture representing a warrior.  After all, many Kanak had fought in WWI, indeed as many Kanak went to fight as French citizens from New Caledonia.[3] The ceremony went off without problem but a few days later the sculpture was daubed with red, blue and white paint, the colours of the French flag and also therefore the symbol of those opposed to the independence of New Caledonia. The following night, a Kanak flag was draped over the statue – at this point the mayor decided that what he had hoped would symbolise the unity of the communities had become the symbol of division and the statue had to be taken down.

• In May 2009, a memorial (a statue of a horse’s head) was inaugurated in the Sculpture Garden of the Australian War Memorial to honour the role that animals have played in war. The Sculpture Garden includes a statue of Simpson and his donkey and also a walkway lined with plaques to various services, specific units and historical events.  In bushland some ten minutes walk behind the War Memorial, not in the grounds, the Sculpture Garden nor on Anzac parade,  is a plaque to the service of Aborigines in war, paid for by private donors and dedicated in 1993. The disparity between the treatment of the role of animals and Aborigines in war is rather stark: the only monumental presence of Aborigines at the Memorial are the gargoyles of the faces of an Aboriginal man and woman, included amongst representations of ‘Australian Native Fauna’ on the walls of the Roll of Honour cloisters.

 

Teasing out the significance of these events brings into focus issues of national identity and citizenship, the ‘History wars’ over the nature of settler/indigenous relations, and the on-going political resonance of the commemoration in Australia and New Caledonia of indigenous service in European wars.  Britain and France brought troops from many parts of their empires to fight in the world wars; however only in the Dominions, in the case of Britain, and in Algeria and New Caledonia (colonies de peuplement) in the case of France, did the indigenous soldiers return to their place within a settler colonial framework after the war, with all that that implies in terms of social, economic and political inequality.

This paper offers a reflection in two stages: from a brief evocation of the issues of forgetting and remembering indigenous service in WWI, it moves to a consideration of the remembrance of indigenous/settler conflict, and tries to show the relationship between the representation and commemoration of these two forms of combat. To explore the remembrance of indigenous fighters rather than indigenous soldiers is to overcome the ideologically contentious division of warfare into external wars officially sanctioned by colonial authorities and internal ‘conflict’ involving indigenous rebellion. This approach allows for a more nuanced account of what is politically at stake in the practices of remembrance and commemoration both of these soldiers and these fighters, in the colonial and neo-colonial contexts of 20th century Australia and New Caledonia.

The paper’s theoretical starting point is that both forgetting and remembering are profoundly political acts that can only be fully understood as responses to the complex demands of their contemporary contexts. It recognises the dangers of generalisation and over-simplification: forgetting and remembering are processes that are unevenly distributed across society: ‘collective amnesia’ is as unlikely to occur as the much-criticised concept of ‘collective memory’. And it pays particular attention to the ‘mechanisms of forgetting’, an expression borrowed from a text by Freud[4] that is here intended to apply to the social processes involved in forgetting, whether deliberate or unintentional. Paul Connerton (2008) identified seven types of forgetting (and argued that not all types were unhelpful to society or the individual). The forgetting of the participation of indigenous soldiers in WWI might most closely be classified in Connerton’s terms as ‘repressive erasure’; and yet this forgetting was less the result, I would argue, of deliberate erasure but rather the confluence of a number of factors: institutional amnesia; strategic forgetting; ideological dissonance; conflict over material interests – all underpinned by inequality of social, economic and political power between the Europeans and the indigenous peoples.

