Two middle-aged men met in a Brisbane city office, they were being introduced when suddenly they realised they’d met before. They grasped one another in complete friendship, barely able to contain their excitement. They were together in the first boat ashore at Gallipoli and hadn’t met again until this moment, 39 years and 10,000 miles later. Now 100 years hence, their memory culminates a travelling exhibition of extraordinary exuberance and innovation.
The reunited men in 1954 were Jim Bostock and Fred Fox. Their names complete the current version of the Spirit of Anzac Centenary Experience commemorating the Anzac Centenary. It uniquely includes a localised component for each of the 23 Australian towns and cities that it’s visiting. It’s presently in Brisbane, Queensland, home of Bostock and Fox’s 9th Battalion that was first to leap ashore at Gallipoli on that ethereal day the 25th of April 1915.
Like Australia’s General Monash who was the first to combine the use of 20th century machinery of artillery, tanks, and planes, this exhibition innovatively fuses a stunning array of 21st century technology to tell the story of Australia’s involvement in the First World War. There’s also 200 artefacts from the Australian War Memorial and elsewhere, brought by 10 semi-trailers and taking 7 days to set-up.
The technology and tour is terrific. Zonal recognition audio guide, Edwardian folding cameras identifying those on the pyramids, a wall of ghostly floating gas masks, a truthfully re-created trench complete with dugout, peek holes, and barrage, along the Hindenburg Line. You gasp, emotions in freefall, as you’re drawn towards a white pillar of light. It’s surrounded by floating faces of young men in uniform. They’re rows upon rows of headstones, but really they’re illuminated glass photographs of so many lives lost. And if you need to breath now, don’t worry, you can see it all again later on the 360 degree explorer app.
The most poignant exhibits, though, are the most still. One is a loophole plate from Gallipoli. It’s made from a ship’s boilerplate and was built into the parapet at the front of a trench. It has a slit to look through, reminiscent of Ned Kelly’s helmet of just 35 years earlier. This one shows profound scars from more than 50 snipers bullets, some still lodged deep in the cast iron. Men were killed behind there whose souls are looking at me where I stand now.
Another is Peter Corlett’s 1989 life size diorama of Man in the Mud. It’s more a sculpture. His face rests in his hands, somewhere on the Western Front, exhausted, surrounded by duckboards, mud, and devastation. Everything you see is broken.
Some academics criticise the monetary cost of the Anzac Centenary. Perhaps they’ve forgotten the human cost that must never, ever, be forgotten. Ironically, their own very good research comes from the same fund. In the case of the Spirit of Anzac Centenary Experience, it’s worth the last shilling as we are excitedly reunited with Jim and Fred from that very first boat.