Introducing the exhibition

For four years, millions of families across the world said goodbye to their loved ones heading off to fight in World War I.

By the time peace was declared, over 60,000 Australians were dead and thousands more would soon die of war injuries—from a population of only five million people.

World War I was a tragedy on an almost unimaginable scale. One hundred years later its effects are still felt.

WWI: Love & Sorrow explores the impact of the war on Australian families.


Horse-drawn ambulances leading a parade of soldiers down Swanston Street, Melbourne, 1914
Source – Museum Victoria collection. Courtesy of Mrs Wilma L. Mahoney

'Australians! Your country needs you.'

The outbreak of war caused a huge wave of enthusiasm and excitement for many Australians. Australia had been an independent nation for only 14 years. The war was a chance to establish the nation's identity, although it would fight as a member of the British Empire.

"We've all got the war fever"

Robert Edmond Antill, 3 August 1914. He was killed in action 5 July 1917.

Enlistment parades and rallies filled the streets and halls, and popular songs raised patriotic spirits. Posters used simple images and messages to entice, berate and cajole. Men volunteered to fight for many reasons. For some, it was a sense of duty or the need for work. For others, it was a chance to travel with friends on a grand adventure. Many simply wanted to avoid being ‘shirkers’.


An extraordinary panorama in the exhibition reveals the destruction of a Belgian landscape during World War I, Glencorse Wood, Belgium, September 1917
Source – Australian War Memorial

The battlefield

When the time came to go to the front, it was far worse than they ever imagined.

“…there was so much hellish noise…it seemed as if the heavens were collapsing.”

German Reserve Infantry Regiment 210, France, 21st of March to 5th April 1918

Edward Wylde Haverfield wrote in his diary:

“…wave upon wave of men had leaped out of the trenches as if from nowhere, they were racing up to our front line to come up and support us, but there is not many lads that can say they ever reached our line, they were simply mowed to pieces…”

Listen to an account of the Gallipoli landings by a member of the Australian Army Medical Corps

Diary of William McQueen Saxon Siddeley, Australian Army Medical Corps, 25 April 1915. Source – Museum Victoria collection


Travelling over rough terrain in a horse-drawn ambulance could be agonising for wounded soldiers. Yet without these vehicles, many more men would have died.

Both horse-drawn and motorised ambulances were used to take the wounded to field hospitals and evacuation trains.

Ranging board

Ranging boards showed the range of a gun in a placement overlooking the enemy.

They also detailed the position of the gun itself and the enemy trenches, entanglements and other features.

This ranging board depicts the area around Wulverghem (today Wulvergem) in Belgium before the Battle of Messines in 1917. It was used by a German officer in charge of a Heavy Mortar Battery against 2nd Anzac Corps.

Runner's arm band

John Hargreaves was a ‘runner’ in the 7th Battalion in France. This band around his left forearm indicated his role to other soldiers. Runners raced along and between trenches to deliver messages on the battlefield — a dangerous, exhausting job.

He was repeatedly buried by explosions and was recommended for a Distinguished Conduct Medal for his actions on 24–26 July 1916, during the Battle of Pozières.

John Hargreaves and his uncles, about 1915–16
Source - Joan Wishart

Keeping in touch

“I get pretty miserable at times I can tell you darl without you...”

Ruby to Frank Roberts, 7 September 1918

Millions of letters were posted around the world during World War I. Mail and telegrams were the only way most people kept in touch.

The letters and diaries written during World War I show that the experience of war was similar on both sides. Soldiers and others away fighting the war largely spared their families the harsh reality, writing instead about food, weather, landscapes and friends. Occasionally a diary was more revealing, but it was usually kept for the writer's eyes only.

Listen to an extract from a letter from Eliza to her son Alex, 21 July 1916

Source – Kerryn Amery

7 September 1918 – Letter, Ruby to Frank

My own dearest hubby,

to help to keep your precious feet warm, these are a bonny pair of sox hubby dear & have cost more than any other pair I have made, but I wanted them to be good, thick & warm, because you will get them about winter time over there so will need warm things.

But I'm still living in hope of seeing you for Xmas & having dinner together, eh darl? Lord I hope so anyway.

I get pretty miserable at times I can tell you darl without you...

Mementoes of the life and service of Frank Roberts and his wife Ruby, 1916-18
Source – Jilba Georgalis


Warning: graphic content

Bill Kearsey on board the hospital ship Karoola, May 1921. He is partly visible on the right of the photograph, second man behind the seated nurse
Source – Australian War Memorial, P01667.002

Men with broken faces

Wounds to the face and head were the most dreaded of trench warfare. Soldiers could survive the loss of the whole mouth and lower jaw, cheek, eyes or nose. About one in eight Australian casualties suffered facial wounds.

New Zealand surgeon Harold Gillies and his colleagues developed ground-breaking techniques at a specialised hospital for facial injuries, Queen’s Hospital in Sidcup, England. Here they worked to to restore not only men’s faces, but their will to live.

“…some man had had half his face literally blown to pieces, with the skin left hanging in shreds and the jawbones crushed to a pulp…”

Nurse Catherine Black

Bill Kearsey was serving in the 33rd Battalion near Glencorse Wood, Belgium, when a shell seriously wounded his face, hand and arm on 3 October 1917.

Bill underwent about 29 reconstructive operations at Sidcup.

Facial prosthetic and artificial eyes, 1920s–30s

Prosthetics like this were made at studios in London and Paris during and after World War I to cover soldiers’ severe facial injuries.

Eric Winter was serving as a driver in the 42nd Battalion in the Ypres area of Belgium on 19 October 1917, enduring extreme weather conditions and exhaustion, when his jaw was shot off. Eric spent almost 18 months at Sidcup where he had multiple reconstructive surgeries.

