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Stanley Johnson with his wife, Jenny (Photo by Roy Riley) Stanley Johnson with his wife, Jenny (Photo by Roy Riley)
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Albany's poignant National Anzac Centre

The Daily Telegraph, 25th April 2015

 

In late 1914, more than 41,000 Australians and New Zealanders embarked from King George Sound in Western Australia and set sail for Europe and the First World War. So it's fitting, writes Stanley Johnson, that a hundred years later, a new museum has been opened to commemorate not just their bravery but the speed at which they gathered to fight.

The new National Anzac Centre in Albany, Western Australia, overlooks the sound - one of the world's finest natural harbours - from which, a century ago, the the Anzacs (Australian and New Zealand Army Corps) departed, on November 1 1914, just a few weeks after war had been declared. Inside, the tales have been brilliantly told, through visual cues and hands-on "experiences" in which visitors are encouraged to assume, electronically, the identity of one of the 32 Anzac-related characters and to follow his personal experience of the Great War.

My assumed "identity", the day I visited the centre, was that of Lance Corporal George Mitchell. Mitchell's 10th Battalion, AIF (Australian Imperial Force) helped to spearhead the Gallipoli landing, before withstanding three weeks of constant fighting. Mitchell survived unscathed, but collapsed with typhoid in July 1915 and was hospitalised. Having been awarded the Military Cross, he returned to Australia, entered politics and, just after he married, was called up for the Second World War in which, as commanding officer of the No 43 Landing Craft Company, he provided transport for army personnel in New Guinea. He finally died in 1961.

George Mitchell was one of the lucky ones. A third of the 41,265 combatants who set off from Albany did not return. Many who did were disabled or traumatised.

When I was in Albany, I visited the beaches where they trained the horses prior to embarkation for Europe. I was taken there by Gary Muir, whose grandfather, Robert Forrest Muir, had supplied the 10th Light Horse Regiment with "Walers" (so named because the breed originated in New South Wales) at the outbreak of the Great War "The horses came here from all over Australia," he explained. "They'd never seen waves or heard the roar of the surf. They had to get used to it."

Of the thousands of Australian horses that left Albany in 1914, only one returned: Sandy, Major General Sir William Bridges' favourite mount. Bridges himself died in May 1915, of wounds received on Gallipoli, but Sandy was brought home in 1918 - as a posthumous tribute to General Bridges - and was turned out to graze at Maribyrnong near Melbourne. Eventually, blind and infirm, Sandy was put down in 1923.

There is a wonderful photograph of Sandy at the Centre, with a quotation from the Sydney Evening News, 13 September 1923: "He was one of a heroic band that worked for humanity - patiently, faithfully, silently and then laid down toil-wracked bodies for the same cause. Far from the land of their birth they worked - and far from that land they died; all save one: Sandy."

Go to the Anzac Centre in Albany, if you possibly can (this weekend's commemorations there will be particularly poignant, marking the centenary of the landings in Gallipoli). But take a handkerchief with you (www.nationalanzaccentre.com.au).