Recognising Australia's war heritage
Australia's war heritage
As each year passes, there are fewer and fewer Australians who personally experienced war, with all its horror and loss, but also with its sense of camaraderie and achievement. With them will go their memories and understanding of the way conflict has affected our families and local communities.
Australia's experience of war, especially in the First and Second World Wars, helped shape our sense of ourselves as a nation and as a community with a distinctive ethos and way of life. It is often claimed that the behaviour of Australian servicemen at Gallipoli in 1915, followed by their performance in the trenches of the Western Front in France and Belgium between 1916 and 1918, was crucial to Australia gaining international recognition as an independent nation. The men and women who served Australia in that war gave birth to the Anzac tradition.
The Second World War, which brought with it the threat of invasion, united Australians at home and overseas, as never before, in a struggle for national survival. Between 1939 and 1945 more than a million Australians - men and women - wore the uniform of the armed services of the Commonwealth of Australia and saw themselves as inheriting that tradition of service and self-sacrifice born at Gallipoli and the battlefields of France and Flanders.
The importance of what happened to Australia and Australians in war is remembered on such annual occasions as Anzac Day and Remembrance Day. Indeed, many Australians regard Anzac Day as Australia's unofficial national day. Clearly, Australians in the past century placed great importance and significance on their wartime service. It is time to consider why future generations need to understand and commemorate our nation's participation in war.
Since 1945 the composition of Australia's population has changed greatly. Migration has brought to Australia millions of people from many different countries and cultural backgrounds.
Some of those immigrants, having experienced totalitarian regimes, chose to make a new life in Australia because it is a free and tolerant society. As with fourth and fifth generation Australians, it is important that these more recent arrivals and their descendants be given the opportunity to understand and acknowledge the contribution of those Australians responsible for the traditions of Anzac. That story is one of sacrifice in the cause of freedom and it deserves to be preserved for all future generations.
The well-being of history lies in its telling, for unless the story is transmitted across the generations it is lost.
Michael McKernan, 'Anzac: then and now', in The last Anzacs: Gallipoli 1915
To provide opportunities for future generations to understand, investigate and value these experiences, we must ensure that the significant material relating to Australia's war heritage is preserved, not just in official national and state institutions, but also in our major metropolitan and rural regions.
Australia's war heritage—the current situation
Every year thousands of Australians are deeply moved while viewing the national Roll of Honour and the museum displays at the Australian War Memorial in Canberra. Yet reminders of Australia's participation in war are also in our local communities - honour rolls, war memorials, gun displays and memorial halls. Smaller, more fragile items such as photographs and documents relating to Australia's experience of war are preserved and exhibited in many Returned and Services League (RSL) clubrooms as well as in local museums and State archives. Much material is also in private hands.
Australia is perhaps the only nation to have attempted to list all its war dead. It was the vision of national commemoration that each life was freely offered and sacred and thus should be recorded and recalled.
Michael McKernan, 'Anzac: then and now', in The last Anzacs: Gallipoli 1915
To give future generations the opportunity to understand and appreciate Australia's war heritage at a national, state and local level, as much of this material as possible needs to be preserved. There are many instances of individuals, communities and organisations responding to this challenge in imaginative ways. Examples of some of these are given in the case studies in this book. Local government is very aware of its responsibilities towards major municipal memorials and these are usually well maintained.
Sadly, there have also been worrying instances of the loss of war heritage items such as memorial honour rolls being souvenired or offered for sale. Personal papers and diaries have been known to turn up on the local tip. For many years that generation of Australians who directly experienced the world wars valued and cared for this material. Recently, in both metropolitan and regional areas, economic and social change has resulted in the removal or demolition of memorial halls and schools. The result has been the loss of historically significant honour rolls, photographs, letters, medals and other items.
Other important material, however, relating to Australia's participation or subsequent commemoration of war has survived. Some remains in the private possessions of veterans, their immediate family or descendants. With the death of a veteran, family members are often unaware of the significance, both for themselves and the community, of medals, papers and other memorabilia. Other material is scattered in a number of locations in the community - in RSL clubs, local halls, churches and local museums. As much of it as possible needs to be identified, assessed and preserved.
What do you think goes to make up your community's war heritage?
Is your community caring for its war heritage?
What can you do to ensure that your community's war heritage is preserved for future generations?
At Burnie, Tasmania, there is a stone obelisk dedicated 'To the memory of the young men belonging to this district who, fighting in defence of the Empire, laid down their lives in the Great War 1914-1918'. The memorial, with the names of the local dead engraved on it, was unveiled by an ex-soldier, Captain Hubert Piercey of the 60th Battalion, First Australian Imperial Force (AIF), on 17 February 1924. The location of the memorial was of great significance to the citizens of Burnie. According to The Burnie Advocate, the memorial was visible to all entering the town by boat, rail or road. However, construction of Burnie's island breakwater in the early 1950s necessitated the removal of the memorial to another site, where today it is visible from the freeway through Burnie. Similar memorials can be seen in virtually every rural district, country town and suburb in Australia. For Australians, they are daily reminders of their community's loss and sacrifice in war.
The commemoration of Australia's war dead has left a rich legacy of public memorials. These range from small local memorials, each listing a few names, to the larger town and city memorials on which the names of dozens, sometimes hundreds, of service men and women are recorded. On some memorials, only the names of the dead have been inscribed in stone; on others, all who served are listed.
Many places, like Tambo Upper in rural Victoria, planted avenues of trees in memory of those whose lives had been cut short by war. Of all Australia's avenues of honour, one of the most visited is outside the penitentiary at the Port Arthur Historic Site in Tasmania. It was planted by the citizens of Carnarvon, as Port Arthur was then known, in memory of their First World War dead. Probably the longest is that at Ballarat, Victoria. It originally included 3900 trees - one for every soldier, sailor and nurse from the town who served in the First World War. On a granite slab on the memorial archway leading to the avenue, these words were cut:
All ye who tread this Avenue of Life
Remember those who bowed beneath the strife
Each leaf a laurel, crowns with deathless fame
And every tree reveals a Hero's name.
An immense amount of local effort and commitment went into raising the funds to set up these memorials. In 1917 the citizens of Digby, Victoria, subscribed £75 towards the planting of an Avenue of Honour, and hundreds of pounds were raised for the building of a memorial hall. At Ballarat, Victoria, the female employees of the Lucas factory raised more than £2000 for the erection of the town's memorial arch, while in Esk Shire, Queensland, £885 was raised for the local memorial on which it was proposed to 'inscribe the name of every boy in the district who enlisted'.
After the Second World War many communities, although not all, added to their memorials the names of those who had served and died in that war. On 12 August 1951 at Busselton, Western Australia, the State President of the RSL, Thomas Sten, unveiled at the Busselton War Memorial a plaque listing the names of thirty-three men from the district who lost their lives in the Second World War. In many localities practical memorials, such as swimming pools or the addition of a ward to a local hospital, were built to honour a community's Second World War veterans. After the Korean and Vietnam wars the names of those who had died in those conflicts were sometimes added to local war memorials.
The building of memorials has not ceased. In their book Salute the Brave: A Pictorial Record of Queensland War Memorials, Shirley and Trevor McIvor listed a number of new memorials in that state erected since 1990. The citizens of Mount Isa, for example, dedicated a Vietnam Veterans' Tree on 25 April 1991, and on 25 April 1992 the citizens of Warwick dedicated a Second World War memorial.
Not to be forgotten in this context are the state war memorials to be found in Australian capital cities. Each of them has its own unique feature, from the original battlefield crosses brought from France at the South Australian memorial in Adelaide to the Melbourne Shrine where at 11 am on one day of the year - 11 November, Remembrance Day - a ray of sunlight, weather permitting, comes through the roof to fall on the word Love on the inscription on the Stone of Remembrance. The full inscription reads Greater Love Hath No Man.
In Australia the local war memorial has always been an object of pride and identity. On Anzac Day, Remembrance Day and other special occasions, ex-service men and women, families who lost relatives in war and other members of the community, assemble at these sacred sites. Here they reflect, grieve and remember events which have been of central importance to Australia as a nation. Wherever the memorials stand - at a country crossroads, in a city park or at the nation's heart at the Australian War Memorial in Canberra - these serve as reminders of the human loss sustained in those conflicts.
Where is the main war memorial - the one used as the focus of commemorative events such as those held on Anzac Day and Remembrance Day - located in your community?
Is it in good condition?
Who is responsible for maintenance?
Has a history of your war memorial and its use by the community been written?
Do you know the stories of the individuals whose names are commemorated on your local war memorial?
Case Study: Tambo Upper's Avenue of Honour
Tambo Upper is a small settlement about 25 kilometres from Bairnsdale, in the East Gippsland region of Victoria. Apart from Primary School No. 2216, there is a hall, tennis courts and little else. In the surrounding region are the farms which keep the community going.
At Tambo Upper there was once an Avenue of Honour of six flowering gums.
These trees were planted in the 1920s in memory of six soldiers from Tambo Upper who lost their lives in the First World War. At the foot of each tree was a plaque bearing the name, unit, and date and place of death of the soldier to whom it was dedicated. Over the years all but one of the trees died. Five of the plaques were saved, mounted on a wooden shield and placed in the community hall. The sixth plaque was carried away in a flood, so a hand-painted one - showing only the soldier's name and rank but not where and when he had died - was added to the shield in its place. Tambo Upper's visible public tribute to its war dead had gone.
