Shrine: War Memorials and the Digital Age




memorialisation, first world war, war memorials, commemoration

How to Cite

Wishart, A. R. (2019). Shrine: War Memorials and the Digital Age. M/C Journal, 22(6).
Vol. 22 No. 6 (2019): time
Published 2019-12-04


They shall grow not old, as we that are left grow old; 
Age shall not weary them, nor the years condemn. 
At the going down of the sun and in the morning 
We will remember them.

Recited at many Anzac and Remembrance Day services, ‘The Ode’, an excerpt from a poem by Laurence Binyon, speaks of a timelessness within the inexorable march of time. When we memorialise those for whom time no longer matters, time stands still. Whether those who died in service of their country have finally “beaten time” or been forced to acknowledge that “their time on earth was up”, depends on your preference for clichés. Time and death are natural bedfellows. War memorials, be they physical or digital, declare a commitment to “remember them”. This article will compare and contrast the purpose of, and community response to, virtual and physical war memorials. It will examine whether virtual war memorials are a sign of the times – a natural response to the internet era. If, as Marshall McLuhan says, the medium is the message, what experiences do we gain and lose through online war memorials?

Physical War Memorials

During and immediately after the First World War, physical war memorials were built in almost every city, town and village of the Allied countries involved in the war. They served many purposes. One of the roles of physical war memorials was to keep the impact of war at the centre of a town’s consciousness. In a regional centre like Bathurst, in New South Wales, the town appears to be built around the memorial – the court, council chambers, library, churches and pubs gather around the war memorials.

Similarly, in small towns such as Bega, Picton and Kiama, war memorial arches form a gateway to the town centre. It is an architectural signal that you are entering a community that has known pain, death and immense loss. Time has passed, but the names of the men and women who served remain etched in stone: “lest we forget”.

The names are listed in a democratic fashion: usually in alphabetical order without their rank. However, including all those who offered their service to “God, King and Country” (not just those who died) also had a more sinister and divisive effect. It reminded communities of those “eligibles” in their midst whom some regarded as “shirkers”, even if they were conscientious objectors or needed to stay and continue vital industries, like farming (Inglis & Phillips 186).

Ken Inglis (97) estimated that every second Australian family was in mourning after the Great War. Jay Winter (Sites 2) goes further arguing that “almost every family” in the British Commonwealth was grieving, either for a relative; or for a friend, work colleague, neighbour or lover. Nations were traumatised. Physical war memorials provided a focal point for that universal grief. They signalled, through their prominence in the landscape or dominance of a hilltop, that it was acceptable to grieve. Mourners were encouraged to gather around the memorial in a public place, particularly on Anzac Day and Remembrance Day each year. Grief was seen, observed, respected.

Such was the industrial carnage of the Western Front, that about one third of Australia and New Zealand’s fatal casualties were not brought home. Families lost a family member, body and soul, in the Great War. For those people who subscribed to a Victorian view of death, who needed a body to grieve over, the war memorial took on the role of a gravesite and became a place where people would place a sprig of wattle, poke a poppy into the crevice beside a name, or simply touch the letters etched or embossed in the stone (Winter, Experience 206). As Ken Inglis states: “the statue on its pedestal does stand for each dead man whose body, identified or missing, intact or dispersed, had not been returned” to his home town (11).

Physical war memorials were also a place where women could forge new identities over time. Women accepted, or claimed their status as war widows, grieving mothers or bereft fiancés, while at the same time coming to terms with their loss. As Joy Damousi writes: “mourning of wartime loss involved a process of sustaining both a continuity with, and a detachment from, a lost soldier” (1). Thus, physical war memorials were transitional, liminal spaces.

Jay Winter (Sites 85) believes that physical war memorials were places to both honour and mourn the dead, wounded, missing and shell-shocked. These dual functions of both esteeming and grieving those who served was reinforced at ceremonies, such as Anzac or Remembrance Day.

As Joy Damousi (156) and Ken Inglis (457, 463) point out, war memorials in Australia are rarely sites of protest, either for war widows or veterans campaigning for a better pension, or peace activists who opposed militarism. When they are used in this way, it makes headlines in the news (Legge). They are seldom used to highlight the tragedy, inhumanity or futility of war. The exception to this, were the protests against the Vietnam War.

The physical war memorials which mushroomed in Australian country towns and cities after the First World War captured and claimed those cataclysmic four years for the families and communities who were devastated by the war. They provided a place to both honour and mourn those who served, not just once, but for as long as the memorial remained. They were also a place of pilgrimage, particularly for families who did not have a grave to visit and a focal point for the annual rituals of remembrance.

However, over the past 100 years, some unmaintained physical war memorials are beginning to look like untended graves. They have become obstacles rather than sentinels in the landscape. Laurence Aberhart’s haunting photographs show that memorials in places like Dorrigo in rural New South Wales “go largely unnoticed year-round, encroached on by street signage and suburbia” (Lakin 49). Have physical war memorials largely fulfilled their purpose and are they becoming obsolete? Perhaps they have been supplanted by the gathering space of the 21st century: the Internet.