Mechanisms of forgetting

The ability to determine what is to be remembered and what excluded from official memory is vested in modern societies in a set of powerful institutions that may act in concert or according to different agendas. Ashplant et al, who develop a powerful framework for the analysis of the articulation of war memories, identify the key role played by these ‘agencies of articulation’: ‘institutions through which social actors seek to promote and secure recognition for their war memories’ (2004: 17). They range from the official bodies of the nation state, its ministries and departments of veterans’ affairs, and the national systems under its control such as the education system, to institutions of civil society such as associations of war veterans. However the role of the State in promoting or neglecting the memory of events is crucial – its intervention ranges along a scale of intensity, from highly directed, coercive forms, to those that involve merely the organisation of symbolic gestures. At one end of the scale of State intervention in forgetting we might identify imposed or forced forgetting, Connerton’s ‘repressive erasure’, the suppression of memory that results from the censorship of ‘inconvenient truths’ and perhaps the persecution of those that bear those memories. In less extreme forms of forced forgetting, governments play a key role in what we might term strategic forgetting. This may involve intervention in the school curriculum to support particular versions of national history and its narratives or in the forms of national commemoration. Abundant examples might be cited from the interventions of the Howard government in education and commemoration. Indigenous veterans generally lack the access to the Federal and State-controlled institutions to impose their presence on official memory and the institutions of civil society may be similarly closed to their influence, as the notable example of the RSSILA in Australia demonstrates. Memory of indigenous war service survived in vernacular memory (Bodnar 1992), ‘communities of memory’ sought to commemorate their dead[5] in the face of institutional amnesia.

Official memory is conveyed in ‘narratives of articulation’ (Ashplant et al 17), the stories that are developed around the war events that structure and give meaning to individual and collective memory and may play a role in the construction of national or racial identity. The dominant, hegemonic narratives that structured the mindset of colonial Australia and New Caledonia – those concerning national and racial identity and citizenship – were inimical to the recognition of indigenous war service. We might describe these contradictions as founded in ideological dissonance, when aspects of the past are ‘forgotten’ or obscured because they are at odds not only with the official hegemonic narratives but with the dominant belief systems of a society. One of those systems was of course the belief in racial hierarchy and the superiority of Europeans – the basis of the theory and practices of White Australia. The accounts of WWI exploits by the ANZACS were marshalled in support of the ‘right’ of the colonisers to own the land and determine its future (Bean 1918).  And despite France’s supposed commitment to her role of bringing enlightenment and progress to her colonies, racialist and eugenicist ideas were as deeply entrenched in New Caledonia as in Australia: the Kanak were the object of a racism that cancelled out their very existence: ‘un racisme d’anéantissement’(Bensa 1995: 116)[6]. The Kanak were sometimes compared to the Australian Aborigines – both ‘stagnated’ at the lowest level of human development, so backward indeed that improvement appeared impossible. Both were widely considered, in the inter-war period and beyond, to be ‘a dying race’ (Merle 1995: 401). It is not that the indigenous were invisible, nor even that ‘a great silence’ hung over them, but in Foucault’s terms a discourse was constructed around them, a ‘science’, a set of ‘knowledges’ and practices that defined how they should be seen and spoken of.

Strategies of Remembering

It is beyond the scope of this discussion paper to trace the social, political and ideological changes that have led, over the past 20 or so years, to greater recognition of the service of indigenous soldiers in both Australia and New Caledonia. The commemoration of formerly excluded groups is never however, I would suggest, an apolitical restoration of justice and balance but reflects the evolution in social relationships that allows certain groups to claim greater recognition; it may also be the result of political calculation, a stratagem that accords symbolic recognition where other forms of recognition and inclusion are lacking; it may involve a kind of internal memorial diplomacy towards the reconciliation of formerly antagonistic groups.  In a period when the ‘black armband’ view of history was being condemned, during the Howard era, the inclusion of Aboriginal soldiers in the commemorative framework of the World Wars offers a pacified representation of a nation united in a common struggle. It obscures the long history of inequality of treatment and could thus be seen as an ideological and political move; even if such recognition does not result from a conscious strategy, it accords with the revised dominant narratives of national identity. In the case of New Caledonia, as it searches for a national identity with the trappings of currency, flag and anthem, war service, in which both Kanak and Caldoches took part, has been marshalled in the quest for symbols and narratives of a common history (Muckle 1326).

