Jim Edwards and Alice Bloomfield kept a trail of postcards while separated during the war.<br>

World War One Postcards, c.1916
Jim Edwards and Alice Bloomfield kept a trail of postcards while separated during the war.
Objects of War

Fremantle in the World Wars

Joseph Christensen and Erin Taafe
Joseph Christensen is a lecturer and Erin Taafe a student of the University of Notre Dame Australia.

War is one of the great authors of material culture or the physical evidence of the past. We see this particularly in the case of the two World Wars. For all the death and destruction these wars caused, each also produced a wealth of material remains from the battlefield, and gave rise to countless literary, artistic and architectural expressions that shape the ways that societies around the globe have attempted to come to terms with the two most devastating conflicts known to humankind. For Australians, as the centenary of Gallipoli approaches, the need to revisit the evidence of war in order to make sense of the nation’s tumultuous 20th century history and to connect a new generations to the legacy of their forebears is, arguably, as compelling as ever. This exhibition explores the contribution of material culture, or the ‘evidence of the past’, in the ways that the two World Wars were experienced in around Fremantle, Western Australia.

The task placed before students in Notre Dame’s history program was simple: to seek out ‘objects’, or material remains and artefacts, and interrogate these for evidence for the role and place of the World Wars in Fremantle’s rich history and heritage. It was, however, also an extremely challenging task, not the least because of the myriad possibilities that might be considered as evidence of the World Wars in the city and it surrounds. The result is an exhibition that showcases something of the diverse forms of material culture the World Wars generated – monuments, museum collections, infrastructure, heritage buildings, landmarks in the built and natural environments, art, personal memorabilia and artefacts, and photographic and documentary evidence held in various archives and repositories – and, through these diverse forms, reveals much about the pervasive influence of war on past generations, and the multitude of meanings that it has taken on across time.

The search for objects to make sense of war dates back to the formation of the Anzac Legend. Charles Bean, correspondent and historian, was a dedicated collector of battlefield memorabilia. At Anzac Cove and later on the Western Front, as he followed the Australian Imperial Force (AIF) he immortalised in the 12-volume Official History of Australia in the War of 1914–1918, Bean also came up with a vision for a national museum that eventually resulted in the Australian War Memorial. Nothing was overlooked in this quest; even items such as a water bottle from Lone Pine or a boot retrieved from the mud at Pozieres had value, in Bean’s eyes, for what it might reveal about what Australians had experienced and what they had achieved. Largely through his efforts, enough material was gathered to support what became one the world’s great museums, and beyond this, for something tangible to commemorate service in the war to be given to communities across the nation, even the smallest town or village. This exhibition also commemorates service in WWI, through biographical accounts of soldiers Isaac Goldstein (contributed by William Jeffries) and William Doig (Rhys Anderson).

It was after WWI and its toll of 60,000 lives that Australians turned their attention to building more lasting monuments to the fallen. So began the process of building the monuments that remain an indelible part of the landscape today, inscribed with the names of soldiers from later wars. These also span across the nation, from the large national memorials located in each state capital to the smallest monuments, listing only a handful of names, and sited near the main street or post office of the smallest country towns. Fremantle and the surrounding region have several such memorials. Two are explored further in this exhibition, in the Fremantle War Memorial at Monument Hill, and the North Fremantle War Memorial erected to commemorate the fallen soldiers from this district (Deborah Gare).

Just over a decade had passed from the opening of Fremantle War Memorial before Australia again found itself embroiled in a new World War. As soldiers, sailors and airmen began to serve in the European, Mediterranean and Pacific theatres, the Anzac Legend was reborn amongst a new generation of Australians. War correspondents and historians again set the tone. Take this account of the Second AIF at the Libyan port of Bardia in January 1941 from the great Australian journalist-turned-historian Alan Moorehead’s “African Trilogy”:
Australians, cigarettes in the corner of their mouths and steel helmets down over their lined eyes, squatted here and there among the prisoners, or occasionally got to their feet with a bayoneted rifle and shouted ‘Get back there, you’ when some Italian started to stroll away. These men from the dockside of Sydney and the sheep stations of the Riverina presented such a picture of downright toughness with their gaunt dirty faces, huge boots, revolvers stuffed in their pockets, gripping their rifles with huge shapeless hands, shouting and grinning – always grinning – that the mere sight of them must have disheartened the enemy troops.

We know from accounts of the North African campaign that the revolvers these Diggers stuffed into their pockets ‘with huge shapeless hands’ were probably looted from captured Italian officers. Like victorious armies everywhere, the Australians were avid collectors of battlefield souvenirs from their vanquished foes. Items such as medals, heraldry, flags and sundry other mementoes returned to Australia in countless thousands after both Wars. Over time, such items merged with official memorabilia such as service medals and decommissioned equipment to help constitute both private and public collections of military history.

