Smokie Dawson: Menin Gate at Midnight

By Smokie Dawson

It is only in the past fifteen years or so that I have attended the Williamstown ANZAC Day dawn service in front the cenotaph at the bottom of Ferguson St. I have come to the realization that the service is not a glorification of war, but rather an opportunity to pay a few silent minutes of respect to those servicemen and women who lost their lives in the Great War, and all conflicts which followed. And in that decade and a half, I have watched as the ANZAC Day crowds have grown, and grown younger.

As a nation, the teaching of our own history has never been a strength. I do not recall being aware of ANZAC Day as a child, aside from some brief primary school lessons. Australian history, and in particular Indigenous history, was not a huge part of the curriculum.

For a short period in the 1970’s, my family lived on the far south coast of New South Wales in a house which we believed to be haunted. There was no accounting nor explanation for the bumps, noises and footsteps that would wake us in the night. On the walls of this old dwelling hung a number of ancient paintings and prints, the most striking of which was a dark print featuring what appeared to be ghosts in front of an arched monument. Before we moved, the owner of the house offered the print to my mother as a gift. She demurred.

Menin Gate at Midnight (Ghosts of Menin Gate) is a 1927 painting by Australian artist Will Longstaff

Just prior to my nascent interest in ANZAC Day, my wife and I journeyed to Canberra with our three young sons. I had heard much about the Australian War Memorial and was interested in visiting. It is a solemnly impressive shrine, and the museum houses a collection of art and artifacts. One painting in particular immediately grabbed my attention: a large landscape in blue hues featuring ghostly figures marching across a field adjacent to a memorial arch. Some thirty years later, I immediately recognized that a print of this painting was the one I had wondered about all those years ago. Named ‘Menin Gate At Midnight’, it was painted by the artist Will Longstaff after he returned from the opening of the Menin Gate Memorial in Ypres, Belgium in 1927. The memorial in Ypres commemorates those of the British Empire – including Australia – who lost their lives in WW1. I stood before it for some time, marvelling at the painting’s beauty. I have since discovered that Longstaff authorized 2000 prints, which he signed. I know that I stared in wonder at one of those no doubt very valuable prints when I was young.

Did ‘Menin Gate At Midnight’ stir within me a renewed interest in ANZAC Day? Quite possibly.

But I do know, four decades on, as I stood before that painting in the Australian War Memorial, marvelling at the meaning of the haunting marching apparitions, that I had finally solved the mystery of the ghostly midnight footfalls in the hallway of that old house.

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