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War Memorial in Australia honours animals great and small
Updated: 2009-05-21 14:57

Animals have played myriad vital roles in Australia's armed forces, from faithful companions to trusted guards and early warning systems.

War Memorial in Australia honours animals great and small
History: the bronze horse head was originally part of an Australian Light Horse memorial in Egypt. [Agencies] 
Now, the Australian War Memorial (AWM) has unveiled a new statue to honour them - a bronze horse head, mounted on a tear-shaped granite plinth placed in the memorial's sculpture garden.

You may have heard of Simpson and his donkey, the Light Horse Brigade, or even know that pigeons were used extensively to transport messages in World War I, but animals often had more than a functional role.

Curator of the A is for Animals exhibition, Kate Dethridge, says animals were also important symbols and provided emotional support.

"Extremely important. I can safely say that any serviceman that came home from either the First or Second World War would be able to vouch for the role that all sorts of animals played," she said.

Ms Dethridge says animals' companionship and instincts were of particular note.

"We have a lot of stories of animals, particularly from the Second World War, of animals who would be like an early warning system to soldiers of air raids and that sort of thing," she said.

One such animal was Red Lead, the mascot cat of the HMAS Perth in World War II, who had spent several years on board but kept trying to escape when the ship was leaving Fremantle Port.

"Several days later, the HMAS Perth was destroyed by a fleet of Japanese ships and unfortunately Red Lead went down with the ship," she said

"That's just one example that we look at ideas of animals that aren't so straight forward, that we usually think of."

The exhibition also contains the preserved head of a World War I horse named Sandy, who Ms Dethridge says was the basis on which the new statue is modelled.

"It's quite beautiful to see that this history of an actual horse from the First World War has come through and is now used in this memorial," she said.

AWM assistant art curator Diana Warnes says it has been 10 years since the RSPCA first approached them with the idea of a memorial for animals involved in the Australian armed forces.

"When the RSPCA approached us to make the memorial, it was decided to include [the bronze horse head] as a core feature of the memorial," she said.

The new memorial has been designed by Canberra artist Steven Holland, whose previous work has explored the relationship between animals and humans.

"He's been quite a passionate person to have involved in the project over the past 10 years," she said.

The bronze horse head was originally a part of a memorial dedicated to the Australian Light Horse Brigade and the New Zealand Mounted Rifles in Port Said, Egypt , in 1932 and unveiled by Australian prime minister Billy Hughes.

Charles Webb Gilbert won the design competition of the original memorial in 1923, along with a prize of 250 guineas but died before it was completed.

During the Suez conflict on December 26, 1956, the statue was attacked and destroyed by Egyptian rioters and later the remaining pieces were returned to Australia and became part of the AWM's collection.

Ms Warnes says the complex nature and history of the new memorial gives it greater meaning.

"It's quite a strong emotive piece and a nice representation for all animals in war and the contribution that they've made," she said.