There is a saying in France, developed from a warning sign posted at level crossings: ‘un train peut en cacher un autre’ – ‘one train may hide another’. So it is I would suggest with commemoration: one form of commemoration obscures and conceals others – what we might call ‘the displacement of memory’. What has been displaced or obscured by the current surge in commemoration of indigenous service? Largely ignored in both Australia and New Caledonia is the role of indigenous  fighters in their wars against European invasion.

In Australia, this issue has occasionally been aired in relation to the wars commemorated at the Australian War Memorial: what room, if any, is there in the Memorial for an exhibition about the conflict between Aborigines and white settlers? The very fact that raising this question strikes most people as odd, even inappropriate, suggests the extent to which the Memorial is associated with a particular perspective on the nation and national identity. There is little doubt that the War Memorial offered throughout the 20th century a perspective on Australian national identity and nation-building that was closely aligned with a British heritage. Set up by Charles Bean, its collections developed in the inter-war period (it was opened in 1941), it reflects the emphases he wished to give to war memory and the assumptions and prejudices of the time, as the gargoyles of aborigines  demonstrate. Despite being challenged on the issue by writers and historians over the years, [7] the War Memorial has always refused to extend its scope to include settler/Aborigine conflict, citing its mission as that of representing participation in wars, fought by Australians, overseas. Each term is however open to question and re-interpretation. The word ‘Australian’ might for example, as the War Memorial at one time argued, confine commemoration to post-Federation conflicts, and even more specifically to those where Australia had a national force engaged in external conflict, on the formation of the [first]AIF in August 1914. But recent additions to the galleries, with the inclusion of the Boer War, have pushed the story of Australia’s wars back into the 19th century and to participation in British colonial wars.[8] And the issue of whether conflicts between settlers and Aborigines were wars is in itself an ideological issue, and one that has become a stake in the History Wars. [9]  It is a question of naming, a political as much as a historical question, and one that is open to challenge and revision. McKenna notes that ‘black wars’ were identified as such in many 19th century accounts but ‘forgotten’ between the 1920s – 1970s (McKenna 2002: 30).

In so far as there has been commemoration of these wars, it seems that the memorials record the Aborigines as the victims of massacre, rather than as fighters. Consultation of the list of memorials with indigenous relevance shown at MonumentAustralia.org[10] reveals that a large majority of the 25 identified concern massacres of Aborigines: these are mostly very recent memorials: the Myall Creek Memorial 2001; the Aboriginal Massacres Monument, Port Fairy, Victoria, dedicated in March 2011; the Appin massacre, dedicated in 2007.  Only a handful of the memorials refer to ‘battles’, while memorials remain to those white settlers and pioneers who conducted the massacres (Angus McMillan at Warragul, Bartrop 2004: 201) and to whites killed by Aborigines.

In New Caledonia, the question of whether and how to remember the armed conflict of Kanak against Europeans is also a contemporary political issue. To return to the incident recounted at the beginning of this paper, Koné was one of the centres of a Kanak rebellion in 1917, a rebellion that was in part provoked by causes linked to the war, notably forced recruitment and the consequent depopulation of the villages, though there were certainly other factors at work, including the requisitioning of land by Governor Feillet in the decades before the war (Muckle 2008: 1336) . Chief Noel, one of the leaders of the rebellion, called on Kanak to fight the French at home as ably as they were fighting the Germans abroad. Conflict and repression by French troops continued for seven months and led to the devastation and dispersal of the indigenous population mainly from the west coast towards the east; the troops sent to quell the rebellion included men who were on leave from the front and also indigenous auxiliaries recruited to fight the rebels (Muckle 1332). 200 Kanak, including Chief Noel, and 11 French died in the uprising. The question of whether the Kanak rebellion was a ‘war’ is an issue of contemporary historiography, opposing the views of Sylvette Boubin-Boyer and Adrian Muckle. But it is also an issue that remains alive in the relations between different Kanak clans, between ‘loyalists’ traditionally closer to France and those who rebelled in 1917, and it thus impacts on the contemporary political debate over the future of the territory.