11 November 1997, Remembrance Day, was a very special occasion in Tambo Upper. For the first time in many years, members of the community, along with the pupils and teachers of Tambo Upper Primary School, came together to remember Sergeant Hugh Ross, 38th Battalion; Corporal John McMeekin, 59th Battalion; Trooper John Stone, 4th Light Horse; Private Alfred Laurent, 39th Battalion; Private Andrew Neal, 24th Battalion; and Gunner Frederick Biggs, 4th Battalion. They were able to gather once again at Tambo Upper's Avenue of Honour.
How was this possible?
An enquiry earlier in the year at the school about the Avenue of Honour set the teachers and pupils off on a journey to recover and preserve Tambo Upper's vanished war heritage. With the help of the local RSL club, six new flowering gums, each with a name plaque, now stand along the driveway to the community hall. Research on documents held in Canberra revealed the missing details for Corporal Stone.
During the course of this research and, later, on Remembrance Day, other memorabilia from the descendants of the six soldiers came to light. Some of this is now being preserved at the school and in the community hall. Memories of the soldiers and their families were recalled and information about other memorabilia recorded. During the Remembrance Day ceremony, devised by the school with the assistance of the local RSL, the personal details of the lives and service of the Tambo Upper soldiers were read out and discussed. At the traditional country morning tea after the ceremony, one elderly local resident commented that it was the best Remembrance Day service he had ever attended!
During the project, one of the teachers wrote: what a great opportunity it is for our students to learn about this time in history, with the emphasis on the local scene.
At the school and in the community, the six sons of Tambo Upper who lie in war cemeteries far from home will now not be forgotten. Some of the objects, documents and commemorative items associated with them have been preserved for future generations.
In Broome, Western Australia, there is a large German gun in the Broome Historical Society's museum. It used to stand in front of the local war memorial. How did it get to Broome?
On 12 November 1920, the Chairman of the Broome Roads Board wrote to the Western Australian State Trophy Committee declining the Committee's allocation to the town of a captured German heavy machine gun. Broome, he asserted, had sacrificed much during the Great War. Twenty-five per cent of those who had enlisted from the district were killed, and now the town was in the process of erecting what would be the 'finest monument' to that sacrifice in the State. Broome's claim to a more significant war trophy was pressed:
If it is granted that this great country, larger than most of the Eastern States, is entitled to one respectable trophy, then the question of locating it in Broome does not require much answering. Broome socially and geographically is known as the capital city of the Nor'West. It is an active and busy centre on account of the pearling industry and the cattle hinterland. It is the first port of call for steamers from Singapore, Java and the East generally, and thousands of people first see Australia at this port.
Broome received its 'respectable trophy' - a German 77mm M96 field gun. It was one of hundreds of German and Turkish guns brought to Australia after the First World War and distributed by State Trophy Committees to localities, towns and suburbs. Along with the local war memorial, the gun would serve as a reminder of what Australian soldiers had endured and achieved through four hard years of war.
In each community three local trustees signed an official agreement with the State Trophy Committee. They promised, among other things, that the gun would be permanently housed in a public place suitable for its preservation and safe custody. Many schools - public and private - were also eligible for, and received, a war trophy. Today, many of these historic weapons, along with, in some localities, guns from the Second World War, can still be seen in the vicinity of local war memorials. In the Memorial Hall in Binalong, New South Wales, two German machine guns are mounted on top of the First World War Honour Roll. In the mining town of Hill End, New South Wales, the German machine gun allocated to the town in 1920 sits on top of the war memorial.
In other places, the guns have vanished. At Brandon, Queensland, the machine gun allocated to the town was taken down from on top of the town's war memorial during the Second World War. Some say it was buried to deny it to the Japanese if they had invaded eastern Australia; others believe it was melted down for scrap metal. Most of these weapons have an interesting battle story to tell - the Brandon gun, for example, was captured by the 14th Battalion AIF at Villers-Bretonneux, France, on 29 April 1918. All these commemorative guns point to countries and battlefields where Australians have died in war and they deserve to be properly preserved, displayed and interpreted.
Did your community or school or some other organisation receive a war trophy after the First World War? Is it still there? What condition is it in?
Are there any other sorts of large war objects in your community?
Are there notices displayed with these objects to explain their history?
Memorial halls and other buildings
In many localities, apart from the local war memorial, other structures and buildings were erected after the two world wars in memory of those who fought and died. One of the most popular was the memorial hall where, often in the absence of any other local memorial, an honour roll was displayed listing the names of local service men and women. Some memorial halls were significant stone buildings such as the one at Donnybrook, Western Australia; others, in more isolated rural communities, were simple wooden structures. Whatever was erected, memorial halls usually became important centres of local activity and their story is part of the community's history.
Apart from memorial halls there are other kinds of commemorative buildings. One practical Second World War memorial was the War Memorial Community Centre at Berri, South Australia - quarters for the local branches of the Mothers and Babies' Health Association and the Country Women's Association. The building was opened in July 1955 at a special ceremony, during which the shops in the town temporarily closed. A more unusual memorial was 'Anzac Cottage' in Mount Hawthorn, Western Australia. It was constructed by the local community for a wounded veteran of the Gallipoli landing, Private CJ Porter, and handed over to Mr and Mrs Porter on 16 April 1916. In return for his home, Mr Porter agreed to raise the Australian flag on the flagpole outside the cottage at 4.30 am on 25 April every year - the time of the landing in 1915 of the 11th Battalion, from Western Australia, on the beaches of Gallipoli.
All of these memorials are an indication of the different ways in which Australians sought to honour and remember the men and women in their locality who had served the nation in war.
As the old soldiers fade away, their clubrooms fall into disrepair and disuse and many, as in Richmond, Victoria, become an upmarket gym for sweaty young things, or, as in Mosman, New South Wales, a fashionable, trendy shop. The collapse of these once cherished institutions ... warns us that with the passing of the veterans Australia's Anzac legend may also collapse and be forgotten.
Michael McKernan, 'Anzac: then and now', in The last Anzacs: Gallipoli 1915
Was a memorial hall ever erected in your community? Is it still in regular use by the community?
Who was responsible for having it built and how was the money raised for its construction?
Are any war-related items on display in your memorial hall and are they being properly cared for?
Honour rolls, commemorative plaques and other memorials
On an April evening in 1955 the citizens of Black Springs, South Australia, gathered at their local hall to unveil the Black Springs Second World War Roll of Honour. It was an historic moment for Black Springs and, according to the district newspaper, The Burra Record, there was a good turnout of returned personnel for the occasion. The honour roll, carrying the names of two men of Black Springs who had died in the war, was unveiled by the Mayor of Burra. One resident, a Mr Dunn, asserted that, as the years went by, the honour roll would become 'very sacred'.
Honour rolls are the most common form of war memorial in Australia. They can be found in schools, community halls, memorial halls, shire offices and many other locations. In many communities, especially during the First World War, they were the first sort of memorial to be put up honouring those who had enlisted. Later, stars or crosses were placed beside names to indicate those who had been killed in action, died of wounds or died of other causes on active service. Sometimes abbreviations were added to indicate the award of a medal for bravery. Sometimes honour rolls named only those who had paid the supreme sacrifice.
On 24 May 1916, for example, in the Victorian coastal town of Lorne, the local Red Cross placed a temporary honour roll in the town library. Public and private schools throughout the country also erected honour rolls, each recording the names of past pupils who had enlisted. Smaller townships which did not put up an outside memorial after the war often placed an honour roll in a public building. The citizens of Binalong, New South Wales, erected a marble Honour Roll in the town's Mechanics' Institute.
An honour roll could be an extremely elaborate affair, such as the large wooden structure created for the Williamstown Town Hall in Victoria. It contained the photographs of 265 local soldiers, mounted across three panels. Honour rolls can be found in many other institutions such as churches, banks, large companies and government departments. While many of these are of a standard design, there are plenty which show a unique local style. These honour rolls are important for what they tell us about that community's or organisation's response to war.
The brick wall behind the dias was masked by blackwood panels with the names of all the boys who had enlisted lettered in gold and a red star added for those killed - just like the new board at the church. The original design became inadequate as the war went on and new panels were jammed on until the brick was covered.
Brian Lewis describing the erection of an honour roll at his school during the First World War, in B Lewis, Our War, 1980
The most devastating effect of war was on the families of those who died. Where this is most evident is in the thousands of church memorial plaques erected by parents to the memory of their sons and daughters. Some of these are in an individual design selected by the family, but so great was the death rate that commercial firms began manufacturing suitable plaques to order. In what was the Methodist Church, Kiama, New South Wales (the building is now a church hall), a plaque was erected to the memory of two of the sons of Percy and Emma Farquharson. The sons were killed in France - Walter in 1917 and Frank in 1918. The plaque was of a standard type produced during the war, with blank sections for the family to provide name, unit, date of death and any small message or comment. Of Walter, his parents wrote simply: An Anzac. Frank's name was later added to Walter's plaque, which had been put up in 1917. Thus in October 1918, for the second time in two years, the Farquharson family attended a memorial service dedicated to one of their sons. For the occasion the rostrum, reading desk and communion table were draped in black and white and Frank's battalion colours, while a laurel wreath hung from the pulpit. Similar dedication ceremonies were held in churches throughout Australia.
