The mosaic in the Hall of Memory at the Australian War Memorial is as poignant as it is beautiful. It features panels representing the army, navy, airforce and the women who served in World War II. There is significant meaning behind each of the panels, and that understanding only serves to make them more powerful.
The Hall of Memory houses the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier, and is accessed by passing the Pool of Reflection which includes the names of 102,000 people who have given their lives to serve our country. It is the heart of the Australian War Memorial and one of the most sacred sites in the country.
The Hall was originally conceived to commemorate the soldiers killed in the Great War, with stained glass windows and sculptures. However before it was completed, World War II had commenced. Following the second World War, it was decided to incorporate mosaics representing the pillars of the Australian defence force. The mosaic work was undertaken by Napier Waller, who also served in World War One. This is an excerpt from the Australian War Memorial website:
The figures in these drawings emphasise qualities of strength and endurance. Their poses are frontal and each – except the sailor – has its left foot extended forward in the manner of an archaic Greek ‘kouros’. The enlarged, intense eyes are also characteristic of both ancient Greek sculpture and the Byzantine mosaics at Ravenna, which Waller had visited in the late 1920s. In contrast, the uniforms and hairstyles are contemporary. The faces express their feelings. The figures are of ordinary men and women, elevated to demigod status by their monumentality and references to antiquity.
Each of the following explanations of the imagery also come from the Australian War Memorial. A short video from 1955 on the construction of the mosaics can also be viewed here.
The Army: The war is over. The last traces of the storm symbolising it can be seen as water running down the tree trunk, while the sunshine bursting through the trees causes the soldier to contemplate that the sacrifices of his dead comrades have brought a ray of hope for the future. Through the beams of light he imagines he sees in bird-like form their ascending spirits. After the dreary war years, with freedom still ours, he is removing his wartime equipment and preparing to return home.
The Navy: On the fore-deck the sailor in summer uniform is preparing to hoist the white ensign, which symbolises the oldest tradition of the fighting services, as the ship goes into action. Behind him is the nautical compass as a reminder of the Navy’s service in all seas. Above, on the upper fore superstructures of the ship, are an Oerlikon anti-aircraft gun, and fixed searchlights from which beams of light are crossed with beams coming onto the ship. Smoke belches from the funnel as she steams towards the foe.
The Air Force: In the remaining walls of a cathedral, the flying officer stands and surveys the destruction of beauty and human ideals. He is inspired to defend his tradition. The sculptured “wyvern” grins down sardonically on man’s stupidity, and on the perverted ingenuity by which he can destroy in a few moments what has taken centuries to build. The idea is sustained symbolically in the decapitated saint and mutilated hand and book, and, from above, the rain of missiles. In but two generations this youngest of the services has built up its wonderful tradition of prowess and the noble one of chivalry.
The Women’s Services: This figure is clothed in blouse and skirt, this part of the uniform being the same in all the women’s services. The different branches of the services are symbolised by their own badges in the lower right hand part of the design. The figure has stepped forward from an opened doorway, from which bursts a halo of winged light. She remembers the many sacrifices and disasters suffered by her sisters; one of which is symbolised above by the engulfing waves of the sea into which sinks the “sea-centaur”, symbol of that war tragedy in which the hospital ship Centaur was sunk and all but one of her nurses lost their lives. The suggestion of missiles falling from above is a reminder that so often the service woman too was a victim of gunfire and the wrack of bombs.