On a sunny November morning in 1934 100,000 people gathered in Hyde Park to witness the official opening of the Anzac War Memorial. 20,000 veterans marched through the streets swelling the numbers in the Park to listen to the dedication by the Duke of Gloucester and the speeches of the various male dignitaries.
The memorial is one of the finest examples of Art Deco architecture in Sydney, standing at the southern end of the Park as a counter balance to the Archibald Fountain in the north, also a war memorial.
For ten years after the end of the war, debate raged over the placement, design and ultimate meaning of the memorial.
Should the memorial be in Wynyard Park or near the new Harbour Bridge? Should the design be classical, reflecting glorious traditions of the warrior in history? Who should pay for it? Should it be the RSL headquarters?
Hyde Park was the most prominent public space in the city and the obvious choice for the memorial. A design competition was duly held and out of 100 entries the young architect Bruce Dellit from Sydney was selected.
Dellit’s design was monumental and highly stylised causing a sensation amongst the more traditional architectural thinkers of the time. His winning entry included sculptures by acclaimed artist George Rayner Hoff, himself a veteran who fought in the British Army in France and familiar with the horrors of war.
It was Hoff’s work, both actual and proposed that caused the most controversy.
Hoff’s sculptures and reliefs were to be part of the reflective purpose of the memorial. Inside were four bas-reliefs depicting service men and women resting, behind which the March of the Dead or the spirit soldiers passed by. In the centre of the memorial, below the balustrade was ‘The Sacrifice’, a bronze figure of three women supporting a prostrate, dead man lying prone over a sword and shield.
It acts as a silent reminder not only of the sacrifice of the soldiers but the ongoing burden of those mothers, wives and loved ones left behind. In 1930s Sydney there were plenty who understood this sacrifice.
The real problems however started outside. While the twenty figures of soldiers, sailors, airmen and nurses looking down from the niches in the building were admired, although some veterans thought the sitting figures were modelled on soldiers squatting over latrines, it was Hoff’s proposed sculptures for the east and west side that caused so much angst.
Victory after Sacrifice and The Crucifixion of Civilisation depicted war in all its awful, stylised brutality. Victory had an Australian woman standing with Britannia amongst the dead who made victory possible while Crucifixion featured a naked female hung from a cross erected amongst broken bodies and weapons strewn at her feet.
It was too powerful a message. Criticised from pulpits and in the press, the sculptures were never made, silently dropped from the design. The memorial was to be a place of men and myth not women and reality.