Another common type of public war memorial is those which commemorate a group, military unit or event. At Augusta, Western Australia, there is a memorial dedicated to the women of the Australian Army Nursing Service. It was unveiled on 21 April 1978 by Mrs V Statham who, as Sister Vivian Bullwinkel, was the only nurse to survive the infamous Banka Island massacre in February 1942.
An example of a memorial dedicated to an important event is the Centaur Memorial at Caloundra, Queensland. The Australian Hospital Ship Centaur was torpedoed early on the morning of 14 May 1943 by a Japanese submarine off Cape Moreton, Queensland. Of the 363 persons on board, only 64 survived. Among the survivors was Sister Ellen Savage, who was later awarded the George Medal for her bravery on the rafts on which the survivors drifted.
These honour rolls, plaques, and special memorials throughout Australia remind us of the significance which Australians attached to their war effort, and especially to the memory of those individuals with whom they shared that service.
Where are the honour rolls in your community?
Is information available about their history - who designed them, under what circumstances were they erected and how they were paid for?
What memorials to individuals who died in war, such as stained glass windows, special pews, altars and wall plaques, are there in your local churches?
Are there any other special memorials relating to war in your community?
Is information readily available about these commemorative items?
Case study: For sale—one Honour Roll
Janet, who teaches at a Melbourne secondary school, was contacted by a friend, who drew her attention to a newspaper advertisement offering for sale a memorial honour roll. The friend assumed that Janet may have been interested in purchasing this particular honour roll as it related to the small Victorian rural community where her family had lived.
Janet's initial telephone enquiries indicated that this roll did, in fact, include the name of her paternal grandfather and several other relatives who served in the First World War. In response to the question of how he came into possession of this honour roll, the vendor explained that until five years before, it had been located in the local memorial hall. Following an announcement that this hall would be demolished, the vendor's uncle removed the honour roll and stored it in his garage. After his uncle's death, the vendor, as executor of the estate, advertised it for sale as part of the contents of his uncle's house and garage. Janet suggested that the proposed sale may be illegal. Following further negotiations with the vendor, it was agreed that the roll should be given to a nearby RSL club to be added to its collection.
Listed on the walls of the Australian National War Memorial at Villers-Bretonneux in France are the names of more than 11,000 soldiers of the First Australian Imperial Force. They died in France between 1916 and 1918 and have no known grave. The remains of the Unknown Australian Soldier, which rest today in the Hall of Memory at the Australian War Memorial in Canberra, came from a grave in Adelaide Cemetery, Villers-Bretonneux. For years it was marked simply 'An Australian Soldier of the Great War: Known Unto God'. Today the overseas graves and the great memorials to the missing on which are engraved the names of those Australians who have no known grave are cared for by the Commonwealth War Graves Commission.
Many other former Australian sailors, soldiers, airmen and service women lie in cemeteries around Australia. A single, unemployed war pensioner, 57-year-old Ernest Leach, died in September 1933 at Goondiwindi, Queensland. As Private Ernest Leach, 22nd Battalion, he had fought for Australia on the Western Front in France and Belgium. Ernest Leach did not have sufficient funds at the time of his death to cover the cost of his own funeral, so the Goondiwindi Hospital paid for his burial in the local cemetery. The Public Trustee administered Leach's few possessions: a sulky pony, aged, worth about £2; a dilapidated old sulky with a broken wheel, worth about £1; one set of harness worth about £1. Behind his lonely and almost forgotten grave at Goondiwindi is the story of the 22nd Battalion and one who, with his mates, endured much in that frontline infantry unit.
Gravestones in cemeteries can sometimes reveal a story of the local experience of war. Annie Whitelaw died, aged 64, on 5 April 1927, and was buried in the Briagolong Cemetery. On her headstone is this inscription:
The Mother Of Six Sons
Who Served In The
Great War 1914-1919
Four of Whom
Bob, Ken, Ivan and Angus
Paid The Supreme Sacrifice
Happy is she who can die
With the thought that in
The hour of her country's
greatest need she gave
Her Utmost. (Conan Doyle)
Erected by the Maffra Repatriation Committee
Three of Annie's sons - Bob, Ivan and Angus - are listed on the Maffra War Memorial under the words 'Killed in Action', but Ken Whitelaw's name is missing. Why then does it say on Annie's grave that he paid the Supreme Sacrifice? Ken Whitelaw returned from the war and, like many other men of the First Australian Imperial Force, died at home of the wounds he had received in action overseas. All of Annie's six sons had enlisted and, at the time of her death, the Maffra Repatriation Committee was well aware of the suffering which war had brought to this local family. Today, Annie Whitelaw's grave is an important part of Briagolong and Australia's war heritage.
Are there any graves in your local cemetery which are identified as those of service men and women?
What is known about their military service?
Are there other graves with inscriptions which link them to war?
Would a cemetery walk brochure help visitors appreciate the service and sacrifice of local veterans?
Case study: Reg's war stuff
The day after the funeral of Reg, a widower and Second World War veteran who served in New Guinea, his son Gavin came across an old suitcase neatly labelled 'Dad's war stuff'. The contents of the suitcase related to Reg's war service in New Guinea and included letters, photographs of places and fellow servicemen, and a small number of service medals. Gavin's initial plan was to keep one or two official documents dealing with his late father's war service and to dispose of the rest. However, on reading several of the letters and details on the back of photographs, Gavin came to the view that his father's memorabilia may well be of interest to other family members living in rural communities in northern New South Wales.
Following discussions with family members, Gavin had his father's documents and photographs copied and put into an album, along with explanatory notes. The originals, together with his father's service medals, were then presented to the local memorial hall, where a group of volunteers had started a collection of war memorabilia and documentary material relating to the district. With modest funding provided by its local government authority, the group has been able to undertake basic renovations of the building, making it more suitable to display the growing collection.
Some months after his father's death, Gavin and his family visited the museum, where an enlarged photograph of his father and a summary of his life and service record were on display.
After the First World War the War Trophies Trustees of Apollo Bay, on the south coast of Victoria, presented every returned soldier and the next of kin of deceased soldiers with an appropriately inscribed gold medal. Each medal cost about 3 shillings to make. The medals are a significant aspect of Apollo Bay's war history. But where are these medals now? Important local or national war memorabilia, like the Apollo Bay medals, are not only to be found in state and national museum collections. Across Australia, in private homes, historical societies, RSL sub-branches and clubrooms and in numerous other places there is a great deal of war related material and memorabilia. For many families, this material is of deep personal significance, but much of it may also be important for what it reveals about local communities at war. Sometimes it may be of significance to Australia's national history. This material consists broadly of four main categories of items:
- Written and printed material
- Other war-related objects
Written and printed material
Written material consists of diaries, letters and such items. Some items are of interest only to the family or local collections; others may be of national importance. For example, a diary written by a soldier in Malaya in January 1942, when Australian troops faced the Japanese invaders, may contain vivid descriptions of his unit in action. On the other hand, letters he wrote home might be of interest only to his family. Similarly, a nurse writing from France in 1916 might include few references to her experiences there, but a great deal about the conscription debate then raging in Australia. Such letters could be important in an understanding of that issue.
Among the most common printed items in the community from both world wars are the certificates and letters sent to the next of kin of a deceased service person. Approximately 61,000 of these were sent out during the First World War and more than 39,000 in the Second World War. They were accompanied by a mass-produced letter from the King and, in the First World War, by a medallion, known colloquially as 'the dead man's penny'. From a family and community point of view, these are valuable items, and interesting research could be done about the war experience of the individuals whom they commemorate.
Photographs are among our most direct and moving records of war. Australia has several fine collections of such photographs, especially the one at the Australian War Memorial in Canberra. Many families possess photographs of family members in uniform, taken before they left for the war. Sometimes there are snapshots taken during war service in Australia or overseas.
A photograph of the band of the 2/21st Battalion, Second Australian Imperial Force, is a good example of a significant item in private possession. The 2/21st Battalion became part of 'Gull Force' which, in February 1942, defended the island of Ambon against Japanese invasion. Virtually all of Gull Force fell into enemy hands and spent the rest of the war in captivity, during which time most of them died. Apart from its importance as a record, the photograph can be viewed as a memorial to the bandsmen. Behind each name is a story of imprisonment, hardship and death. Certainly it, and photographs like it, should be identified and preserved.
From the Boer War to the war in Afghanistan, all Australian defence personnel who served in a war zone have received at least one medal. These medals, known as war medals or campaign medals, are engraved with the recipient's service number, rank and name on the rim of the medal. The original Anzacs on Gallipoli received three medals: the 1914-15 Star, the British War Medal and the Victory Medal. Those who only served in France and Belgium or Palestine received the latter two medals. First World War medals have the unit engraved after the name.
For the Second World War there are twelve medals and stars, including the recently introduced Civilian Service Medal. The time requirement for the Australia Service Medal 1939-45 has recently been reduced. This means that all Second World War service personal are entitled to both the War Medal 1939-45 and the Australia Service Medal 1939-45 even if they did not go overseas. The Defence Medal was awarded for service in Darwin and other threatened areas. For operational service overseas, over 200,000 received the 1939-45 Star. A similar number received the Pacific Star and nearly 100,000 the Africa Star. RAN and RAAF personnel were awarded the majority of the other five campaign stars: Atlantic, Air Crew Europe, Italy, France and Germany, and Burma.
A number of medals have been instituted since the end of the Second World War to recognise service in a range of conflicts, including the Korean War, Vietnam War, East Timor, Rhodesia, Iraq and Afghanistan. Service in other conflicts and peacekeeping operations has also been honoured, with medals such as the Australian Service Medal and the Australian Active Service Medal.
