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Writing the Great War
Personal Stories to Contemporary History
Personal Stories to Contemporary History
20 June 2015
Writing the Great War: personal stories to contemporary history explored how Australians responded to the First World War through writing. From eyewitness accounts of journalists, soldiers and nurses, and a century of creative responses of poets and novelists, through to the historical interpretations of the event, the first great conflict engaged in by literate populations around the globe left an incredible written legacy. This seminar explores this breadth of writing, both for the public and for personal memory.
Session One: The Eyewitness
In the midst of war, people were recording their thoughts observations and experiences – for their private records, for publication and to influence. Here we explore the reports of the war, from private correspondence to the journalism of the time.
Speakers: Dr Michael McKernan, Dr Janet Butler, Dr Ross McMullin
Session Two: The Poets' War
A substantial number of poets became soldiers in World War 1. This session will introduce some wartime poetry and look at the context and scope of creative output.
Speakers: Malcolm St Hill, Dr Ann Vickery, Dr Philip Butterss
Session Three: Responding to the Great War
For a century, the war has captured the creative imagination of Australia’s fiction writers. What did it mean to writers of the day and how have interpretations changed over time?
Speakers: Dr Clare Rhoden, Dr Susannah Helman, Dr Adrian Caesar
Session Four: Making History
The history of the First World War has been told and retold. In our final session, historians explore how the history of the war has been made and where public and academic interpretation stands today.
Speakers: Peter Rees, Dr Joan Beaumont
Writing the Great War
20 June 2015
National Library of Australia
Session One: The Eyewitness – Dr Michael McKernan
Michael McKernan: Good morning and thank you. I’m going to start with a surprise. What do you think was the wisest thing an Australian prime minister ever said about his country in war and who was the prime minister who said it? It’s hard to believe that an Australian prime minister would have something sensible to say about almost anything but this was in fact said by a prime minister who became better as he got older, after he left office in my view and that of course is Malcolm Fraser who became a great Australian if he wasn’t a great Australian when he became prime minister. And he said in a book review a few years ago that Australia should never take part in war again unless we have a guaranteed seat at the table where the strategy is determined and if that isn’t the wisest thing an Australian prime minister has said about war I don’t know what could beat it.
The situation for Andrew Fisher as Nat has already said was so far removed from that piece of wisdom as to be ridiculous. Andrew Fisher knew no more about the course of the war in which he had .. to which he had sent Australian troops than an ordinary reader of an Australian newspaper. He had no prior briefing to the incursion of the Anzacs as they came to be called at Gallipoli and he had no participation whatsoever in the decisions taken in London for that strategy that was developing largely by Winston Churchill. He had nothing to say about the size of the army that would invade Turkey or its composition, he had nothing to say at all about the new word, Anzac, that came into use and all of this lack of knowledge clearly and properly bothered him to the extent that he resigned the office of prime minister largely I suspect and so does his biographer, David Day, because of ill health caused by his concern for the troops that were fighting in the name of Australia over which he had no influence whatsoever.
So Fisher decided that he would find out for himself what was going on. His preference would have been to have gone to Gallipoli personally but he knew this was not possible or appropriate. Why he didn’t ask Charles Bean for an intimate update and account I don’t know and that’ll be a question I’ll be putting to Peter Reece later on today, the biographer of Charles Bean and he probably has an answer. Perhaps it’s because he didn’t quite trust Bean, I'm not sure but it would have seemed the logical thing to do. But instead he asked his good friend, Keith Murdoch, who Nat has introduced to you as a young, ambitious and very successful journalist, he asked him ... Keith Murdoch was taking a position in London as the head of the cable service to Australia. Murdoch by the way agonised as to whether his responsibility was to enlist in the AIF and he asked plenty of people for advice and Fisher said to him no, that is not your responsibility, you’ll do far better work for Australia as a journalist than you would do as a soldier. I think it was good advice.
But he asked Murdoch to go ... who was going to London to stop off and look around the peninsula for himself and then report back to Fisher his understandings of the circumstances there. And they invented a fable that Murdoch was in fact investigating the provision of mail services to the Australian soldiers and so off Murdoch went. When he got to Gallipoli Murdoch was expecting to be closely supervised and escorted by Charles Bean. Murdoch had come second in the ballot to Bean, the ballot that was taken by the Australian Journalists’ Association to find the official correspondent. Bean won that ballot but only I believe by four votes above Murdoch which was an excellent result for Murdoch as he was so much younger than the other journalists in the ballot and although he was in the parliamentary press gallery in Melbourne he had not been working as a journalist for a long time in Melbourne. In fact he’d spent most of his formative time as a stringer for the Melbourne Age writing on that extremely exciting area of Melbourne, Malvern, so if you could find stories for the Age in Malvern you were really a journalist of quite considerable achievement. And he was only paid by the line and then he went to London.
One of the things that you need to know about Murdoch is that he had a disability. He had an appalling stutter or stammer. So much so that even as a journalist in Melbourne he would write a note, return ticket to Melbourne, please and hand the note to the sa ... the ticket person at the station, the Camberwell Station, for his train to Melbourne. He couldn’t get the words out. And when he went to London he listened to courses at the London School of Economics. Wouldn’t it be fascinating to think that Rupert might want to do that one day? Listening in, an auditor. Not getting a degree but just learning something. Well that’s what his father did, Keith, and he tried desperately hard to get a job on a London journal or paper or magazine. And he got to interview stage ‘cause he well supported by the Symes from Melbourne but when he went for interview he couldn’t speak. I don’t know whether you’ve ever had the experience of interviewing a candidate for a job who can’t speak but it would be ... well I interviewed Anne Marie for a job once so ... but I actually think ... I think she did actually so ... she must have spoken very good sense ‘cause she got the job and that was the start of a brilliant career.
Which reminds me we should all congratulate her, she wasn’t congratulated when she came to the podium. We should all congratulate her for her honour recently in the Order of Australia.
Thank you, thank you for that, that’s very generous and I’ve been told by the Director General to get back to my task and I will because time is short. So he had this disability. He like King George VI worked with a person. He didn’t overcome his stutter but he did manage it. He w ... as Nat has said he was only on the peninsula for four days but he saw a lot. He wasn’t escorted by Charles Bean because Bean was sick and that is incredibly important in the story of Gallipoli. The best chapter of Bean’s two volumes in the official history dealing with the campaign at Gallipoli is in the second volume, a chapter called The Sickness of an Army in which Bean shows that the Australian army was losing about a battalion of men a week to illness after about August 1915. Bean was sick and Murdoch was largely left to his own devices. He obviously had a briefing from Bean but Bean stayed in his bed in his dugout and Murdoch roamed around the peninsula.
He spoke to whomever he wanted to, he was not restricted in any way. He was deeply conscious that he was the eyes and ears of the Australian prime minister so all this stuff about you know the Ellis Ashmead-Bartlett letter and intervention of the security service in Marseilles when he landed in France and all this business about you know was he breaking the law or not by reporting on what he had seen? Is to my way of thinking a complete nonsense. If you as an individual are given a task by the prime minister you have the responsibility in my view of fulfilling that task. And even if you don’t agree with the prime minister, although they were good friends, even if you don’t agree with the prime minister he has asked you to do something and you do it. And there was no power in the world that could stop Murdoch from sending his letter back to Fisher which is what he did.
It’s an intriguing letter. As Nat said it was republished in a book by Allen and Unwin a few years ago called The Gallipoli Letter. This is my only copy so I would like to take it home and you won’t be able to buy it in the bookshop or anywhere unless you get it second-hand because Allen and Unwin having ... it having sold extremely well Allen and Unwin refused to reprint it which was very silly because Dame Elizabeth and I share the royalties and I would have liked to have continued on. I don’t know that Dame Elizabeth needed the money as perhaps I did.
If you look at paragraph 2 of the letter he says I shall talk to you ... you, Andrew Fisher ... I shall talk to you as if you were by my side as in the good ... in the good days ... as in the good days. So he’s writing personally and in a friendly tone to a man he regarded as his friend. David Day describes Andrew Fisher as almost certainly the most handsome prime minister yet to preside over Australia. You might say he hasn’t got much competition but he certainly was a handsome man and Murdoch in fact taught him and encouraged him to play golf to relieve the stress that Murdoch could see was building up in Fisher.
So he wrote a very clear account of the disaster that he believed the campaign had become and that account was written without pulling any punches. It is quite critical of the senior leadership on the peninsula and in particular Hamilton and it is a very, very good piece of observation. He tells ... he wants the prime minister to see the circumstances as if he were on the ground himself. Now he came to the peninsula with a very high regard for what the Australians had achieved and that he never ... resiles from that, he is not critical in any part of the letter of the achievement of the Anzacs but he is highly critical of the leadership, the British leadership, the thinking behind the activity and what was taking place on the ground.
In the very few minutes left to me I’ll now turn to the topic of today, writing the Great War so this is what Murdoch wrote. What was its impact? Now the publishers you know because that’s what publishers do put on the cover of this very fine book, the letter that changed the course of the Gallipoli campaign and I’m so thoroughly pleased that Professor Jeffrey Grey of the Australian Defence Force Academy is not in the audience this morning. Reviewing Peter Rees’ I believe fine biography of Charles Bean recently Professor Grey announced ... he hopped into Peter Rees for even daring to mention the Murdoch letter and he said that the Cabinet in London quote did not heed the views of an obscure Australian journalist end of quote. So the letter had no influence and in fact Hamilton according to Jeffrey Grey was already going to be recalled ... had not yet been recalled but was going to be recalled and it was all down to a British officer called Guy Dornay. Well we haven’t got time to go into that and there is quite a lot of evidence to support what Jeffrey Grey says.
It’s one thing however to have made that decision, it’s another thing ... it was a shocking thing to do to pull the commander out. I mean it could have established Australia’s commitment to the campaign entirely and therefore to have an Australian observer saying so clearly that this needed to be done would likely do two things, keep the Australian government onside and keep the Australian press onside and that was important and that is the reason in my view that the British prime minister had Murdoch’s letter printed as a state paper to go to the War Cabinet because it was if not influential in the decision-making, at least influential in communicating the decision and justifying the decision.
Of course they couldn’t know that the man that was to replace Hamilton, Sir Charles Monroe, would in Churchill’s words ... fine words, actually ... Churchill says of Monroe he came, he saw and he capitulated because Monroe took about as long as Murdoch took to realise the game was up and that evacuation was the only plausible way of getting out of the mess that they were all in. And so therefore the Australians and everyone else was withdrawn and the campaign ended. I would argue that Murdoch’s letter does have significance, and perhaps I wouldn’t go as far as Allen and Unwin did ... the letter that changed the course of the Gallipoli campaign, I think that might be a bit high but perhaps that’s why they didn’t reprint the book, they were ashamed of it, I don’t know.
Charles Bean however writing to a fellow journalist in 1958, 1958 before he’d had many years, many years to reflect on the whole campaign and he’d written more than half a million words on the campaign in those two books that I mentioned and in 1958 he said that Murdoch’s letter was quote the main agent in bringing about Hamilton’s fall, the main agent in bringing about Hamilton’s fall. So you’ve got two conflicting views, Professor Jeffrey Grey, a very fine historian on the one hand and Charles Bean, a very fine historian on the other and that seems to me, ladies and gentlemen, to be the joy of history, we’ll never know with certainty what were the influence of the Gallipoli letter was but I think for Andrew Fisher it was a very good thing that it was written. Thank you.
Session One: The Eyewitness – Dr Janet Butler
Janet Butler: Thank you very much. I found Kitty McNaughton’s name, along with that of her cousin’s, Sadie McIntosh on the memorial gates to the sports ground in my home town, near the You Yang Ranges in Victoria. The two nurses were out of alphabetical order, they were underneath the names of the men they had gone to serve, they were as modest in memory as I was to discover they had been in life. There is a real sense in which the tragedy and the scope and the consequences of the First World War can only really be grasped at the highest level, that of the total figures of wounded, the overall schemes of battles, the collective experience that would eventually become the one story of our nation’s participation in the war. Some kinds of understanding, however, require us to telescope our view down from this collective level to the level of the individual and the meaning they themselves made of their experience. Kit, as I discovered, wrote a diary of her four years at war, in its pages, as in the letters and diaries of all of those inscribed on all of our monuments, lies a different kind of knowledge of our nation’s experience of war. In a diary we reveal the many different faces of ourselves, Kitty, like all of the Australian nurses, was born into a colony, in her case a colony of Victoria, and she had those loyalties. And this is my very favourite picture of Kitty, she was 16 years old, it’s 1900, it was taken by Willetts in Geelong. She was also a nurse in the first generations after Nightingale, and there’s Kitty on your left, I think, bottom left in her graduation photograph from the Geelong Infirmary and Benevolent Asylum as it was then, now Barwon Health. She was also a member of the Roman Catholic minority, a farmer’s daughter, an Australian in the first generations after … in the first decades after federation, a member of the British empire and one of the first Australian women to travel officially to war. And there she is in her brand new uniform about to embark.
Kitty’s images of herself in each of these roles would be expanded, conflicted and challenged as she experienced life in The Great War. Her daily diary, recording her life in process reveals not only what those experiences were, but also the changes in her ideas about herself and her world in her response to them. To understand Kit’s diary, however, I had to develop a kind of double vision, I had to read over her shoulder, watching her experiences through her eyes, but also step away and consider herself as she wrote them and also cast an enquiring eye on the diary itself, because a diary, I was to discover, is not a mirror reflection of reality. As an early thinker about diaries, Robert Fothergill once said, of all the things that happen in a diary’s day, they actually record very few, they make choices about what to record and just as importantly, about what not to, so a diary can reveal, but it can also conceal. Kit’s diary was a travel diary and she received hers as a gift on the eve of her departure on board the Orsova in July 1915 and this is the first page of her diary. And I always like this particular page ‘cause it was given to the K McNaughton who lived in Little River, Victoria, Australia, this is all Kit’s writing, except for the inscription. But this is the Kit that wrote the diary, the one down at the bottom with the much stronger writing, K McNaughton, cabin 37, Orsova and there’s an underline underneath it, she’s off to war. In 27 days it will be a hundred years ago since Kit wrote those words, the idea of a diary as the secret place for our innermost thoughts is a mid-20th Century phenomenon. Kitty’s diary was intended to be shared with her home people, we often think of the people at home and wonder what you’re all doing, she wrote, after describing a concert given by the troops on board, the first day out of Australian waters and if you could only see us all doing the grand, you know that we were enjoying ourselves.
The nurses made their choices about what to say and about what not to say, within an overlapping set of social rules that governed what topics women should confine themselves to, what a travel diary should contain, who their audience was and in the eyes of their audience, what the acceptable persona of the good woman and the good nurse was. In Kit’s case there was the added complication that in 1915, the expected role of the good woman and the good nurse was one of sacrifice and quiet waiting on the home front, not active service on the battlefront. In the pages of Kit’s diary, as she attended to the subjects that were expected of her, we see her reinventing herself in new roles, for example, as a nurse at war and also pushing the boundaries of other identities in ways that her audience might accept. All the girls here smoke like fun, she wrote on reaching Egypt, seems part of their life, in this way she justified to her home people her own new modern habit, but her nephew did tell me that Little River did a collective faint when she came back from the First World War with her cousin, and they were both smoking. She rolled her own cigarettes ‘til she died. The topics Kit devoted herself to offer a new knowledge of and a new perspective on the war, but there’s also knowledge to be found about Kit and her world in her silences if we can identify them and understand them. Some of Kit’s silences were shared with the other nurses and some were not, some were obvious, Kit never mentioned the conscription referendums in which she was permitted to vote although it was a common enough topic in the letters of others … nurses and soldiers on the Western Front. Other omissions were only revealed by a comparison with different kinds of records of experience in the same units in which Kit served. Kit’s diary of her time served in the Gallipoli’s sick and wounded on the island on Lemnos, 50 miles from the Dardanelles, offers a perfect example of the simultaneous new light a diary can shed and also the veils that it can draw.
