Melburnians' willingness to erect monuments to military notables was already evident in 1889 when they erected an elaborate reproduction of London's statue of General Charles Gordon near Parliament House. The first memorials to Victorians fighting in the name of their colony, however, emerged in the South African War 1899-1902. The numbers who fought in this war were so few, however, that memorials were erected as much in private and religious spaces as in civic space. The memorial at Brunswick is a notable exception, bearing an effigy of the common soldier that would become much more familiar in the next war. In 1903 members of the Fifth Victorian Mounted Rifles erected a memorial on St Kilda Road, yet it was not until 1924 that an obelisk, at the junction of St Kilda and Albert roads, was dedicated to all Victorians who had served in that war.
World War I set the tone for war commemoration in Melbourne. The massive response of urban populations to recruiting and to patriotic work saw widespread wartime memorialisation throughout the city. Various and overlapping communities, including schools, churches, workplaces and sporting clubs, as well as civic communities, maintained honour rolls as indices of their contribution to the war. Perhaps the only monument to be erected in Melbourne during the war was the memorial raised in Yarra Park in February 1917. Such were the social divisions at the time, especially over conscription, that threats to wreck the monument were taken seriously. The memorial itself, however, did not outlive its wartime purposes and was later peacefully dismantled.
Honour rolls took permanent form after the end of the war, with some of the more elaborate examples in the offices of Melbourne's public institutions, including the Melbourne and Metropolitan Board of Works, tramways and Victorian Railways. Honour boards in town halls gave civic honour to thousands of residents who enlisted. The scale of enlistments may account for a key difference between urban forms and outer suburban and rural memorials. Unlike the obelisks and soldier statues that mark Australian towns, there are few outdoor war monuments in inner Melbourne, a soldier statue in Parkville providing one significant exception. The prevalence of soldiers' memorial halls (a form favoured by the emerging Returned Services League) in the inner suburbs might be explained by the greater funds available to larger communities, and also by the greater numbers of returned soldiers in those areas. Richmond, Collingwood and South Melbourne built new halls for their returned soldiers; the Brunswick Council provided clubrooms, while St Kilda residents erected a hall to complement their monument. Monuments become more numerous beyond the inner suburbs, though soldier statues appear little even among the diverse range of memorials in outer Melbourne.
The creation of a State war memorial initiated a commemorative precinct that would in future provide the focus for memorialisation of Victoria's servicemen and women. When the annual Anzac Day march took form in the mid-1920s, a temporary cenotaph on the steps of parliament, modelled on that in London, provided the ceremonial focus. Completion of the Shrine of Remembrance at the southern head of the city's main axis in 1934 reversed the flow and focus of commemoration. Anzac marches to the Shrine would now pass memorials to the Victorian Mounted Rifles, to martyred British nurse Edith Cavell (1926), and to the man and the donkey (1936).
World War II reaffirmed the Shrine as Melbourne's commemorative centre, when on a 1954 royal visit Queen Elizabeth II dedicated a new forecourt, featuring eternal flame and cenotaph, to Victorians who had served. Yet memorials to this war were barely apparent in the city and suburbs, where for the most part communities chose to add the names of those who served to the monuments and honour boards of 1914-18. Where new memorial projects emerged after 1945, they tended to favour utility over symbolism. Oban at 431 St Kilda Road, for example, was transformed into a War Nurses Memorial Centre in 1949, while in Footscray in 1970, in the midst of another conflict, the mayor dedicated a swimming pool to the memory of those who served.
The conflicts of the era after 1945, with their relatively small casualties, returned war memorials to the domain of private and religious spaces, though these too would belatedly make their way into Melbourne's civic spaces, particularly with the Garden of Remembrance at the Shrine (1985) which includes the Vietnam War memorial. Renewed interest in commemoration in the 1990s saw existing local memorials updated, and the erection of a memorial to the prisoner-of-war doctor Sir Edward 'Weary' Dunlop in St Kilda Road in 1995. Dunlop joined a select group of memorials to individual Australian military figures in the vicinity of the Shrine, including Sir John Monash (1950) and Sir Thomas Blamey (1960). Those memorials are only way stations, however, on the Anzac Day parade route that terminates in the Shrine - a memorial that commemorates not just a series of particular wars, but the significance of war to an entire people.