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Memorial symbolism

War memorials are rich in symbolism and this serves to emphasise their purpose.

By the use of ancient and universal symbols, most already familiar in local grave monuments and in Christian symbolism, war memorials were linked with mankind’s noblest deeds and sacrifices and the search for immortality. Some symbols were derived from the monuments of the ancient world; others were conscious expressions of patriotism and national identity. In newly federated Australia, patriotism was divided between loyalty to the mother country and stirrings of nationalism as the young nation entered the world stage. Significantly, symbols of national birth and regeneration are as common in Australian war memorials as the more universal symbols of death.

The following are some of the symbols to be found in war memorials throughout Queensland:

Wreaths, urns (deriving from the ancient Greek custom of cremation and placing the ashes in funerary vessels), broken columns (representing lives cut short) and funeral shrouds signify death and mourning, and are familiar to both war memorials and grave monuments. So also are obelisks, one of the most popular types of war memorials, though sometimes they bear military symbols such as crossed rifles. Obelisks have their origin in ancient Egyptian sun worship and represent shafts of the sun’s rays hence they also signify fertility. Perhaps Queensland’s most poignant symbol of grief is the ‘Weeping Mother’ seated on Gatton’s First World War monument.

By contrast, the winged angel surmounting Maryborough’s memorial represents victory, as does Ayr’s triumphal arch, borrowings from the triumphal monuments of imperial Rome. Other memorials have features harking back to classical antiquity, such as moulded swags, bosses, and egg and dart ornament, signifying the onwards advance of Western civilization. Also victorious is the eagle perched on top of the American Memorial at Newstead, symbolising American prowess; or the lions guarding Beaudesert’s memorial, representing the might of the British Empire. Possibly it is just a coincidence that the palm trees surrounding many of the state’s war memorials are biblical symbols of victory.

Some memorials are intended to inspire nobler thoughts. An Angel of Peace graces the Stephens Shire memorial at Yeronga while columns, symbols of honour, are to be found throughout the state. Some are crowned by globes, signifying the world and the universality of mankind. Cardwell’s column is crowned by an orb and cross, representing Christian dominion over the world. The Christian cross, the ultimate symbol of salvation and sacrifice, is also seen on obelisks but generally, it was regarded as too overtly Christian to be chosen as a war memorial in its own right. Notable exceptions include the Crosses of Sacrifice erected in Ipswich and other cemeteries containing soldier burials. These crosses, bearing crusaders’ swords, are replicas of solemn structures to be found in British battlefield cemeteries throughout the world. Likewise, the ‘cenotaph’ at Sandgate, a tapering plinth bearing wreaths, was said to replicate London’s famous Cenotaph designed by Edwin Lutyens.

Eternal light, in the form of flames, lamps, and torches, is another familiar feature of war memorials. Light, signifying remembrance and purification, has been an important feature of commemorative architecture since ancient times. Forms of light, including the rising sun, came to have new significance in Australia at the time of the First World War. Though the rising sun had been adopted at Federation as the badge of the Australian military forces, after the dawn landing at Gallipoli on 25 April 1915, it became a symbol of national birth, an essential part of the Anzac tradition. Water, signifying regeneration and cleansing, also features in war memorials, taking the form of fountains, drinking spouts, lily ponds or, in the case of Beenleigh’s memorial—concrete water trough in rich, memorial dress’. The lotus flower, another symbol of renewed life, ornaments the Lands Department honour board.

Some memorials have obvious patriotic or national symbols, often indicating the dual nature of Australian patriotism. This is illustrated by crossed British (Union Jack) and Australian flags and inscriptions such as ‘For King and Country’. A few memorials bear Australian flora or fauna, or verse written by local people. Even the soldier statues found on many war memorials have symbolic significance. Mostly they represent ordinary infantrymen and lack any markings of rank hence they conform to Australian egalitarian ideals. Most statues either stand in mourning (‘reversed arms’) or erect. Only one is shown in action: Atherton’s, which advances holding a rifle, though, sadly, the rifle is now missing. According to the Brisbane monumental masons A.L. Petrie & Son, suppliers of many of Queensland’s war memorials, there was a convention for soldier statues—those in mourning were for memorials bearing only the names of the dead whereas others were for memorials bearing also the names of the returned—however, this convention was not always followed. The tree stumps at the base of many statues are not symbolic; they are merely supporting the statues.

(Source of above text: Judith McKay)

Queensland Heritage Register

Many of the war memorials listed in this Register are also listed as heritage sites in the Queensland Heritage Register. Additional information can be found at: Queensland Heritage Register

Last updated
23 June 2014