In Australia we’re used to thinking of mateship between men as the definitive kind of friendship during The First World War, Kit’s diary, with social life an acceptable topic, would illuminate the nature and importance of friendship at war beyond this, it would reveal the friendships between the nurses themselves, and between nurses and soldiers on the island as vital sources of solace and support for those in active service. And there’s a picture of Kit I found in the photograph album of another nurse, Evelyn Davies, that the war memorial … Kit’s on the right, her lifetime friend, Ita Mockridge, is in the centre and these are two soldiers with which the nurses spent time. They were sought out by the soldiers because they could confess their fears to them in ways that they couldn’t to their families at home. On the other hand, on this island, Kit and her fellow nurses enjoyed conditions so harsh that nurses from other units actually died, they received difficult treatment at the hands of their hospital’s all‑male staff, who regarded them as out of place so close to the front, and were shocked at the conditions in which they found their patients. In their diaries though, what the nurses endured is almost completely invisible, in the face of the opposition to their travel to war, the nurses on Lemnos were keen to prove that they were not too soft for active service near the front, and were conscious of the much greater suffering of the men that they were to serve. Both considerations worked to keep them silent, as well the noise of the time about a woman’s place, together with expected qualities of modesty, self-effacement and self-sacrifice, meant that their work, generally, was not expected to be a subject of their diary. Historian, Kirsty Harris, undertook her own study of First World War nursing because, as she wrote, it’s a largely hidden occupation. Together with conventions that restrained Kit from upsetting her readers and the fact that Kit’s patients were the sons and brothers, the finances and fathers of her audience, this meant that there was very little focus in her diary on the wards or on the wounded.
Kit’s diary, however, is of particular value because its nature as a travel diary combined with an accident of fate, meant that for one single part of her service, the door on her work in the wards was suddenly completely opened. After the evacuation of Gallipoli and a brief sojourn back in Egypt, Kit’s hospital accompanied the Australian troops to France, in late June 1916, as part of the preparations for the operations on the Somme, Kit was leant to a British hospital closer to the front, the Number Eight Stationary at Bouillon Base. Here wounded [unclear 09:48] prisoners of war were concentrated and treated, it reduced the need for guards to be at every hospital, so they were all concentrated at Kit’s, and Kit was assigned to their wards. She called them Boche’s Alley, and the men in them, the severely wounded soldiers of the enemy, she would eventually come to call, my old Huns. Because of the nature of her patients, wounded Germans and not wounded Australian soldiers, and because of their interest to her audience in much the nature of sightseeing, the taboos that operated in other parts of the diary were lifted, and in this one place we can see her on centre stage going about her work as a nurse on the second battle front. Allied soldiers, even when severely wounded, Kit only ever describes generally as being knocked about frightfully, but here we see the terrible nature of the wounds. We’re permitted to watch as well as due to the demands of war, Kit steps over professional boundaries and takes on surgical tasks, which would have been frowned upon if patients had been allied soldiers, or if she was at home. Six days into the battle, she wrote, I have eleven with their legs off and a couple ditto arms and hips and heads galore and the awful smell from the wounds is the limit as this gas gangrene is the most awful thing imaginable, a leg goes in a day. At the end of her description she added, I extracted a bullet from a German’s back today.
Of course the kind of wounds, the work the nurses were doing and the changes in that work demanded by circumstances were not confined to German soldiers in their care, although Kit shields her audience from this reality elsewhere. In a clearing station at Passchendaele a year later, Kit was in charge of the operating theatres and the Australian soldiers engaged in battle nearby arrived on the operating tables still in their khaki. But the door behind Kit went about her work was completely closed and reading the whole section of that diary, if you didn’t know, you wouldn’t get a clue from that section that Kit was actually a nurse, there were no wounded and there were no soldiers. At the end of her first volume of her diaries in July 1916, Kit McNaughton wrote, goodbye to this book, I hope the ones who read it will discover what I mean. One hundred years later, the loss of some shared meanings, the reticence of the nurses on some subjects and perhaps still undiscovered silences mean that we have not, and probably will not ever, discover everything that she meant. Kit’s diaries and the diaries of others who experienced the war, however, add richness to our understanding of the experience of this, of Australia’s at war … Australians at war and the effect of that experience upon them and upon us. Personal narratives and their careful examination have a vital place in the creation of historical understanding, the different knowledge offered by treasured keepsakes and mementoes such as those on exhibition here today and these are Anne Donnell’s letters, kept by the National Library, underline the value … the great value of their preservation. Thank you very much.
Session One: The Eyewitness – Dr Ross McMullin
Ross McMullin: Now I'm here today to talk about Pompey Elliott's letters and in case there's anyone unfamiliar with Pompey Elliott, I don't know who that could be (chuckling). But I should start with a very brief explanation of his significance.
Pompey Elliott was a remarkable character, an outstanding leader and a household name. He was exceptional in intellect, genuineness and resolve. He was a commander of penetrating tactical grasp, awesome determination and no pretence or artifice. He went right through the war and his leadership was compelling from the outset. Pompey commanded the 7th battalion at Gallipoli and the 15th brigade at the western front where he was prominent in big battles such as Fromelles, Polygon Wood and Villers-Bretonneux together with numerous other engagements, incidence and controversies. No Australian general was more revered by those he led or more famous outside his own command. He was Australia's most famous fighting general. What made him special was not just the achievements, awards and accolades, though there were plenty of each, his fame had as much to do with his character and personality, with the style of his leadership as much as its results. Pompey was frank and forthright, his outspokenness often got him into trouble with his superiors. He was a fierce disciplinarian with an explosive temper. He was exuberant, wholehearted and utterly dedicated and when shells and bullets were flying about he was astonishingly brave. He's a wonderful subject for a biographer for heaps of reasons, not just because he was such a significant and vibrant character. Another reason is that he expressed himself so vividly. He is irresistibly quotable. Take Lone Pine at Gallipoli, for example. Pompey and his 7th battalion were in the thick of it at Lone Pine where the Turks attacked repeatedly. Amid savage fighting there were heavy casualties. No fewer than four of Pompey's men won the VC at Lone Pine; one after Pompey had sent him to a vulnerable spot where numerous others had been hit with these heartfelt words, goodbye Simons, I don't expect to see you again but we must not lose that post. Now Simons and his men did retain control of that post. Simons was awarded the VC, and Pompey did see him again because Simons survived Lone Pine unlike many others in Pompey's battalion. Afterwards, Pompey described what it was like to be at Lone Pine in a private letter to a friend, just a private letter to a friend. The weather was hot and the flies pestilential. When anyone speaks to you of the glory of war picture to yourself a narrow line of trenches, two and sometimes three deep with bodies and think too of your best friends for that is what these boys become by long association with you, mangled and torn beyond description by the bombs and bloated and blackened by decay and crawling with maggots. Live amongst this for days. This is war and such is glory, whatever the novelists may say.
It's those Pompey characteristics I referred to earlier that make his letters so vivid and compelling. He was frank and forthright, not one for pretence or artifice which he was no good at anyway. He arranged with his wife, Kate, a no secrets pact for their wartime correspondence and his letters to her are remarkable right through the war including the climax of the war in 1918, a year when the IAF's role was far more significant than 1915, despite the fuss we make of Gallipoli.
In April 1918 when there was widespread alarm that the Germans might win the war after their offensive had driven the British back 40 miles and Australian units including Pompey's men were rushed to the rescue, he wrote a stream of vivid letters to Kate describing his experiences. The AIF have hitherto accomplished nothing to be compared in importance with the work they have in hand just now. That's after three year of the most awful war there had ever been. The AIF have hitherto accomplished nothing to be compared in importance with the work they have in hand just now. I was never so proud of being an Australian as I am today. The gallant bearing and joyous spirit of the men at the prospect of a fight thrills you through and through. You simply cannot despair or be downhearted. Whatever the odds against you can feel their spirits rising the more the danger seems to threaten. It is glorious indeed to be with them. At this critical time Pompey's brigade was directed to occupy a particular village, but found it occupied by a British unit that should have vacated it, with the result that his men had to wait outside in the rain. Here's what he wrote about that. The British officer in charge told me that his division had moved and until he got orders from them as to where he was to go he could not move. I asked him where his division was. He did not know. I asked had he sent anyone out to find where it was. No. I then saw that the blighter had no intention to move, that they were very comfortable there and didn't want to move and would take mighty fine care they didn't get orders. So I told him right there and then a few things I'd found out about his division and its fighting and running powers and wound up by informing him that unless he and his officers and men were clear of the village by two o'clock I would send in an escort of my own men and march them out by forces prisoners. He got a nasty shock and was out of the village by the time fixed. He then had the hide to complain to his division of the way I had treated him. In reply I let off some more steam and asked that the court of enquiry should investigate the conduct of the British officers and men in the village who had looted the whole place including the chateau. That startled them a bit, and the matter was dropped like a hot spud. Dropped like a hot spud, isn't that a ... that was going to be my title for this, dropped like a hot spud, the letters of Pompey Elliott. That startled them a bit and the matter was dropped like a hot spud. I expected a snub from Birdwood, my usual portion from him, but nothing but a dead silence was the result. The fact is, that I am at present so armed with written congratulations from the lord knows who in the way of British generals that everyone concerned is mighty civil. The success of my brigade is due to the splendid officers and men I have got, and the only credit due to me is for discovering and pushing out the wretched duds I was given as battalion commanders in the beginning whom everyone now admits to be duds but when I said so first I was just about crucified for it. They're good letters.
Pompey also wrote extraordinary letters to his kids. He and Kate had two children, Violet and Neil, who were born in 1911 and 1912. So they were still toddlers when he went away to war. The remarkable letters Pompey wrote to his children illuminated his humanity and underlined how unfortunate it was for Violet and Neil that he was not around for the next five years that were such crucial formative years for them. He had a marvellous talent for communicating with children as shown by this letter I'm about to read which he sent from the western front of the 1916 to Neil who was then four years of age. In it he describes western front developments including the unveiling of the latest military novelty, the tank, and refers to himself as dee-dah, which his young children called him. Surely no commander in any combatant nation in this war regularly described military developments of the western front like a bedtime story. Since I wrote to you before we got a lot of big wagons like traction engines and put guns in them and run them bumpety bump up against the old Kaiser's wall and knocked a great big hole in it and caught thousands and thousands of the Kaiser's naughty soldier men and we killed a lot of them. And more we put in jail so they couldn't be naughty anymore. But then it started to rain and rain and snow and hail and the ground got all boggy and the wagons got stuck in the mud and the old Kaiser has such heaps and heaps of soldiers that he sent up a lot more and thinned them out where the wall wasn't broken and started to build another big wall to stop us from going any further. It is very, very cold here and the Jack Frost here is not a nice Jack Frost who just pinches your fingers so you can run to a fire to warm them, but a great big bitey Jack Frost and he pinches the toes and fingers of some of dee-dah's poor solders so terribly that he pinches them right off. Isn't that terrible. And the naughty old Kaiser burnt down every little house all around here and dee-dah's soldiers have to sleep out in the mud or dig holes in the ground like rabbits to sleep in. And all the trees are blown to pieces by the big guns and there's no wood to make fires and dee-dah's soldiers have to make fires of coal and the wagons are all stuck in the mud so dee-dah's soldiers have to carry it through all the mud and everything they ate and wear has to be carried too. And dee-dah's soldiers get so dreadfully tired they can hardly work or walk at all. Isn't that old Kaiser a naughty old man to cause all this trouble. Now goodbye, dear little laddie, give dear old mum a kiss and tell her dee‑dah's coming home soon and that you will grow up soon and you won't let any old Kaiser come near her.
But it was not just Pompey's letters to his family, he was profoundly moved by what his men endured at the Gallipoli landing for example, and described it with lyrical intensity in a letter to an acquaintance, just an acquaintance, three years later. Three years on. As they approach the shore a machine gun opened, the bullets singing by. When they got the range men crumpled up where they sat riddled through and through. The boat sides were pieced, the water squirted in but the boats still kept on unwavering from her course, the rowers with their backs to the fire never missing a stroke, albeit they felt each one in imagination in the small of the back 'til they fell back dead and another snatched the oar from their dying grasp. A little red headed laddie named McArthur, scarcely more than 18, was shot through the femoral artery and the blood spurted from his thigh as the water squirted into the boat. A sergeant attempted to bind it up. It's no use, sergeant, he cried, I'm done. Yet he rode on until he swooned from loss of blood and a comrade took his place. The water gained in the boat and flowed around them. It's blue turning a ghastly red with the blood of the wounded and dying. Still the hellish hail of fire continued. It did not cease when the boat grounded but swept over them, still piercing the writhing bodies through and through. Oh, those leaden minutes of agony, how slowly, how dreadfully they passed by.
Now I found that letter in this building while I had a National Library fellowship about 30 years ago, so thanks again to the National Library for the fellowship.
It was hard to choose which Pompey letters to highlight today because there are so many vivid examples.
I decided to end with Polygon Wood. The big battle in September 1917, when he was the key figure in turning defeat into victory, and his men attained both their own objectives and the objectives of the struggling British brigade alongside, despite the fact that his brother was fatally wounded during the battle. They brought the news to me when I was tied to my office directing the fight and I could not go to him though they said he was dying. I hope never to have such an experience again.
Pompey was wrung out after Polygon Wood. He told Kate he didn't feel like writing, even to her, but he was sufficiently perturbed by something Kate had mentioned in a recent letter to scrawl this hasty note to young Neil, who was now five. That is, he didn't feel like writing but he had to make an exception for something that was really important. My dear little laddie, mum has been telling me that you are sorry for being naughty that you wished you were a little girl like Violet. But if you ever changed to a little girl, dee-dah and mum would not have any little boy at all, and mum and dee‑dah would be dreadfully sad if they had no dear wee mischiefy thing like our laddie. Dear little chap. Mum and dee-dah love you so much that they don't mind very much when you are naughty. Of course mum has to scold you because if she didn't you wouldn't know what was naughty and wrong to do. Dee-dah was sad when he heard that the little lad wanted to be changed to a girl. He loves his little laddie so much that he was sorry the poor little chap was not happy. So don't you worry a bit, old chap, you just try your best to be good and if you forget sometimes and mum has to spank you just be a soldier and try not to cry very much and you will know that mum and dee-dah love you just the same even when they spank you. Spanking isn't so bad if you feel quite sure that dear old mum loves you just the same. Dear little laddie. I wish I was with you now to take you up on my knee and comfort you and tell you mum and dee-dah will always love you. Pompey's letters are wonderful. Thank you.