Thousands of Australians have been awarded medals or have been mentioned in dispatches, although gallantry and meritorious service awards are given out sparingly. The most famous and prestigious of the bravery awards is the Victoria Cross (VC). A hundred VCs have been awarded to Australian servicemen since 1900. More than half of these are presently displayed in the Hall of Valour at the Australian War Memorial. Nearly 10,000 Military Medals have been awarded, mostly in the First World War. Many gallantry awards are accompanied by a citation that gives brief details of the action being commended. Medals are relics of service and sacrifice. They are a permanent memorial to individual Australians who served their country in times of great danger, many at the cost of their lives. They are worn proudly by returned service men and women on national days of commemoration such as Anzac Day and other significant anniversaries.
It is difficult to give a brief account of the kind of objects and other material that individuals, families and local organisations may have in their possession relating to the war. Some of these things may be of national value; others may be important simply as personal souvenirs and mementos of war. For example, some families may still possess as a treasured memento a chocolate tin presented by Queen Victoria at New Year 1900 to British Empire troops in South Africa during the Boer War. Others may have maps, service documents or equipment items that were issued to a family member during their service. Each item, in its own way, tells of the contribution the original owner made to the defence of Australia.
Another type of memorabilia is souvenired or captured enemy items. Some of these items are now being returned to families overseas by the descendants of those who brought them back to Australia. This can work both ways. In late 1997, a watch worn by an Australian Second World War pilot killed in France in August 1944 was returned to his only surviving relative, a sister. The watch had originally been presented to the pilot by his local community, as attested by an engraving on the back. Returned to Australia, it has become an important link, reaching back across the years, for the family and the community.
Local museums and RSLs often possess significant war memorabilia. On display in the Yass and District Historical Society's museum in Yass, New South Wales, are diverse items ranging from a bible given to a local soldier who went to the Sudan War in 1885 to a colourful certificate issued by the Municipality of Yass to local men and women who had served in Australia's armed services in the Second World War. The museum has also acquired by donation the complete uniform issue of a local woman who served in the Second World War in a Red Cross Voluntary Aid Detachment and subsequently in the Australian Army Medical Women's Service.
Also in the Yass museum collection are a number of touching objects which can be taken to symbolise the whole idea of memories and memorabilia: a portrait photograph of Private Reginald Cole Kenny, 3rd Battalion AIF; the telegram informing his mother that Reg had been killed at Pozières, France, between 22 and 27 July 1916; the commemorative scroll, plaque and Reg's war medals issued to the Cole family after the war; a photograph of the cross marking where the unidentified bodies of the men from Reg's unit were initially buried in France; and a bible presented by Reg to his mother in 1909.
What sorts of war memorabilia items - written records, medals, photographs, and other objects - exist in your community?
Are they held in a local museum, RSL sub-branch or club, institution or private hands?
Has an inventory been made of this material?
Could any of it be of national importance?
Case study: Saving Portland's war heritage
In February 1993 Des Hein, of Portland in south-west Victoria, was removing aerials from a 22-metre high disused water tower. Noting that the top of the soon-to-be demolished tower afforded a magnificent view of the surrounding country side, Des envisaged how the building could be developed as an innovative local wartime museum. With the addition of an internal staircase and landings, the tower would provide a location to store and display local war memorabilia which could not be accommodated at the Portland RSL clubrooms. With Ivan Foley, the President of the Portland RSL Sub-Branch, and other interested members of the local RSL, Des approached the Glenelg Shire Council with their proposal. The Council subsequently agreed to allocate the funding set aside for the tower's demolition to pay for the proposed structural additions.
In August 1995, the Portland Wartime Museum Committee and the Glenelg Shire obtained funding from the Commonwealth Government to employ twelve young people to develop the tower into a six-level memorial with an enclosed lookout. As well as providing display areas for war memorabilia (weapons, uniforms, etc) and documentary records relating to Portland's experience of war, the inside walls of the tower would display scenes from the Second World War, painted by a local artist. This innovative redevelopment was completed in 1996 and the Portland Wartime Museum, operated by a committee of volunteers, began to attract many visitors, serving as an inspiring example of what can be achieved through local initiative and cooperation.
Anzac Day 1965 was a special day - the fiftieth anniversary of the landing at Gallipoli. At Wynyard, Tasmania, sixty-five exservicemen marched at dawn to the Wynyard War Memorial, where they held a simple service. Afterwards they gathered to remember and reminisce about some of the 136 servicemen of Wynyard and district whose names were recorded on the memorial. Nat Flint, of Yolla RSL, recalled the two Upchurch brothers from Somerset, a local settlement.
In particular he recalled Andy Upchurch's death:
I was with him when he was shot. It was Easter Sunday, 1917. A few hours later another Wynyard fellow in our bunch, Charles Hitte, was also shot dead.
Veteran Charlie Carty remembered Ivor Margetts, a Tasmanian State footballer, who was killed in France:
He was my captain ... a great soldier and a great man with it. I was only a few feet away from him in the trenches when he was shot at Pozières in 1917. Killed instantly.
Others recalled the grief of the Byard family from Preolenna. Three Byard boys went off to the Second World War. One died at the Siege of Tobruk in North Africa, another fighting the Japanese at Milne Bay in 1942, while the third survived the war. Many other stories of Wynyard families at war were told at that Dawn Service, where a reporter from the local paper happened to be present to write them down.
There have been many similar occasions around the hundreds of memorials throughout Australia over the years, where nobody thought to record the stories and memories revealed on Anzac Day and at other commemorative events. While we say Lest We Forget, the lives and experiences of those listed on war memorials, especially those who paid the supreme sacrifice, have not been remembered. The generation of the men and women of the First Australian Imperial Force of the Great War has passed on and their memories have gone with them. However, there are still many in the community who recall clearly some of those whose names are on the local memorial. Many can also remember other aspects of the war and the way it has been remembered and commemorated locally - the joy or heartbreak of homecomings after the war, the hardships of campaigns overseas, the experience of being stationed far from home in Australia itself, the day a loved one's death was reported, and Anzac Days and Remembrance Days when the community gathered to honour those who left for overseas, sometimes forever.
These and other memories of growing up, going to school, attending commemorative ceremonies between the wars when Anzac Day was a relatively new event, being part of a developing Australia, are as much a part of the community's war heritage as any other type of war material or memorabilia. In this new millennium it is important that future generations have available to them not just the memorials and memorabilia of the past, but also the recorded memories of veterans, whose war reminiscences stretch across the century to their fathers and uncles who were the Anzacs.
The young people ask: 'What are they marching for?'
I ask myself the same question.
And the band plays “Waltzing Matilda”
The old men still answer the call,
But as year follows year, more old men disappear,
Someday no one will march there at all.
Eric Bogle, 'And the band played Waltzing Matilda'
Have the stories of those whose names appear on your local war memorials and honour rolls been properly documented?
Are there veterans and other residents in your community whose memories of war and its impact on your local district should be recorded?
The following organisations may be able to assist you with help and advice about caring for and preserving your community's war heritage:
- Local council
- Historical society or museum
- Military museum, if one exists in your area
- Genealogical society
- Ex-service or veterans' organisations
- Local library
- Other local heritage organisations
- State or Territory libraries and museums
- Australian War Memorial
Preserving Australia's war heritage
Over the past century, Australian men and women have been prepared to answer their nation's call in time of war or conflict. For some, this has meant serving in Australia's armed forces; for others, it has led to working on the home front - on the factory floor, on the land, or in volunteer organisations. Out of these experiences came an array of memorabilia in the form of diaries, letters, medals, photographs, artworks, film, and an assortment of other ephemera. Each of these items is a commemorative reminder to following generations of this sacrifice.
Yet all too often memorabilia pieces are unintentionally damaged or destroyed. Poor storage or handling can lead to deterioration of many collection items.
This booklet is intended to be a guide to looking after your wartime memorabilia items. It cannot hope to cover every possible storage or display situation or every memorabilia item. If you have a question about specific items or conditions, contact the conservation sections of the institutions listed at the end of this publication for expert advice.
Some items are so highly deteriorated that they look unsalvageable; however, they may be retrievable through professional conservation treatment. See the 'conservation case studies' section for some examples.
Handling and general collection care
Before handling any artefact, wash your hands and ensure they are dry. Washing reduces skin oils and also removes any hand or sun creams that could damage and stain collection items. When handling your items, always use both hands to support their weight. Books, even light-weight ones, can be easily damaged if they are accidentally dropped.
For photographs and metal objects, wear plain cotton or plastic gloves, as our body oils can react with the emulsion and metal surfaces, causing irreversible damage - for example fingerprints on photographic prints.
Making copies of your paper documents and photos will limit the need to handle originals. Copies can be easily circulated to family and friends in paper or electronic form. See the 'photocopying your documents' section for advice on how best to copy items.
Store the copies and the originals separately from each other. In the event a set is damaged by flood or fire, the other will hopefully still be intact. Better still, make two copies and store one of these at a separate location, such as at a relative's or friend's house.
Approach any repair to your artefacts with caution. Nonprofessional attempts can cause more damage than good. Adhesive tapes should be avoided as they will degrade, leaving residues that are difficult to remove, and can cause further damage to your precious items through staining. In a paper conservation lab, solvents are trialled to remove adhesive tapes, taking extreme care not to solubilise the ink within the document. This process is time consuming and needs to be done in a fume hood to reduce exposure to chemicals.
