The Australian National Memorial at Villers-Bretonneux: national identity and geographies of affect

Since 2008, on the 90th anniversary of the Great War battle that took place there, the Australian government has held a commemorative service at the Australian National Memorial at Villers-Bretonneux site every Anzac Day. The first service attracted around 3,000 people, and by 2011, this had increased to almost 4,000 people, a number that is expected to continue to grow. Here, I explore the relationship between this site, its symbolism, its use during Anzac Day and at other times, and the construction of Australian national identity.

 My previous research about place and its relationship with national identity suggested that the Villers-Bretonneux memorial would be important for shaping or narrating Australian national identity, perhaps even helping to illuminate some of its intricacies or contests. This was based on work about urban public place that demonstrated its ability to frame multiple discourses of national identity, shaping the interactions amongst different national groups and illuminating some of the complexity of how such groups understand the nation in different ways. The large body of scholarship on the relationship amongst place, monuments and artworks, memory, history and national identity coalesce around a range of issues including the flexibility (or otherwise) of national narratives, and their capacity to incorporate a range of perspectives.

 If the symbols built into sites of national memory are important, so too is the way such sites are used. An important part of how such sites are activated is through affect, the embodied and unpredictable responses to the experience of place. This is undoubtedly important when it comes to Anzac sites, for at least two reasons. The first is the emotional impact that many visitors report experiencing when visiting such sites. McKenna and Ward[i] , for example, take up the sentimentalism they identify in mostly young Australian ‘pilgrims’ reactions to visiting Gallipoli, pointing to ‘their profound emotional investment in the Anzac legend’. They question whether visitors had been primed to be ‘moved’ by the experience as a result of prior exposure to conventional ways of the media constructs this event in Australia: ‘[the] montage of mournful soundtrack, waving flags and quietly weeping diggers on parade’.

 The second reason affect may be a useful way to frame the relationship between the memorial and Australian national identity is because of the link between spatialised politics of meaning and the individual. Thrift offers a politics of affect in which a ‘top-down’ process determines how the built environment is shaped or manipulated to produce a reaction in people who experience it, including through ‘design, lighting, event management logistics, music, performance’[ii]. He argues that ‘affect has always been a key element of politics and the subject of numerous powerful political technologies which have knotted thinking, technique and affect together in various potent combinations’[iii]. Such ‘engineering’ has a long history of being used to reinforce identification with, for example, national or metropolitan identities, and is also on show during Anzac Day ceremonies that turn memorial sites into televisions sets on which the rituals of national identity are performed.

 Geographies of affect at Villers-Bretonnuex

 The rituals of Anzac Day at Villers-Bretonneux follow a familiar pattern recognisable for anyone who has ever been to a Dawn Service ceremony. The rhythm of the readings, hymn-singing, official speeches, a minute’s silence and a bugler playing the Last Post are all well-known elements of this Australian state ritual, even as they have gradually changed over time.

 Newspaper description of the event have often focused on the affective or emotional aspects of the ceremony, picking out a few choice phrases from officials’ speeches, or have emphasised the individual experiences of either soldiers who fought in 1918 or people who had come to ‘honour’ these experiences. For example, coverage in The Australian newspaper of the 2009 Dawn Service focused on visitors with a family history of military service. In the same newspaper, coverage of the 2010 ceremony conflated the official and the personal by focusing on the family history of Australian Foreign Minister Stephen Smith, who had two great uncles who died on the western front. The report underlined the merging of the official and the personal by quoting a line from Smith’s speech: ‘there was hardly an Australian family that wasn’t touched by the tragedy’[iv].

 The theme of personal connection to the Great War or the soldiers buried at Villers-Bretonneux is common in media reporting on Anzac Day ceremonies. For some people, the emotional experience of ‘pilgrimage’ is closely linked to national identity: in 2009, Donna Turnbull told Belinda Tasker from The Herald Sun that ‘My dad was in the services so I feel a big affiliation with [the Diggers]. We go to a dawn service every Anzac Day. You aren’t an Aussie if you don’t come.’[v]

 The relationship that visitors have to the Memorial is conditioned by the official narrative that is engineered, in Thrift’s terms, into the site. This includes the built environment of the bullet-marked tower and the solemn rows of headstones. The national narrative is also evident in the content of Anzac Day ceremonies themselves, and the official Australian government participation. This link between the personal experience of both fighting and remembering at Villers-Bretonneux on the one hand, and an officially sanctioned national narrative on the other underpins how the Memorial works through a selective process in which personal or individual memory is appropriated as national remembrance through the lens of the memorial’s landscape and symbolism. Here I follow Jay Winter’s [vi] distinction between individual ‘memory’ and collective ‘remembrance’, the latter a term that implies both agency and a reliance on the commitment of people to continue the work of remembering. Winter also offers the possibility that the collective memory that national sites activate can be held by sub-national groups.