Session Two: The Poets’ War – Malcolm St HIll
Malcolm StHill: Thank you, Cathie. Poetry became an enduring and dominant symbol of the Great War. Even more so some suggest than film, fiction or memoir. Whether we agree on the place of poetry in the pecking order, it is undoubtedly a pillar of Great War memory. Today I’d like to highlight the contribution that Australians made, particularly the combatants, the soldier poets, to this fundamental artistic enterprise. Australian Great War poetry has long been overshadowed by the British trench poets, most notably Wilfred Owen and Siegfried Sassoon. Today I’ll give a taste of some of our best poems and poets, most of which and of whom are unfortunately unfamiliar in our own country. I hope in a small way to elevate their status in the Australian narrative of the Great War. In doing so I’ll trace poetry across theatres of war and poets and conclude with the important consideration of the soldier poet in the post‑war world. Before I continue I’d just like to acknowledge the artworks in my presentation today are from Newcastle artist, Don Jordan.
Starting first with Gallipoli. Harley Matthews was a private in the Fourth Battalion and he landed at Gallipoli on the 25th of April, and he also served briefly in France. He published a sequence of long, narrative poems in a volume called Vintage, which was published in 1938, and later iteration called Vintage of War. These poems are significant for their insight, impact and style. Lehmann and Gray dubbed a number of the Vintage poems as being among the outstanding English language poems of the First World War. The poem The Day Before, which I’d like to read today in part is an emotional and human recollection of being aboard a troop ship the previous afternoon and the night before the men manned the boats and hit the shores of Gallipoli.
And these are the last two stanzas of the poem The Day Before. We were on deck all lined up in the darkness. The ship was trembling as she slackened speed. No sound, only the water washing cold along her length. No lights showed anywhere, aboard or on the sea. But a star might scribble in a wave’s gulf, then the crest rolled and smudged all out, lest anyone might read. And we a while ago sat in the light, below where men ate, drank and spoke. Some sang, for that was our last meal together. Here we stood now scarcely in the world of men. No sound to tell we lived in it. No sight. Air, water flowed by. Immense moments passed. The morning star leapt from the deepest band of darkness high up. Was that cloud or land? Now was shot with running fire. What had kindled that? Soon it was all made clear. Over the sea the sound of rifles rang.
Within Australia Leon Gellert is the best known of our Australian soldier poets. He was a private as well and he also landed at Gallipoli on the 25th of April with the 10th Battalion. His volume Songs of a Campaign, published in 1917, render three editions, and the third was illustrated by Norman Lindsay. Songs is divided into several sections dealing very broadly with the lead up to the war, life in the trenches and the soldier in the post-war world. While his trench poems are the most referred to, some of his allegorical poems, which deal with the war at large, are his most potent. The poem The Attack at Dawn, is a good example of Gellert’s trench poems.
The Attack at Dawn. At every cost they said, it must be done. They told us in the early afternoon. We sit and wait the coming of the sun. We sit in groups, grey groups that watch the moon. We stretch our legs and murmur half in sleep. And touch the tips of bayonets and yawn. Our hands are cold. They strangely grope and creep, tugging at ends of straps. We wait the dawn. Some men come stumbling past in single file, and scrape the trench’s side and scatter sand. They trip and curse and go. Perhaps we smile. We wait the dawn. The dawn is close at hand. A gentle rustling runs along the line. At every cost they said, it must be done. A hundred eyes are staring for the sign. It’s coming. Look. Our God’s own laughing sun.
If we move to the Western Front, Frederic Manning is the most internationally recognised of the Australian soldier poets. He was living in England at the time the war broke out. He was actually a poet before the war, and he joined the British Infantry as a private, serving in the trenches of the Somme. His autobiographical novel, The Middle Parts of Fortune, was described by Hemmingway as the finest and noblest book of men in war. Manning’s poetry collection Eidola, published in 1917, contains some 20 war poems. The poems Grotesque and The Trenches are the most anthologised of any of the Australian Great War poems. The notion of the soldier as being ultimately alone is a recurring theme in Manning’s poetry, as is the contrast between beauty and vileness. The poem Leaves is an example of the latter.
Leaves. A frail and tenuous mist lingers on baffled and intricate branches. Little gilt leaves are still, for quietness holds every bough. Pools in the muddy road slumber, reflecting indifferent stars. Steeped in the loveliness of moonlight is earth, and the valleys, brimmed up with quiet shadow, with a mist of sleep. But afar on the horizon rise great pulses of light, the hammering of guns, wrestling, locked in conflict like brute, stone gods of old struggling confusedly. Then overhead purrs a shell, and our heavies answer, with sudden clapping bruits of sound, loosening our shells that stream whining and whimpering precipitately, hounding through air athirst for blood. And the little gilt leaves flicker in falling, like waifs and flakes of flame.
Continue with the work at the Western Front, Henry Pryce, otherwise known as Gunner 379, is an underrated poet. He served as a signaller in France in late 1917 and his experiences are reflected in the collection Your Old Battalion published in 1926. It was movingly dedicated to his brothers Allen and Charlie who did not return. Pryce’s poems cover life at the front and they also extend to meditations on the bitterness and trauma suffered by returned servicemen. Pryce’s poem Silence Falls, about the silence at the moment of armistice, can be found on the Australian War Memorial website. Pryce personifies the industrial machinery of warfare, the machine guns and the artillery. Pryce guns spit and laugh, exemplified in this extract from the poem The Vickers Gun. I heard the winging of a [unclear – 8:45] host. About me and above me sound of strife hushed on earth. And then the dream was lost. The black form shook and left to dreadful life, spat flame, spat flame and laughter. And rolling clouds red shot with leagues of flame wept over Passchendaele until morning came. There is also hunger in the landscape of the battlefield, such is that of the deadly crater pool. A fetid pool of water created by the explosion of artillery shells was literally a death trap beckoning unwitting soldiers into its depths.
The following is the middle stanza from Crater Pool. Beware, beware, good soldier. Others such as thou, have come this night. In the dark, the rain and sleet, pressing each upon his foe. Saw, too late, my face aglow, felt my fingers clutch their feet. Dark are my depths, good soldier. But thy fevered eyes are bright.
Poetry also emerged from the Middle East where Australians, particularly those of the Australian Light Horse, played a significant part. Trooper Edwin Gerard, who wrote as Trooper Gerardy, was a balladist and he wrote of his experiences in the collection Australian Light Horse Ballads and Rhymes. Gerardy’s poem Two Scouts recalls the fate of two horsemen whose role was to reconnoitre at the front of a mounted column, looking cautiously for the enemy, poking into the desert blankness. I’d like to read today just the epigraph from that poem, a poem rort with pathos. Spent is the bitter storm of lead and sorrow upon my heart is lying. For smiling Arthur Malone is dead and Harry Devine is dying.
One of the least heralded aspects of war memory is the impact on the combatants in the post-war world. These are the shattered Anzacs described by historian Marina Larsson in her recent book, examining the aftermath of the Great War on the soldiers and their families. It is an aftermath reflected in physical and emotional wounds and of unspeakable and irreparable sadness. Both Leon Gellert and Henry Pryce wrote powerfully of this, as done Martin Boyd, the final poet that I’d like to share today. Boyd came from the artistic Boyd family and he travelled to England specifically to enlist as an officer in the British Army. An uncle had advised his parents that they didn’t think Boyd would cut it in the ranks of the Australian Army and that he should go and join people of his own class. He fought on the ground on the Western Front and also as an airman with the Royal Flying Corps. The poem Retrospect comes from the volume by the same name, which Boyd self-published in 1920.
Retrospect. We are contented now for we’ve forgotten the lanes that lead through mud and slim to slaughter, the bitter taste of sleepless nights, the rotten dead bodies lying in the fouler water. We have forgotten weariness and pain, and dark and dawn and frost and oozing feet. For now we walk on asphalt paths again, down the politely made suburban street. In France they say, red dripping leaves fall still, in autumn to the mouldy smelling earth. And underneath are the closed eyes of friends. And they are quiet there and the wind is chill. But they will rise to greet us with great mirth when we burst the chains and this asylum ends.
From the small selection today I hope you’ve gained some insight into the poetry of the Australian soldier poets. There is much more to explore and I’d encourage you to seek out the volumes now available in the library. I’d like to give the last word to Leon Gellert with one of his allegorical poems, the characteristic style of his which I alluded to earlier. While this poem reflects the end of conflict and the retreat of the warrior, Gellert placed it as the first poem in the third edition of Songs of the Campaign. It’s called the Retirement of Mars. He pauses on his way, and gazing back across the desert ways of splintered steel recalls the noon, and sees his weary track, and sees the bloody imprint of his heel. A Mars long tired he stands, a noble Mars. Stiff with the staggering day, and fields hard won his bruised helm is glittering with scars that gleam afar and spy the setting sun. With red plumes doffed and foe-revering face he moves adroop, to seek the sea, the waves, to seek the sighing winds, the shades of space, and rest his heart within the Twilight Caves. The dazzling axe is deep, its lord abed. The dead are lying with the friendly dead.
Session Two: The Poets’ War – Dr Ann Vickery
Ann Vickery: Great. Thanks. Although Australia was still part of the British Empire, World War I saw it consolidating a separate identity as a nation. The rhetoric surrounding this paradigmatic shift was highly gendered. At the beginning of the war, England was often idealised as the mother country, with many women poets initially expressing patriotic and filial devotion. The title poem of Zora Cross’ A Song of Mother Love and other verses from 1916 for instance, was strongly jingoistic. We love as one, we fight as one. We have one mother, one alone, England. The victories of suffrage in Australia impacted greatly on the scope of women to not only comment upon, but also intervene in Australia’s involvement in war. Given the recent right to vote, women were instrumental in public debate, particularly around the issue of conscription.
Although poetry was typically viewed as a personal, privileged and often male vehicle of expression, James Devaney for instance dismissing women poets as frills for their hysterical flag flapping, a number of women published poetry in the pages of socialist or feminist newspapers and periodicals, or alternatively took it to the streets. The women’s no conscription demonstration saw around 10,000 women march in Melbourne from the Guild Hall in Swanson Street to the Yarra bank, where the crowd reached around 50,000. Mary Fullerton, a key figure of the Women’s Political Association read her poem The War at the second anti-conscription demonstration. In it she represents Australia as a young maiden being courted by a false suitor. Trust no promise he can make them, promise of gentle rule. He can make them, he can break them, like all monsters of his school. Make no marriage glorious maiden, free today from sea to sea. Theirs would keep thy children laden with the irons of tyranny. As you did a year ago, young Australia, answer no.
Fullerton’s poem was unusual. More often women poets either protested or supported the war through the lens of motherhood. In 1917, Mary Gilmore drew direct parallels between the contribution of the mother and the contribution of the soldier towards their country. Both she believed should be recognised and compensated by the government. More women have died of shock of injuries received in that trench of death, the child bed, than soldiers killed in battle. The war happens only at intervals. The other goes on year by year since ever the world began. Her 1918 collection, The Passionate Heart, featured many poems about the war, with the title poem, These Fellowing Men being from the perspective of women left to mourn for their sons.
For Gilmore a son was a corporeal extension of his mother. In Gallipoli she writes that he was I, bone of my bone, flesh of my flesh, but there is no tangible possession or claim of him. Since he was born he never was mine, only the dream is our own. Rather he is of the wider world. Where the world called him, there he went. When the war called him, there he bent. Now he is dead. As a mother she gives her own to his plenty. The lack of agency is reinforced by aligning the mother with the soldier’s weaponry, in that she is only made useful or animate by her relationship to her son. I am the ball the marksman sent, missing the end and falling spent; I am the arrow, sighted fair, that failed, and finds not anywhere. He who was I is dead.
Joy Di Mucci notes that women sending their sons to war became the quintessential emblem of feminine sacrifice in the popular press. She adds, women’s stature increased with the number of sons that they had serving at the front. She recalls The Argus publishing a series on mothers of men, arguing that the sacrifices made by some women in sending their sons to serve their empire are so notable that their contribution should be known to readers of the paper. The paper even published a photograph of mothers who had sent three or more sons to the front and a brief description of the boys’ military activities. A poetic parallel is Gilmore’s The Woman of Five Fields, written for Anzac Day. The central figure is a mother who looks out on the fields signifying the country as a whole for which she has given her five sons.
A poem that Gilmore was persuaded to remove from The Passionate Heart, although it would be published in The Worker, was The Mother. He died a hero’s death they said when they came to tell me my boy was dead. But out in the street a dead dog lies, flies in his mouth, ants in his eyes. Here the human is read off the animal. The death of the animal represents more accurately the death of the boy as being something far from heroic. The expense of war is the devaluing of life, the abandoned body inadequately mourned. The minimalism of the poem with its blank description adds to the horror. Devoid of emotion it suggests more fully the deadened, almost abject response of the mother.
As Joan Montgomery Byles points out in Women’s Experience of World War I: Suffragists, Pacifists and Poets, a persistent theme surrounding the trap of motherhood in women’s wartime writing is that all their nurturing had only produced young men to be killed. Whereas the Women of Five Fields presents motherhood through a pro‑war ideology, viewing the mother’s sacrifice as hard, but necessary. Poems like The Mother fall around the senselessness of war. The hero’s death is undercut as unverifiable and quite possibly fiction by the line they said.
Poems like Nina Murdoch’s Socks portray the frustration of women on the home front, their agency limited to domestic tasks like knitting socks. And it would be paralleled by responses by women in the visual arts, such as Grace Cossington Smith’s The Sock Knitter. Two plain, purl two, it’s little else a woman can do but bear sons and watch them grow ‘til marching out of her life they go. Knit five, purl one, I doubt if ever a mother’s son in wars caused hacked and cleft knows half the hurt of the woman that’s left. Slip one, purl eight, there’s nothing left to hope and wait. And the seven tasks of Hercules would count as little compared with these. Turn slip, then the heel, out of sorrow comes happily wheel. But fair times are far away and there’s many weep for their men today. Such testing she suggests overwhelms even the heroics of Hercules.
While Murdoch’s poem foregrounds the courage required of women, it leaves them in a position of passivity and powerlessness. Fullerton viewed such acts as knitting as a generative counterpoint to masculine destruction and strife. While men are tearing down with the hell rammed gun, woman is knitting, knitting, all she has ever done. Weaving while men destroy with sword and pen, women are knitting, knitting, knitting the shapes of men. Silent with patient pain in the day and night, weaving new limbs and hearts for the long sunlight. Women the makers of men, the vessel of life, over the men are Gods, makers of strife. Significantly it places the woman poet though in an ambivalent position for she’s more aligned with the men who destroy with sword and pen than with knitters.
Many women poets also turned to nature for signs of regeneration. In a response to a newspaper report that a nest of young birds had hatched in one of the trenches in Gallipoli, Fullerton wrote Fledgling. Oh little bird, they are not hypocrites, those gentle fingered men who lift your darlings from the nest and place them there again. Oh, little bird, it makes them think of home, of little birds beloved, their own. Of their dear mate that kissed and clung, then stood alone. Oh little bird, while they because of race must strive to kill the loving mates of foreign mother woman for the pride and dignity of the states. Oh little bird, chirp love and flaunt your happiness, so touch each heart, unman each arm, but dim their eyes so they forswear their part. It’s interesting that Fullerton suggests an alternative version of masculinity here, one that’s not naturally aggressive, but gentle and nurturing. She also emphasises the unity between the soldier and his enemy, this time in sharing a mother woman back home.
