The War Memorial Oak in Adelaide, Australia

The 100-year-old oak in Creswell Gardens in the city of Adelaide in Australia was planted to commemorate the First World War, and as such is one of many trees standing as memorials to the Great War. This oak, however, is special in that it is very likely to be the first ever living memorial to WW1: it was planted on August 29, 1914, only a month after the war began with Austria-Hungary’s declaration of war with Serbia, and a mere 25 days following the United Kingdom’s entry into the conflict on declaring war on with Germany on August 4, an act which implied also the initiation of war for Australia.

The planting was an initiative of the South Australia branch of the Australian Wattle Day League, an association founded to establish wattle blossom (Acacia sp.) as the national emblem of Australia. At a meeting on August 15, 1914, the President of the League W.J. Snowden spoke of the people of all nationalities that composed the League, and especially of those British-Australians who “by reason of their original nationality suffered now the conflict of emotions only natural when they knew that men near and dear to them were probably being slain on

Plaque standing in front of the War Memorial Oak. Photo: ©David Lawry 

the battlefield every day.” He proposed to invite the Governor of South Australia, Sir Henry Galway, to “plant in a prominent position on Wattle Day a memorial English oak—the tree which, with its slowly but surely developing soundness, strength, solidity, and restful beauty, so well typified the characteristics of the British nation.”[1]

The young Quercus robur L. was planted in Creswell Gardens, and around it were planted eight wattles to symbolize the eight States and Territories of the young Commonwealth of Australia. The wattles have been lost, but the oak still remains, its canopy now spreading across a diameter of approximately 30 meters and the circumference of its trunk exceeding 3.5 meters.[2]

The War Memorial Oak is part of Avenues of Honour 1915-2015, a national project to preserve and promote Australia’s Avenues of Honour. These arboreal memorials are a popular form of public commemoration of military service in Australia. The earliest were created in response to Australia’s participation in the Boer War, but most were established during and after the World Wars. The year 2015 is a landmark for these memorials as this year will see the centenary of the Gallipoli landings, Australia’s official entry into World War I, when ANZAC forces landed on the Gallipoli peninsula in Turkey. (Also in these forces was trooper Douglas Cook, founder of New Zealand’s Eastwoodhill Arboretum, who in fact lost a finger to an enemy bullet in Gallipoli—see Oak News & Notes. Vol. 18. No.2 and the article “The Oaks at Eastwoodhill” on the IOS website.) You can read more about the Avenues of Honour 1915-2015 project on their website

The War Memorial Oak, a 100-year-old Q. robur with a 30-meter crown spread. Photo: ©David Lawry 

The War Memorial Oak was intended as a memorial to the Great War itself, and it is remarkable that those planting it were so aware of the importance this war would have on world history, even when it had barely started. On the occasion of the oak’s centenary, August 29, 2014, a hundred school children planted a seedling grown from an acorn of the original oak, about 150 m away, thus continuing the gesture of memorial and remembrance. The oak continues to serve its purpose, as those who planted it hoped, commemorating “during centuries to come… for many generations of their children’s children the greatest War Year and the most critical time of national trial that the world had ever known.” Long may it continue to do so; as Sir Henry Galway said in his address at the planting ceremony: “Planted in war, might the oak flourish in the years to come during continual peace.”[3]

At a ceremony to mark the centenary of the planting of the War Memorial Oak, on August 29, 2014, 100 school children planted a seedling of the original oak at the same location, about 150 m away from the historic tree. Photo: ©David Lawry

[1] Observer, Adelaide, South Australia, August 17, 1914.

[3] South Australia Register, August 31, 1914.