Since WWII, the political situation has evolved in a dramatically different direction to that of Australia. The Kanak, who remained the largest ethnic group (without constituting an absolute majority), were in a position to demand a series of concessions from France, leading towards greater autonomy; but this has not satisfied all the Kanak parties and New Caledonia is now on a path to independence, though the terms of the endpoint of this process are still a cause of bitter division. Armed clashes continued into the late 1980s both between whites and Kanak (the events at Ouvéa in 1988) and between rival Kanak groups (the assassination of Jean-Marie Tjibaou in 1989 by a rival Kanak leader). The administrative division of the colony in 1999 into three regions has given control over the northern and eastern regions (the Loyalty Islands) to the Kanak – the mayor of Koné, which is the administrative capital of the Northern province, is a Kanak.  In commemorative terms this means that the wars fought by the Kanak against the occupiers have been commemorated in those regions. Such a memorial stands near Koné: a large rock with a plaque to the memory of the action of Chief Noel.

Other monuments in Koné attest to the official memory. The war memorial erected in Koné with its statue of the ‘poilu’ is emblematic of the memory of WWI that was to be promoted, that of the metropolitan ‘Français de souche’. As such it was unrepresentative of the soldiers who went from New Caledonia to fight in the war and particularly unrepresentative of the fighters from that region of New Caledonia, where the majority of soldiers would probably have been Kanak (the whites were concentrated in the capital and the south of the Grande Terre)[11]: 23 names figure on the monument in Koné, 15 from WWI and 8 from WWII, and of the 15 from WWI, it appears that 8 or 9 are Kanak[12].  On this memorial at least the names of the indigenous soldiers were inscribed on the monument. However until 2001 in Noumea, the principal war memorial (also represented by the ubiquitous ‘poilu’) carried the names of the European soldiers and only the numbers of soldiers from each tribe.  In that year two new stèles were added carrying the names of the individual indigenous soldiers (Frémeaux 331).

As in Australia, there has been increasing recognition of the role of Kanak soldiers in commemoration, publications and school curricula (since 1991), paralleling the trend in metropolitan France towards recognition of the participation of soldiers from her colonies in both world wars. In the case of New Caledonia however, the issue carries a particular resonance because of the still recent armed conflict and the contested moves towards independence. The Kanak warrior on the Koné monument thus carries a heavily symbolic but conflicted meaning to the local community: as soldier for France, as ruthless and savage rebel, and as fighter for independence. In each of these roles he is diversely appreciated by the black and white populations of the area and by the pro- and anti-independentists. The incident of the statue reveals the ambiguities and the challenges involved in attempting to enrol past symbols to unify the present in a neo-colonial context, the risks involved in mobilising ‘an archaeology of memory in the service of a refashioned national narrative’ (Ashplant et al 35), as the mayor had hoped to do. It illustrates too the importance of studying the differential reception of commemorative activity, the ambiguous nature of symbols and the multiple and even conflicting interpretations to which they lend themselves in different contexts and to different audiences.[13]

Finally, some thoughts on the significance of representation and naming in both reflecting and perpetuating exclusion. The representations of war that became enshrined between the wars, not only in discourse but in monumental and symbolic forms of commemoration, tended to militate against remembrance of indigenous service. The field of war memory was filled with hegemonic images, narratives and heroes that ‘stood for’ the whole: the iconic figures of soldiers as ‘diggers’ and ‘poilus’ are imperialist metonyms, imperialist in both the literal and metaphorical sense, that by representing the part, obscure the whole. Not only the material but the imaginary national landscape was colonised by such representations, while distorted even grotesque images perpetuated the denigration of the indigenous peoples (the gargoyles and the association of Aborigines with native fauna; the ‘cannibal Kanak’ exhibited in the ‘human zoo’ at the Paris Exhibition in 1931 (Dauphiné) contributing to their symbolic and representational exclusion from war memory.