In the Satin of the Bee, Mary Gilmore uses nature and shifts attention from the broad canvas of battle with its thundering hoofs and hell spurts of gunfire, to the particular, in this case the quiet flesh of a bee. The bee’s activity contrasts with the spaces of the dead who lie thick as fallen leaves from the shattered tree. However among the shattered bodies grows the tranquil flower, a symbol of the season that continues on regardless. For Gilmore, the flower and the bee symbolise the continuing cycle of fertility and new life, providing a strong contrast with the barrenness of war. The landscape proffers a silent narrative, stark tree and stark dead tell of what is done. Mother Nature Gilmore suggests continues to labour with life. It offers a narrative which she as woman poet can turn the shuttle over in order to reveal its fabric. She can linguistically recreate the texture of the satin of the bee and foreground the inter‑connectiveness of nature and its industry. In its alignment with a natural cycle towards regeneration, motherhood could be more powerful than war.
In the alternative, war was sometimes associated with overheated male desire and the death drive. Marie Pitt presents war as a monstrous Jezebel in her 1918 poem Confiteor. Lo, we have sinned … and this is just an excerpt … we have sinned, in the fevered urge that broke like a red surge on pain-pale coasts of life. But less was our sin withal as vessels and slaves mazed in the blind thrall of the red harlot war. A lean jade, war leaves reason abandoned like a child in the dirt. The babe is ripped from its mother’s breast whilst sisters are bought and sold on the street. Pitt does not separate herself or women from the hold of war. Using the pronoun we to extend guilt to all and Pitt, as with many poets, relies on a Christian framework of morality to condemn the war.
While the poetic speaker of most poetry by women was female, Gilmore assumed the perspective of the soldier in the corn. Like Pitt’s Confiteor, the poem is called God. Pity me there Lord Christ in the dark. I was a man, he was a mark. I crept like a beast ‘til I saw his face. Her poem tracks two transformations, the enemy familiar mark, to a woman’s … to a man some woman had loved. And the lyrics speak of who goes from a man to a stalking beast. It dramatises war’s de-humanising effect. Having initially voiced concern at the rubbish heap of war, Zora Cross became more supportive of the war effort after her brother Victor decided to enlist. Yet this changed again when her younger brother … youngest brother, Jack, died, leading to her well-known long poem Elegy On An Australian Schoolboy. Man that is born of woman may not die, through the dear death of one who lived and breathed beneath our happy sky, under our warm, sweet sun. The resurrection and light are here, oh world redeemed of pain. The son of woman through the battle fear comes … through the halls of fear comes back to live again. As this first stanza reveals, Cross makes an analogy with Christ’s own sacrifice. However in foregrounding that this son is born of woman, rather than of God, she emphasis both the humanity of the soldier boy, and the significant role of mothers in bearing such heroic sons. The sacrifice is not divine but a human one and as such will be writ in collective memory.
As this paper demonstrates many women poets relied on dominant religious or colonial discourses, even as they critiqued militarism. Their responses foregrounded the perspective of women, whether they’re limited in agency or not. Or the importance of the feminine. World War I marked Australia’s metamorphosis, international independence, but also its emergence as a maternal force in its own right. By 1920 Nettie Palmer would write Australia is no longer a group of more or less important colonies, hanging loosely together with the Bermudas and Fiji on the ample bosom of Britannia, rather she is creating her own line of man. Thank you.
Session Two: The Poets’ War – Dr Philip Butterss
Philip Butterss: Thanks very much, Cathy. When C J Dennis’ The Moods of Ginger Mick was launched in October 1916 one reader expressed anger about the ending. Writing facetiously on behalf of Melbourne’s larrikins this correspondent to The Bulletin called it a rotten poem and said in a blunt piece of literary criticism that he’d like to punch the poet in the jaw. Actually Dennis had spent the best part of six months trying to find the ending for his book and the reviews suggests that he got it right, so did the sales figures. The initial print run was almost 40,000 copies, extraordinary for a book of verse. A second impression of 15,000 was issued on the 1st of November just three weeks later.
Dennis had named The Moods of Ginger Mick to parallel its hugely successful predecessor whose full title was The Songs of a Sentimental Bloke. Part of the central joke in the first book is the use of the self-consciously poetical term songs to refer to the verse spoken in larrikin slang by the bloke but in the sequel many of the poems aren’t in Ginger Mick’s voice and they don’t necessarily reflect his moods either. Instead The Moods of Ginger Mick could be seen as its author’s attempts to find the right tone or tones and equally the right episodes and narrative shape to tell the story of Gallipoli during the legend’s first slippery year.
I want to ... now to very quickly try and trace Dennis’ efforts to write this aspect of the great war as he sporadically produced the poems that finally became The Moods of Ginger Mick. In terms of today’s theme they illustrate some of the difficulties faced by a writer working with dramatic but unpredictable current events. They also chart the shifting ways that one member of the Australian public thought about Gallipoli and its meanings during 1915 and the first part of 1916. The first of the poems that ended up in The Moods of Ginger Mick is a very early response to the landing at Gallipoli. Ellis Ashmead-Bartlett’s thrilling story appeared in Australian newspapers on the 8th of May 1915. Like much of the country Dennis was caught up in the excitement and five days later showed his mentor, Gary Roberts, a poem that was named Surrey Bear after the mountain range above what became Anzac Cove. C E W Bean’s much more detailed and less florid report appeared on the 15th of May. Surrey Bear wasn’t actually published in The Bulletin ... Bulletin until the 20th of May. At this point it was a standalone piece in the voice of a working class Australian soldier. Later on Dennis would recast it in larrikinese as Mick’s firsthand account written on a bit of card and sent back home.
The British war correspondent’s report immediately depicts the actions of the Australian soldiers and the bravery of the wounded at Gallipoli as legendary but Dennis goes significantly further, giving those actions shape as a legend. Ashmead-Bartlett’s version is a story in the sense that a newspaper report is a story. Dennis’ poem is a larger more developed narrative covering the diverse backgrounds of the recruits, the cheering crowds as the transports leave Australia, the innocent soldiers encountering quote eastern sin in Cairo and the frustration of training in Egypt. Dennis also tells his story as a grand narrative about Australia, about the nation. The men have gone to war, his speaker says, to prove Australia. And this is the ... this is the final stanza.
But Surrey Bear, oh Surrey Bear, the secrets that you hold will move the hearts of southern men when all the tale is told, the sun that lit your smiling bay were witness to the dead, the day our fathers’ fighting blood woke in the southern breed. So the poem finishes positively, there’s an expectation that when all the tale is told the whole thing will be uplifting as its first instalment has been and the last line includes a bit of reframing, a poem about Australian achievement is given an imperial context with a suggestion that the soldiers had exhibited qualities inherited from their British forebears.
More importantly the reference to fighting blood returns to one of the prominent moods of the poem, exhilaration at how ferocious and effective the Australians are as fighters. Dennis isn’t as explicit as Ashmead-Bartlett about the killing but his speaker mentions quote the taste of blood and battle strong upon us every man and also the little huddled heaps of dead Turks. Late in the legend’s history a focus on the Australian dead and wounded would replace the early emphasis on fighting prowess but in Surrey Bear the casualties are not a reason to contemplate loss and sacrifice, they’re actually a spur to fight harder. For Green is gone and Craig is gone and God, how many more? Who sleep the sleep but Surrey Bear benight the sun ... beneath the ... beside the sun-kissed shore and little Smith of Collingwood, abanded ‘round his head, he hums a savage song and vows swift vengeance for the dead. I guess Collingwood supporters had a reputation in 1915 as well.
The Australian people had been longing to be able to say that their soldiers were making a brave contribution to the Empire’s war effort but it had been no certainty and Surrey Bear continues ... sorry, contains a strong sense of relief. Its speaker acknowledges his private fears alongside his delight. I tell you strictly secret I was doubting us myself but we proved it good and plenty that our lads can do and dare on the day we walloped Abdul on the sands of Surrey Bear. The idea that the Turks had been walloped certainly goes further than the initial ... than the official war correspondence but Ashmead ... but Ashmead-Bartlett in particular had been effusive about a number of instances of success and had generated enormous ... enormous excitement and high expectations.
As the toll of dead and wounded mounted rapidly and as it became clear that the territorial gains of that first day were not going to be repeated it was necessary to find different ways to speak and write about Gallipoli. A legend couldn’t be recalled, instead it was reshaped, a process that has continued ever since though at nothing like the pace of that first year.
During the rest of 1915 and the first part of 1916 Dennis sporadically wrote about aspects of the Gallipoli story including its ramifications back home trying to find subject matter and tone that seemed appropriate as the situation changed. First he reflected on the sudden wave of enlistments that followed the news of the landing. Ginger Mick upon that appeared in The Bulletin on the 10th of June 1915 puzzled about why its larrikin hero might have gone to the war. It rejects a range of possibilities, possible explanations for glory or a woman’s sake, out of feelings for the Empire, through a sense of duty to one’s country, because of not having a job, they were all rejected. Just one month after the first report Dennis did what Bean was later to do at length in the official history and that is to put masculinity at the heart of the story he was telling about the Anzacs. He concludes that Mick volunteers because he feels the call of stoush, an ancient feeling supposedly deep within all men. It’s an idea very much in keeping with Ashmead-Bartlett and with Surrey Bear but Dennis is already rethinking and reworking. The poem, Ginger Mick, goes out of its way to stress that within men there are not one but two impulses, loving and fighting, and he emphasises that behind Mick’s hard face are quote soft thoughts of love for his sweetheart, deliberately revising ... he’s deliberately revising the ferocity of the image of manhood that had dominated Surrey Bear.
Without any further news to parallel the first reports in July 1915 Dennis turned to the question of mateship, again very early in the legend’s history he provides an extended delineation of its centrality to the experience of Gallipoli. The war correspondents’ first reports and the two previous poems had depicted men working together in partnership in difficult circumstances but in Ginger’s Cobber published in The Bulletin on the 22nd of July mateship is the focus of attention for the full 24 stanzas. Initially Mick is very antagonist to Keith, a solider whose upper-class origins are apparent in his wearing pyjamas, cleaning his teeth and not swearing. He’s the sort of bloke that Ginger once despised, we’re told however the toff gradually proves himself to be as good as a working-class bloke.
Instead of concentrating on the fighting itself Dennis examines the bonds between these two men as they fight alongside each other. These are intensified to something almost mystical and at the poem’s high point selfless courage on the battlefield of Gallipoli is shown as simply an expression of Australianness. The wounded Mick demands to know why his mate will not leave him and return to safety and Mick replies I’m an Australian, that was all he said and pride took hold of Mick to hear that name and knew glad pride that ain't the pride of class. So communal bonds of mateship and nationalism trump the divisive feelings of class antagonism.
Two poems published in The Bulletin in September express reservations about the earlier responses to the landing. The first appears in The Moods of Ginger Mick retitled slightly as The Straight Griffin, a term that’s glossed as the truth or secret information. It shows Mick in hospital recovering from his wound and preparing to go back to the front. He exhibits some ambivalence about headlines such as Australian heroes pointing out that when the soldiers return they will need expressions of gratitude that are more useful such as jobs.
The next poem, A Letter to the Front, goes much further. Now quote the froth, the jeers, the flapping flags, the wildly fla ... the wildly waving hat are seen as childish memories and the speaker blushes to recall them. It acknowledges too that this shift in attitudes has been brought about by seeing the wounded and for the first time in the version of the legend that Dennis developing A Letter to the Front asserts that Gallipoli has made the nation grow up.
Dennis’ ... Dennis’ telling of the Anzac story is conspicuously different from many later iterations in its deliberate inclusion of women even if their role ... even if their role is limited. Already in The Straight Griffin he’d given a little attention to the nurse caring for Mick and had referred to the feistiness of Mick’s girlfriend. In The Bulletin on the 11th of December 1915 Dennis published In Spadger’s Lane which mentions in passing Rose’s willingness to fight other larrikin women in the back streets of Melbourne. Essentially though it’s a sentimental poem about the grief experienced by women during the war giving Rose as an example but pointing out that she stands for quote a million women grievin’.
By now of course it’s very difficult to find any positive news from the Dardanelles. In late November the Admiralty released details about the torpedoing of the south land on the way from Egypt to Gallipoli two and a half months earlier. Proudly The Argus told of the Australian troops obeying the order to abandon ship quote with no more hurry than a brisk march and the singing of Australia will be there. It was Hal Gy, Dennis’ illustrator, who suggested that there might be the germ of a poem in this. Dennis went off and wrote the singing soldiers in which the Australians seem to spend all their time singing. Instead of enthusiastically offering the Turks cold steel as Ashmead-Bartlett had put it Ginger Mick treats the enemy to a rousing chorus of Home Sweet Home. This ... this depiction of the Australian soldiers wearing their happy faces was ... was published on the 23rd of December just after the evacuation of Gallipoli had been completed as ... as many of you will have noticed.
Dennis is not the only author to have misled a publisher but he’s ... he was hoping to feel a bit of recognition there ... but his claim to Angus and Robertson at the start of December 1915 that quote the whole scheme is mapped out and the book should be ready for the printer towards the end of this month was on the wildly optimistic end of the spectrum. Actually it was a lie. In fact Dennis had written slightly less than half the material for The Moods of Ginger Mick and a lot of that needed serious reworking but the contract still wasn’t signed and within a fortnight of that letter it had been.
As well as being behind schedule he’d soon have another major problem and that is how to handle the evacuation. Early in February 1916 he was still not certain and wrote to his publisher again have decided to kill Mick but don’t know yet whether to finish him up in Gallipoli or not. Four weeks in hospital from late February gave Dennis some time to write and he added more material over the following months largely just fleshing out aspects of the Anzac story about which he’d already published and which I’ve already mentioned. Finally on the 1st of June 1916 he could write to George Roberts and saying you’ll perhaps be relieved to know that Ginger Mick is finished, I killed him last night. Dennis had decided that the death should happen at Gallipoli. In hindsight it seems surprising that there was ever a choice. That Bulletin correspondent supposedly furious on behalf of Melbourne’s larrikins disagreed with Dennis’ decision demanding that the story be revised to end with Mick in France and quote in bonza Mick.
Dennis pronounced The Moods of Ginger Mick a memorial to the Anzacs by dating its introduction 25th of April 1916 and by dedicating the book to the boys who took the count which was also the title of one of the chapters. In its concluding poem, The Gallant Gentleman, at last the most prominent meanings of Gallipoli are loss and sacrifice. It’s a melancholy and sentimental piece largely about the grief felt by those close to Mick with hints of the sacred. The poem’s speaker, the sentimental bloke, indicates that his friend typifies all Australians at Gallipoli when Trent, the soldier whose letter conveys the details of the death says that he owes Mick something he cannot repay. He’s speaking not just for himself but for Australia and for the Empire. Mick is buried on the beach with mimosa on his grave, the closest his comrades can find to a wreath of golden wattle.
