By Sahar Adatia and Jimmy Singh.
In Australia, war memorials hold a special significance as historical touchstones.
They link the past to the present and enable people to remember and respect the sacrifice of those who fought, died or were affected by wars.
They also represent surrogate graves for many soldiers whose bodies were buried in overseas war cemeteries or could not be located.
With war memorials considered some of Australia’s most sacred places, it is no wonder custodians and community members alike work hard to preserve these sites and uphold the protection of them.
Nevertheless, damage and vandalism are problems affecting war memorials and last week saw a devastating case of this.
On 14 February 2019, a Queanbeyan war memorial site commemorating fallen veterans who died in battle was left desecrated after vandals trashed it overnight.
The memorial, which consisted of more than 100 commemorative crosses, was found damaged with the crosses left scattered across the lawn of the Queanbeyan Information Centre, ruining the diggers’ legacy.
The chain surrounding the area was also broken.
The crosses were laid by the loved one of war veterans during Anzac Day services.
The Queanbeyan memorial site is run by volunteer Queanbeyan Legacy members.
Veterans’ Relatives Devastated to Hear of Damaged Memorial Site
As news of desecrated diggers’ legacy unfolded, locals and the veterans’ relatives were quick to express their shock and devastation.
Shaken local Glen Croker posted a video of the harmed site to the Queanbeyan Community Notice Board on Facebook the following day, captioning it “Disgusting”. In the video, the crosses can be seen lying bent on the grass.
“Someone last night has had the privilege of desecrating the legacy, the memorial,” Mr Croker said in the video.
“Whoever done it, good work!”
“It’s something that’s close to my heart,” Mr Croker expressed of his distress.
Meanwhile, Queanbeyan Legacy secretary Suzanne McInnes, whose father’s war service is honoured at the site, told ABC News the veterans’ relatives will be saddened to learn of the vandalism, admitting that she cried when she heard the plot had been ruined.
“My father had a cross in this garden. I know the family of most of these people and I guess they would all be very saddened to see what happened,” she said.
“It’s really sad that people can do these sorts of things and probably don’t even realise what the significance of them are.”
She added the disgusting destruction is akin to “desecrating a gravesite in a way”.
Not the First Time Memorial Site has Experienced Vandalism
While the instance of vandalism came as a shock, according to Ms McInnes, it is not the first time the site has been damaged. In fact, vandalism at the site has been a returning problem for the police and council.
Ms. McInnes estimated that the area had been desecrated about eight times in recent years.
“Sometimes it’s just a few crosses, sometimes it’s the entire garden taken around the outside of the Information Centre and dumped in a birdbath,” she said.
Meanwhile, Queanbeyan-Palerang Mayor Tim Overall said pinpointing the vandals often proves a difficult task.
“We’ve been in contact with police to find out what they know or may not know,” he said.
“I am aware there’s no CCTV in that location so that’s not going to be of any assistance.”
Despite the crosses being put back into place following the incident, Cr Overall said he was still dismayed to hear the defilement was carried out in the first place.
“They’ve got names on them, of family and relatives who have given their lives so it’s very disappointing and disrespectful to say the least,” he said.
The crosses remain permanently damaged.
Ms McInnes said the broken chain surrounding the area would also need to be replaced.
Vandalism Among War Memorials and the Impact on the Community
According to the War Memorials Trust, it is not uncommon for war memorials to become the targets of deliberate acts of vandalism.
This can include damage to the structure of a memorial, graffiti, or even the theft of certain materials, in particular the metal from the plaques which is often sold for scrap.
Overall, the impact on the community of such damage is devastating. It is often the metal pieces of war memorials that are important to people, specifically because they list the names of the fallen, or form the central feature of the memorial, as in the case of a statue.
Losing these means the memorial can no longer be utilised as a focal point for commemoration in the same way.
The impact financially can also be detrimental. The money that thieves tend to receive by selling the stolen metal is far less than the cost of replacing it, and this cost can be problematic for the community to meet.
Furthermore, incidents of vandalism often cause anger. Most people hold a great deal of respect for what a war memorial represents and believe they should be respected and looked after, so seeing them vandalised often causes devastation.
What are the Penalties for Damaging or Desecrating Protected Places in NSW?
A protected place includes a shrine, statue or monument situated in any public area. It also includes a war memorial or interment site according to section 8(1) Summary Offences Act 1988 (NSW).
The Queanbeyan war memorial site is considered a ‘protected place’ in NSW.
Anyone who is found guilty of wilfully damaging or defacing a protected place will face a penalty of up to $4,400 fine and a criminal conviction by a court, under section 8(2) Summary Offences Act 1988 (NSW).
In addition, anyone who is guilty of committing a nuisance, an offensive act or indecent act in a war memorial or interment site will face a penalty of up to $2,200 fine and criminal conviction by a court, under section 8(3) Summary Offences Act 1988 (NSW).
The above offences carry no penalties of imprisonment. However, the Local Court may at its discretion in an appropriate case impose a penalty of a Community Corrections Order involving community service work order conditions. (section 8(3A)(a) Summary Offences Act 1988 (NSW).
With criminal defence lawyers in Parramatta, Sydney and various other offices in NSW, our team are available 24/7, offering a free first consultation to help.