I had stood among the crowd gathered to watch the first of the Second World War troops march through the streets of Sydney on their way to embarkation. The watching people had been strangely silent – very different from the romantic hordes who had roared their farewells to the men of an earlier generation.
A couple of days later, moved by the trend of my thoughts, I strolled across Hyde Park to the Shrine of Remembrance, largely, I think, to refresh my memory of Raynor [sic] Hoff’s sculpture. Entering by the small door on the ground level I stood near the bottom of the Well of Contemplation, looking at the bronze figures of the three grieving women, standing back to back, with bowed heads, bearing on their shoulders a shield on which lay a figure; while above them, from the high dome of the shrine, there looked down, through a grey and amber twilight, a myriad small golden stars – sixty thousand dead.*
I went up the short flight of steps to the low gallery surrounding the well to get another view – as the artist had clearly intended – of the figure supported by the women, and found myself looking down on Young Manhood sacrificed on the Sword. While I was looking, my thoughts ranging back to other years and to lads just like me with whom I had touched shoulders, I noticed that a woman had come up beside me, to the balustrade, a middle-aged woman. She didn’t stay long. A glance, a gasp, an explanation, “Shocking!” and she fairly scurried away.
For a moment I was at a loss, then I recalled that the figure was quite undraped, sans fig-leaf; just a naked young man, stretched upon a shield, face up. He was very young, rather ribby as lads often are, his flesh, drained of life, falling slack from his frame, his lean arms outstretched along the sword, his hands drooping. He could excite only pity; a thought that he should be not lying there but riding some sunny track with his girl; the father of infant children, perhaps; taking a running header into the surf. Even the scrawniness of death had not effaced his beauty, and the artist, scorning to profane nature, had moulded him as she had made him.
Wondering whether prudery would have scurried off so hurriedly had I not been there, I went out by the way she had gone, down the steps of the main entrance, facing the Pool of Reflection, and wandered around the outside of the building, looking first at the bronze bas-reliefs of the strenuous pageant of war; and then, standing on the grass at a little distance, at the seated stone figure crowning the buttresses. Something about those seated figures, the attitude and facial expression – something beyond the intention of the sculptor, it seemed reasonable to imagine – troubled me. Nature repeats her patterns in unexpected ways, and I could feel a second pattern behind the primary and obvious one.
It was a while before I could identify it. Then I knew. For a moment recognition was general; then it began to particularize. An association of ideas, stirred by the figure of the young man on the sword, as well as by the heroic effigies in stone, carried me back to a winter morning late in 1915, when I had retired along a wet and narrow sap, running from a front-line trench in Flanders, to that seat of reflective and soldierly calm, the latrine. Safe for a little while from fatigue corporals, an unconscious model of martial endurance, I had seated myself in exactly the attitude of the figures on the buttresses.
–Frank Dalby Davison, Australian, 1893-1970
* In fact there are 120,000 stars, representing all who enlisted from NSW.