Dennis had not always treated Mick well, he’d brought him into being in one of the early sentimental bloke poems as a gambler and a drinker and he’d named him Mick because he needed a rhyme for shick. Finally he killed him at Gallipoli because he wanted a fitting way to conclude the book he was writing but in doing that Dennis associated him with notions of loss and sacrifice perfectly complementing the string of legendary attributes Mick already possessed and confirming his as an archetypal Anzac hero.
Now I also struggled with finding the end for this paper but the obvious way is to use Mick’s last word which was also the final word of Dennis’ book, mafiche, digger slang for I’m finished.
Session Three: Responding to the Great War – Dr Clare Rhoden
Clare Rhoden: Today we're speaking about Australian literature of World War I. To appreciate Australian literature of World War I it's important to place it into context. In the western tradition there have been written narratives of war for at least 4,000 years. Most of these stories perform foundational functions in that they set values for the society as well as explaining the society's origins, preferred behaviours and geographical place. Most war stories include a cautionary element, lauding the society's warriors while warning of the inherent contingency of mortal existence. While styles of writing about war have evolved over time, many narratives still address these fundamental concerns. Different styles of writing about World War I express different aspects of what was a long and complex event with multiple perspectives not organised along demographic lines. For example, there's no such thing as the woman's view, as the works of women writers cover the entire range from rabid jingoism to despairing pacifism. World War I remains the most literary war ever conducted, leaving behind a trove of material including letters, diaries, memoirs, histories, plays, poetry, novels, short stories, journalism, propaganda, official records and even verse novels.
Two major approaches to writing World War I are the traditional and the disillusionment styles. I should note here that my discussion today revolves around the literature not the history of the war, and that the connections and disjunctions between literature and history is a topic for another day. The traditional style of war writing has been employed for centuries and includes patriotic, consolatory, heroic, elegiac, cautionary, action adventure and inspirational works. Australian style is generally considered a subset of traditional war writing. Traditional war writing attempts to honour the sacrifice of society's forebears while relaying the scale of that sacrifice. The Iliad is generally considered the first western war story and is sometimes erroneously thought to simply glorify war. On the contrary, all the Iliad's heroes are stricken with fear and there are few scenes of war more desolating than that of Hector's body being dragged around the walls of Troy in the dust. Very few traditional texts glorify war, most convey the confronting message of mortality, which even the most heroic of protagonists is unable to overcome.
The disillusionment style of war writing was first noted as sensational in the 1930s and has been prominent since the 1960s. Disillusionment is an extremely effective manner in which to express wars horror and futility. Post-war attitude cemented disillusionment as the preferred telling. The disenchantment works touched a chord in public taste and popular memory at a time when there was a great deal of discontent with the post-armistice, unfulfilling world of the depression. According to Samuel Hinds the ironic mode was adopted as the most appropriate mode of telling, and words like disenchantment and disillusionment came to be used as though they were objective and neutral terms for the soldier’s attitudes to the war's events. Thereby valorising these attitudes above others and repressing notions of victory and the value of sacrifice. The major works of the disillusionment cannon are remarks, all quiet on the western front, Robert Graves goodbye to all that, Siegfried Sassoon's Memoirs of an Infantry Officer, and of course the poetry of Wilfred Owen. There are many other texts in a similar vein, some of which are excellent and some of which are rather less so, straying into a sensational schlock of gore and expedience. It's important, though, to recognise that these texts do not represent the majority of works about the war and also that their truth value is no more certain than that of many traditional works. Several notions of disillusionment can be qualified. First, it's a minority response and we're moving to dangerous territory if we are to reject other renderings of the war because they do not subscribe to the disillusionment attitude. We, as latter day readers, cannot deny the writings of veterans in particular. Second, the 1930s reflections of the disillusionment writers differ from their recorded thoughts and actions at the time. Diaries written during the war, even those of iconic writers like Graves and Vera Brittain are often far less bleak and more patriotic than the books which were later based on them. Many personal diaries of the time were quite a xenophobic and nationalistic as the most fervent propaganda. Much of the poetry produced during and immediately after the war was framed in epic terms and the best of it sold quite as well as the disenchantment poetry that became popular following the war. Owen so widely read since the 1960s was almost unknown in the 1930s. Sassoon and Graves explicitly denied that their books were anti-war as an institution, their objections to this war notwithstanding. Yet from the late 1920s disillusionment began to exclude other perspectives that had previously been valid. Disillusionment matched the dystopian mood of the times, becoming the memory of choice, both literary and historical. As Bond relates, once radical views of the generals and staffs incompetence became the received wisdom, leading to modern day representations such as Blackadder Goes Forth, being treated as history rather than farce. Although the disillusionment cannon is unrepresentative of most World War I writing, being the mere tip of a very large iceberg, it dominates the war's literary legacy. Disillusionment constitutes largely the responses of a privileged few and selected responses at that. With that context in place, we turn now to the main topic of my discussion, Australian Style, which, because it follows many of the tenants of traditional western war literature, has been under-regarded and at times dismissed as inferior to the popular disillusionment cannon.
Here is a simplified overview of the contrasts between disillusionment and Australian style. The dominant features of disillusionment are that the protagonist is a victim who is an ineffective soldier and never kills anyone. That the action is focused on the western front trench which is always muddy, rather than on other theatres of war or even other seasons. That the leadership persists in making farcical decisions, having no regard for the consequences, thus becoming a more dangerous enemy than the declared opposition forces. That the home society crassly profits from the war and that horror is the daily fare of the soldier. Australian World War I style on the other hand offers a more purposeful interpretation of the war, anchored in a determination deposit the sacrifices worthwhile and to make the war serve as a foundation story for the nation. The fundamental distinction is that Australian techs prefer a heroic style with laconic protagonists who successfully and with little introspection enact their soldierly role. However I have identified and explored a number of additional elements differentiating Australian World War I narratives from the literature of other nations. These nine features which comprise our distinct Australian style are extraordinarily tenacious across time, providing evidence that they are sourced from widely approved underlying cultural values. The first four relate to the preference for heroic constructions, restating the value of individual agency and complying with the creation myth norm that mortal man can successfully navigate the dangerous contingent world. In Australian narratives, heroic tropes are privileged over victimisation enabling us to propose that the individuals' actions are meaningful. Secondly, much of the narrative occurs outside the trench allowing less time for passivity and fear. Third, Australian protagonists are more likely to kill than their canonical counterparts thus contrasting the antipodean man of action with the victim infantry man of disillusionment. Fourth, the Australian attitude is that war is a task to be done, involving all the danger and discomfort of difficult tasks rather than a sacred crusade for ideals. The final five distinguishing features appear to be grounded in colonial priorities that differentiate the new nation from the debased social values of the central empire, as well as proposing that the citizens of the new nation are vigorous and fresh, unlike the jaded emasculated and overindulged citizens of the old country. Number five, is that Australia's older generation is less likely to be blamed for the war's prosecution because Australians divert the discussed for authority to the British. Six, Australian stories assue homoerotic and homosexual themes because homosocial mateship dominates any eroticism is decidedly heterosexual. Seventh, Australians explore their dislocation with tropes of adventure and tourism, marking their war as memorable, episodic and divorced from their usual lives. Eight, women are either notably scarce or distinctly feminine, supportive and tender. This contrasts with the sometimes malevolent women in disillusionment novels. And finally, the Australian home front is stable and supportive, delivering no or few surprises to the fighting man.
We turn now to an overview of some of our writers and their works. The first editions of all the books I mention are housed here in the National Library. Some well-known Australian authors wrote about the war. For example, Mary Grant Bruce moved to Ireland with her husband after the outbreak of the war, which cut short their honeymoon. He was a veteran of Indian and South Africa and was recalled to retrain recruits in Dublin. While Mary wrote the four Billabong books which deal most directly with World War I.
Ion Idriess, another prolific author who had a significant impact on Australian writing and publishing in the 20th Century, was a veteran of Gallipoli and Palestine. On Gallipoli Idriess was a spotter for Australia's most famous sniper, Private Billy Sing who was nicknamed the murderer. Idriess' book, The Desert Column, was published in 1932 and republished a week later when it sold out.
Ethel Turner author of Seven Little Australians, lived in Sydney during the war where she organised first aid courses. She also campaigned for conscription and wrote a trilogy about the war, The Cub series, which is notable for being patriotic but not having any anti-German propaganda.
Leonard Mann, later a lawyer and celebrated author, enlisted in 1916 aged 20 and fought on the western front. His book, Flesh in Armour, has been reprinted many times and is, in my opinion, one of the finest and most complex novels to come out of the war.
Frederick Manning and ex-pat Sydney sider had a somewhat chequered career as an officer in the British army. He enlisted in 1915 aged 33 but he had serious problems with alcohol and resigned his commission in 1917 with the express agreement of his superiors. However his excellent novel, The Middle Parts of Fortune, was considered by Hemmingway to be the best of the war.
Jack McKinney is perhaps best known to us as the husband of the poet, Judith Wright. He enlisted in 1915 aged 24 and served four years on the western front. His novel, Crucible, is the most balanced portrait of Australians in World War I.
Then there is George Mitchell, who represents much of what we think of as the Anzac legend today. He was an Adelaide clerk with a reputation for larrikinism and a dislike of officialdom. He enlisted in September 1914 aged 20 and landed at Anzac Cove on the 25th of April 1915. His memoir, Backs to the Wall, is a most evocative narrative of the war experience. Of over 316,000 Australians who served overseas about 7,000 served from the first engagement at Gallipoli to the Armistice and Mitchell was one of these. Despite serving the whole war on the frontline and being outrageously brave, he was never wounded. He was awarded a distinguished conduct medal in 1917 and a Military Cross in 1918. During the war he was promoted and then demoted six times for various offences. Mitchell finished the war as a captain and then went on to serve in World War II.
The books written by these Australians record more heroic actions than farcical ones; they focus more on the survivors of the war than on the lost while showing that the self-sacrifice of both the dead and the survivors was worthwhile. They admit that soldiers in war must kill, but they provide a larger picture of the lives of men at war. Unlike Blackadder Goes Forth Australian protagonists spend most of their time out of the trench; they are attacking, in reserve, at training, on leave, in hospital or marching from one place where they don't want to be to another place where they don't want to be. Australian books show the home front as supportive not burdensome or selfish or warmongering. Importantly, they look to the future while not forgetting the cost. World War I for these writers is a tragedy that nevertheless helps build the nation.
Leonard Mann sums it up in Flesh in Armour. They would be going home soon to mingle again with their own people in their own land. Some effect that return must have, they were a people. The war had shown that. It seemed now he was leaving the old familiar landscape of death that his life and the life of this generation was finished, they were the dung for the new flowering and fruit of the future.
And here's George Mitchell expressing the connections between grief and achievement. At the eleventh hour of the eleventh day of the eleventh month came the silence. London and Paris went mad but to us it all seemed unreal. There was a little cheering. Wonderful times we had but underlying all was an indefinable sadness. Against the grey mists of distance showed well remembered faces in an endless gallery. Those who marched beside us for a while and died that our people might live; they died but did not fail.
The business of these writers was the building of a nation, not questioning it or grieving over its destruction. The worth of Australia was assumed and celebrated. In many ways these books form a legacy of purpose. Proposing an outcome of the war which was on the whole more positive than negative. From the ruins of civilisation so movingly recounted by European authors, the Australians stated their belief in the foundation of a matured Australian society built on the valuable sacrifices of the Anzacs.
Australian World War I style may have grown out of a desire to demarcate the nation as a separate entity, but this style persists a century after the war's conclusion. Australian cultural values support a mainstream view of our experience as having been at least equally constructive as it was destructive, despite the challenges of alternative viewpoints. Despite our greater appreciation of the futility of war, canonical World War I disillusionment tropes continue to be qualified in Australian renderings. As Martin Thomas recently remarked, historical falsehoods are built on fragments of reality and for this reason they reveal greater cultural troops. The valuable work done by scholars such as Carolyn Holbrook in uncovering the fragments of reality behind the Anzac legend can be complimented by further consideration of the greater cultural troops on which our legend is based. The desire to be recognised as an independent nation with its own laudable creation myths. For a celebration of culturally desirable traits and for a compensatory value to balance the cost are all aspects involved in the creation and continuation of Anzac.
Whether these cultural priorities will continue to operate with the same strength into the future remains to be seen. We can perhaps discern an evolution of the heroic Anzac into a more quotidian hero, someone to be relied upon for assistance in time of domestic crises, such as floods and fire. The recognition of Australian peacekeeping forces as Anzacs is continent with this notion. It will be fascinating to observe how this evolution of ideals will affect the ongoing reception of Australian World War I literature, especially in conjunction with the raised awareness accompanying the centenary. Thank you.
Session Three: Responding to the Great War – Dr Susannah Helman
Susannah Helman: Good afternoon. Today I’m talking about Arthur Wheen, best known as the first to translate into English, Erich Maria Remarque’s classic German novel about the First World War. We know it as All Quiet on the Western Front. Wheen’s translation was published in London by Putnam in 1929. First some context and then I’ll move to what I want to speak about, Wheen as a writer and stylist. Australian born in 1897, Wheen served as a signaller in the AIF during the First World War, today we’d say he worked in communications. Here he is with the signallers of the 54th Battalion. There’s an annotation on the back that says, we’re going up to Passchendaele. He’s in the middle of the front row. From Egypt and the Western Front he sent letters, postcards and many other things home to his large family in Roseville, Sydney. Each letter was tailored to its audience, even his mother had a nickname, Jubbs, someone else was Pud, Arthur himself was Skin, yet his father, a Methodist minister, was Father. During the war, Wheen was awarded the military medal and wounded to an extent from which he never recovered. After returning to Australia in 1919, he continued his education at the University of Sydney and was awarded a Rhodes Scholarship to Oxford University. In the late 1920s he translated Remarque’s Great War novel. Wheen died in 1971 after a life lived in England and a career at the Library of the … of London’s Victoria and Albert Museum. As Guy said, I was on the curatorial team of our exhibition, Keepsakes: Australians and The Great War. I jumped at the chance to survey Arthur Wheen’s papers for Keepsakes, we had long wanted to display the galley proof of All Quiet on the Western Front in our new Treasures Gallery. For one reason or another this hadn’t yet happened, in the last few years the library has acquired further papers relating to Arthur Wheen, many of them dating to the First World War period.
Wheen’s wartime papers were the most varied and entertaining, dare I say, of the manuscripts I surveyed for the exhibition. This is the main case in the exhibition, which I’m sure many of you have seen. Among the items we have on display, is the lavender he posted to his Lon … his Father from London, probably during a period of leave. It’s encased in a little handmade envelope with London lavender written in capitals on one side and dinkum just beneath. It still has lavender within it, I checked. We have a note passed to him by a friend, a fellow soldier, who was on a passing ship in the Suez Canal. Wheen’s friend put the note into a tin and as Wheen explained, one of the soldiers of my battalion, who was swimming in the canal and gathering cigarettes etc that were thrown over, got it and knowing me, brought it up. This is his annotation, it’s very helpful when people write this kinds of annotations on the backs of their objects. There’s also a gumleaf inscribed with, to Percy, from Arthur, Egypt, the 13th of February ’16. He sent it to Egypt from … he sent it from Egypt to his little brother Percy. Wheen was a talented caricaturist and there are several sketches in the collection. He also seems to have been an enthusiastic photographer, it’s likely that he and his friends swapped photographs, some have quirky annotations. My favourite is this, a shipboard snap of washing on the rails taken when crossing the equator. The annotation notes somewhat riley, on board the Aeneus, just as we were crossing the equator, so washing on the line may have a double meaning. The archive appears at first instance to be about keeping in touch, informing and amusing, he appears to be a clever and funny young man, with a close relationship with his family. All this makes for engrossing reading. Arthur Wheen’s papers include a typescript prepublication German copy of Remarque’s book, which Wheen used for his translation and Wheen’s own translation at different stages of composition. Evocatively they show quite plainly how the title emerged from the literal translation, no news in the west to all quiet in the west to All Quiet on the Western Front. We have one of his handwritten drafts on display and first editions of both the German and the English published books.
