A delicate shift among the ghosts of war

New front ... the Australian War Memorial director, Brendan Nelson.
New front ... the Australian War Memorial director, Brendan Nelson.
<em>Menin Gate at Midnight</em> by Will Longstaff.

Menin Gate at Midnight by Will Longstaff.

In a quiet corner of the Australian War Memorial in Canberra is a darkened alcove where a single painting hangs. The image is one of the most powerful and moving tributes to the Australians who died on the Western Front during World War I.

In 1927 a memorial was opened at Menin Gate amid the ruins of Ypres, in Belgium, destroyed at the height of the war a decade earlier. Will Longstaff was profoundly moved by the unveiling of the stone panels listing the names of tens of thousands of soldiers for whom there was no known grave - 6198 of them Australians.

That night, unable to sleep, Longstaff took a walk along the Menin road where he had a vision of the spirits of the dead marching out of Ypres towards the battlefields to the east. On his return to London he is said to have painted Menin Gate at Midnight in a single session - its ghostly soldiers moving under moonlight across fields of blood-red poppies.

Menin Gate and the tragedy it bears witness to, still moves thousands of Australians who visit the fields of Flanders each year. At 8pm each day, traffic is stopped and six buglers from the local fire brigade sound the Last Post.

In his three years as the Australian ambassador in Brussels, Brendan Nelson visited more than 70 times, sometimes with official visitors but mostly on private excursions. He and his wife spent a frozen New Year's Eve there with a handful of other Australians. And it was where they chose to spend their last evening in Belgium before returning to Australia late last year when Nelson took up his new job as director of the War Memorial.

''It is an incredibly moving experience,'' he says. ''You stand under the gate, you hear the Last Post played and the ode recited and then you look up and see all those names, all those Australian names.''

Nelson is a latter-day but zealous convert to the task of evangelising the military service and sacrifice so deeply ingrained in Australia's sense of identity, with the War Memorial the principal custodian of that legacy.

In contrast to most of his predecessors, Nelson has been neither a distinguished military officer, nor a celebrated historian. Apart from a stint in the school cadets, he has never served in the military.

''There are 300 experts here all of whom have forgotten more about this than I will ever know,'' he says. ''My job is to complement what they have, to be an advocate for the Memorial and to bring skills of leadership and management.''

The day Nelson announced he was leaving Parliament, the then prime minister, Kevin Rudd, rang and offered him the role of ambassador in Brussels with responsibility for Australia's relations with Belgium, Luxembourg, the European Union and NATO.

''I was shell-shocked,'' he says.

His time in Brussels expanded a personal engagement with the achievements of Australians at war that had been sparked when, as defence minister, John Howard asked that he represent him at the Anzac Day dawn service at Gallipoli in 2007.

What he enjoyed most about his time in Brussels was the commemorative work, which included regular visits to Menin Gate and the Western Front battlefields and coincided with the discovery, identification and reburial of the remains of many lost Diggers.

When - nearing the end of his posting last year - he heard that Major-General Steve Gower was retiring after a formidable 16 years as director of the Memorial, he scrambled to submit an application 24 hours before the deadline.

''There are two groups in this country who have really shaped our sense of who we are, the farming community and the men and women who have worn the uniform of our three services,'' Nelson says.

''I don't think there is any group of Australians that's given more or worked harder to shape our values and our beliefs, the way we relate to one another and see our place in the world.''

Nelson brings a useful skill set at a time when the Memorial has been buffeted by politics perhaps more than at any stage in its history. Under Labor, the Memorial has been drawn closer under the direction and influence of the Department of Veterans Affairs and the traditional independence of its council has been challenged.

The council had no role in the process of selecting the new director, although it had to foot the $100,000 bill for the headhunters hired by the government.

And with the centenary of the Great War fast approaching and with the boundless opportunities for patriotic politicking that will offer, the pressures on the Memorial to dance to the official tune are likely to quicken - whoever wins the next election.

Nelson has the experience to manage those pressures as well as anyone. But his ambitions for the Memorial as it prepares for a central role in the centenary commemorations beginning late next year also provide plenty of opportunity for not-so friendly fire.

His willingness to enter the debate over whether the Memorial's hallowed honour boards should be opened to Australians killed on peacekeeping missions suggests either bravery or bravado - and a potential early confrontation with the council. He wants greater recognition for the 7000 indigenous Australians who served in wartime, a new effort to ''reach out'' to non-English-speaking Australians, more touring exhibitions and better use of new technologies to preserve and present the 4 million items in the Memorial's collection, less than 10 per cent of which are on display.

Nelson also has plans to fast-track a permanent exhibition on Australia's involvement in Afghanistan that could involve the Memorial's research centre being evicted from the main building.

During a visit to Afghanistan last October, one soldier wished him well ''looking after the family jewels'' at the Memorial.

He then told Nelson, ''When I go to the War Memorial I take my son and I can show him what his great-grandfather did and what his grandfather did, but I can't show him what I did.''

The former GP believes properly honouring the role of Australian troops as they prepare to withdraw from Afghanistan could have important therapeutic value. ''If the Memorial had been able to embrace the Vietnam story sooner, then just maybe those men might not have suffered as much as they did, because that was part of that toxic, deeply divided political culture at that time.''

But he insists any change that comes must not affect the essential character and charter of the Memorial as a shrine, a museum and a centre for education and research.

''We are not about to have a revolution at the War Memorial,'' he says. ''The fundamentals will not and must not be changed. But it is also about us doing everything we can to ensure that Australians understand the experience of war and also keeping peace.''

His regard for the Memorial's great traditions is evident in the homage he pays to Charles Bean, the war correspondent and official historian who was instrumental in its establishment. His new business card quotes Bean's eloquent tribute to the soldiers whose sacrifice the Memorial honours, the words inscribed above the entrance to the exhibition halls: ''Here is their spirit in the heart of the land they loved; and here we guard the record which they themselves made.''

He is equally determined that the Memorial and what it represents must remain relevant to new generations of Australians.

''This sounds like heresy, and I may have to go into witness protection, but I often wondered why we are so focused on Gallipoli and paid much less regard to what happened on the Western Front. The scale of losses there was five times as many as Gallipoli.''

His visit to Gallipoli in 2007 opened his eyes to the place that ill-fated campaign holds in the Australian consciousness. But later he helped establish the first regular Anzac Day dawn services at Villers-Bretonneux, the village in the heart of the Somme where Australian forces won a decisive victory over the Germans in 1918.

''There is now much greater awareness that we fought on the Western Front. My personal mission is to see that Australians understand, yes Gallipoli, but France and Belgium, too, and that there is a place called the Menin Gate.''

This story A delicate shift among the ghosts of war first appeared on The Sydney Morning Herald.