The Army Museum of Western Australia, located in Fremantle’s Artillery Barracks, has drawn on both private and official collections to build one of the nation’s largest military history collections. Included amongst the Museum’s collection is a series of items relating to the career of WWI General Sir Talbott Hobbs, a figure explored in this exhibition (Benen Goulding). Private collections are also drawn on in the exhibition; indeed, one of the most rewarding outcomes of this project is the number of contributions that draw on a student’s family history, and which, as a consequence, might otherwise have never been brought to light. A souvenir issue of the West Australian newspaper from VE Day 1945, examined here as a window into the reactions of society to the German surrender (Mitchel Leahy), is among the examples of objects that originate in family histories and keepsakes.

The historian Richard White has observed that war’s imprint is elusive in Australian society, in the sense that it left no ruined cities, redrawn borders or monumental social upheavals of the kind we see in 20th century Europe. By necessity, interest in Australia’s wars often focusses on events taking place on the other side of the world. Yet the homefront experience of war was pervasive for generations, a reality demonstrated by several contributions. Fremantle’s strategic importance is evidenced by the Oliver Hill Battery (Dru O’Bryant) at Rottnest and the Leighton Battery at Buckland Hill (Madeline Bright), a legacy of the harbour’s defences, and the South Slipway, a reminder of the port’s role as a submarine base (Aaron Carlin). The uniform of submariner Robert Gillette, explored as an insight into the presence in Fremantle of thousands of American servicemen (Katelyn Durning), also attests to homefront experiences, as does the study of the functioning of the Fremantle Hotel during WWII (Samantha Thomas). Perhaps the most innovative example relates to Luigi Bassano, an Italian POW brought to Australia in WWII who returned as a migrant after the war’s end (Catriona Gilhooley). It reminds us that Fremantle’s multicultural community was affected by the conflict in ways that are often overlooked in narratives that focus on Australia’s contribution to the fighting overseas.

Homefront experiences also highlight the roles of women in wartime, another diverse set of experiences that is traditionally marginalised by focussing on the Anzac Legend. Other contributions speak to themes of separation and grief that are often similarly overlooked. A series of postcards sent by soldier Jim Edwards to his sweetheart Alice Bloomfield is a touching personal example of one couple’s attempts to retain contact against the backdrop of world war (Jenelle Hockey). The loss of HMAS Sydney, which departed from Fremantle’s on its fateful final voyage in 1941, offers an insight into the anguish felt by hundreds of families around Australia at the loss of this vessel and its crew (Crystal Mance). The discovery of Sydney by a team of searchers including members of the Western Australian Maritime Museum in Fremantle in 2008 put an end to one of Australia’s most tragic wartime mysteries.
Another criticism of the Anzac Legend is that it glosses over dissension and disharmony within Australian society during wartime. Here as well, several contributions help to expose the social costs of the World Wars. Persecution of Germans was rife in WWI Australia, with many ‘aliens’ being interred, and German-derived names literally banished from the landscape, such as the renaming of Mueller Park as Kitchener Park in Subiaco. The heritage-listed German Consulate in the Norddeutscher-Lloyd Building on Mouat Street, the pre-WWI domain of German consul C.P.L. Ratazzi, offers a colourful instance of anti-German hysteria in Fremantle (Katherine McVey). The uniquely Western Australian organisation, the Ugly Men’s Association, worked during and after the war to care for returned soldiers and war widows, but the Association’s ‘Ugly Land’ park was a controversial site amongst Fremantle residents was forced to close in 1929 (Katherine Baker). Fremantle’s working-class martyr, Tom Edwards, killed in a habourside riot in 1919 and immortalised in a memorial fountain in Kings Square, gives us a window onto the divisions fostered in Australian society during this period (Rebecca Paterson-Hollow). And the social tensions didn’t end there, with the influence of the Spanish Civil War evident in Fremantle through the intriguing story of the Heroines of Democracy (Christopher Farley).

The exhibition, then, helps us to both understand and to question Australia’s Anzac Legend. In this way, Fremantle’s experience with the world wars becomes a microcosm of the nation’s experience at large – it becomes part of the ongoing debate and reappraisal of Australia’s World Wars that can only become more important as the centenary of Gallipoli unfolds. Our final exhibition piece, the John Curtin statue in Kings Square (Madison Lloyd-Jones), helps to demonstrate this point. Just as the statue itself became a source of controversy within the Fremantle community, so too do scholars debate Curtin’s performance as a wartime leader. ‘Objects’ have a vital role to play in this ongoing conversation between the present and past. The particular value of material culture is that it can help us to comprehend events that took place during a distinct period of history, and to understand social, political and economic changes across time, yielding insights according to how we choose to interrogate the evidence of the past – or in other words, according to the questions we ask of it. We hope that you will also find this exhibition a rewarding, enlightening experience.

Further Reading

Patsy Adam-Smith, The Anzacs, (1978).

Richard White, ‘War and Australian Society’, in M. McKernan and M. Browne (eds), Australia: Two Centuries of War and Peace, (1988).

Marilyn Lake and Henry Reynolds, What’s Wrong with Anzac: The militarisation of Australia’s history, (2010).

Alan Moorehead, African Trilogy, (1944).

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Objects of War