20 April 2023

War Memorial refutes claims 'artefacts' were melted down for medals in English boat race

| James Coleman
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AWM Australian War Memorial

A piece of casting from the Roll of Honour was among the items donated to the 2019 Henley Royal Regatta. Photo: Michelle Kroll.

The Australian War Memorial has knocked back reports it melted down “significant” items to create medals for a military-inspired rowing competition in England four years ago.

Freedom of Information (FOI) documents disclosed last month name a bronze plate off-cut from the Roll of Honour was among items donated to the 2019 Henley Royal Regatta, prompting independent publisher Michael West Media to claim “artefacts were melted for medals“.

The Memorial has responded, affirming the contributions were “non-collection items”.

Email correspondence in the documents reveal then director of the Memorial, Dr Brendan Nelson, was approached by the organiser of the Henley Royal Regatta, Chris Hartley, in early 2018.

The annual race was first held in 1919 when military rowing forces from Australia, New Zealand, the US, the UK, France and Canada competed for the ‘King’s Cup’.

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Mr Hartley wanted to pull off a special 100th-anniversary event for 2019 and asked the Australian War Memorial to join institutions across the world in providing World War I ironmongery. These pieces would be melted down to create presentation medals for the competitors based on the original medals from 1919.

“I have a commercial smelter lined up but am now looking for metal to melt, ideally with a story or connection,” he wrote to Dr Nelson.

“I envisage this to include that from major battle sites including the Western Front and Gallipoli.”

Up to this point, Canada had agreed to contribute copper roofing from the country’s first Parliament building, New Zealand brass fittings from the boat that raced in 1919 (as well as service buttons from all major NZ campaigns) and German brass fittings from one of their Navy training ships.

Henley Royal Regatta boat race

Crowds at the Henley Royal Regatta on the Thames River in England. Photo: Henley Royal Regatta, Facebook.

Dr Nelson advised that “if it means taking something from our collection to have it melted down … I doubt very much we will agree to it”, but staff agreed to “keep an eye out for any non-ferrous material that has come up in the disposal process”.

Initially, possible items included “female relative badges, silver war badges, aluminium or tin items like mess tins, as well as medals or next-of-kin plaques”.

The “old brass door handles and locks from the original building” also came up.

But after further correspondence – that went right to the top of the Australian Defence Force, General Angus Campbell – it was agreed to relinquish a 0.5-kilogram off-cut from the Roll of Honour.

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The Roll of Honour is a list of the names of more than 102,800 members of the Australian armed forces who have died during or as a result of war service, etched on wall-mounted bronze panels in the Memorial’s Commemorative Area. The gifted piece was part of a patina used by the Memorial’s foundry to cast these bronze panels.

“The Memorial will contribute original brass door fittings from the tower of the main building and a piece of the bronze plate used in casting the Roll of Honour to be melted down for the King’s Cup medals,” Dr Nelson wrote to the former president of Rowing ACT Alison Creagh, who was collecting the items on behalf of Mr Hartley.

There was no need to run the items past the Memorial’s governing body as they were classified as “non-collection”, but Dr Nelson followed up with a note about the heritage value of the items – “both these items are, of course, significant”.

The finished medals were seen a few months later, on 12 June 2019, when Defence Minister Linda Reynolds, together with General Campbell and Dr Nelson, presented them to the Australian team. The King’s Cup trophy itself was also on display at the Memorial for several periods throughout that year.

In a statement to Region, a spokesperson for the War Memorial has reiterated the “contribution for the 2019 King’s Cup was made from non-collection items”.

“This included a sample of bronze panel and old brass locks removed from the Memorial building during renovations,” the spokesperson said.

“The 2019 King’s Cup saw the original six nations recreating the tradition born on the battlefields of Europe during the First World War and the Memorial was honoured to make a contribution to this historic event.”

Rowing ACT was contacted for comment.

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