The plaster cast helped to plan his surgeries and record his condition.

Val-de-Grâce Military Hospital,

Fitting a facial prosthetic, Paris, 1917-20

American sculptor Anna Coleman Ladd worked at the Val-de-Grace Military Hospital in Paris to make facial prosthetics for seriously wounded men.

Source - National Museum of Health and Medicine, US Army

Dressing the leg of a French soldier at a mobile hospital at Forges-les-Eaux, France, about March 1918
Source – Australian War Memorial, P01790.001


Decorated portrait of Frank Roberts in the family’s dining room, 1917
Source – State Library of Victoria, J.G. Roberts Scrapbooks

The angel of death

During World War I, eight per cent of the entire population of Australia enlisted. More than half were killed or wounded. The impact on Australian society was enormous.

Women bore the brunt of the loss of men: managing households and raising children alone. Shortages of basic goods made life even harder.

A sense of dread and death hung heavy in the air, mocking the cheerful recruitment parades and galas. Newspapers printed growing lists of casualties next to rousing descriptions of battles. The streets darkened with women dressed in mourning clothes.

“The angel of death is throughout the land.”

John Bright, quoted at a farewell to soldiers in Preston, Victoria, 3 September 1914

A boy’s scrapbook, 1915

For many children, war-time could be exciting, with its gala events, parades of uniformed soldiers and games of make-believe. At the same time, children were deeply affected by the war.

One boy, Vincent Barton, expressed his fears by filling scrapbooks with newspaper cuttings about wounded and killed soldiers.

"Nearly everyone in Australia has in the war experienced some sense of loss – a son, a brother, some near relation or a close friend."

Cecil Healy in Memoriam, John Andrew, about 1919

John Hargreaves’s book of paintings, about 1917

John began painting during his treatment in Melbourne for shell shock. His subjects included other soldier-patients in their blue military hospital uniforms.

He painted for the rest of his life and became a fine artist.

Opposition to the war

Support for war in Australia was not universal. Some people were pacifists; some did not accept that the war was a just cause; and some were conflicted by their affiliation with non-allied countries.

As it dragged on, support for the war waned. Australians became increasingly divided, upset and tired. Fervent public debate surrounded the conscription referendums in 1916 and 1917.

Any right-minded woman would rather be the mother or sister of a dead hero than a living shirker.

‘Sister of Soldiers,’ Brisbane Courier, 12 July 1916

It was not the thought of his being killed that was a nightmare to me. That was terrible; but more terrible still was the thought of his killing another dear boy like himself, a boy whose mother loved him as passionately as I loved mine.

A ‘sorrowing mother’, Australian Women’s Peace Army Conscription Manifesto, 5 October 1916


Marching veterans, 1930s
Source - Australian War Memorial, A03638

The cost of peace

The flower of this generation has perished...

The gravestone of veteran James Connell, who died in 1926

The suffering and grief brought by war did not end with the Armistice. The graves of the dead were far away on the other side of the world. Those who went to war carried the burden of their memories. The wounded faced years of recovery and often died prematurely. Many struggled to get government support and recognition.

And their families had to cope with it all.

There will be many whom this news of victory will not save from personal grief. The sounds of rejoicing cannot but bring some reminder of their loss… Peace has been won by so much suffering and so many tears…

The Sydney Morning Herald, 12 November 1918

Albert Ward’s coach wheel bed

World War I veteran Albert (Wardie) Ward used this cast-iron coach-wheeled bed for 43 years at the Anzac Hostel in Brighton.

Albert was severely wounded in his back and thighs in France in 1918. As the years passed he became increasingly immobilized.

He spent the rest of his life in care, except for annual ‘holidays’ with family in Mildura.

Prosthetic arm, 1917–30

Around 3,800 Australian soldiers lost limbs during World War I.

The buildings of Caulfield Military Hospital included a limb factory, where these prosthetic limbs were probably made.

Letter from former Prime Minister William Hughes to Herbert Murray, 1936

I think it is a crying shame that a man who ruined his health in the service of his country cannot get justice in his old age.

Herbert Murray

Although Aboriginal serviceman Herbert Murray was gassed during the war he was refused a war pension.

He wrote to former Prime Minister Billy Hughes, by then then Minister for Health and Repatriation, but Hughes replied that he was also unable to help.

The war will never let you go, you know.
It will come back at all sorts of times.
You finish up enlisting twice, once for the war and once for the nightmares.

World War I veteran

Australian ambulance men at Bernafay assisting their comrades with trench foot
Source - Australian War Memorial, E00081


Frank Roberts with Ruby Barrett, about 1916
Source - Jilba Georgalis


  • John Hargreaves

    Telegraph messenger from Ararat, VIC, aged 18

  • Albert Kemp

    Butcher from Malvern, VIC, aged 32

  • Lil Mackenzie

    Nurse from Ballarat, VIC, aged 33

  • Herbert Murray

    Brothers from Orbost, VIC aged 26 and 34

  • Frank Roberts

    Orchardist from South Saffafras, VIC aged 27

  • William Kearsey

    Coach builder from Inverell, NSW, aged 24

  • Eliza Amery

    Rural pioneer from Boweya, VIC, mother of Alex aged 23

  • Demant Bros.

    Brothers from East Prussia, Germany, aged 18 and 26​

Exhibition now open

Melbourne Museum

11 Nicholson Street, Carlton, Victoria, Australia

Adults $14, Concessions, Children and Museum Victoria Members free

(Includes entry to Melbourne Museum)

Bookings and enquiries: 13 11 02