The second result of these representations of European war and warriors – that included the iconic reports of the sacrificial attack ‘over the top’ of the trenches, the heroic frontal assaults, the holding of territory at all cost – was to obscure and displace the naming of indigenous engagement in warfare. The Aborigines and the Kanak tended to avoid ‘battlefield’ confrontations where the whites’ superior weapons and numbers would be lethal; they resorted to guerrilla-style tactics: surprise raids, ambushes, tactics that were seen as evidence not of innovative and adaptive strategy (as Connor argues, 2002: 21) but of their cunning and deceitful nature. Muckle argues that the historian Sylvette Boyer continues this representation of Kanak warfare in her account of 1917 (Muckle 1326). The use of the term ‘the Events’ for the conflict in the period 1981-9 is similarly the subject of controversy, the historian Oliver Houdan arguing for the term ‘civil war’.[14]

Serge Moscovici identified the creative power of ‘objectification’ in conjuring up, through the simple act of naming, a coherent and unitary entity that can in turn be ‘anchored’ to a series of supposedly similar events (1984: 43). Ashplant recognises the political significance of this power: ‘the willingness or refusal of the state to recognise and name particular kinds of violence as ‘a war’ in the first place together with its bestowal of names upon particular wars, are fundamental to the construction (and contestation) of the national narrative and official memory’ (2004: 53)

The landscapes of Australia and New Caledonia are crowded with monuments that we unproblematically refer to as ‘war memorials’ and yet nothing is less evident than what constitutes a ‘war’, or what distinguishes a soldier from a fighter; and nothing is more controversial than whose wars we should commemorate and why.

_________________________

 

References

Ashplant, T., Dawson, G., & Roper, M. (2004) ‘The Politics of War Memory’ in Timothy Ashplant, Graham Dawson, Michael Roper (eds) Commemorating War, New Brunswick, NJ: Transaction Publishers.

The Australian Abo Call: the voice of Aborigines: six issues, each of four pages and priced at 3d appeared each month between April and September 1938. The issues were accessed via the NLA Trove digitised archives on 8 March 2012.

Bartrop, P. ( 2004)  ‘Punitive Expeditions and Massacres: Gippsland, Colorado and the Question of Genocide’ in Moses, D.(ed) Genocide And Settler Society: Frontier Violence And Stolen Indigenous Children in Australian History, Bergahn Books.

Bean, C.E.W. (1918) In Your Hands, Australians, Melbourne: Cassell and Company.

Blunt, A. (1994) Writing women and space: colonial and postcolonial geographies, New York: Guilford Press.

Bodnar, J. (1992) Remaking America: Public Memory, Commemoration, and Patriotism in the Twentieth Century, Princeton N/J: Princeton University Press

Calédoniens dans la Grande Guerre, Musée de la ville de Nouméa, 2008.

Chesterman, J. & Galligan, B. (1997) Citizens without Rights: Aborigines and Australian Citizenship, Melbourne, Cambridge University Press.

Connerton, P. (2008) ‘Seven types of forgetting’, Memory Studies, 1, 59-71.

Connor, J. (2010) ‘The Frontier war that never was’ in Craig Stockings (ed), Zombie Myths of Australian Military History, University of New South Wales Press, 10-28.

Connor, J.  (2002) The Australian Frontier Wars, 1788-1838, University of New South Wales Press.

Curthoys, A. (2004) ‘National narratives, war commemoration and racial exclusion in a settler society’,  in Ashplant et al, 128-144.

Dauphiné, J. (1998) Canaques de la Nouvelle-Calédonie à Paris en 1931. De la case au zoo. Paris: L’Harmattan.