The best way to protect your valuable memorabilia is through preventive measures like safe handling, careful storage and display. These measures will reduce the need for complex conservation treatments.
Registering and labelling collection items
Labelling of your records can be done using a soft pencil, taking care not to press too hard.
Be very careful with photographs, where you may need to put identification information on the back. If you press too hard you will damage the image or transfer the inscription to the front. Objects can be labelled using paper tags tied to the object.
In general, however, it is better to write any notes or extra information on a separate sheet of paper, preferably of an acid-free type, and store it with the item.
Storage and display
Store or display your items in a place that is clean and free of insects and other pests. If you are going to keep your memorabilia in a drawer or cupboard, make sure it is cool and dry.
Items can be wrapped in acid-free tissue paper or a piece of well-washed linen or cotton to reduce dust. Acid-free paper and card, as well as boxes made of archival quality (acid-free) materials, are available from specialist suppliers of library or conservation materials. Your local library may be able to provide the name of a supplier or you will find them in the Yellow Pages under the heading 'Art Restoration & Conservation'.
If you would prefer to have your items on display, then ensure that the light level in the room is relatively low, and the temperature and humidity moderate and stable.
Do not display or store items in direct sunlight, and avoid placing them near heaters or fireplaces, where there are rapid changes in temperature. Exposure to light and rapid variations in temperature can cause discolouration of collection items and spot staining known as 'foxing', particularly with paper or textile based materials.
Regular monitoring of your collection material will ensure that you notice unfavourable conditions and other threats to preservation such as mould and insect attack. The earlier such things are observed and acted upon by collection custodians, the easier it is to maintain the collection.
Support materials for storing photographs, slides and negatives are available from reputable photographic shops and processing houses, as well as suppliers of archival storage materials.
Acid-free boxes and archival quality papers are available from art shops and conservation material suppliers and can be found under 'Art Restoration & Conservation' in the Yellow Pages.
Conservators in private practice can be found on The Australian Institute for the Conservation of Cultural Materials (AICCM) website under the 'need a conservator?' tab. AICCM is the peak Australian conservation body, whose members are bound by a Code of Ethics and Practice.
Restoration firms are listed under 'Art Restoration & Conservation' in the Yellow Pages.
Ideally, items should not be stored in an area where there is a risk of water ingress or flooding. However, this may not always be possible. In a flood-prone area, you can minimise the risk by ensuring that memorabilia items are stored higher than the historic flood levels. If your climate is normally fairly dry, items could be stored in a sealed archival quality plastic bag. However, care should be taken in areas of high humidity, such as the tropics, where sealing items in plastic bags may lead to mould growth.
Small fire-resistant boxes, available from larger department stores, hardware stores or locksmiths, can provide protection for your memorabilia items in the event of a house fire or bushfire.
In an emergency such as flood or bushfire, you should be conscious of which artefacts are truly irreplaceable (which are therefore the ones you should grab first), and which may have monetary value but could be replaced if necessary.
If you work at a community museum or historical society you may wish to prepare a disaster kit (see image top left). This kit can be used in the event of an emergency to salvage collection material. Useful disaster recovery materials for your kit are: garbage bags, sponges, a mop head, absorbent materials such as Chux, towels and rags, a dust pan and brush, disposal gloves and wipes. Additional materials that could be on hand include fans, a flashlight and batteries, a hair dryer (for use on a cool setting), buckets and a vacuum cleaner.
What to do if documents or books are water damaged
Records can get wet for a variety of reasons, from natural disasters to burst or leaking water pipes. When records have become wet, they are fragile and extremely vulnerable to damage. This potential for damage increases the longer the items are wet or damp, so urgent action is required.
In any salvage operation, your own safety should come first. Be sure the area is safe to enter, particularly that there are no live electricity wires and there is no risk of shelving collapse. In some cases, you may have to take into account whether the water is safe to go into or whether it has caused slippery floors or unstable surfaces.
Paper items should be salvaged and dried out as soon as possible to prevent the material deteriorating further. If left wet, the paper becomes weak and mouldy. Mould digests and stains paper, sometimes irreversibly, and poses a serious health risk to people working with the records. When handling collections affected by mould please ensure that you wear personal protective equipment such as disposal gloves, a face mask and eye protection. An old shirt or a pair of overalls will also help to protect your clothes from contamination.
Many inks are water-soluble and will run when the document becomes wet. They will continue to run until it is dried out again.
You will need to prioritise what you can salvage. Some materials cannot stand being in water for very long at all, while other records can wait a little longer.
You should consider whether there is any material that can be replaced. If so, that material can be left to one side while the more important material is salvaged. When handling vulnerable paper-based collections use a support fabric made from polyester or a Chux cleaning cloth to carefully remove and transport documents.
In a flood some material may only be affected by damp. Touch the material to check, and set aside from heavily wet collections.
The National Archives of Australia suggests items be salvaged in order of vulnerability:
- Older photographic material such as pre-1950s colour formats, glass plate negatives, deteriorated film negatives, deteriorated black and white prints;
- Books or pamphlets on coated papers - these papers contain a starch and clay sizing which becomes like glue once it is wet and then allowed to dry;
- Magnetic media such as audio, video and computer tape;
- Records with water soluble media, e.g. hand annotated maps, watercolour sketches, signatures in red ink;
- Paper records which you know were very fragile before the flood, e.g. previously mould-damaged material;
- Books with hand-crafted bindings;
- More modern photographic material like contemporary colour material, recent black and white prints;
- Paper-based files;
- Books on uncoated paper; and then
- Photocopied reference material.
Drying needs to take place in a well-ventilated area. If fans or dehumidifiers are available, these will greatly assist the drying process. Otherwise, open as many windows as you can to keep the air moving and to encourage evaporation.
When preparing material for drying, remove any wet packaging material, record any information written on it, and throw the packaging away.
In the event of a large flood where a huge number of records are wet, consider freezing batches of material to give you more time to deal with your collections. Sort the material into the priorities listed above, then freeze the less important or urgent. See 'freezing techniques' in the textiles section for more details. There are companies who can help with the freeze-drying of large amounts of archives and records in all States and Territories of Australia - refer to an internet directory or the Yellow Pages under document recovery and/or freeze drying companies.
Basic drying recommendations for paper-base materials
Plain paper documents/files
Handle with care, as wet paper is extremely fragile. Separate wet sheets and interleave every few pages with paper towels or blotting paper. Spread the paper out as much as possible to ensure proper air circulation. Change the interleaving regularly to ensure rapid drying.
Wet volumes can become badly distorted through water absorption. Books can be interleaved with blotting paper or fanned out to encourage exposure to air.
Place wet photographs in a tub of clear water and carefully separate any that are stuck together, if possible. Dislodge any dirt by gentle agitation of the clean water then lay the images face up on a kitchen towel. Never wipe the wet emulsion of a photograph. See the 'photographs' section for more information.
Coated paper (picture book and magazine paper)
While the items are wet, separate each page and blot excess water off. Stand the items up on absorbent paper and fan the pages open. Keep checking the items and separating any pages that stick together, while they dry.
Water-affected material will never be 'as good as new'. It will be distorted and stained, inks will have run and bindings will have swollen. But if dried as described above, this damage will be minimised.
Once dry, items can be gently brushed to remove any dirt left by the flood waters.
If material has been damp for a long time before salvage, or if too long is taken to dry it out, mould can start to grow. Mould can be a health risk, and it would be well worth approaching one of the institutions listed in this booklet for specialist advice on how to deal with mould, should you see signs of it developing.
Collection care information
Books, especially diaries, are often weak along the spine and sewing structure from continuous years of handling. This long-term use needs to be taken into consideration when protecting bound items in the future.
Do not use leather dressings on leather book bindings. These commercial products remain tacky for long periods of time and attract dust, insects and mould. If you are worried that a leather binding might crack, seek professional advice from a bookbinder or conservator.
When putting books on a shelf, do not wedge them too tightly. Bookends can be utilised to stop books from slumping or falling over on the shelf. When removing a book from a shelf, do not pull it out by the top lip of the spine. This will eventually result in the upper spine tearing. Carefully push the adjacent books back, so you have access to the book block for removal.
Some books are best stored flat on shelves. These include large books with limp covers, very widebooks, books with loose covers or those where the binding is falling apart. Books that are coming apart should be wrapped in acid-free tissue and put in a storage box to prevent further damage. Large or fragile books should not be stacked one on top of each other.
Papers and documents
Collection care information
Many people have letters, diaries, postcards, maps or other paper documents that they wish to preserve. Of all wartime memorabilia, items on paper are perhaps the most fragile.
The strength and quality of paper can vary greatly, depending on how old it is, where it was made and what it was made from. Some paper more than 100 years old can be quite strong (made from linen or cotton), yet modern papers (made from wood pulp) can contain impurities that weaken and cause damage to the paper - for example newspaper.
Try to avoid bending or folding pages within your paperbased collections, as this will fracture the paper fibres and create a weakness along the line. If previously folded, documents can be now stored open to reduce handling and enable easy access to textual information. A good rule when opening a document is that if you feel any strain, you should not force the item flat.
One good way to protect documents and papers is to place each sheet flat into individual archival plastic sleeves. Archival transparent plastic sleeves are ideal, because they provide the necessary protection and also allow you to see the documents clearly, reducing the need for direct handling of important, aged material. Food storage bags made of polyester, polyethylene or polypropylene (from supermarkets) are all suitable alternatives if you have trouble obtaining proper archival sleeves. Oven bags are also suitable as they are made from polyester, which is particularly safe for paper.
