Victoria's war memorial is perhaps Australia's most impressive. Occupying a prominent, elevated site overlooking the Kings Domain on the central Swanston Street-St Kilda Road axis of the city, the Shrine was described by Ambrose Pratt on its completion in 1934 as 'a temple rising heavenwards, visible from all quarters of the compass, the last object to fade from the sight of every citizen who leaves the capital and the first to greet his return, ever reminding him of the valour of his countrymen and the glory of his country'. Though high-rise Melbourne has reduced the Shrine's visual impact, the sight line of the Shrine from the north remains protected from intrusion by surrounding buildings, and the location remains striking. Visitors ascend the hill on which the Shrine is built, climb the steps to the sanctuary and the stone of remembrance, and from the upper promenades are rewarded with a 360-degree view. The pre-eminent site accorded the Shrine, and its size and cost (£235 000 in 1934), testify to the awful legacy of war and the striking demography of grief.
Conceived as the National War Memorial of Victoria to honour the 114 000 men and women who served the Empire in the Great War of 1914-18, and especially the 19 000 who died, the Shrine was opened and dedicated by a son of the King, the Duke of Gloucester, on Armistice (Remembrance) Day, 11 November 1934. Some 327 000 people, one-third of Melbourne's population, are estimated to have attended. By extension and rededication the Shrine also commemorates those who served in World War II (1939-45) and later conflicts. The World War II forecourt was dedicated on 28 February 1954 by Queen Elizabeth, who also lit the Eternal Flame, and the remembrance garden was opened by premier John Cain on 11 November 1985.
After the end of World War I there was much public debate about the form the war memorial should take: should it be a utilitarian structure, such as a school or hospital, or a symbolic memorial? In 1922 a civic committee decided to hold a competition for a non-utilitarian memorial, to be paid for mainly by public subscription. A panel chaired by Sir John Monash selected the entry by Melbourne architects Philip Hudson, James Wardrop and Kingsley Ussher in 1923. The design rekindled the debate, but the indecision and prevarication ended in 1927, when Monash gave his imprimatur to both the principle of a memorial and the winning design. The building of the Shrine took seven years, during which many ex-servicemen worked on the building or its approaches as depression sustenance labourers.
The architecture draws on the Parthenon at Athens and the Mausoleum at Halicarnassus. The northern tympanum represents 'the Call to Arms' and the southern 'the Homecoming'. The Shrine is buttressed by four female figures in stone by Paul Montford, representing Sacrifice, Patriotism, Justice and Peace and Good Will. The east wall is inscribed: 'This monument was erected by a grateful people to the honoured memory of the men and women of Victoria who served the Empire in the great war of 1914-1918'. Monash's words, inscribed on the west wall, spell out the meaning and issue a stern injunction: 'Let all men know that this is Holy ground / This Shrine established in the hearts of men as on the solid earth commemorates a people's fortitude and sacrifice/ Ye therefore that come after give remembrance'.
As the historian Ken Inglis has observed, this is a building with a text for a secular, civil religion. The sole Christian text occurs on the stone of remembrance within the Shrine, which has been described not as a temple, cenotaph (an empty tomb) or military memorial, but as a place of remembrance. By definition a shrine is a sacred place, though the focus of this shrine is neither relics nor statuary, but a stark, black marble stone of remembrance contained in the sanctuary and inscribed 'Greater love hath no man'. Sunk below the floor level, out of reach of pilgrim visitors, who must bow their heads to read the inscription, the stone is said to represent the final resting place of those who died in service. Sixteen surrounding black marble pillars are surmounted by twelve bas-reliefs by Lyndon Dadswell showing the heroic deeds of the armed services, and a pyramidal dome soars above. A small opening in this dome permits a ray of light to pass across the stone, resting on the word love at exactly the eleventh hour of the eleventh day of the eleventh month, the moment at which the worst war the world had ever experienced ended. The grateful nation's two minutes' silence commences with the laying of a wreath by the governor of Victoria. This inner shrine is encircled by an ambulatory that houses bronze caskets containing 42 books of remembrance, displaying the names of all members of the forces who enlisted in Victoria for the Great War, served overseas or died in camp before embarkation. Each day a new page is turned in each book.
The Shrine - once approached by lawn edged by paths and reflected in a pool so that from afar it appeared to float on a sea of green - is now tethered to the earth by a concrete road. Until 1954 the pool of reflection occupied the north approach to the Shrine, and entrance on Anzac Day and Armistice Day was from the south. Official parties now enter from the north, where the forecourt is laid out in the form of a great crucifix. On the west the Eternal Flame stands before the cenotaph, a 12.5-metre pillar of quarried stone bearing the names of the theatres of World War II, topped in 1955 by a massive piece of statuary carved from Footscray basalt by George Allen and Stanley Hammond to symbolise the debt of the survivors to the war dead. Some 297 000 men and women enlisted from Victoria during the 1939-45 war, and 5900 died. On the western slope of the Shrine a granite wall and garden commemorate veterans of post-World War II conflicts and peacekeeping operations.
The Shrine became the place for the Anzac Day dawn service, and from 1936 the termination point of Anzac Day marches. In 1951 the body of Field Marshal Sir Thomas Blamey lay in state at the Shrine. Some 13 ha of surrounding lawns and gardens contain trees dedicated to the various units who have served at war, their plaques a reminder that the Shrine is a place of pilgrimage for many regimental and other associations, aside from the main general commemorations on Anzac and Remembrance days.
On the eve of Anzac Day 1971 a Shrine guard was bashed and pillars on the north side were daubed with the word peace by those who saw the memorial as celebrating war. The Anzac Day march has also been the occasion for protest by feminists and anti-war activists. For veterans, and most of the public, the Shrine focuses on remembrance of sacrifice and comradeship, rather than the glorification of military exploits. The Dawn Service on 25 April, originally intended for veterans only, now attracts crowds much larger than the numbers of veterans who attended in the 1930s. Within the sanctuary, the ray of light is simulated every 30 minutes for visitors. Any suggestion that the Shrine and its surrounds be used for anything but solemn commemoration of Victoria's war dead has provoked strong condemnation.
A number of sculptures occupy the Shrine reserve: the memorial to 'the man with the donkey', the widow and children statue in the Legacy garden, and the memorial horse trough to Australia's warhorses. Two further statues, Ypres and The driver, are replicas of figures from the artillery memorial in Hyde Park, London, originally obtained for the National Gallery of Victoria and moved here from the forecourt of the State Library of Victoria. Several statues and memorials along St Kilda Road commemorate other significant Australian and imperial figures and military engagements.
The Shrine, however, dominates the scene. Over the years iron leached from the silver-grey granite has bled down the pillars and walls, an arresting if unintended effect. Structural defects in the Shrine's foundations, which became apparent by the early 1990s, gave rise to a major renovation undertaken at a cost of $1.7 million. Undertaken with the renovation was the construction of a visitor centre under the northern stairs and apron, opened in 2003 by representatives of the State and federal governments, which had shared the $10 million cost.