Digital War Memorials

The centenary of the Great War heralded a mushrooming of virtual war memorials. Online First World War memorials focus on collecting and amassing information that commemorates individuals. They are able to include far more information than will fit on a physical war memorial. They encourage users to search the digitised records that are available on the site and create profiles of people who served. While they deal in records from the past, they are very much about the present: the user experience and their connection to their ancestors who served.

The Imperial War Museum’s website Lives of the First World War asks users to “help us build the permanent digital memorial to all who contributed during the First World War”. This request deserves scrutiny. Firstly, “permanent” – is this possible in the digital age? When the head of Google, Vint Cerf, disclosed in 2015 that software programming wizards were still grappling with how to create digital formats that can be accessed in 10, 100 or a 1000 years’ time; and recommended that we print out our precious digital data and store it in hard copy or risk losing it forever; then it appears that online permanency is a mirage.

Secondly, “all who contributed” – the website administrators informed me that “all” currently includes people who served with Canada and Britain but the intention is to include other Commonwealth nations. It seems that the former British Empire “owns” the First World War – non-allied, non-Commonwealth nations that contributed to the First World War will not be included. One hundred years on, have we really made peace with Germany and Turkey? The armistice has not yet spread to the digital war memorial. The Lives of the First world War website missed an opportunity to be leaders in online trans-national memorialisation.

Discovering Anzacs, a website built by the National Archives of Australia and Archives New Zealand, is a little more subdued and honest, as visitors are invited to “enhance a profile dedicated to the wartime journey of someone who served”.

Physical and online war memorials can work in tandem. In 2015, the Supreme Court of Victoria created a website that provides background information on the military service of the 159 members of the legal profession who are named on their Memorial board. This is an excellent example of a digital medium expanding on and reinvigorating a physical memorial.

It is noteworthy that all of these online memorial websites commemorate those who served in the First World War, and sometimes the Boer or South African War. There is no space for remembering those who served or died in more recent wars like Afghanistan or Iraq. James Brown and others discuss how the cult of Anzac is overshadowing the service and sacrifices of the men and women who have been to more recent wars. The proximity of their service mitigates against its recognition – it is too close for comfortable, detached remembrance.

Complementary But Not Exclusive

A comparison of their functions indicates that online memorials which focus on the First World War complement, but will never replace the role of physical war memorials. As discussed, physical war memorials were sites for grieving, pilgrimage and collectively honouring the men and women who served and died. Online websites which allow users to upload scanned documents and photographs; transcribe diary entries or letters; post tribute poems, songs or video clips; and provide links to other relevant records online are neither places of pilgrimage nor sites for grieving. They are about remembrance, not memory (Scates, “Finding” 221).

Ken Inglis describes physical war memorials as “bearers of collective memory” (7). In a sense, online war memorials are keepers of individual, user-enhanced archival records. It can be argued that online memorials to the First World War tap into the desire for hero-worship, the boom in family history research and what Scates calls the “cult of remembrance” (“Finding” 218). They provide a way for individuals, often two or three generations removed, to discover, understand and document the wartime experiences of individuals in their family. By allowing descendants to situate their family story within the larger, historically significant narrative of the First World War, online memorials encourage people to feel that the suffering and untimely death of their forbear wasn’t in vain – that it contributed to something worthwhile and worth remembering. At a collective level, this contributes to the ANZAC myth and former Australian Prime Minister John Howard’s attempt to use it as a foundational myth for Australia’s nationhood.

Kylie Veale (9) argues that cyberspace has encouraged improvements on traditional memorial practices because online memorials can be created in a more timely fashion, they are more affordable and they are accessible and enable the sharing of grief and bereavement on a global scale. As evidence of this, an enterprising group in the USA has developed an android app which provides a template for creating an online memorial. They compete with Veale’s arguments remind us that the Internet is a hyper-democratic space where interactions and sites that are collaborative or contemplative exist alongside trolling and prejudice. Veale also contends that memorial websites facilitate digital immortality, which helps keep the memory of the deceased alive. However, given the impermanence of much of the content on the Internet, this final attribute is a bold claim.

It is interesting to compare the way individual soldiers are remembered prior to and after the arrival of the Internet. Now that it is possible to create a tribute website, or Facebook page in memory of someone who served, do families do this instead of creating large physical scrapbooks or photo albums? Or do they do both? Garry Roberts created a ‘mourning diary’ as a record of his journey of agonising grief for his eldest son who died in 1918. His diary consists of 27 scrapbooks, weighing 10 kilograms in total. Pat Jalland (318) suggests this helped Roberts to create some sort of order out of his emotional turmoil. Similarly, building websites or digital tribute pages can help friends and relatives through the grieving process. They can also contribute the service person’s story to official websites such as those managed by the Australian Defence Forces. Do grieving family members look up a website or tribute page they’ve created in the same way that they might open up a scrapbook and remind themselves of their loved one? Kylie Veale’s research into online memorials created for anyone who has died, not necessarily those killed by war, suggests online memorials are used in this way (5).