Documents in archival plastic sleeves can be stored in an ordinary ring binder or in boxes. Boxes help to reduce damage and may also act as a buffer against extremes and variations of temperature and humidity. You can also store documents in archival-quality photograph albums with plastic sleeves.
Very large items should be rolled around a cardboard tube of at least 75 mm (3 inches) in diameter. Most cardboard tubes are made from acidic materials that can transfer and damage in-contact collections over time. To avoid this, the tube can be wrapped with several layers of acid-free paper before the collection item is then wrapped around the outside. Alternatively, archival quality tubes are available from reputable suppliers.
Rubber bands and metal clasps such as staples or 'bulldog' clips can all cause damage to the paper as they perish or rust over time. The marks that are left can be difficult to remove, and can cause mechanical damage to the underlying paper.
If documents are beginning to fall apart, especially those with printing on only one side, there is often the temptation to glue them onto cardboard or have them laminated to try to strengthen or mend them. Conservators do not recommended this course of action; instead, the best option is storage in an archival quality sleeve to keep the pieces together and to avoid further damage.
Make photocopies or scan your important documents if they are fragile and then, as much as possible, avoid handling the originals. See the following section on photocopying and digital scanning for more information.
If you want to frame your documents, refer to the advice in the section titled 'Artworks'.
Photocopying and digital scanning of your documents
You can increase the life of your valuable original documents by photocopying or scanning them and then storing the originals safely away. Use the copies for display or regular handling. Hard copies can be made using a photocopier or 'soft' electronic copies made using a digital scanner.
Modern electrostatic photocopiers (the dry, Xerox type) produce copies with a reasonable lifetime, particularly if you use high quality paper. Items printed on low quality paper, such as newspaper clippings, for example, have a fairly short life expectancy. To ensure that the information survives, a useful step would be to photocopy the item onto archival quality paper.
Copying letters and similar small items is safe, if you take care with handling and only copy once. Use the first copy for multiple copying.
It is best to copy on a machine with a fixed platen (glass copy plate). For large items a fixed platen is essential. Photocopiers with mobile platens should only be used for single sheet materials or small books. With mobile platens there is always the risk of the edges of pages hanging out and then catching and tearing.
Never force a book down on a photocopier platen. Fragile book bindings and tight spines can break if forced open; these might need to be captured by a digital camera instead.
Maps and large sheet materials should not be copied on ordinary photocopier platens, nor should they be folded to 'fit'. If an item is larger than the platen of a particular photocopier, it should not be copied on that machine.
Plan-copying businesses often have large photocopiers and many will copy memorabilia items such as maps or large diagrams for a small fee. If a map or other large sheet object is brittle or torn, do not copy it on an auto-feed plan copier. Put these items between clear polyester sheeting before placing them manually on the copier.
Items which have been rolled up for a long period need to be opened carefully and let to lie flat under light weight to 'relax' the paper fibres before handling and copying or scanning.
Collection care information
If the old adage that 'a picture is worth a thousand words' is true, then many of the shoeboxes full of photos in closets around the nation will speak volumes of the experiences of Australians at war.
Photographs tell stories in ways that words cannot of the people and times of the events that they show: 'Did she really look that young when she enlisted?'; 'This was how it looked when ...'
The one drawback with photographs, however, is that unless they are captioned it is almost impossible for those not directly connected with the event to tell who or what is in the image. While you may know that the photograph is of, say, your father in his World War II uniform, how will others be able to tell who it is? Labelling photos is vitally important if they are still to have meaning for future generations.
Try to give a full name, where possible, rather than 'my father' or 'Bill'. List people's names from left to right. If you don't know who someone is in a group shot, write 'unknown' for the name. Avoid writing on the backs of original photographs, especially with inks or ball point pens. If necessary, a soft lead pencil of 'HB' or 'B' grade may be used with care.
Alternatively, photograph details can be recorded on a separate piece of preferably archival quality paper and retained with the collection or within a photo album. Photographs within an album can be attached using archival paper or plastic 'photo corners', available from photo retailers.
Albums with adhesive-coated pages or clear plastic sheeting that sticks down over the photographs should be avoided, as these can harm your photographs.
Photo dealers now offer a digital copying service that is fast and inexpensive, and that will also allow you to store copies of your images as a digital file on a memory stick or thumbdrive.
Displaying original photos
Photographs can be framed and displayed like other artworks. Archival quality framing materials are recommended to ensure long-term preservation.
If you have the original negatives for your photos, treat them with special care. Negatives should be stored in archival quality sleeves. Older negatives, especially those of larger film formats such as were common pre-1960, can stay in their original paper wallet.
Many families have sketches, watercolours or even oil paintings that were produced during the rare leisure moments of wartime.
If you have artworks in your personal collection, you should regularly check them to see if there are signs of deterioration. If a painting is dirty or has tears, large dents or flaking paint, contact a conservator to assist with these problems.
Oil paintings are quite durable and can last several hundred years without any attention if kept in a good environment. If in good condition, with no flaking paint or tears, the painting surface can be gently cleaned with a soft brush.
Watercolour images can be affected by water and light and can be prone to fading.
Pastels, charcoal or chalk art can be difficult to care for. Avoid 'fixing' these artworks with hair spray or art fixatives, as these can alter their appearance.
Pencil or ink sketches (without colour) are generally quite durable and can be displayed for a period of 3-4 months at a time, before being rested for the remainder of the year. Alternatively, you may wish to have a high quality photographic copy made for display rather than risking damage to the original through exposure to light.
Unframed artworks (other than pastels, charcoal or chalk) should be stored in smooth paper folders, preferably of acid-free paper or a paper such as neutral glassine. If possible, store artworks flat. Rolling and unrolling will damage brittle papers and delicate images. Pastels, charcoal and chalk art works are best stored in their frames.
When framing an artwork on paper, the item should be sandwiched in a mat consisting of a mount-board window and a backing board. Both should be 4-ply (or heavier), acid-free, buffered, conservation mount board. Works can be hinged or attached within the mount using photo corners.
Poor quality composite materials like chipboard, MDF or other timber sheeting have a high acid content that will cause damage, staining and discolouration to your collection and should be avoided.
You can use an acrylic material such as Perspex or plexiglass instead of glass as the glazing within your frame package. It has the advantage of being lighter and less easily broken than glass.
When displaying art on paper, hang the item away from direct sunlight or bright light. Light can fade coloured papers and cause darkening of white papers, as well as altering the media colour.
Do not place art works above heaters or fireplaces where rapid changes in temperature occur. This can lead to cycles of drying out and condensation within the sealed frame, which can cause deterioration of the art work.
The hanger on the wall should be securely fixed and of a type and size that will bear the weight of the picture and frame. The screws or eyehooks on the frame should be strong and firmly attached. Ideally, hang the artwork from two secure points. If you use a one-point system, use picture wire rather than cord to hang the artwork.
Collection care information
Medals and medallions are commonly made from copper, brass, bronze, pewter, iron or steel and occasionally aluminium, silver or gold. Some medals may have a thin chemical coating called a patina, which creates a look of a particular colour; some medals have a lacquer applied to them which helps them to retain their original shine. Medal ribbons are made from silk or synthetic fabrics coloured by natural or synthetic dyes.
The main threats to medals are high humidity, dust, skin oils, excessive polishing, cleaning with harsh commercial medal polishes and previous unsuccessful attempts at restoration. The textile medal ribbons can be affected by light and insect or mould attack. To lessen these risks, medals should be stored in a clean, dry place away from light and from extreme variations in temperature and humidity.
Medals may be safely kept in boxes made of hoop pine, plywood (coated) or acid-free cardboard. Some woods that are often used to make small cabinets, such as oak, mahogany, chipboard and ordinary plywood, are acidic, and can harm metals and fabrics. However, these can be used after the application of several coats of clear acrylic or low volatile organic compound (low VOC) acrylic paint, obtainable from a hardware store. Let the paint or lacquer dry thoroughly and 'off-gas' until no odour remains. This can take a few days, or even a few weeks, depending on what product is used. The gases resulting from the use of lacquers and paints can harm metal and textile objects in some cases.
If not being displayed, medals should be individually wrapped in acid-free tissue paper or well-washed cotton or linen fabric - e.g. a cotton handkerchief or tea towel - to prevent them rubbing against each other. Avoid the use of fabrics such as velvet, felt or silk as they can contain acidic dyes and attract insects.
For long-term preservation, 'Court' mounting is the preferred style for medals, as they are fixed and do not get chipped by swinging around. Professional medal mounters are listed in the Yellow Pages or on an internet based directory, and some regularly advertise in exservice organisation newsletters and journals.
Framing your medals
If you frame your medals to display them, remember that medal ribbons are vulnerable to light damage. It is better to store them in the dark, and display them only for short periods of the year. Light can fade the dyes in the ribbons in quite a short time and make the fibres brittle, especially if they are silk. Ensure that the medals are stitched into the frame package instead of using damaging adhesive tapes. Some veterans buy replica medals to display, and keep their originals safely stored; this is a good option for preservation.
The following section, titled 'Cleaning your medals', gives full instructions on the correct cleaning processes.
