Soldiers’ names, children’s voices: The Australian War Memorial Roll of Honour Soundscape project

This week Honest History published a piece by Dr David Stephens (@honesthistory1) about the Australian War Memorial’s Anzac centenary project Roll of Honour Soundscape. From early 2014, the Memorial will invite Year 6 students from around Australia to record the names and ages at death of the 62,000 Australians who died during the First World War. The recordings will then be broadcast in the Roll of Honour cloister during the centenary years. As heard in the Memorial’s video about the project, below, “Thomas Noonan, age 23… James Ashton Taylor, age 23… James Ellaby Abbott, age 18…”

Stephens’ piece is a valuable overview of the Soundscape project and asks some important questions about the context, purpose, and ethics of the primary school students’ involvement. I am also interested in the impact the project will have on visitors’ experience of the Memorial, in particular of the Roll of Honour. The project brings to mind my own experience of a similar undertaking at Tyne Cot Cemetery in Belgium.

Like the Memorial’s Last Post Ceremony in its current form, the Soundscape project has developed out of Director Brendan Nelson’s time as Ambassador to the European Union and NATO. Nelson said in his address to the National Press Club in September 2013 [video | transcript] that the “most enjoyable” thing he did while in Europe was visit battlefields, war cemeteries and war memorials – including attending the Menin Gate Last Post Ceremony no fewer than 73 times! One of the war cemeteries Nelson visited was Tyne Cot, which figures strongly in my own memories of the Western Front.

I first visited Tyne Cot on an Army Cadet trip in January 2005. By then we’d been on the Western Front for five days and had visited numerous war cemeteries, some small, some large. None approached the scale of Tyne Cot, which is the largest Commonwealth war cemetery in the world, containing 11,956 graves and 34,948 names on a Memorial to the Missing. It was quite a thing to find off of a narrow country laneway.

When I returned to Tyne Cot on a PhD research trip in September 2012, I was surprised to find the laneway access to the cemetery replaced with a huge parking area for coaches and cars – very sensible when you consider that Tyne Cot is probably also the most visited Commonwealth war cemetery, including by large school groups. On the pathway from the parking area to the cemetery, I heard a young female voice reciting the names and ages at death of men listed on the Memorial to the Missing (in the new visitors centre, which wasn’t open when I was there, the voice accompanies photos of the men. You can hear and see a selection in this video). This is the voice that inspired Nelson and the Soundscape project.

But to me, the Tyne Cot voice was an unwelcome and unnecessary intrusion. There are many meanings that can be ascribed to the graves and names in the cemetery. None of them require a soundtrack. And why only names and ages, recited by such a young voice?

From August 2014, the Memorial’s First World War Roll of Honour will have a similar soundtrack, and within the commemorative space itself. The Tyne Cot voice at least ceases before visitors enter the cemetery: quiet, personal reflection is still possible there. Stephens rightly asks what the Year 6 kids recording the names and ages will get out of the experience, and their ‘connection’ with the servicemen and -women seems like a key objective of the Memorial too. We need also to ask what the visitors hearing the names and ages will get out of it. Will it enhance the experience of the Roll of Honour? Or distract from it? Or distort it?

What do you think?

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7 thoughts on “Soldiers’ names, children’s voices: The Australian War Memorial Roll of Honour Soundscape project

  1. I think it would be highly distracting for someone who has lost someone trying to take a moment to themselves in the area. The voices will break the reflective nature of the spot.

  2. Thanks Ashleigh. The Tyne Cot audio was closed the day we were there in December http://honesthistory.net.au/wp/jauncey-in-a-war-cemetery-3-december/ From the video it sounds rather odd. We at HH were keen to give a factual report on the AWM project (which has been singularly badly publicised to date by the AWM) but the key is to confront the questions at the end which in my view neither the Director nor his staff have properly confronted yet.

    As for cemeteries: here is a snip from a speech I’m doing later this month:

    ‘World war history is much more than Australian war history.
    This is something that hit me – personally and quite forcefully – when I visited Europe in December.
    I wanted to do a story for our website on Flanders Fields, taking particular note of the Tyne Cot Commonwealth War Cemetery.
    I did the research on Tyne Cot: largest Commonwealth war cemetery in the world; 11 950 dead Commonwealth soldiers, including 1353 Australians.
    When I got there, I noted Tyne Cot’s sweeping rows of graves, its looming memorial walls and triumphalist architecture.
    The sun came out just as we arrived; Tyne Cot was at its manicured best.
    But I also went to the German war cemetery at Langemark, not far away, which I had not heard of until that day: gravestones set into the ground, a few statues, lots of trees and lawns.
    There are 44 000 German soldiers buried at Langemark, including 25 000 unknown soldiers in a single pit.
    An estimated 3000 of those dead were schoolboys.
    Very few German tourists ever visit the Langemark cemetery, our guide said, apart from once a year, when a platoon of German soldiers come to tidy up the graves.
    War tourism, it seems, is mostly something for the winning side.’

  3. ‘Three propositions about the centenary of WWI’: Pax Christi NSW AGM Sydney 7 April, then a shorter version at Manning Clark House Canberra 22 April; plus other speeches Canberra Peace Convergence 22 April, SCU Lismore 24 April, Lismore Anzac alternative services 24 and 25 April. Then Peter Stanley has a gig at HTA NSW early May. BTW AG are you doing something for HH on the Singapore Conference as discussed some time ago (:)

  4. What an amazing surprise to hear my great uncles name, Thomas Noonan, age 23, being the first to be read on the promotional video. Thomas was an Irish immigrant and my family only learnt of his Gallipoli experience in the past ten years. My sister and I left a family photo at his Gallipoli grave when we visited 3 years ago.

    Thanks to AWM for this initiative.

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