By JOHN HALL
THOUSANDS of young Tasmanian men marched through these gates to war in Europe and the Pacific. Around 750 of them never returned home.
Five hundred soldiers who bid Tasmania farewell as they passed through these gates, died violently on the battlefields of the Second World War – as near as the Kokoda Trail in Papua New Guinea, as far away as the desert sands of north Africa.
Around 250 more young Tasmanian soldiers died as prisoners of war – in Japanese army camps in Burma and Singapore. They died from starvation, illness, beatings and execution.
Tasmanians began volunteering for service when war broke out in 1939. They enlisted at Hobart’s historic Angelsea Barracks and then they marched down Davey Street and boarded the train to Brighton station. Then they marched to the newly constructed Brighton Army Camp and each new soldier was issued with army gear and a 303 rifle.
After a few weeks of training, which included small arms and artillery practice at the nearby Pontville rifle range, they were off to war – to fight Hitler’s troops in Europe and north Africa or the Japanese Army sweeping south through Asia and the South Pacific. Women too went to war after training at Brighton gave them the skills to help in medical, transport and signals work.
Young Tasmanians going to later wars – in Korea and Vietnam – also did their training at Brighton Army Camp.
Following in the footsteps of their predecessors they marched into the camp through the two sets of gates, and when training was done, they marched off to these conflicts in Asia – this time to fight the Communists.
The wars are long gone. The gates remain. And now standing between them, where the guardhouse once stood, is a dramatic sculpture commemorating the young Tasmanians who went to war.
The sculpture is a silhouette of two Second World War soldiers on guard duty on either side of a depiction of the guardhouse, which reflects the style of the pillars supporting the two sets of heavy metal gates. Those gates, freshly repainted and now permanently closed, were erected 73 years ago, on the eve of the Second World War.
The 3.4m high steel memorial is the work of Mangalore sculptor Folko Kooper. It is in the style of the silhouette sculptures of historic scenes – a bushranger, a convict gang, soldiers, a coach and horses – along the Midland Highway, also the creation of the young Dutchman who settled in Tasmania 18 years ago.
“The Australian Defence Force was keen for the sculpture to be a memorial to all the young Tasmanians who passed through these gates on their way to war,” Folko said.
“But the Defence Force insisted that it have integrity. The two soldiers depicted – one is a lance corporal, the other is a private – are in summer uniform and wearing slouch hats. The army gave me an original rising sun brass emblem for one of the slouch hats.”
Folko was given meticulous advice from John Lennox, the army historian at Angelsea Barracks. Originally, the soldiers’ arms bearing the 303 rifles were at the wrong angle. Now the elbows are correctly set at 90 degrees.
Folko designed the sculpture and the fabrication, in architectural steel, was done by Weatherfoil in Hobart.
“After it was sandblasted, I had the sculpture at my place for three weeks while it gently rusted,” Folko said. “It was then installed between the two sets of gates, with a spotlight directed on it at night.”
The sculpture was commissioned by Brighton Council as a fitting tribute to all the men who went to war from Brighton Army Camp.
Mayor Tony Foster is delighted with the sculpture.
“Brighton Army Camp was decommissioned in 1995 and the land was subdivided for housing two years ago,” he said. “The Defence Department insisted that the gates be preserved, and also the parade ground and hospital behind them.
“We were happy to do this and also keen to see a contemporary memorial to the soldiers who were trained at Brighton.”
Mayor Foster said the camp had served many purposes. Apart from preparing young men for fighting on numerous fronts, it had also been a temporary refuge for victims of two conflicts in Europe – 500 Poles displaced by the Second World War and more recently 400 Kosovars fleeing fighting in the Balkans.
“Both groups of refugees were made very welcome by the local community,” Mayor Foster recalled.
Now the gates are fixed so they will never open again and the 3.4m gently rusting steel sculpture of two soldiers stands guard at the old Brighton Army Camp.