For me, the Australian War Memorial’s WWI dioramas are one of the highlights of a visit to the Memorial and, indeed, so successful have they been with visitors that the Memorial has commissioned additional dioramas on other campaigns including two on the Korean War.
The WWI dioramas were commissioned in the 1920s and were the brainchild of the official war artist Will Dyson and the official war historian Charles Bean. Since then they have been refurbished and updated (while retaining their original character) a number of times including, most recently, in 2014. Their three dimensional nature (which, off course, I loose in my attached photos) bring a realism to the events they depict that neither pictures or photographs can bring.
They graphically and realistically depict, through frozen moments in time, the horrors and devastation of battle, very successfully capturing the suffering and sacrifice of those involved, without being tacky or sensationalist. This they do in a manner and with a realism which I have yet to see computer animations and other modern interactive displays emulate.
The dioramas combine, in a totally refurbished (2014) WWI gallery, with other works of art, uniforms, military hardware, medals, photographs, posters, interactive displays and personal items such as diaries and letters to present the visitor with one of the world’s great collections of material related to WWI. Only a heartless or totally uninterested person could leave this gallery without, in some way, being emotionally touched or challenged.
The Memorial has 13 WW1 dioramas depicting battles and events of particular relevance to ‘Australia’s War’ though most of the subject matter will be very familiar to anyone with an interest in WWI.
Ten of these dioramas are on display. These, and a related wooden cross, also on display, I will briefly refer to below with a sole focus on Australia’s contribution/interest in each case. This is not intended to belittle the often greater contribution of other countries to the events depicted.
Lone Pine diorama – Pictured above
The battle of Lone Pine is the only Gallipoli action represented by a diorama.
This battle was originally intended as a diversion to distract Turkish attention from New Zealand and Australian units to force a breakout from the ANZAC perimeter on the heights of Chunuk Bair and Hill 971.
The diorama depicts the 1st Australian Infantry Brigade attack on Turkish trenches at Lone Pine at dusk on 6 August 1915. Many of the trenches were roofed with pine logs making them more difficult to take.
While the main Turkish trench was taken within 20 minutes of the initial charge there followed 4 days of intense hand-to-hand fighting resulting in over 2,000 Australian casualties. An expensive, though necessary diversion.
Desert Patrol diorama
After Gallipoli the Australian Light Horse Brigade moved its attention to keeping watch on the Turks in the Sinai Desert as it sought to protect and retain access to the Suez Canal, a vital link to the East and Australia for the Allies.
This diorama (not, unlike most of the others, based on an actual event or battle) depicts a typical light horse patrol in the Sinai desert during the period April–August 1916. A new background was added to this diorama in 2014 adding sound and animation with planes flying overhead and desert sandstorms appearing.
On 23 July 1916 the Australian 1st Division captured Pozières, a small village in the Somme valley in France. Over the next few weeks the Australian 1st, 2nd and 4th Divisions suffered heavily (over 12,000 casualties) in a number of German bombardments until Germany’s last unsuccessful attack to retake to village on 7 August 1916.
Depicted here in this diorama is the remnant of an Australian Lewis gun crew upon the crest of the Somme-Ancre ridge beyond Pozieres on 7 August 1916, as it awaits that final German counter-attack on Pozieres that same day.
Somme winter (1916-17) diorama
This diorama depicts a trench located west of Gueudecourt and shows the awful conditions in which Australians fought and lived. Its hard to imagine that men had to spend the winter of 1916-17 sleeping in dugouts, roofed by duckboard and covered with a waterproof sheet, like that represented in this diorama.
In March 1917 the Germans had withdrawn to the Hindenburg Line to shorten their front and thus make it easier to defend. Bullcourt, in northern France lay on the Hindeneburg Line.
With the German retreat the British and Empire forces followed up with an offensive around Arras in early April. To assist in this offensive Australian and British Divisions launched an attack on Bullecourt. What was supposed to have been an infantry attack supported by tanks ended up being primarily a very costly infantry charge as the tanks broke down or were quickly destroyed. Notwithstanding this, the infantry broke through German defenses, often through barbed wire fences that the tanks were supposed to clear, but became hemmed in and without artillery support.
