UNLOCKING THE PAST | War memorials: our places of quiet reflection

War memorials are the most sobering of all our public monuments. They signify the remembering of particular wars, or wartime events, but more importantly they remind us on a communal level of the cost of war, starkly recording the cost of freedom.

Memorials continue to have a particular and special significance for the families and friends of soldiers, sailors and aircrew who did not return to Australia.

For many who died overseas and were buried there, or whose bodies were never located, lost in the fury and confusion of battle, Australian war memorials become the place where they were honoured at home.

This was especially true for World War I veterans, where a significant number of bodies were not repatriated after their deaths.

The Australian War Memorial records that the building of public memorials was well underway before World War I had ended.

In retrospect, this is not surprising; with almost two-fifths of men between the ages of 18 and 44 enlisting in the Australian Imperial Force, no community was untouched.

For families and friends the local war memorial became the surrogate grave of their loved ones, the only place that their name was publicly listed.

With no individual grave to mourn at, flowers could be left at these monuments instead of at a headstone and every year they continue to be a focus for Remembrance Day and Anzac Day services. This public listing of names connects the dead to the living.

Across the Cessnock Local Government Area war memorials, both grand and humble, record the names of those who served their country.

It is sobering to read these lists, often of young lives cut short, but also for those who were able to return to their communities - ask 'at what personal cost?'

We know now that veterans were often forever changed by their experience of war and many never recovered their former lives.

Well-known memorials are public and visible, such as those in the TAFE park at Cessnock or Rotary Park in Kurri Kurri, but our region also contains some small hidden memorials.

A photographic exhibition now on in the Cessnock Library foyer explores the diversity of our local war memorials, showcasing some of the lesser known ones. It is on until May 30.

Memorials seek not to glorify war, but to honour the sacrifice of everyone who went to war and remind us of the real cost of armed conflict.

Kimberly O'Sullivan is the Local Studies Librarian at Cessnock City Library. Email kimberly.osullivan@cessnock.nsw.gov.au.

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