The display highlights the making of a book from handwritten draft to galley proof to book. This display is at the end of our exhibition in a section called, A Writer’s War. Before I go further I’d like to acknowledge the work of Christina Spittel, who has written much about Arthur Wheen and Wheen’s relatives [unclear – Tanya Crovers ? 05:25] who has published selections from his correspondence among other things. I would also like to mention Patrick Robertson, a volunteer in our manuscript’s branch, whose enthusiasm for all things Wheen has been infectious. I’m also very happy to say that relatives of Arthur Wheen are in the audience today. Today, I want to focus on Wheen’s wartime papers, those created and collected during the First World War, I’m talking about them as someone who has scoured them with a view to developing an exhibition. As I’ve said, much is what he sent home to his family in Roseville, he appears not to have kept anything himself. Sorry, this is the display case, which you’ve probably all seen of All Quiet on the Western Front. Within the papers is a draft of a letter dated the 27th of June, 1930 to Australia House, probably in response to an official request for wartime keepsakes. He says that he has nothing from the First World War and that it must all be with his family. There’s also a great bit in one of the wartime letters too, a friend of his, called Stan, had writer’s regret about the continued existence of something he’d written to Wheen, Wheen replied quite cheerfully to Stan on the 13th of February 1917, another skimping note to you, thanking you for your various and bonzer epistoli, today at noon we move into the line again after four day’s spell. I always retain my correspondence, until we are in the trenches, when I utilise it for lighting the brazier and boiling my tea. So have no fear as to the fate of your letters to me, have you read a poem by Meredith entitled The Chartist? Well that depicts tea, and he has that in capital letters, as the ambrosial brew of all that is idea, be not offended then, but know that your letters are as goodly as Abel’s offering on the alter fire. So you can see that even as a young man, Arthur Wheen wrote with panache.
His wartime letters are full of humour, intelligence and flair. Revisiting them for this talk I saw that, in addition to wanting to keep in touch and amuse his audience, there’s definitely something literary and reflective about many of them. He steps back and creates. For the rest of my time I want to explore some of these letters, I argue that these can be taken as evidence for his initial response to the war, as well as a way of working through, processing and coping with the war. The letters I’m going to talk about fall into roughly two categories, reflective musings and well-crafted comic pieces. First, to musings, that aren’t really about communication, but are more about creating a mood in writing. There is this, dated Christmas day, 1915, when he was at sea going to war, He was about 18. Life on a troop ship is a certain kind of life and offers great inducements to those who fear to die. Indeed care is scrupulously taken that none die on board for that would necessitate the stoppage of the ship, a thing not to be contemplated for one moment, lest the war be kept waiting. Perhaps the most interesting and persistent feature of a troop ship philosophy is a pathetic fatalism, which despite the match-like spluttering of an occasionally ardent optimism settles with a comfortable sorrowfulness upon all just before mess. I never realised before the significance of Keat’s peculiar phrase of wooing easeful death, I think he knew something of the irresistible and inexorable hand of a cruel fate, which through the dark gates of consumption drove him to death. But now I find this fatalism, or shall we say to be less pagan or rather more respectable, this stoicism, is here so compacted, so lolly-box like that the spirit of the mess is unanimous in a desperate eat, drink and be merry for tomorrow we die. And this is Xmas 1915.
Another example is this, setting a scene for his mother on a Sunday morning, it dates from the 22nd of July, 1917. He was somewhere in France. Dear Mother, the top of the morning to you from the top of the old windmill. What a harmony of holiness seems to be ascending from these woods and hills and gently dipping valleys this morning. It is a Sabbath past expression, deep, tranquil and serene. The ringing of the church bell in the village suggests the reverent congregation of simple peasants, who are even now, kneeling as the surplus Curae mumbles The Sanctus, then he has about three or four lines of Latin from there text that they would have read in church in Latin. And then follows a silence which is very eloquent of thanksgivings from humble hearts. Wheen was obviously a morning person as the previous month on the 4th of June 1917, he had written a letter to his mother in a similar vein. This time he starts with a quotation from Edward Fitzgerald’s translation of the Rubaiyat of Omar Khyaam. Quotations and literary allusions are not unusual in Wheen’s letters, he was widely read and knew how to use his knowledge. Now to the letter, awake, for morning in the bowl of night have flung the stone that puts the stars to flight. They’re the first two lines of the Rubaiyat. Dear Jubbs, that … you’ll remember that’s his mother, I think we cannot rival the picturesqueness, the peacefulness and the sweetness of sunrise over the fair fields of France in early summer. This is a morning of contentment and forgetfulness, the heartache and the thousand natural shocks that fleshes air to have fallen away and the whole earth sings. It’s four o’clock and I’ve been watching the sunrise from the door of my tent, I’m sitting at the far side of a deal board table whereon are quite a number of things, a switchboard, a field telephone, a copy of Shakespeare’s dramatic works, some pairs of pliers, many dead matches, cigarette butts, message pads, both white and pink and much candle grease. In this he starts to leave the poetic for the documentary.
By this 1918 letter to his mother he had perfected the scene-setting letter. It’s dated the 5th of February 1918 and the place is, from a little wood. Old Mother Jubbs, good morning, since 4:00 this morning I have been sitting in our cookhouse that shelters against the concrete wall of this little Belle Bonne fortress on the outskirts of a ragged wood, yes it is a cosy, cheerful little possie, all this time until just now, which is 10 to six, I have been presiding genius at the fire. The sig office, signaller’s office, is here in the cookhouse. When I came on shift there were two mournful coals glowing and for these two hours I have mothered them, tickled them with little twigs, made them beam with merry good humour, crackle with annoyance when I belaboured them with coup de vent, that’s wind (chuckling) until now I have them glowing with a wrathful fire, a surly conscript, in itself this amateur fire worship is a good … is good pastime. Many of his letters are direct and straight forward, however, like this one about the realities of writing lots of letters, you get a lot back. This one to his mother, written from a barn somewhere in France, on the 5th of July 1916, at last our long delayed mail is arriving again, I received 17 today and yesterday and it is impossible to answer them all for a fair while furthermore, I don’t know that letters will get through, we may be allowed to use only service cards. For Wheen, writing seemed to require both time and freedom, this from an undated letter, I cannot write much for this censorship militaire is abominable, this letter must serve for them all at home, perhaps for some time as the possibilities of writing cannot be assured. Being on the move cramped his style as he explained to his father quite poetically from, somewhere in France on the 13th of July 1916. Dear Father, letter writing is reduced to a minimum just now, we have dodged about from barn to stable, from stable to flour mill, from mill … flour mill to barn and from barn to dugout so persistently of late that a fellow doesn’t get sufficiently adjusted for sensible letter writing before he is up and off again.
Then there are letters that are vehicles for humour, this to his sibling called Puddin’, I’m not quite sure which one, they … here they were. From the 9th November 1917, I take up my pen but no not how to proceed and but for George Pratt, that’s one of his friends, insisting that I write to you, frankly I should not. But George supplies conscience for two and this epistle is the outcome of moral coercion. There is this postcard from Paris of the Hotel de Ville on the back he writes, it is quite evidence whence Sydney gets her Hotel de Ville style of architecture, it is a pity Sydney isn’t content with the one style in the one building. I receive your lengthy epistles almost daily, Wheen, his nickname for his elder brother, also on active service, has arrived at Salisbury and enjoyed four days' leave he tells me, ho (chuckles) and then he’s got a Latin phrase, iuvenes felix which is like, very happy young man. Myself, I am very well and enjoying shells, shrapnel and sleep. That’s it on the back. Wheen was a writer of great range, he could be up, he could be down, he could be clever and dazzle a reader with his turns of phrase and breadth of knowledge. He could be incredibly funny and be sarcastic, wise beyond his years and reflective. He could also be direct and convey great pathos in his brevity. I’d like to finish with this, from a letter written to his family somewhere in France on the 30th of October 1916. If I manage to live through the next four days, which are to be very dangerous, I shall write you a few more interesting letters than is this one, but at present everything is against writing, have no thought for me, I’m in perfect health and usual good luck. Thank you.
Session Three: Responding to the Great War – Dr Adrian Caesar
Adrian Caesar: Thanks, Guy, there’s a slight error in there, insofar as my novel, strictly speaking, isn’t set in the First World War, its set immediately before and after it, for reasons which my paper will make clear. My novel, The Blessing, had its beginning in what little I know about my maternal grandfather’s life story. He was born in Donaghadee, Northern Ireland, and lived and worked in Belfast until he was 25 years old, first in Mackie’s Foundry and then as a tram driver. He was an Orangeman, in 1912, he signed a solemn oath and covenant pledging to defend the north from Home Rule by any means necessary. A year later he left Belfast for Manchester for reasons that are not entirely clear, there’s a family story that a woman was involved, it seems likely he was running away. He drove trams in Manchester until 1914, when, at the outbreak of the war, he volunteered. He served in France and Flanders with the 21st service battalion of the Manchester regiment; they were at the Somme, Arras and Passchendaele. Like many other British soldiers of the first war, his military records were destroyed in The Blitz, my knowledge of his service then is incomplete and pieced together from unit records, photographs and hearsay, I’ve no other documents to help me out. I know that he served for at least two years overseas and that he was wounded, probably at Arras or Passchendaele. A shell splinter took away a slice of his shoulder and damaged one lung. Though he survived the war, he suffered from its effects for the rest of his life, he died before I was born. I suspect it’s precisely because I don’t know a great deal about my grandfather that the outline of his life story provoked my imagination. After various trips to the battlefields of France and Flanders, which are also necessarily trips to cemeteries and a visit to Belfast in 1999, I began to write my novel. The character I’ve created, Jack Young, isn’t my grandfather, some of the things that happen to him didn’t happen to my relative, or not as far as I know, however the shape of my grandfather’s life between 1912 and 1920 is roughly followed.
This presented a massive challenge, largely because of the war years; I drafted the first 40,000 words or so of the book in 2004. This first part of the novel developed a troubled love story between the protestant Jack Young and catholic woman, Kathleen McCafferty, against the backdrop of the troubles of Belfast in 1912. It followed Jack, now separated from Kathleen, to England, and took the narrative to late in 1913. I stopped writing in 2004 because I couldn’t see how to deal with the war; the problems were several, the length and scale of the conflict seemed impossible to articulate without expending many thousands of words. I knew I wanted the denouement of my story to take place in Belfast in 1920 amid the further violent troubles that erupted there in that year. It seemed to me, if I tried to convey something of the intensity and violence of trench warfare with any kind of realism it would overwhelm the impact of the civil strife I was interested in exploring through my story. The famous fictions, memoirs and poetry of World War I by Sassoon, Graves, Blunden and Frederic Manning, to name only the most famous, and the poetry of Owens, Sassoon, Graves and Gurney also cast a long shadow. They mean that anyone approaching trench warfare via fiction is in danger of merely writing pastiche. There are two inherent difficulties in writing combat scenes, which even these illustrious writers sometimes failed to deal with adequately. The risk is that depictions of violence and suffering will advertently provoke a pleasurable frisson rather than a horrified repugnance. It could even be argued, I think, that it’s impossible to render the experience of combat accurately in language, narrative, by its nature, tends to impose order and significance upon events, I think the chaotic brutality of battle often evades novelist and historian alike.
In the absence of answers to these problems I shelved the project. It was only when I went back to the book in 2011 that the obvious answer to my dilemma suggested itself, the solution was to leave the war years out altogether and move straight to 1920. I would render the war indirectly, through the memories and experiences of Jack Young and show how those experiences impacted upon his psychology and changed his life. But still there were problems, I describe Jack Young’s life as a tram driver in part one and simultaneously shown his interest in gardening and his ambition one day to be a landscape gardener. Something in me resisted taking him back to tram driving, it seemed to offer very little by way of dramatic impact and of course separated him completely from his war experience. It was while pondering this conundrum that I suddenly had an idea, for some reason I remembered my visits to the war cemeteries in France and Belgium and particularly those around Ypres, landscape gardening, I thought to myself, who made the cemeteries? How did they come into existence? Who built them? What was the timescale? These questions excited me because I had a long-held interest in the paradoxes of remembrance, the way, in the first instance, remembrance serves the needs of those who have fought and survived and those who have lost loved ones in the conflict. The necessity is to mark participation and loss in war as meaningful, significant, noble, it is in this way that war is made sacred, the problem of course is that this making sacred can very easily mask the awfulness of combat and killing and inspire following generations with the idea that fighting and killing is noble, sacred, ultimately significant. The peaceful acres of white stones that litter the landscape of Belgium and Northern France might be said to conceal as much as they reveal about the conflict they memorialise. But what about the experience of making the cemeteries? I immediately began to research their construction, as I did so, I realised that here were the answers to the problems of my novel in relation to World War I.
Though I haven’t time here to render a detailed account of the development of what is now the Commonwealth War Graves Commission, I can, I think, outline a few salient details which I found inspirational for my purposes. Sir Fabian Ware’s book, The Immortal Heritage, is the source of most of the information I gleaned and is an excellent starting point for anyone who wishes to know more than my remarks can easily encompass. More recently, Julie Summers has written well on the subject. The National Library of Australia copied old copies of their work. Fabian Ware was the founder of what was then the Imperial War Graves Commission and is now the Commonwealth War Graves Commission. In 1914 he was 45 years old and therefore too old to fight, he volunteered to serve with the Red Cross where he was initially employed to manage a mobile unit engaged in transporting the wounded to field hospitals and in collecting stragglers who may have lost their way. Ware also instructed his men to take careful note of the location of any graves, for the Red Cross saw it as part of their work to supply information to relatives of the fallen as to the whereabouts of their loved ones. The need for an organisation to oversee cemeteries for the war dead emerged from this work. The imperial war graves commission was granted a royal charter in May 1917, it may be of interest to note that the high commissioners for Australia, New Zealand, Canada and South Africa were on the board and India and Newfoundland were also represented. The Prince of Wales was the commission’s first president, Lord Derby its chairman and Fabian Ware was vice chair. It was Ware, however, who continued to lead the policy and planning for the commission, and it was he who sent the architects, Sir Edwin Lutyens and Herbert Baker, along with Charles Aitken, the director of The Tate Gallery, to France in 1917 to observe the battlefields for themselves and return with some recommendations for developing a design template for the cemeteries. Rudyard Kipling, who had lost his only son at the Battle of Loos in 1915 was appointed literary advisor to the commission and Lutyens approached his friend, the famous landscape gardener and writer, Gertrude Jekyll, to advise on horticultural matters.