Cleaning your medals
In some cases you might consider cleaning or polishing your medals, due to unacceptable levels of tarnish or darkening of the surface, when inscriptions are obscured or the surface is unevenly coloured. However, some medals may retain their shine due to a lacquer coating. Researching the original metal, in terms of its colour and patina or whether a coating has been applied, will help you to know what method of cleaning should be undertaken. Medals are commonly composed of a copper alloy metal; there are also silver medals and other metal alloys.
Step-by-step guide for cleaning medals
- Silver cleaning cloths, sometimes known as jewellery cleaning cloths, are great for gently cleaning the surface of medals. Any other metal cleaning methods should be approached with great caution.
- If medals have not been handled or used for a long time and there is visible staining or corrosion that cannot be removed using a cleaning cloth, you could try the method described below.
- If appropriate, remove the ribbon from your medal prior to cleaning by unpicking or cutting along the stitching, and store it safely. Removing the ribbon will protect it from accidental damage - but before removing the ribbon, ensure that you can reattach it after the cleaning.
- Check to see whether your medal has a lacquer coating applied, before performing this next step - if you think the medal has a lacquer coating, then do not use solvents to clean it, instead use a soft cloth.
- If your medal does not have a lacquer coating, you can clean or 'degrease' the medal by swabbing small amounts of a solvent such as acetone or methanol across the surface (see image). Take care not to flood the area with the solvent. Cotton tips and acetone can be bought from a supermarket or hardware store. Note that commercial cleaning and polishing products such as Brasso™ polish and Silvo™ polish should be avoided for this work, as they contain ammonia and abrasives which can clean too aggressively, causing irreversible damage to the surface of your medals if not used correctly.
Cleaning medal ribbons
Wear cotton or nitrile (not latex) gloves when handling medals, to prevent the acids and oils from your fingers damaging the metal and textile surfaces.
Medal ribbons can be cleaned gently with a soft brush and a low-suction vacuum cleaner. If possible, attach a piece of soft plastic tubing to the smallest nozzle of your vacuum cleaner to prevent damage to the ribbon. Micro-attachments for vacuum cleaners are readily available. Cover the nozzle of the vacuum with a piece of open-weave gauze fabric or netting; a net curtain or gauze bandage is ideal. Set the vacuum to its lowest suction level and gently vacuum the ribbon, using the soft brush to loosen ingrained dirt.
If the ribbon needs further cleaning, it may be dry-cleaned, but only if it can be detached from the medal. Do not wash the ribbon. Cleaning treatments using water and heat are not recommended. Contact with moisture can cause the aged textile dyes, especially the older silk dyes, to run or 'bleed' and the heat of washing water can weaken and damage the textile fibres. Complex work like this should be done in consultation with or by a professional conservator.
Ribbons are often badly worn over time and some may need replacement. Ribbon lengths can be obtained from medal dealers, and these are listed in the Yellow Pages or on internet based phone directories. Your local branch of the Returned & Services League of Australia (RSL) can often help with advice on sources of ribbon. To reattach a ribbon to a medal, stitch it carefully with cotton or silk thread. Never use staples or sticky tape to hold ribbons together or to hold ribbons to medals.
Collection care information
Insect damage is the greatest risk to textile items, including uniforms, flags and pennants. Clean textiles are less attractive to insect pests. However, if the item is fragile or particularly old, treatment steps like washing, dry-cleaning or spot cleaning should only be carried out by a trained textile conservator. Dry-cleaning should only be used when it is certain that no damage will be caused to the item by the process.
Most textiles can be gently cleaned by removing surface dust with careful vacuuming. Gentle and regular vacuum cleaning prevents dust build-up and also gives you the opportunity to check for signs of mould, insect infestation or other damage.
Use the lowest suction setting on your vacuum cleaner - most vacuum cleaners have a valve, usually on the hose handle, which when slid open allows air to be admitted, reducing the amount of suction at the nozzle end.
If you can, cover the nozzle with a single layer of a wide weave cloth such as mosquito netting or a wide gauze bandage to prevent any part of the item being sucked into the cleaner. Mini vacuums and mini attachments such as crevice tools and small brushes are available from vacuum cleaner suppliers and may prove to be useful.
Gently brush the fabric, on a flat surface, with a small, soft brush following the pattern of the weave. Use tweezers to remove debris that has adhered to the fabric. You can remove encrustations by gently tapping them with the brush. Suck up the loose particles with the vacuum cleaner.
Make sure any pockets in the fabric are empty and clean. Bits of long-forgotten food or sweets will act like a magnet for insects.
You should store textiles in a cool, dry environment with a moderate humidity level. If possible, they should be stored either in archival quality boxes or wrapped in acid-free tissue. Silk, however, should not be wrapped in acid-free paper; it should be wrapped in a neutral pH paper.
Small textile items should be stored flat with no folds. If you must make a fold, be sure it is not sharp, but supported with a small shaped cushion or twisted up acid-free tissue.
Large flat objects can be stored rolled around a cardboard core that has been covered with acid-free tissue. Interleave the item with tissue as you roll. Hats are best stored in boxes lined with acid-free tissue, with a cushioned pad for the crown of the hat, also made of tissue.
Items such as uniforms, provided they are not too heavy, may be hung on good quality plastic clothes hangers (not wood or wire), padded with acid-free paper.
If textile items are pest affected, or if you suspect that there are live pests in the textile, then freezing the textile can assist to eliminate the insects. See the following section on freezing techniques for more information. Once removed from the freezer and allowed to come to room temperature over 24 hours, the affected textile can then be carefully vacuumed to remove any insect bodies.
Freezing can also be a useful way to get rid of insect pests. It has the advantage of needing no chemicals and is safe for most textiles. However, brittle silk and painted textiles should not be frozen; if in doubt consult a conservator.
Avoid squashing items such as hats or feathers by putting them in boxes before bagging.
Place the items in a preferably zip-lock polyethylene plastic bag, and try to remove most of the air by using a vacuum cleaner on reverse suction or a freezer bag vacuum pump. Double-bag the item if possible and seal with adhesive tape.
Place the bag in a domestic freezer that has reached its lowest temperature. To kill insects at all stages of their life-cycle, the items must be frozen very rapidly down to a temperature of about minus 20 degrees Celsius. This is only possible if the volume of the bag containing the items is less than one third of the freezer's capacity. Leave bagged items in the freezer for at least 48 hours. Open the freezer as seldom as possible during this time to maintain the lowest possible temperature.
Remove bagged items from the freezer, but do not open the seal on the bag until the package has returned to room temperature - it is safest to wait 12-24 hours. Handle the package as little as possible after removing it from the freezer to prevent damage to the items inside, as they are usually very brittle when frozen.
Once the package has returned to room temperature, the bag may be opened and the items removed. Vacuum them carefully with the cleaner set at the lowest suction. Make sure no residue from insects or dirt is left as this may be attractive to another generation of insect pests. Perform the vacuum clean carefully, as the insect eggs are very small and may be difficult to see.
Ferrous and non-ferrous metals
Some families may have metallic items in their possession such as badges, shell cases, pieces of shrapnel, clocks and watches, tools or armour. Items such as these can be made from a single metal or combination of metals including brass, bronze, copper, lead, tin, aluminium, iron, steel and zinc.
At one time it was not uncommon for veterans and others to hold weaponry items, including firearms or bayonets. However, changes to licence regulations may no longer permit some items to be retained. If in doubt, you should check on the laws applicable in your state or territory.
Material such as shell cases, ammunition boxes and tin cans were also popular items for a wide range of artistic work. Some fine examples of craftsmanship are held by the major war museums. Ashtrays and vases made from the brass cases of large calibre guns are common, and something as odd as a pocketknife made from a .303 bullet and piece of hacksaw blade is not unknown.
Defused hand grenades are sometimes found as paperweights and, from more recent conflicts, items such as aircraft and ship clocks can form part of a family's memorabilia holdings.
If you do have ammunition of any calibre, grenades or mortar bombs or similar items and you are not absolutely sure that all explosive material has been removed, seek expert advice from your local police immediately.
Types of common damage
Metal collections can suffer from dents and scratches, corrosion or rust and be damaged by high humidity, dust and abrasive cleaners. Items made of iron or steel are prone to rust. You can carefully wipe items with a soft cloth to remove and reduce dust and dirt, and then thinly apply beeswax or furniture wax to all metal surfaces. The wax will ensure a protective coating and reduce further rust and damage.
Brass and copper tarnish easily if they are not coated. It is important to note that any vigorous cleaning will remove some metal from the surface, so this should be done sparingly and with some consideration. Like iron and steel objects, brass and copper can be protected with a thin coating of beeswax, if they are not already coated. This coating will not last forever, however, so the items may need to be periodically re-coated.
Repairs to clocks may still be possible by some watchmakers, and your local jeweller may be able to provide information about nearby qualified horologists.
Commercial cleaning products such as Silvo™, Brasso™, chrome polishes or bicarbonate of soda based cleaners are very abrasive and are difficult to control upon application. These should be avoided for cleaning wartime memorabilia - gentler, less aggressive forms of cleaning should be used instead.
Collection care information
Most honour boards date from the First World War and were created by communities to list service personnel who fought and/or died in war. Honour boards are often composite objects, being made from wood, stone, metal, paper and photographs.
Wooden honour boards tend to be most common, and are often still displayed within local communities. The type of wood can relate to the budget of the community, although Australian mountain ash or blackwood were often chosen for their colour and fine grain.
