Albany's National Anzac Centre: "Some visitors are in tears as they leave​"

Visiting this brilliantly conceived museum is an emotional experience, and provides an insight not only into what it was like to take part in World War I, but also to wait at home in hope of loved ones' return.

Are museums your first port of call on arriving at pastures new? No, me neither. Too many boyhood memories of compulsory shuffles past glass cases full of stuffed birds and foxes. Too much glare and “shush” from attendants who seemed to have first trained as prison wardens.

Ah, but atop Albany’s Mt Adelaide there is a place to banish images of museums as most once were. The National Anzac Centre offers a chance to observe, join, feel and reflect. On my visit I was accompanied, in a sense, by a man who died 44 years ago. More later on my grandfather.

The centre opened in 2014 on the centenary of maritime dispatch of Diggers to World War I. It’s a brilliantly conceived and presented portrayal of what it was like not only to participate in that conflict but also to wait at home in hope of the men’s return.

Today technology and interactivity speed your acquaintance with those soldiers. 

On arrival at the front desk, you shake hands with slouch- hatted history by receiving a card with the name of a real individual. Mine was Sgt Archie Barwick of the 1st Battalion, Australian Imperial Force. 

As you wander through you place the card on small horizontal screens and, on a bigger vertical screen on the wall, more information on Archie appears.

In further high-tech boosts to humanisation of heritage, there are also audio devices and a keypad on which to tap your tribute.

Exhibits of all sizes combine chronicle with candour. The family of Brig.-Gen. Harold Elliott, who was wounded at Gallipoli, may have thought his postwar election to Australia’s Senate signalled a full recovery. They proved sadly mistaken.

“In parliament,” we read, “Elliott worked hard for returned servicemen. He deeply felt the deaths of his men and the battlefield dangers to which he had sent them. Plagued by nightmares and flashbacks, Elliott took his life on March 23, 1931. He was given a full State funeral with full military honours at Melbourne’s Burwood Cemetery.”

More than a thousand Aboriginal men enlisted in the AIF, we discover at another spot. Many were allowed to pull on a uniform only because recruiting had slowed as the muddy slog and slaughter wore on. There was, however, still one point of discrimination. Only those of “mixed descent” were welcome. One parent had to be of “European origin”. Those troopers reaching home faced yet another hurdle, learning that “mixed” status did not qualify them to drink at a pub with the blokes they had fought alongside. Many RSL clubs closed their doors to Aboriginal returnees.

Literary touches adorn the National Anzac Centre. A poem We Are the Maimed evokes how it feels to be “crippled, blind and broken ... denied the solace” that death brought to legions. The building is indeed a house of emotion. “It is not uncommon,” I’m told by Matt Hammond, manager of Albany Heritage Park, “to see people quite overcome. Visitors often spend up to three hours getting to know the character on the card we give them — where the men came from, their dreams and aspirations, the horrors they faced at war, the toll on their families back home ... Some visitors are in tears as they leave.”

I can vouch for that reaction, having struggled briefly to appreciate, through moist eyes, the majestic views through windows of Princess Royal Harbour and King George Sound.

One of the volunteer guides happened to be passing by and sounded a cheerful note: “One of the tributes left here by a young girl was ‘Thank you for saving the country. It turned out all right, didn’t it?’”

The centre is part of a cluster of buildings old and new that occupies the site with the official name of Princess Royal Fortress. Veteran structures include the wooden barracks and brick bungalows — servicemen’s married quarters — which both date from the era when Albany had an important defence role.

The barracks building includes displays and memories to make you smile in a location that is otherwise so full of sombre notes. 

Gwen Norman, for example, features in an Australian Women’s Army Service exhibition honouring hundreds who fulfilled gallantly a military role in World War II. Before getting to know navy officer Gordon Norman, she saluted him every morning. After three weeks she discovered he was only “a petty officer and I didn’t really have to salute him”. They got talking and married at the end of the war. The Albany History Collection is named after this couple who were its first volunteer helpers.

If you fancy covering quite a lot of the 260ha of heritage precinct, there’s a very 21st-century opportunity on hand.

“We’re partnering with Albany Segway Tours to trial a new method of getting around,” Matt says. 

“Segways are two-wheeled, self-balancing electric vehicles which use computer sensors, gyroscopes and the rider’s weight to provide a smooth, silent and futuristic experience akin to glide ing across the ground. These tours include the Desert Mounted Corps Material and the Padre White Lookout.”

He sees the National Anzac Centre and surrounds “as a place of cultural pilgrimage for all Australians wishing to honour and remember the Anzacs of World War I”.

Mention of honour and pilgrimage brings me to mention a personal connection with this heritage gem. In 1914 my English mother’s father put his age up by a year to enlist.

This was a boy who had had to leave school at 10, in 1906, to help put food on the family’s table. Cpl James Walton was gassed and eventually eligible for postwar rehabilitation and education, which included learning handsome handwriting. 

He qualified as a public servant and, grasping the opportunity that was once beyond his aspirations, had steady employment for his entire civilian working life.

I paused at the centre’s tribute keypad to write: “A visit here to honour my maternal grandfather, James Walton, of Blackburn, Lancashire, one of the lucky ones, whose safe return from this war is why I can stand here today.”


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