When the war ended, work on the cemeteries was preceded by that of graves concentration units, the circumstances of wartime burials meant that graves were scattered over wide areas or clustered in numbers too small to form a cemetery. It was therefore necessary to designate sites for the cemeteries and to move bodies to those sites. It was the work of the graves concentration units to do this, as well as to remove previously unburied bodies from the battlegrounds. Between the end of the war and September 1921, these units moved 204,650 bodies and reburied them. By 1920 The War Office directorate in command of this work began to hand over charge of the cemeteries to the Imperial War Graves Commission and work on the architecture and landscaping of the cemeteries began. It was in this practical work that I found employment for my character, Jack Young, when I read that by 1921 the commission had employed 1,362 gardeners on the western front, and that all of them had served in the war, and that many of them worked on cemeteries near where they had served. I sensed the imaginative possibilities, more details enticed me further. In the early days of the commission’s work, the gardeners worked in mobile gardening parties, a group of men would set out from their billets on a Monday morning in a wagon piled with supplies and they would go and camp out by the cemetery they were working on for the week. The early labour involved levelling, uprooting dead trees, carting earth, before they could begin to sow grass. Later came the planting of flowers and roses in accordance with Gertrude Jekyll’s notions. It was her idea that the English country garden should provide the model for the plantings in the cemeteries. I read of Jekyll’s involvement with a wonderful sense of serendipitous synchronicity, it was like a gift to me, for in part one of the novel I had already written a scene in which Jack Young borrows gardening books authored by Gertrude Jekyll. It felt as if he was destined to do this work. The possibilities opened up to me of imag … the motivations of these dedicated gardeners and how it might feel to tend the graves of one’s erstwhile comrades and to participate in the transformation of that shattered landscape and to make from it places of beauty and peace. The obvious contrast of soldier and gardener excited me too, the movement from destruction to creation, a working with nature rather than against her to create beauty, rather than ugliness.
During the war and immediately afterwards some graves had been planted with wildflowers, poppies, cornflowers, white chamomile and yellow charlock. Wherever possible these were retained and supplemented with low growing plants, nasturtiums, dwarf lupins, alyssum and candytuft, which gave bright bursts of colour against the grass, but also prevented soil from splashing up the headstones when it rained. Thanks to Jekyll the English rose also became a feature of many of the early cemeteries. Red and white roses were planted between headstones, so that every name was shaded by a rose. It should be noted that at first the graves were marked with temporary wooden crosses bearing the name, rank, regimental number, religion, unit and date of death. There crosses were then replaced by uniform headstones made from Portland stone or Hopton Wood limestone. Between 1920 and 1923, more than 4,000 headstones were shipped to France each week. The uniformity of the headstones and the choice of a headstone rather than a cross was in keeping with a principle established early on by Ware and fought for him … fought for by him and his supporters subsequently against considerable opposition. There were debates in parliament, but for once, a generous ideal prevailed. It was the notion that there should be no distinctions made within the cemeteries of rank, nation, colour or creed, the fallen were to be gathered together and buried as they had fought, side by side. Given the stratified and class conscious nature of English society, this constituted a remarkably forward thinking idea and one that was ideal for my purposes in the novel, given that I was exploring through my characters the terrible and destructive dimensions of religious bigotry and violent nationalism. To have Jack Young involved in creating these vast monuments to the democracy of the dead seemed entirely fitting. While he’s working in the cemetery, he encounters the grave of a 16 year old boy with whom he served. The story of Jack’s involvement in the boy’s life and death forms a significant narrative strand and enables me to write about Jack’s experience of the war and of fighting without, I hope, falling into the difficulties mentioned earlier. In researching the construction of the battlefield cemeteries I found in them both an inspiration and an irony that the democratic ideals for which we say the soldiers fought are embodied most perfectly in these fields of the dead. It remains for the countries which sent them to die, for us who follow, to exert ourselves against ongoing divisions of rank, creed, colour and nationality and thus fulfil their inheritance.
Session Four: Making History – Peter Rees
Peter Rees: Thank you, Margy, and good afternoon, everybody. In search for understanding of the Anzacs and the Great War Charles Bean’s writings have long been the starting point for researchers and historians. You can’t begin to write about the war without reading the works of Bean, the official Australian correspondent and subsequently the official historian. His overarching influence over how Australians remember Gallipoli, Anzacs and the Great War is undeniable. His vision of the Anzac soldier has dominated historical memory for nearly 100 years. For Bean the archetypal Anzac was strong, resilient, inventive, good-humoured, laconic and duty-bound. For him this was the archetypal Australian bushman of the late 19th and early 20th centuries. His early book on the war track and his early articles in the Sydney Morning Herald confirm that even before he landed with the troops at Gallipoli in April 1915 he already had a strong idea of the Australian character and importantly that he believed the Australian had in him the stuff of military greatness.
To Bean the Gallipoli landing saw the bushman’s character easily transform into that of the Anzac soldier who drew on the bushman’s colonial roots and strength in the face of harsh and dangerous conditions and he did it all with good humour. Bean’s thinking evolved progressively from that of a journalist to that of an official war correspondent, official historian and later to founder of the War Memorial. What has been missing in all of this until now is an understanding of Charles Bean, the man. To understand the man is to better understand his official history. Writers have looked at Bean’s history and seen an extraordinarily detailed account of the experience of Australians during the four years of war. It is unique with more than 8,000 Australians of the Australian Imperial Force named. It was like no other official history of any war ever written in its breadth and depth. It has been less easy to access the mind and emotions of Bean. This of course is the way he wanted it.
He was the storyteller whose background as a journalist trained him to write in the third person and let the facts tell the story. His legal training honed his appreciation of facts. I can empathise with his ideas on this. The idea of a journalist as a personality is a relatively recent phenomenon, a product of the television age rather than newspapers. I find it hard to see Bean fitting easily to the screen. Bean was by nature an introvert, a quiet man at home with his own thoughts. For him his writing did his talking. Because his books are laden with factual material the stories he tells have been the focus. What has been missing has been an understanding of the values that drove Bean and shaped his world view. In this I’d like to refer to Justice Geoff Lindsay of the New South Wales Supreme Court. Bean has fascinated him ever since he read On the Wall Track as a schoolboy. In fact he won a prize for history at Bankstown High and was awarded the book. Geoff Lindsay contends that in reading Bean and appreciating him one should accept the likelihood that his view of events was assisted by natural sympathies in favour of people he observed. Equally his views were also likely constrained by natural antipathies towards other people thus his selection of facts and individuals must have been influenced by intuitive assessments.
Bean saw life and selected facts from what he saw through a prism determined by a variant of Victorian era liberal Anglicanism. This was the muscular Christianity championed by Thomas Arnold, the renowned headmaster of Rugby School in the mid-19th century. Arnold’s protégé, John Percival, had been headmaster at Clifton College when Charles’ father Edwin Bean was a pupil there. The focus was on religious principles, gentlemanly behaviour, academic attainment and character training, virtues such as loyalty, chivalry, sportsmanship and leadership. Percival stressed a sense of social mission creating a new world for the masses. Edwin Bean naturally ensured that Charles and his two brothers were similarly influenced in the family environment. Bean’s own values for the rest of his life were influenced by the years he spent at Clifton. Percival’s influence extended further. After meeting the old headmaster at Oxford Bean was critical of Britain over world war concentration camps in 1901 just as Percival was.
In a letter to the Pall Mall Gazette Bean railed against the alleged high death rates and the Gazette’s manipulation of the figures involved. Bean argued that publishing the truth would not harm any good cause ‘though suppressing it certainly would. This would be a familiar theme throughout his life. Truth was a beacon that he never wavered from. When other journalists around him were happy to colour their reporting in search of good copy he was not. Equally he did not accept the word of GHQ as other correspondents did. Rather, to the amazement of the British correspondents he set himself the task of visiting on the day of the battle or soon afterwards every important trench or position occupied by Australian troops in Gallipoli and France. He didn’t trust second-hand information.
If Percival had stressed a sense of social mission in his teachings Bean likewise was such a social missionary and for Bean to write the official history was to fulfil the commitment to public duty. At the end of the Great War Bean set out his ideas, his ideals and hopes for Australia in the wake of the huge loss of life. He did this in his book In Your Hands, Australians. The book was more a treatise, a personal manifesto of his aspirations for Australia whose people he hoped would pay due homage to the men of the AIF. And he wrote it in the final month of the war on leave at Cannes on the French Riviera, not out with the boys having a beer in the bars but holed up in his hotel room belting it out on his correspondent’s typewriter. Bean then reaffirmed these ideals 25 years later in his World War 2 book, War Aims of a Plain Australian. Both books demonstrate a deep commitment to the importance of education, conservation of the environment, town planning and social planning more generally. Here we see Charles Bean Utopian. His was not a preoccupation with the Australian bush only for the sake of the Australian bush but more especially for the sake of a healthy lifestyle with healthy environment for all Australians. The champion of bush life was in large measure an urban social reformer. By the time War Aims was published in 1943 however Bean was disillusioned that his ambitions for a new Australia had not been realised.
It was in this frame of mind that he attempted a book he planned to call The Straight Line, a book in which John Percival featured. This was a project in which Bean tried ... had tried to make sense of it all. Bean actually portrayed himself as a character named John Percival. In creating the alter ego, John Percival, even armed at 30 in 1917 with Bean’s trademark telescope he was identifying with the moral philosophy that drove Percival. As he wrote, again and again on Gallipoli or in billets in France John ... that is, Percival ... had thrashed out with his mess mates the kind of Australia they might make if only Australians devoted their brains and vigour to planning it as they planned operations in war. The new towns planned and old ones replanned by applying or inventing where necessary the principles of town planning to Australian conditions of climate and social equality. John wrote a small book in which he crystallised their hopes for that dreamland which would soon be in their hands to make or mar. We should have a generation or two free of the improvement of ... free for the improvement of Australia, he thought. The League of Nations should ensure us peace for present lifetime and if in that time we can’t build something like the Australia that we all want we don’t deserve to possess her. You’ll notice that there was even a reference to his earlier book In Your Hands, Australians.
But in trying to write this book the handwritten manuscript of which I found at the War Memorial in the Bean archives Bean had lost his way. It would never be finished. Just as the Arnold tradition shaped Bean so too did social Darwinism, a hot topic in Britain during his education there after leaving Bathurst in 1889. In Britain he’d come to a studied view of the typical Englishman of the cities of the industrial revolution, small, concave-chested, pale. This was the opposite of the Australian he saw exemplified at Gallipoli and the western front but he feared that this could be Australia’s fate too. Bean envisaged generations of city dwellers becoming smaller in body and weaker in courage and resolve than their forebears. He believed Australia had the chance to avoid this and must not fail to do so. The Australian from the country was as he put it the Britain reborn as it were, a Britain with the stamina and freshness of the 16th century living amongst the material advantages of the 20th century. Bean believed there was a special chance for the Anglo Saxon race in Australia that could result in the preservation of the strength of body, mind and character in spite of city life. The answer was for city councils to ensure sufficient space for Australians to play whatever games they wanted particularly cricket I would have thought in Bean’s case.
By doing so they would be buying the salvation of their race and buying it dirt cheap. He supported the white Australia a policy because he believed egalitarian Australians did not want to be masters of other races. And anyway westerners and easterners could not live together without demoralising each other. And Australia he noted was the last land open to the white man and by white man Bean meant Anglo Saxon. Bean’s views on race at this time reflected a world view that endorsed the supremacy of the British Empire. He would come to repudiate this later in life.
In these early years of the 20th century Bean’s newspaper articles show that he saw Australia’s relationship with Britain through a prism of imperial idealisation especially as he was convinced war with Germany was inevitable and that Australia isolated in the south seas would need British help to defend its shores. In his articles for the Sydney Morning Herald Bean offered something Australians were unaccustomed to, a public intellectual who could give his readers a sense of where they came from and what they represented. He laid before them ideals however grandiose for the nation’s future.
Bean was not only mixing in influential circles, he was also fulfilling a role not uncommon among journalists in the so-called progressive era. As the American historian Richard Hofstadter later wrote it is hardly an exaggeration to say that the progressive mind was characteristically a journalistic mind and its characteristic contribution was that of the socially responsible reporter reformer. He was playing and educative role as a journalist in taking town planning to a wider audience. For Bean though the Great War intervened putting on hold his campaigning for town planning and better city living conditions. As I’ve alluded to the Great War had a profound impact on Bean. War tends to do that, of course.
What has not been previously understood is the effect of four years at the front on Bean personally. He was shot in the thigh at Gallipoli, refused to be evacuated and carried the bullet for the rest of his life. He had a job to do. He saw slaughter on an unimaginable scale both there and on the western front. The sight and sounds of wounded men as they writhed in pain could have been nothing other than harrowing and it was an experience for which nothing could have prepared him. It is inconceivable that after the horrors of four years of war that he would not have escaped without a degree of posttraumatic stress. No person routinely exposed to as much death, destruction and risk of injury as he was could escape exposure to psychological damage. One only has to read his diaries and notebooks to understand this, no one could help not be moved by his account of Pozieres where horror became routine.
Let me quote this account where he wrote about coming across some signallers as they fixed up broken wire along a trench and there was a photo of some signallers in a trench earlier and I was ... I couldn’t help but think of ... of this image that Bean portrayed of what he saw. And this is what he wrote, and there lying in the bottom of the trench just as they had fallen the night before were three men of the 10th battalion. One poor chap had his tunic and shirt torn bare by some piece of shell and you looked down past the bare white skin of the chest almost to his backbone. I can’t bear to think of these things. Another had his skull broken in just like an eggshell. A third lay peacefully there like a wax figure on which the dust had long settled, waxen, drawn, thin white lips slightly open and eyes shut, almost as if he were lying against the wall of the trench with both arms thrown out listlessly. Others that we came across you could hardly tell for dead, they might have been living men sleeping on the floor of the trench and indeed the living were sleeping just near them. One is apt to think that it is callous of the battalion to leave these men lying about but the living are worn out by the morning and the dead are dead.
Ghastly as accounts like this are it is likely that writing his precious diaries every day ... there are more than 200 diaries and notebooks ... unwittingly helped bring ... Bean to debrief the horrors and loss of life that he witnessed. And writing the official history over the following 23 years helped him process the terrible events he bore witness to. This may well have been what kept him sane. Bean understood what the troops went through because he went through it himself. As his great friend, General Brudner Wyatt at war’s end acknowledged that man faced death more times than any other man in the AIF and had no glory to look for either. What he did, and he did wonders, was done from a pure sense of duty.
Fromelles is an important story in all of this. Bean was suppressed by military censorship of the day in playing down the huge life ... of loss ... huge loss of life there however in the official history he devoted 119 pages to his account and did not spare Haking, the General, the British General in charge of the catastrophe and the British military overall. Tellingly the British official history covers Fromelles in 17 pages Today Fromelles is finally entering public consciousness in a way that Bean would have approved. Bean would also approve of the greater interest now being shown in the Australian performance on the western front. After all while he wrote two volumes on Gallipoli he also wrote four on the western front. This shows a century on a more balanced understanding of the war and not just of Gallipoli but the years after in France. Could it be that because of the flamboyant accounts of Ashmead-Bartlett that for many decades Gallipoli has been the face of the Great War for Australians but that with time and scholarship a more mature view is now emerging? I believe this happening across the board but there is a way to go.