Day, D. (2005) Claiming a Continent: A New History of Australia, 4th edn, Sydney: Harper Perennial.

Frémeaux,  J. (2006). Les colonies dans la Grande Guerre: combats et épreuves des peuples d’outre mer, Edns 14/18, SOTECA.

Garton, S. (2004) ‘Longing for War: Nostalgia and Australian Returned Soldiers after the First World War’ in Ashplant et al, 222-239.

Goodall, H. (1992) ‘A History of Aboriginal Communities in New South Wales, 1909-1939’ University of Sydney PhD thesis.

Goodall,  H. (2001) ‘Mourning, Remembrance and the Politics of Place’ in Changi to Cabramatta: Places and Personality, The Public History Review, 9: 72-96

Goodall, H. (2008) Invasion to Embassy: Land in Aboriginal Politics in New South Wales, 1770-1992, Sydney University Press.

Guiart, J. (2004). Ca plait ou ça ne plait pas II: Eléments de bibliographie critique, Edns du Rocher-à -la-Voile, Noumea.

Hage, G. (1998) White Nation: Fantasies of White Supremacy in a Multicultural Society, Pluto Press.

Hall, R. A. (1989) The Black Diggers: Aborigines and Torres Strait Islanders in the Second World War Allen & Unwin.

Huggonson, D. (1992) ‘Aborigines and the Aftermath of the Great War’, in Australian Aboriginal Studies, no 1.

Inglis, K. (2008). Sacred Places: War Memorials in the Australian Landscape, 3rd Edn, Melbourne University Press.

Jackomos, A. & Powell, D. (eds) (1993). Forgotten heroes: Aborigines at War, Melbourne: Victoria Press.

Lake, M & Reynolds, H. (2008). Drawing the Global Colour Line: White Men’s Countries and the Question of Racial Equality, Melbourne University Press.

McKenna, M. (2002). Looking for Blackfellas’ Point: an Australian History of Place, University of New South Wales Press.

Meaney, N. (2009) Australia and World Crisis 1914-1923, Sydney University Press.

Merle, I. (1995) Expériences coloniales: La Nouvelle-Calédonie, 1853-1920. Paris: Edns Belin.

Moscovici, S. ‘The Phenomenon of social representations’, in Robert Farr and Serge Moscovici(eds), Social Representations, Cambridge University Press, 1984,

Muckle, A., (2004) ‘Spectres of Violence in a Colonial Context: The Wars at Koné, Hienghène and

Tipindjé – New Caledonia, 1917’, PhD thesis (Australian National University).

Muckle, A. (2008) ‘Kanak Experiences of WWI: New Caledonia’s Tirailleurs, Auxiliaries and ‘Rebels’,’ History Compass 6/5: 1325–1345.

Petersen, N. & Sanders, W. (1998), Citizenship and Indigenous Australians: Changing Conceptions and Possibilities, Cambridge University Press.

Poignant, R. (2004) Professional Savages: Captive Lives and Western Spectacle, Yale University Press.

Stanley, P. (2008)  Invading Australia: Japan and the battle for Australia, 1942, Viking.

Stanner, W. E. H. (2009), The Dreaming and Other Essays, Black Inc Agenda, Collingwood, Vic.

Thomas, M. (2005). The French Empire between the Wars: Imperialism, Politics and Society, Manchester University Press, Manchester and New York.

Thompson, E. (1994). Fair Enough: Egalitarianism in Australia, University of New South Wales Press.

Wineguard, T. (2012) Indigenous Peoples of the British Dominions and the First World War, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

 



[1] Meaning, literally, hairy one, the origin of the term is the subject of some debate. Although the term is widely used for the French infantry of WWI, it was in use in the 19th Century and therefore does not originate from the unkempt appearance of soldiers in the trenches.

[3] New Caledonia ‘supplied 2160 soldiers of whom 1137 were colonial infantrymen. 541 New Caledonian troops were killed of whom 374 were indigènes’ (Thomas 2005: 23).

