Record crowds turned out for the Australian War Memorial's ''Big Things In Store'' day at its Mitchell facility yesterday. Visitor numbers were up by 21 per cent on the previous best year.
AWM officials, who were delighted with the level of public interest, believe the surge was at least partially driven by the frustration many Canberrans and interstate history buffs had felt after last year's 11th-hour cancellation of the event due to the Mitchell fire.
Other factors responsible for drawing more than 4600 people to the facility where some waited for up to 30 minutes to be admitted included recent major acquisitions: a CAC Sabre jet fighter and an Iroquois helicopter. There was also a Bushmaster vehicle on display and, as always, the AWM's A-4 rocket - or V-2 as it is more commonly known - was a crowd pleaser. The Changi prison camp piano, which featured in a recent television documentary, was also on show.
One exhibit few, if any, members of the public got to see because it was tucked away in a corner at the memorial was ''the little engine that could'', a narrow-gauge Hunslet Locomotive used to transport soldiers into battle on the Western Front in France during World War I.
Because the trench lines stayed static for long periods, the Allies developed a sophisticated network of full-gauge and narrow-gauge railways to connect them with key elements in the supply chain.
Commissioned for the War Department on May 8, 1916, the AWM Hunslet is a personal favourite of Rebecca Britt, currently acting head of military heraldry and technology.
''My grandfather, Thomas Brett, was one of the railway men on the Western Front [in World War I],'' she said. ''I believe he drove one of the bigger engines, however.''
AWM staff told The Canberra Times the memorial was fortunate to have acquired the engine.
''We left our run a little late,'' Nick Fletcher said. ''We had been looking for some years for an example and the challenge was to find one with a genuine WWI provenance that had an Australian connection and, most importantly, that somebody would let us have.''
The AWM sourced locomotive 306, by then in a rather dilapidated state, out of Queensland in 2001. It had been repurchased by Hunslet after the war, modified and refurbished and then sold for use pulling cane trains. It is now in pristine condition and, in past years, has been on display in Anzac Hall.
Mr Fletcher said there was no reason to believe it would not return there in the future.