 I suggest that the collective remembrance of a sub-national group, namely those people who travel to engage in remembrance at the Memorial, is reshaped through official channels to form the national history of all Australians. What gives this process particular power is the emotional resonance of stories of wartime death, constructed as sacrifice and heroism. This suggests that a limited sub-national group is shaping the meaning of Villers-Bretonneux, in part through its use of the site and its geographies of affect. This group is bound together by their common act of remembrance, sometimes due to a family history of military service, with accompanying stories of loss, heroism or grief. However, the overlap of the use of Villers-Bretonneux by this group with an official national ceremony in the form of Anzac Day means that this group’s collective memory has become merged with a national ritual. The effect is that their memory is constructed, in large part through television and newspaper coverage of the event, as an Australian memory.

 ‘Unprescribed’ uses

Unlike some other types of national sites, this process, at least in the case of Villers-Bretonneux, appears to diminish the possibility of multiple narratives of national identity, creating a singular discourse that activates and amplifies the experiences of a limited sub-group of the nation. This process, initiated and nurtured by successive Australian governments of both main political parties, presents the memories and experiences of war as universally ‘Australian’ despite their limited applicability. I propose that the singularity of the national narrative constructed through the use of Villers-Bretonneux is partially due to the nature of the site itself, and by the fact that there are not a wide range of practices that occur within the site. The fact that Villers-Bretonneux is a cemetery, as well as a memorial, shapes the practices that occur there on every day of the year. Unlike the ‘unprescribed uses’ of some Anzac sites in Australia, most of the visitors to Villers-Bretonneux are there for a very specific purpose – the visiting of graves[vii].

 The relationship between the national narratives of loss and memory evident in the Viller-Bretonneux Memorial’s built environment on the one hand, and the use of the site by visitors on the other, appears to be straightforward. Australians go there to visit graves, reflect on Anzac sacrifice and try and understand the Australian history of the Great War a bit better. There does not appear to be strong evidence of other ways of using the site that might complicate its narratives of national identity. Rather than opening up the possibility of narrative complexity, as many other public national sites do, it appears to narrow them.

[i] Mark McKenna and Stuart Ward (2007) ‘‘It was really moving, mate’: The Gallipoli Pilgrimage and Sentimental Nationalism in Australia’ Australian Historical Studies 38 (129): 141-151.

[ii] Thrift (2004), pp. 67-68.

[iii] Nigel Thrift, N (2004) ‘Intensities of feeling: towards a spatial politics of affect’ Geografiska Annaler 86B (1), p 64.

[iv] The Australian 26 April 2010 ‘Villers-Bretonneux personally poignant’,, accessed 10 Apr 2012.

[v] Belinda Tasker (2009) ‘Thousands attend Anzac service in Villers-Bretonneux, France’ The Herald Sun, 25 April 2009. Accessed 16 April 2012.

[vi] Jay Winter (2006) Remembering War: The Great War Between Memory and History in the Twentieth Century. New Haven: Yale University Press.

[vii] C. Winter (2011) ‘Visitors on the Somme’.

The Politics of the Past: Great War Commemoration in International Perspective

This international symposium took place at the Australian National University from 26-27 April 2012 and was hosted by the School of Politics and International Relations and the ANU Centre for European Studies. It brought together researchers from France, Belgium, the United Kingdom, Australia and New Zealand with a common interest in Great War Commemoration who gathered in Canberra to observe the annual Anzac Day commemoration.

No discussion of Australian national identity today can avoid the memory of Australia’s fighting forces. Anzac Day has grown to be a remarkable cultural and political phenomenon in the past two decades, making 25 April a quasi-official independence day.    The increasing popularity of the anniversary and the intensification in its promotion by Australian governments is well-documented.  However, little has scholarly work has been done to place our understanding of Anzac in an international, comparative perspective.

With the centenary of the Great War only two years away, the symposium sought to address this gap in our understanding.  Participants set out to situate the recent resurgence of the Anzac legend within a wider international field of enquiry, with the aim of deepening our understanding of the global and domestic importance of this narrative ahead of the Great War centenaries of 1914-1918.  Papers drew on politics, history, sociology and international relations, exploring and analysing the distinctions and intersections between debates about the past in Australia and Europe.

The symposium was organised with support from the Embassy of France in Canberra.

Ben Wellings & Shanti Sumartojo (ANU)