[4] Freud, S. (1898). The Psychical Mechanism of Forgetfulness.

[5] The Sydney Morning Herald carried an article in 1935 about the mission at Caroona which mentions the initiative of the Aboriginals in erecting their own memorial to their veterans, the Gate of Memory. ‘The Gate of Memory: Raised by Coloured Folk’, by A. E. F., Sydney Morning Herald, 17 August 1935, 11.

[6] ‘Dans l’imaginaire des coloniaux, les Kanak ont été d’emblée exclus avant d’être dominés, gommés de l’avenir avant d’être asservis, voués au néant et à la mort avant d’être exploités’, A. Bensa, Chroniques Kanak. Visages de la colonisation, ethnies-document vol. 10, 1995, 116.

[7] The issue has been raised on several occasions by Ken Inglis: on the launch of his book Sacred Places in 1998 and again on publication of the 3rd edition in 2008. In 2009  a discussion took place on the ABC between John Coates, Aboriginal academic Gordon Briscoe, Geoffrey Blainey, Ken Inglis and Peter Stanley on the one side, and RSL president Bill Crews on the other, that raised a number of the issues addressed here: http://www.abc.net.au/7.30/content/2009/s2502535.htm.

[8] In the Boer War a detachment was sent from Australia in October 1899, known as The Australian, an infantry unit, made up mainly of volunteers from the Colonies of Victoria, Tasmania, South Australia and Western Australia. A number of Aboriginal trackers took part in the campaign.

[9] See for example John Connor, ‘The Frontier war that never was’ in Craig Stockings (ed), Zombie Myths of Australian Military History, University of New South Wales Press, 2010, 10-28.

[11] The current population of Koné (6416 inhabitatants) is approx 60% Kanak; 20% whites; 8,5% métis. (www.kone.nc).

[12] The list can be consulted at : www.memorial-genweb.org. Biographical details are supplied for some of the soldiers. It is however difficult to be certain of their ethnic origin since the missionaries gave ‘Christian names’ to the Kanak, under which they enrolled. However some of the military fiches give the tribal origin or place of birth of the fighters.

[13] Such attempts continue however: at Bourail the leading group on the local council has proposed a monument to commemorate all the victims of the ‘Events’ at Ouvéa: Kanak, Caldoches and gendarmes. ‘Un mémorial commun aux victimes des Evénements’ Les Nouvelles Calédoniennes, 27 Jan 2012.

[14] ‘Un mémorial commun aux victimes des Evénements’ Les Nouvelles Calédoniennes, 27 Jan 2012.

Photo essay: the Australian Remembrance Trail

 

In its 2009-2010 budget, the Australian government allocated $10m to establish an Australian Remembrance Trail throughout the former Western Front. The trail identifies and improves visitor facilities at a series of battlefields on which Australians fought, including in Ypres, Ploegsteert and Zonnebeke in Belgium, and at Fromelles, Bullecourt, Pozières, Mont St Quentin and Villers-Bretonneux in France. Here is a link to Australian government’s information on the Trail, including the Australian Remembrance Trail brochure.

In August and September 2012, I visited these sites to see what this trail looked like, what the visitor experience might entail, and how the sites related to the larger landscape which contextualises them. Following the trail north from Villers-Bretonneux to Zonnebeke, I photographed each site, trying to capture how they related to their surroundings, and using photographs to help understand the experience of ‘being there’.

Australian National Memorial at Villers-Bretonneux
The Australian National Memorial at Villers-Bretonneux

I started at the primary commemorative site on the Trail, the Australian National Memorial at Villers-Bretonneux. My immediate impression was the agricultural nature of the surrounding landscape. We visited at harvest time, and tractors and other machines were common on the rural roads. Small clouds of dusty earth were visible front the high ground on which many of the sites are located.

Villers-Bretonneux cemetery with tractors
The cemetery at Villers-Bretonneux with tractors working in the background.