Do grieving relatives take comfort from the number of likes, tags or comments on a memorial or tribute website, in the same way that they might feel supported by the number of people who attend a memorial service or send a condolence card? Do they archive the comments? Garry Roberts kept copies of the letters of sympathy and condolence that he received from friends and relatives after his son’s tragic death and added them to his 27 scrapbooks.

Both onsite and online memorials can suffer from lack of maintenance and relevance. Memorial websites can become moribund like untended headstones in a graveyard. Once they have passed their use as a focal point of grief, a place to post tributes; they can languish, un-updated and un-commented on.

Memorials and Pilgrimage

One thing that online memorials will never be, however, are sites of pilgrimage or ritual. One does not need to set out on a journey to visit an online memorial. It is as far away as your portable electronic device. Online memorials cannot provide the closure or sense of identity and community that comes from visiting a memorial or gravesite.

This was evident in December 2014 when people felt the need to visit the Lindt Café in Sydney’s Martin Place after the terrorist siege and lay flowers and tributes. While there were also Facebook tribute pages set up for these victims of violence, mourners still felt the need to visit the sites. A permanent memorial to the victims of the siege has now opened in Martin Place.

Do people gather around a memorial website for the annual rituals which take place on Anzac or Remembrance Day, or the anniversaries of significant battles? In 2013, the Australian War Memorial (AWM) saw a spike in people logging onto the Memorial’s Remembrance Day web page just prior to 11am. They left the site immediately after the minute’s silence. The AWM web team think they were looking for a live broadcast of the Remembrance Day service in Canberra. When that wasn’t available online, they chose to stay on the site until after the minute’s silence. Perhaps this helped them to focus on the reason for Remembrance Day. Perhaps, as Internet speeds get faster, it will be possible to conduct your own virtual ceremony in real time with friends and family in cyberspace.

However, I cannot imagine a time when visiting dignitaries from other countries will post virtual wreaths to virtual war memorials. Ken Inglis argues that the tomb of the Unknown Soldier in the AWM has become the ritual centre of the Australian nation, “receiving obligatory wreaths from every visiting head of state” (459).

Physical and Online Memorials to the War in Afghanistan

There are only eight physical war memorials to the Afghanistan conflict in Australia, even though this is the longest war Australia has been involved in to date (2001-2015). Does the lack of physical memorials to the war in Afghanistan mean that our communities no longer need them, and that people are memorialising online instead?

One grieving father in far north Queensland certainly felt that an online memorial would never suffice. Gordon Chuck’s son, Private Benjamin Chuck, was killed in a Black Hawk helicopter crash in Afghanistan in 2010 when he was only 27 years old. Spurred by his son’s premature death, Gordon Chuck rallied family, community and government support, in the tiny hinterland town of Yungaburra, west of Cairns in Queensland, to establish an Avenue of Honour. He knocked on the doors of local businesses, the Returned Servicemen’s League (RSL), the Australian Defence Forces and every level of government to raise $300,000. His intention was to create a timeless memorial of world standard and national significance. On 21 June 2013, the third anniversary of his son’s death, the Chief of the Defence Force and the Prime Minister formally opened the Avenue of Honour in front of “thousands” of people (Nancarrow).

Diggers from Afghanistan who have visited the Yungaburra Avenue of Honour speak of the closure and sense of healing it gave them (Nancarrow).  The Avenue, built on the shores of Lake Tinaroo, features parallel rows of Illawarra flame trees, whose red blossoms are in full bloom around Remembrance Day and symbolise the blood and fire of war and the cycle of life. It commemorates all the Australian soldiers who have died in the Afghanistan war.

The Avenue of Honour, and the memorial in Martin Place clearly demonstrate that physical war memorials are not redundant. They are needed and cherished as sites of grief, hope and commemoration. The rituals conducted there gather gravitas from the solemnity that falls when a sea of people is silent and they provide healing through the comfort of reverent strangers.


Even though we live in an era when most of us are online every day of our lives, it is unlikely that virtual war memorials will ever supplant their physical forebears. When it comes to commemorating the First World War or contemporary conflicts and those who fought or died in them, physical and virtual war memorials can be complementary but they fulfil fundamentally different roles. Because of their medium as virtual memorials, they will never fulfil the human need for a place of remembrance in the real world.


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Author Biography

Alison Ruth Wishart, Arts Centre Melbourne

Alison Wishart has worked in the GLAM sector for 15 years, including 3.5 years at the Australian War Memorial. She is currently Head of the Curatorial Team at Arts Centre Melbourne.