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Victoria’s avenues of honour stand sentry to memories of war.
Story: Clare Barry Photo: Robert Armstrong
They stand in assorted grandeur on the edge of hundreds of Australian towns, twin rows of trees arranged into avenues to remember those who signed up for the Great War a century ago.
More than half of Australia’s avenues of honour are found in Victoria, where the movement began as early as 1916. Planted by grateful and grieving communities, the tiniest town’s sacrifice can be often observed in the light and shade of its avenue.
“This planting of a tree was the funeral that families couldn’t have.”
Bacchus Marsh - Avenue Of Honour
The biggest is Ballarat’s 22-kilometre thoroughfare stretching from a grandiose Arch of Victory. Sixty kilometres away, Bacchus Marsh’s avenue is a modest 280 Canadian elms curving gently between houses, orchards and freshly tilled fields – a pastoral picture that mirrors Europe’s Western Front today, where so many of those named still lie. It is partly that vast distance between battlefield and home that spurred the avenue movement.
“Often families would gather and plant a tree to their particular soldier, and this was a surrogate funeral,” explains Bruce Scates, Professor of History at the Australian National University. “Australian bodies were not repatriated in the Great War, so our dead are buried oceans and oceans and oceans away, and this planting of a tree was the funeral that families couldn’t have.”
Avenues of honour were popular symbols of loss, then and now. They are not overtly militarist, they were much cheaper than monuments, and the trees remain symbolic of life and renewal and a certain mythic power.
“In the wake of the devastation of war, people planted new life and that’s compelling when we think of the mass industrialised destruction of the Great War,” Bruce says. “By planting these trees we were actually putting our faith in a new future.”
But trees die and people forget. Many avenues are in disrepair or have been lost to road-widening. And most who pass under their boughs don’t know what they represent.
The national Avenues of Honour 1915-2015 project has mapped more than 580 avenues recognising service in multiple conflicts, also recording personal stories and promoting preservation. With the state government’s Avenues of Honour Grant Program funding restoration, many of these avenues stand to benefit. And to help us remember.