This formed a particularly stark contrast at Le Hamel, where I spoke briefly with a farmer working only a few metres from the memorial. The new road, visitor facilities and signage feel as if they demarcate a space completely distinct from the surrounding farms. Intended to invoke both another place – Australia – and another time – the Great War – Le Hamel is surrounded by farmland which, as it changes throughout the year, would change the feel and experience of the site. When I was there the harvest had just been completed, and the earth was dusty and exposed. I could imagine a different context to the site at different times in the farming year.

Signage at Le Hamel
Signs explaining the history of the site, and Australian involvement, Le Hamel.

memorial at Le Hamel
The memorial at Le Hamel is surrounded by farmland.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Moving between the sites meant driving on rural roads, and we doubled back or took wrong turns many times. As with many trails, this one is not as coherent and clear on the ground as it is on the map or brochure. I was not able to photograph Mont St Quentin, but at Pozières, a small observation platform allowed perspective over the surrounding landscape, showing the abrupt distinction between the memorial space and its surroundings.

Poziere from high vantage point
The memorial at Pozieres.
explanatory signage at Poziere
New explanatory signage at Pozieres.

The Australian site at Bullecourt is in a memorial park just outside the village on the Rue des Australiens. Peter Corlett’s memorial sculptures also appear at the Australian cemetery at VC Corner near Fromelles, the Australian War Memorial in Canberra and the Shrine of Remembrance in Melbourne. They are part of a visual vocabulary that reinforce the official Anzac narrative and link the sites together.

BUllecourt Digger
The ‘Bullecourt Digger’ by Peter Corlett (1993) in the Australian Memorial Park.
Fromelles Cobbers
Peter Corlett’s ‘Cobbers’ (1998) at the Fromelles memorial park.

There are three distinct sites in and near Fromelles: the memorial park (pictured above), the VC Corner Australian Cemetery, and the new cemetery in the village itself, opposite the church. The last site saw the reburial of the newly-discovered remains of Australian soldiers in 2010.

Vc Corner cemetery Fromelles
The VC Corner Cemetery near Fromelles.
New cemetery at Fromelles
The new cemetery at Fromelles, opposite the village church.

Along with many other imperial forces, Australians were killed and are commemorated at the Menin Gate, Ypres. The In Flanders Fields Museum, recently refurbished and reopened in June 2012, is in the centre of the town in the  medieval Cloth Hall which was meticulously rebuilt after the Great War.

Menin Gate, Ypres
The Menin Gate, in Ypres, Belgium.

Ploegsteert is close to Ypres, and the memorial is on the main road. Its imposing size and design is a surprise on an otherwise unremarkable road.

Ploegsteert memorial
The Ploegsteert memorial.

The British Hyde Park Corner cemetery opposite the rotunda contains the graves of three German soldiers, whose gravestones differ only slightly in design from the Commonwealth ones.

 

Hyde Park Corner, Ploegsteert
The British Hyde Park Corner cemetery, opposite the rotunda at Ploegsteert.
A German grave at Hyde Park Corner, Ploesteert
A German grave at the Hyde Park Corner British cemetery outside Ploegsteert.

The last place I visited was outside Zonnebeke, in Belgium, not far from Ypres. Like the sites in France, this one is surrounded by farmland.

Polygon Wood
Polygon Wood cemetery, near Zonnebeke.

The memorial to the 5th Australian Division looks out over the Buttes New British cemetery, over the road from the Polygon Wood site. The affectionate toy koalas and small Australian flags on the memorial are a gentle contrast to the straight rows of headstones they overlook.

The Buttes new british cemetery
The Buttes New British cemetery is overlooked by the 5th Australian Division memorial at Polygon Wood.
5th Australian Division memorial, Zonnebeke
5th Australian Division memorial, Polygon Wood.
koalas on 5th division memorial, Zonnebeke
5th Australian Division memorial.