In January 1921 an honour roll listing the names of the Bondi Surf Bathers’ Life Saving Club members who had served and died during World War I was unveiled in the clubhouse. The Bondi Surf Bathers’ Life Saving Club, based at Bondi Beach was the first surf life saving club in Australia, created in 1907, and is also, without doubt, the most famous in their red and yellow gear.
Also unveiled on the same day was a series of allegorical murals painted by David Henry Souter depicting the brave lifesaver as heir to the traditions of the famed ANZACs (the members of the Australian and New Zealand Army Corps who fought at Gallipoli against the Ottoman Empire during World War I) and the Australian bushman. These murals are now displayed in the Australian National Maritime Museum.
The first panel in the series features an Australian youth answering the call to war (a – in picture 2 above). He then wades ashore at Gallipoli watched over by the angel of death while another soldier is poised to defend France (b – in picture 2). Through the sacrifice of war, the ANZAC is transformed from soldier to saviour (c – in picture 3). He returns home a hero and is welcomed by family and friends (d – in picture 3).
In the last section of the panel, ANZACs and bush pioneers stand ready to forge a new nationhood (e – in picture 4 above).
Part f in picture 4 shows a crowded Bondi Beach in 1914. The observant reader will note that everyone on the beach is female apart from one male who is disabled and was thus unable to join his male colleagues on the war front.
Two other panels shows the symbolic connection between the ANZACs/bushmen and surf lifesavers by presenting the lifesaver as an ideal of Australian manhood (represented by a merman at g – in picture 5 above), sharing the values and attributes of the ANZACs. He is physically strong, courageous, willing to make extraordinary sacrifices for others and has a love of surf bathing and keeping watch on bathers, depicted as mermaids at h – in picture 5.
I will leave it up to the reader to decide if it is fair to compare surf lifesavers with the ANZACs.
(The wording in this review is closely based on the wording of a 2005 article by Michelle Linder, Curator of the Australian National Maritime Museum – https://anmm.wordpress.com/2015/04/28/anzacs-and-surf-lifesavers/)
The murals form part of the permanent galleries at the Australian National Maritime Museum.