The Australians, prior to making their way back through the enemy to No-Man’s Land due to lack of reinforcement or support, suffered over 3,300 casualties with a further 1,170 men taken prisoner – the largest number captured in a single engagement during the war.
This diorama depicts the 46th Battalion, lead by Major Percy Black, fighting the first line of German trenches at Bullecourt on 11 April 1917.
The Third Battle of Ypres in 1917 consisted of a series of battles, the best known of which are the final and most bloody and horrific Battles of Passchendaele which occurred in October and November 1917.
The objective of this series of battles was to break through the heavily fortified German defenses enclosing the Ypres salient and reach enemy submarine bases on the Belgian coast.
Australian Divisions participated in the battles of Menin Road, Polygon Wood, Broodseinde, Poelcapelle and the First Battle of Passchendaele. In eight weeks of fighting Australian forces sustained 38,000 casualties while the total combined casualties on the battlefileds, turned into quagmires by rain, reached over 500,000, with the desired break through not achieved.
This diorama depicts an attack on a pillbox in the Nonne Bosschen swamp, east of Ypres, during the advance across Menin Road on 20 September 1917. Approximately 5,000 of Australia’s casualties in the overall battle were sustained in this 5 day Battle of Menin Road.
Dernacourt in northern France, between the city of Amiens and the small city of Albert, was located on the main railway line, and thus of great importance from a transport prospective. It found itself on the front line following a major German offensive in March 1918 – their last great hurrah, if you like.
The 4th Australian Division (12th and 13th Brigades) withheld an attack on the town on 28th March but on the morning of 5th April, and in heavy mist, the Germans attacked again breaking though and forcing the Australians back, in what was the strongest attack they would face in WWI. That afternoon the Aussies mounted a counter-attack and forced a German withdrawal. Casualties on each side were around 1,500. Sergeant McDougall a Lewis gunner, won a Victoria Cross for heroic efforts during this battle. The VC can be seen in the War Memorial’s Hall of Valour.
The diorama depicts a scene from early morning of 5 April 1918 showing Australians taking cover against the German advance in a sunken road and disused gun pit.
Mont St Quentin diorama and Cross
This diorama depicts a scene during the 6th Brigade’s storming of Mont St Quentin, a strategically important hill over looking the ancient town of Peronne and the Somme River, on 1 September 1918.
Two days later 11 men of the 21st Battalion killed in the attack were buried by their comrades in a shell crater. The wooden memorial cross (located near the diorama and depicted above) was erected over the graves. Especially touching is the piece of tin, punched with the names of the dead, attached to the left arm of the cross. When the cross was retrieved by Australian War Records Section in 1919 a new cross was erected over the graves.
This diorama depicts the events of the early morning of 25 September 1918 when the 11th Light Horse Regiment (assisted by the 12th) attacked, and captured, the small mud village of Semakh which served the important Haifa-Damascus railway, in Palestine. As depicted in the diorama fighting was fiercest, and hand to hand, around the railway station which was the keystone in the enemy’s (a mixed force of Turks and Germans) defense in the last months of the Sinai and Palestine campaign.
This diorama’s inclusion in the galleries in late 2014 (it has been in storage since 1983) has a special significance as recent research indicates that the 11th Light Horse Regiment had the largest known group of indigenous Australians in one Australian Imperial Force unit notwithstanding that, by law, Aboriginals were not permitted to serve in Australia’s armed forces until after WWII.
Transportation of supplies 1914–18, Palestine series
The Transportation of supplies 1914–18, Palestine series comprises nine small dioramas depicting the transportation of supplies in the desert campaign of Palestine between 1914 and 1918.
The picture above, courtesy of the Australian War Memorial, is number nine of the series and depicts the scheme of evacuation practised at the Battle of Messines in France.
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