Honour boards made from wood are susceptible to mould and insect attack and should be protected from moisture and changes in temperature, which can cause warping, splitting and cracking.
When on display, regularly cleaning with a soft cloth and/or vacuum cleaner with a small nozzle is recommended to prevent dust build-up that will attract insects. In storage, protect the board with a dust cover made from washed cotton sheeting.
Collection care information
Outdoor collections such as cannons, tanks and other large military objects are often cared for by local RSLs or historical societies. Being housed and displayed outdoors in public areas, these collection items are subject to damage from weather conditions as well as surrounding vegetation and vandalism.
The nature of outdoor heritage means it will age and deteriorate more rapidly as it is being subjected to the outdoor elements. As custodians of this material, you can somewhat manage the rate at which it deteriorates by means of regular maintenance and monitoring. Ensure that water does not pool on or around outdoor metal objects by making sure that the drainage from the object is effective during rainy periods. Metal elements should be raised off the grass where possible.
Corrosion in the form of red-orange rust will commonly form on iron or steel objects situated outdoors (see image below). For painted metal objects, as the paint film degrades, the metal underneath becomes exposed to water and oxygen, causing visible and non-visible rust underneath the paint layer. Sometimes this rust will erupt and break through the paint layer, in which case you will need to consider a more complex care regime. For detailed information about the care of these collections, you should seek advice from a conservator with specialist knowledge of outdoor collections.
Collection care information
War memorials commemorate the service and sacrifice of Australians during wartime, and are an important part of Australia's cultural history. Most were created during or after the First World War, and were considered 'surrogate graves' for the families of deceased soldiers who could never visit their gravesites on overseas battlefields.
War memorials are subject to similar threats of deterioration as other outdoor collection items. The category 'war memorials' includes obelisks, pillars, cairns, cenotaphs, windows, statuary, flagstaffs, headstones, ornamental structures and plaques.
It is useful to document the appearance of your war memorial now by taking photographs and making a written report about its condition and colour, so as to better understand any future changes.
You may wish to employ an engineer of historic structures to check the memorial's structural stability. Remember to consult the local government heritage advisor and engage an objects conservator if possible. The stability of the memorial is extremely important and will affect your ability to access and clean the object.
Clean your memorial using plain water and a soft brush, which can aid in the removal of debris and bird droppings. Monuments should also be kept clear of weeds that will attract pests such as mould and lichens. Don't consider the use of a chemical cleaner without referring to a professionally trained conservator or heritage advisor.
Motion picture film
Collection care information
One of the best ways to ensure the long-term survival of your film is to have a digital preservation copy made. This approach ensures that there are two copies of your film - one for access and one restricted from use, for longterm preservation. The National Film and Sound Archive is a good contact point for specialist information.
Preservation treatment of motion picture film is complex and should be undertaken by a trained professional. The best way to protect your collection is to prevent damage through carefully storage and handling.
Black and white film should be stored at around 15-18 degrees Celsius, while colour is best kept at temperatures of less than 8 degrees Celsius, where possible. This does not mean that you should store film in a refrigerator - refrigerators are too moist for proper film storage. Somewhere cool and dry in the house should generally be fine.
If you do have some old motion picture films, keep them in their original containers, and contact the Australian War Memorial or National Film and Sound Archive for preservation advice. They may even be able to assist with making a digital copy of the film, so you can enjoy it and share it with family and friends.
Video and audio tape recordings
Collection care information
Some people have audio or video tapes of special commemorative events or interviews with veterans. Like all memorabilia items, audio or video tape recordings which are to be preserved for future generations need careful handling. The tape itself should not be touched, only the plastic case or reel. Similarly to motion picture films, the lifespan of video and audio recordings can be extended through careful storage and handling.
The greatest threats to these collections are high humidity and heat. The National Film and Sound Archive recommends video be stored at 18-24 degrees Celsius with a relative humidity of 35-45%. These conditions are difficult to obtain within a domestic setting. You may find the lower floors of a house provide more appropriate passive environments without causing high energy bills.
Should video and audio tapes be flood damaged or show signs of deterioration, it is best to separate them from the rest of your collection, bag them and seek professional advice.
Conservation case studies
Prior to beginning any treatment, conservators examine and photograph the current condition of an object to understand the materials and their degradation. This documentation will inform the treatment approach. Discussions with the custodian or owner will also assist to better understand the provenance and future use of the item.
Treatment of 1914-1918 plaque, Caulfield Park
The aim of this treatment was to remove degradation products, e.g. staining, and to restore aesthetic integrity.
- The plaque was documented and photographed;
- The plaque and its stand were cleaned using a non-ionic, conservation-safe detergent to remove foreign material;
- All corrosion products were removed;
- Areas of the bronze were repatinated; and
- The grey concrete stand was repainted to match the existing colour.
Treatment of certificate
Paper objects can often look so badly damaged that you may consider not retaining them. However, in the hands of a conservator, treatment can restore physical and historical integrity. The aim of this treatment was to stabilise the certificate and its associated parts (two ribbons and a photograph) through cleaning and repair. The client was keen to display the item, so restoring its physical integrity and providing archival quality mounting were important.
- The certificate was examined and photographed to record pretreatment conditions;
- It was dry cleaned with a soft brush to remove and reduce surface dirt;
- Its solubility was tested, to understand the material's properties and ensure a recommendation to wash would be appropriate;
- Adhesive tapes were removed using conservation grade solvents and mechanical tools. The tapes were still tacky in areas, so solvents were used to soften the adhesive and aid mechanical removal;
- Having ensured that all the printed inks and inscriptions were not soluble in water, the certificate was washed to remove degradation products and reduce yellowing;
- After washing, the paper item was flattened and dried under pressure;
- Large tears and losses were repaired using Japanese tissue and a conservation grade adhesive; and
- A display support was constructed from archival quality mount board. The certificate, photograph and fabric strips were housed within, using archival photo corners and conservation hinges.
Treatment of the Torrumbarry Hall honour board
The key part of this treatment was to remove and reduce the disfiguring paint layer covering the important textual information of the honour board. In its current state, the honour board could not be displayed or referred to by the community.
- The honour board was cleaned with a conservation grade gel and water mixture to remove the disfiguring paint layer;
- The paint was also removed from the varnished and wood section (without text) using a slowly acting varnish stripper. This product was first carefully tested on a discrete area to ensure safe working practices and compatibility with original materials.
- Further reduction of paint residues was needed, using more abrasive methods to give an even aesthetically pleasing surface. This cleaning was performed under magnification to limit surface damage
- Areas of original paint loss in the inscriptions were retouched with acrylic paints to improve eligibility of text.
And now there's no one left...
With few exceptions, the proper place for wartime memorabilia such as that described in this booklet is within the family or community, provided the items are cared for and looked after.
Sometimes, however, there is no-one left in the family or community to receive or care for the items or, for whatever reason, the desire to keep the pieces has faded. Where this is so, the memorabilia ought not to be simply thrown away. All too often there are instances where a veteran has passed away and, in clearing out his or her effects, family members have unthinkingly discarded medals, diaries and papers that would be of interest to historians.
Should you decide you no longer wish to keep your memorabilia items, the Commemorations staff at the Department of Veterans' Affairs can assist in arranging for their presentation, now or at some time in the future, to a suitable collecting institution, museum or historical organisation.
If you wish to retain your items for the time being, but would like them eventually to pass to a museum or heritage collection, you may need to include instructions to this effect in your will. If you are unsure, consult your legal adviser.
There is no guarantee that state and national collections will accept or display any particular item offered to them, as they may already hold similar pieces. However, these institutions could be offered 'first refusal' of the memorabilia items which, if declined, then may be passed to a regional or local community museum. Many smaller museums would be pleased to care for and look after this material, especially where there is a local link.
Our history - in your care
Australians can be proud that in their major institutions there are comprehensive collections of items of all types that tell of the service, sacrifice, courage, hopes and fears of our forebears in times of war and conflict. They can be proud, too, that individual families continue to hold and cherish items that tell of the experiences of relatives and friends. However, to ensure that this material is still available well into the future, careful preservation must be undertaken now.
If you have memorabilia at home or in your community, looking after it is mostly plain common sense. Nevertheless, you should perhaps see yourself not as an owner but as a custodian for the future, whose duty it is to ensure that these items survive so that those who come after you will also be able to share in the experiences that the items provide.
This booklet was prepared using teaching material at the Centre for Cultural Materials Conservation, University of Melbourne, and supplemented with information from the Australian War Memorial, National Archives of Australia, National Library of Australia, National Film & Sound Archive and Heritage Victoria. If you have questions of a specialist nature about your memorabilia items, you should contact a conservator at one of these institutions, listed below, and/or consult their websites.
Advice on the historical significance and future care of items can also be sought from the Commemorations staff of the Department of Veterans' Affairs.
Department of Veterans' Affairs
GPO Box 9998
Canberra ACT 2601
Tel: 02 6289 1111
Australian War Memorial
GPO Box 345
Canberra ACT 2600
Tel: 02 6243 4211
Centre for Cultural Materials Conservation, University of Melbourne
99 Shiel Street
North Melbourne VIC 3051
T: 03 9348 5700
F: 03 9348 5656
National Archives of Australia
PO Box 7425
Canberra Business Centre ACT 2600
Tel: 02 6212 3600
National Film & Sound Archive
GPO Box 2002
Canberra ACT 2601
Tel: 02 6248 2000
National Library of Australia
Canberra ACT 2600
Tel: 02 6262 1111