BILL CLEMENTS. Grain silos and war memorials

Aug 27, 2019

In 2008, archaeologists from the University of Chicago discovered ancient grain storage silos in Southern Egypt. Made from mud brick, they were there when Jacob’s sons, in a time of famine, came seeking grain. We are fortunate that these silos constructed from simpler, cheaper materials than the great tombs, have survived. For ancient Egypt reserved its best resources for the burial of the dead, not for domestic needs and the celebration of life. Perhaps, more than is generally recognised, Australia, too, might be pursuing this perverse priority.

Before 1914, public memorials of any kind were thin on the ground. There were a few memorials to those who had taken part in the Boer War. And the Victorian gold towns had “thank-you-for-the-gold” statues of Queen Victoria.

But, after World War I, everything changed as mourning townspeople across the country commemorated their fellow citizens and family members among the 60,000 dead in Belgium and France with modest war memorials. The state-sponsored and state-funded memorials in each capital city contrast starkly with these local memorials and, also, with the innovative architecture of the bush, the grain silos going up across the wheat belts at the same time, in the inter-War years.

There had been a massive increase in land cleared and planted to wheat, from 1.6 to 5 million hectares in 1916/17. In New South Wales, the first silo was completed at Peak Hill, near Dubbo, in 1918. Grain silos punctuated horizons and became symbols of optimism for the post-War generation. The great reinforced concrete system spread across the continent, the last of hundreds in New South Wales going up at the time of the call-up for World War II in 1941. (Ron Pratt, Grain silos of New South Wales)

Many of the workers on the construction of the silos were World War I veterans. Bill Gammage, in The broken years, writes of these returning survivors of the battle grounds:

For some men the hardest adjustments were those of the mind. In the cities there was an upsurge of violence and drunkenness in 1919. Men were trying to forget, to blot out the gruesome sights and the waste of a horrible past.

Archaeological digs near the sites of the silo-camps to which many of these disturbed, unemployed men had been directed, could turn up thousands of 1920s and 1930s beer bottles. Alcohol in large quantities was the necessary aid to the PTSD ‘counselling’ of those days! It was still the way of ex-servicemen on the hydro schemes in the 1950s, as I discovered when I worked with them. After ten-day shifts, they ordered a cab full of beer from the nearest town and holed up for four days with their mates.

The harbour bridge then under construction in the same inter-War period attracted much attention. The building of the silos did not. The first great grain storage systems were going up and no one was taking any notice. Perhaps the disreputable nature of the workers is the reason we find no brass plaques to commemorate the hundreds of ex-servicemen who built our silos. There is no trace of their camps, no photographs of the silos under construction, no images of the men, no names. No recognition of any kind. No collective memory. One of the great infrastructure projects in our history is an undocumented, forgotten story. And yet the safe storage of grain is essential to life.

Now hundreds of the old grain silos have been abandoned. Rail spur-lines have closed and there are on-farm storage systems. If we lived in a virtual reality, we could digitally remove the silos and send them to where they are needed, to places like sub-Saharan Africa, facing food emergencies. Building storage systems has never been more urgent there where 30 million tonnes of grain and oil seeds are lost annually for want of investment in silos (FAO.) Africa needs to triple its grain production this century if it is to feed its exploding population (median age 19.4 years.)

Food production is now a dominant concern globally. In 2013, New South Wales very nearly lost control of its grain industry with the 2.7 billion dollar offer by Archer Daniels Midland, one of four world grain traders based in Chicago, for GrainCorp and all its infrastructure. Thanks only to the protests of farmers, the sale fell through and we did not lose our sovereignty as a grain-producing nation.

The current government has allocated $500,000,000 for re-development of the Australian War Memorial, threatening to turn it from memorial to museum of the artefacts of war. A further $350,000,000 was spent on the Anzac Centenary and the Sir John Monash Centre in France. All of this flies in the face of the needs of the living in a time of global warming.

We forget the example of the great infrastructure program of the silos, built to support life, in favour of war memorials; and we continue to do this with hundreds of millions of dollars. In this, the contemporary state mirrors the ancient world.

(Bill Clements is a sculptor and writes about social justice issues.


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