The discovery of gold in the Coolgardie and Kalgoorlie region, approximately 550km east of Perth in the early 1890’s led to an influx of fortune seekers, some of whom had military training. However early efforts to raise a volunteer force in Coolgardie in 1896 and Kalgoorlie in 1897 were unsuccessful and it was not until the outbreak of the Boer War in 1899 that military matters were taken more seriously in the area. By June 1900 the Western Australian Colonial Government had approved the creations of a Goldfields militia, known as the Goldfields Battalion of Infantry. Members of the battalion volunteered to serve in the Boer War and in 1903 the Battalion was re-designated the Goldfields Infantry Regiment, then in 1912, the 84th Infantry. From these origins, members of the Goldfields community have contributed to every conflict that Australia has fought in since Federation.
The Goldfields War Museum was established in 1989 to showcase the involvement of the community in Australia’s wars, but in April 2010 the museum was devastated by a 5.0 magnitude earthquake. Part of the museum was relocated to the Kalgoorlie Town Hall, however the vehicles and larger parts of the collection were placed into storage, where they still remain until a suitable venue for their display can be constructed. On 7 January 2019, the museum was reopened in the Boulder Town Hall.
Considering the community’s involvement and sacrifices it made in all of Australia’s wars I was quite surprised at how small the museum is. However, during my visit I had a brief chat to City of Kalgoorlie-Boulder heritage officer Tim Cudini, who told me that there are several other items held in storage which will go on display when funding is finally released to facilitate the expansion of the museum to include the larger vehicles and other pieces that have been out of view since the earthquake.
The current display area takes up six rooms, which were previously used as a doctor’s surgery, on the ground floor of the town hall. Most of the space is used for didactic panels and photographs outlining the experiences of locals in the wars. I was a little disappointed by the small number of objects shown on display, although the stories that accompany the displays do make for interesting reading as they give very personal accounts of the conflicts and also clues to the prevalent attitudes of the time.
One of these features medals and documentation belonging to James Brennan who served and an infantryman with the 2/28th Battalion as a ‘Rat of Tobruk’ and taken prisoner of war at El Alamein. James ‘Jim’ Brennan was an indigenous soldier, born in Laverton, Western Australia in 1917. While still a child, James was taken from his family and sent to the Moore River Settlement, north of Perth. In his teens he worked as a stockman mustering cattle before enlisting in the Army in August 1940.
On 26 July 1942 he was captured during the 2/28th Battalion’s disastrous attack on Ruin Ridge as part of what is known as the first battle of Alamein. The battalion lost 65 men killed and 490 captured by the Axis forces. Sent to Italy, James endured harsh treatment as a POW before being transferred to work in the rice fields between Turin and Milan. When the Italians capitulated, Brennan escaped and fought with the Partisans until being recaptured and sent to Stalag 7 in Germany, before being repatriated to Australia at the end of the war.
Returning to the Western Australian Goldfields, James Brennan found that being of indigenous heritage and despite having fought for Australia, he was still not regarded as an Australian citizen. He had to apply for citizenship rights just to go into a pub for a drink and when granted citizenship he and his wife Myrtle were able to go into towns, but this same access was not granted to their relatives. In 1965 James formed the Eastern Goldfields Aboriginal Advancement Council to advocate for social change on behalf of Aboriginal people. His service to the indigenous community was formally recognised in 1984 when James was awarded the Order of Australia Medal. His story was a sobering reminder of some of the attitudes regarding indigenous Australians that still persist in some sections of the community even today.
Other exhibits, such as the plate carrier of Private Brian Enad, who served with the 6th Battalion Royal Australian Regiment (6RAR) reflect Australia’s more recent conflicts. Brian Enad deployed to Afghanistan as a member of 6RAR’s Combat Team Charlie, training members of the Afghan National Police and National Army in 2010. The deployment was among the bloodiest for the battalion which formed part of Mentoring Task Force 1, conducting more than 1700 patrols and nearly 100 contacts where the enemy was directly engaged, including the Battle of Derapet, for which Corporal Daniel Keighran, another Kalgoorlie resident, was awarded the Victoria Cross for valour.
The museum, whilst small is worth setting aside an hour or two for a visit and I am looking forward to returning one day when they finally do receive the funding to make all the larger exhibits available for viewing to the public. Currently, the museum is open on weekdays from 09:00 thru 16:00 and for a couple of hours every third Sunday of the month. Entry is free although gold coin donations are appreciated.
Goldfields War Museum
116 Burt Street
Western Australia, 6432
Open: Monday to Friday from 09:00 to 16:00 (excluding public holidays) and on Boulder Market Days (third Sunday of each month) from 10:00 to 12:00
Entry Fees: By donation. Guided tours are available every Thursday at 13.30 and costs $5 per person
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