The Queen's Domain in Hobart pays tribute to genuine heroes

Tree's company: One of the plaques along the Soldiers Memorial Avenue at the Domain in Hobart. Picture: Rob Shaw
Tree's company: One of the plaques along the Soldiers Memorial Avenue at the Domain in Hobart. Picture: Rob Shaw

A few square kilometres close to the centre of Tasmania’s capital provide a poignant reminder of why Australia is, and should always be grateful for being, the lucky country.

The Queen’s Domain is an area of Hobart owned by the Crown and therefore out of bounds to dollar-eyed property developers.

It is home to the Governor’s residence, the botanical gardens and stunning panoramic views of the city, the River Derwent, Mount Wellington and the Eastern Shore.

It also happens to be the location of some of the state’s principal sporting venues.

For this picturesque grassy knoll girt by business and residential development has played host to such distinguished athletes as Ian Thorpe, Serena Williams, Sebastian Coe and Viv Richards.

The historic TCA Ground, venue for Tasmania’s first national cricket title in 1979, sits pride of place surrounded by our primary swimming, tennis and athletic venues, each generically referred to as The Domain and collectively home to more state championships than you could shake a javelin at.

Also hosting assorted national and international events, the venues have welcomed some of the world’s finest sports stars to our shores.

But it is the picturesque trail that runs between them that brings their purpose into sharper focus.

Appropriately stretching between the Hobart Cenotaph and the Soldiers Memorial Oval is an avenue of trees planted to honour Tasmanians who died in the First World War.

It is a contrasting juxtaposition - venues celebrating sport participation divided by a path commemorating combat sacrifice.

The respective activities are worlds apart in every sense – hard to believe that the muddy, bloody battlefields of eastern France could even be on the same planet as this idyllic, peaceful outpost nearer to Antarctica than Asia.

During the recent state long-course swimming championships at Hobart Aquatic Centre, I overheard one young competitor crying uncontrollably after one of her races.

It was impossible not to feel sympathy for her. Having devoted considerable time and effort to her favourite sport she had failed to reach her set goal.

It may not have been much consolation to the distraught teenager involved, but a short stroll around the complex brought her plight into perspective.

“Killed along with four others by a single shell, Pozieres, France, 1916. No known grave” certainly makes “Failed to improve PB in 200m backstroke” seem overwhelmingly insignificant.

The Returned Servicemen’s Association and Hobart City Council began planning the Soldiers Memorial Avenue in 1917.

A crowd of 10,000 – a third of Hobart’s then population – witnessed the first major planting in August 1918, three months before the Great War had finished.

Further planting took place in 1919 and 1926 followed by a restoration in 2001.

There are 534 trees in the avenue, each with a plaque recording the name, background and fate of a fallen soldier.

Many are devastatingly young, little older than the blubbing backstroker.

Their occupations reveal a snapshot of Tasmanian life at the time, from farm labourers and carpenters to blacksmiths.

Their stories reveal even more.

Like Nathaniel Abbott, one of nine siblings born in Evandale, who was wounded in Gallipoli in 1915, Pozieres in 1916, Polygon Wood in 1917 and died of multiple gunshot wounds at Harbonnieres in 1918.

Miner Patrick Kelly’s subterranean skills were utilised to become a tunneller only for him to be killed by a shell while waiting for transport during an operation on the Western Front in August 1917.

Twenty-year-old painter Charles Bates – killed by a premature explosion during grenade practice in Bailleul.

Raymond Adams, who became a solicitor after being educated at Hutchins and the University of Tasmania, enlisted, was killed in action on his first tour of duty and has no known grave.

Bothwell-born Thomas Hill was mentioned in dispatches for “distinguished and gallant services” for continuing to operate his machine gun despite his parapet in a German officer’s trench having been destroyed by heavy shelling.

What they would have given to swap the hell where they met their end for the heaven of a weekend away playing sport with their mates in peacetime.

Drawing the comparison, it was difficult not to think of RAAF pilot and cricketer Keith Miller’s blunt but telling comment that Test match pressure is nothing compared to “a Messerschmidt up your ass (spelling altered to protect the easily offended)”.

Hobart City Council and the Tasmanian Branch of the RSL are to be commended for the splendid avenue of commemoration and I recommend anybody competing at one of The Domain venues to spare time to visit it and read the heart-rending stories on the plaques.

Strolling along on a Sunday morning it was possible to hear a combination of the commentary from an athletics meet, smashing of serves at the tennis, screeching of deluded parents at the swimming and sledging of outfielders at the cricket.

There could be no better way to fully appreciate how the sacrifices of previous generations have afforded us such a privileged existence devoid of challenges and ordeals remotely comparable.

How lucky are we eh?