The ground though is fertile. In this it was gratifying for me to see the strong positive reception to my book on the Anzac nurses, The Other Anzacs, rereleased last year as Anzac Girls to coincide with the ABC TV series. This would not have happened a few decades ago. While Bean’s official history is strongly masculine he was aware of the role of the nurses and their contribution. Indeed he wrote a cable about them during the Turkish attack on the canal in February 1916 so Bean would have approved of this change in national understanding that we’re seeing today.
Interestingly Bean once confided to World War 2 official historian, Gavin Long, that he’d never met an academic historian who had read one of his volumes. His goal was to reach a wider non-military audience. In his view of my book Geoffrey Blaney observed that when he first tried to become an historian Bean’s national ranking outside military circles was not so high. In the nation’s history schools the two world wars were not yet in favour and he wondered whether Bean in his lifetime was prescribed reading for any history courses in Australia. At last we know that Justice Geoff Lindsay was awarded one of his books as a prize at the age of 16 so there was certainly some awareness in schools then.
A century on though anew awareness of Bean is needed. Those who pass over his contribution to Australian history without pausing to examine the complexity masked by a veneer of simple virtues or casual references to war or mateship miss much of what there is learn from him. He was a man who twice rejected a knighthood yet accepted two honorary doctorates, indeed calling himself Dr Bean. This is telling. He did not believe he deserved a knighthood ahead of any soldier but he had earned the right to a doctorate by his work.
The archives that Bean bequeathed to the nation deserve close study, not just to understand the man himself and to know his account of the Great War but also to better understand and experience that for better or worse shaped Australia as a nation. Thank you.
Session Four: Making History – Dr Joan Beaumont
Joan Beaumont: Well first of all let me say what a very rich day it’s been and how much I’ve learnt, it’s just been a very, very fruitful experience. And of course I have both the short and long straw of having the last presentation and I thought I would use this opportunity really just to reflect on the writing of the Great War as an historian from a distance and particularly a hundred years’ distance. And as you’ll know if you’ve made a trip to any bookshop either physically or online in recent months or years the centenary of the first world war has generated a veritable tsunami of publications of which of course my book and the others ... authors are examples. But in fact for all this the literature of Australia’s Great War, if I can call it that, has tended to be relatively narrow. Today our focus has been on literature and poetry and fiction and other aspects but I would say generally the historiography of the war is still predominantly of two genres, firstly operational and military history by which I mean the history of battles, military units, commanders and individual winners say of the Victoria Cross and secondly stories that have a human dimension to them such as Peter’s of the Anzac Girls and Janet’s of Kitty. And these are of course splendid histories but it is my concern that we still have a rather narrow understanding of the war. And what I’d like to just comment on I think particularly is how Australians have written about battles and about those other battles on the home front which still remain relatively neglected in our understanding of the First World War.
Now as Peter’s just indicated within Australian writing on battles there is a hierarchy at the top of which of course is Gallipoli. Some years ago I tried to get everyone attending an academic conference to raise their hands and pledge that they would not write another book about Gallipoli but it made no difference and now every detail I would say of the Gallipoli campaign has pretty well been covered and many times at least in Australia so far as the Anzac sector is concerned. We know much less still about the operation south at Kaypellis or even at Suvla Bay which tend to get relegated to the wings except when they involved Australians for example at the battle of second Krithia which made a huge impact on Bean. Or we focus on aspects of the Gallipoli campaign which as we’ve heard earlier, a firmer narrative of British incompetence. We really have as I said all the answers I think now to the Gallipoli campaign, did Australians land at the wrong place? Probably ‘though there was considerable ambiguity about what was the correct place. Was the campaign badly managed and planned? Emphatically yes. Was a critical opportunity for consolidating the Australian hold above Anzac Cove lost on the morning of the 25th of April? Well possibly. And did the campaign ever have a chance of strategic success? Well no and even if it did it would not have won the war.
Now this focus on Gallipoli as we’ve already heard I think was very early, it was in fact a product of the war experience itself. Philip has spoken about the importance of C J Dennis’ work, we had the Anzac book that Bean himself edited, late 1915 and early 1916 and the phrase that Gallipoli was the birth of the nation in fact can be dated back to the war years. And as we’ve heard Bean wrote a very extensive official history in which two of the 10 operational volumes including those written by others were focused on Gallipoli. The first volume on Gallipoli was 607 pages long and it took the story only as far as the 4th of May 1915. In contrast, and I’ll return to this later, Bean’s account of the battles of 1917 which was by far the worst year in terms of Australian deaths and a far more significant one in the defeat of Germany was confined to a single volume admittedly of more than a thousand pages. And it seems to me that the way in which Australians today, not just in their emphasis on Gallipoli, but in many ways would not necessarily or does not necessarily align with the memories of the soldiers that fought the war.
Now let me say we don’t actually know a lot, I think, about the memories of those soldiers because despite what we’ve heard today only a small proportion of men wrote at the time in a way that I would call existential, in the sense they gave us an understanding of what they perceived the war to be about and what they thought it was achieving. We do have other evidence of course and perhaps at this point I’m able to talk to other sources which I think are a kind of writing. So if you take for example the Australian National Memorial at Villers-Bretonneux which was erected in 1938 you’ll see that these are the battles ... the battle honours that are listed on that memorial. I won’t read them all out but I think it’s self-evident that many of those names have very little resonance today. How many of the reading public would know for example of Schwein? Perhaps Asibruck. Almost certainly not Eiphe.
And one of the questions that I think we need to ask is why is it that the writing about the great war does not give prominence to some of these battles which were of far more importance strategically and far more costly in terms of human life than Gallipoli. And I pondered this question particularly when I was writing about 1917 which as I’ve said accounted for about one-third of Australian deaths and two and a half times the number of deaths at Gallipoli. I doubt that many Australians who go to the western front today ... I must pause, this shows you the casualties, as you’ll see the casualties in 1918 and 1917 were huge and we still know com ... we very rarely speak about say the breaking of the Hindenburg line in 1918. The blue line for your interest is enlistments and when we try to understand the conscription debates you can see why there was such tension in Australian society because as the casualties continued to occur in large numbers enlistment deter ... just was on an inexorable decline.
Now I think few Australians who visit Tyne Cot, one of these extraordinary cemeteries that we’ve heard described earlier would know that the towering cross of sacrifice, and this is the largest British cemetery on the western front, sits on a pillbox captured by the Australian Third Division on the 4th of October 1817. And the dedication on that cross tells the visitor this, again I think a form of writing. But Tyne Cot and the 4th of October have never been central to our national calendar of commemoration. Indeed in 2011 the ABC noted not the 4th of October but the 12th of October, just a ... the battle of Passchendaele, very shortly after this, as the anniversary of the 2005 Bali bombings. There was no recognition of the 12th of October as Passchendaele.
Well why is this? I think the answer lies to some degree actually in writing. We’ve already heard, and I agree entirely with Adrian, about the problems of actually conveying combat in literary form, I think there are real issues with what happens to that kind of experience when you translate it into a literary form but beyond that there is I think an issue about the form that narrative writing often takes. Now ghastly though the battles of 1917 were, battles such as Bullecourt, Menin Road, Polygon Wood, they lacked the form and the drama and the sense of place that shape a strong heroic drama. Dramatic narrative. They had no dramatic scaling of the cliffs such as we see on the left, the famous Sphinx at Gallipoli. On the right we have the fields of Belgium. There’s no climactic moment like the charge of the Nek which forms the end of Peter Weir’s famous film, Gallipoli. And the western front also gave centre stage not to courageous individuals, ‘though there were plenty of these, but to very depersonalised artillery, poison gas, air power and all the other lethal technology of mass industrial warfare. And so I pondered in my book what if Peter Weir were to try and make a sequel to Gallipoli called Brunsinder? What would its dramatic climax be? To add to this no battle in 1917 can be depicted as a baptism of fire as was Gallipoli, to some degree Fromelles which we’ve just heard about, Pozieres, the first major action on the western front and Long Tan in the Vietnam war, all of these invoke this idea of the first which I think is very important in commemorative and literary practice.
The battles of 1917 were all just in the middle of a long war of attrition and what we forget is that in their own terms they were relatively successful and you might ask whether this is a liability at a time when we seem obsessed with victimhood, trauma and mass death. And as we’ve heard the dominant trochna in our understanding of the great war is that of disillusionment, a view that of course emerged as we’ve heard in the interwar years but then came to an absolute peak in the 1960s when that discourse about futility, about the men being lines who were sacrificed by the incompetent British donkeys really gained traction. And if you teach students today the First World War you can be pretty certain that one of their first points of cultural reference is Blackadder. You can connect with Blackadder.
So there is however I think an interesting issue, we don’t have for example a history of Polygon Wood. I’ll get back to Fromelles in a moment. But 1917 in a strange way while being neglected I think to a considerable degree in the literature is dominant in the visual imagery. Some of the most haunting and well known photographs of World War 1 are drawn from late 1917. Australian soldiers marching past the ruins of the Ypres Cloth Hall, dead and wounded soldiers as you’ll see here in the Frank Hurley photo, huddled in the railway cutting at Brunsinder. And the devastated landscape of Belgium, the mud, water and gaunt trees near Menin Wood. Now I would suggest that many Australians would struggle to actually know where these photographs were taken but they have become again I think a kind of form of inscription or writing that come to stand for really all the horrors of the western front.
So the point I’m making obviously is that over the years the writing about the Great War in some ways has become distanced from the way that the Australians who experienced it were themselves ... have remembered it. Let’s not forget that only two, and the second division came rather late to Gallipoli ... only two of the five divisions actually fought at Gallipoli.
Now let me return then to the inscription of memory that we find in the war memorials that were built on the western front. Now in early 1919 it was decided by the Australian authorities that each of the five infantry divisions of the Australian Imperial Force should be allowed to erect a monument to commemorate their exploits. This splendidly bureaucratic obelisk was defined by a functionary in Australia House although I’m ... possibly General Hobbs, Commander of the Fifth Division had something to do with it also but this was ... this was what the divisional memorials generally looked like, the second being an exception.
What I’ve found interesting is that the decision as to where this standard obelisk was to be placed was delegated to the divisions themselves or at least to the divisional leadership. And they were allowed to choose the site and I think this is one way in the absence of written sources of trying to understand how the men of those divisions understood their achievements.
And interestingly the five sites that they chose were generally sites of victory. Now this got rather elongated. Here is the map of where they put them. The first division chose to put its monument at Pozieres which was a pretty obvious choice because that’s where they had ... had such terrible experience in 1916, they’d already started to put monuments there during the war and even though the battle of the Somme was probably a strategic failure ... there’s much debate about that ... Pozieres at least was a sort of tactical victory within it.
The second division chose Monson Quentin where the Australians captured the small hill overlooking the town of Peron in a dramatic battle in September/October 1918. The third division chose Silasec [? 14:32], the place where the Australians held the German attacks during the spring offensive of March 1918. That would be I think ... and we oversee the word forgotten but I would wager a bet that Silasec’s been forgotten. The fourth division chose Bellingles [? 14:52] where the Australian corps broke through the Hindenburg line in late 1918. And the fifth chose Polygon Wood which was within the general strategic nightmare of the thirdybro [? 15:07] Passchendaele, a tactical victory.
So it seems that these men wanted to be remembered as heroes, not as sacrificial lambs and it is often commented that today we talk a lot more about men dying for their country rather than killing for their country ‘though I can assure you that Pompey Elliott of whom we’ve heard earlier boasted about the capacity of his men to kill.
Today we tend to see the soldiers of World War 1, and this is not just a phenomenon that is confined to Australia, and I’ll quote a French author, we see them as quote mere nonconsenting victims and mutineers and rebels are the only true heroes. And I think if you look at this map it is clear that we tend to privilege battle sites now that are different from these and battles that were disasters so if you look at the Australian Commemorative ... what’s it being called? The interpretive trail that’s being developed in ... on the western front today it will have towns ... some of these but not all of these towns. So for example Bullecourt has become ... come to the fore as a classic of bad planning and futile loss of life in April/May 1917 and as we’ve heard ... that’s the fifth division memorial obviously ... as we’ve heard Fromelles has also come to the fore.
Let me say I went to a ceremony about Fromelles in probably 1997 at the Shrine of Remembrance and I would have been one of 20 in a crowd. This has been rediscovered through the efforts of a small group of Australians including a Melbourne schoolteacher, I think of Greek extraction, where they discovered the grave of the missing and this is the ... I think the first grave cemetery created by the Commonwealth War Graves Commission since 19 ... since the end of the second world war. So Fromelles is right up there now in lights if I can put it rather cynically as the greatest disaster suffered in 24 hours. Fromelles did of course have some exposure in the interwar years particularly through Elliott. But it was not the place the fifth division chose to put their monument nor did the fourth division agoni ... choose Bullecourt which was again a disaster although there’s evidence that they agonised over it, they had two long worrying meetings about what to do, where to put their memorial but in the end as I’ve said they chose the Hindenburg line where they had made an identifiable contribution to allied victory.
The point I’m making I think is a more general one, that when writing about the war today we really need to continue that end ... that enduring battle of historians which is to understand the mentality of those we are studying in the past. This applies not just to commemoration but issues such as motivation, why did these men fight in World War 1? Now there is a rich collection as we’ve heard of letters, diaries and memoirs that the men of the AIF created and left behind and which are stored not just here but of course in the Australian War Memorial but these sources have their limitations. Normally when ... if we’re talking about motivation normally men began writing home only after they had joined the AIF. They’re not recording why they’re doing it.
Moreover as with combat when these men committed their thoughts and emotions to paper often they became locked in stylistic conventions. It’s clear also that some men, and I think we’ve heard about some women from Janet earlier, exercised some degree of self-censorship about not only what they’re experiencing but about their own emotional responses to it, not Pompey Elliott, it seems. And many men tried to exclude from their correspondence home events and experiences that would cause their families anxiety. Probably four out of every five men of the AIF was unmarried so it was their mums and I found the poetry for mothers very powerful, it was their mothers who were worrying about them and many men seemed not to want to write in a way that made Mum anxious.
And so dysfunctional and difficult behaviour, fear, doubt, anger and regret was often repressed ‘though not always the case. Another point about soldiers’ memoirs is that they were often but not exclusively written by the more educated classes and it’s often the more educated classes that get quoted. Terrible danger for the historian is to be drawn to the quotable quote. We also know that the way men write about their experiences like personal memory tends to be shaped by later life experiences and cultural influences. To quote Richard White the experience of war itself has important effects on the men’s explanations as to why they were there. And different explanations are required for different purposes at different points in a soldier’s career. And the same can be said for oral history of which this library again has a wonderful collection. Because often stories about the past get rehearsed time and again in group settings and come eventually to reflect not just individual memory but wider collective and cultural memories. Alastair Thompson’s very influential book, Anzac Memories, shows this so well, that when he was interviewing the veterans of Gallipoli in the 1980s he found that their memories had changed over time in relation to the public national narratives of the landing that they were hearing. So their own memories were becoming incorporated into wider narratives of the war.
So in many ways I think we don’t ... we have difficulties understanding the mindset, the emotions and the attitudes of people of the past particularly because their values in some ways were very different to ours. Again if I could quote from French historian, Stefan Odwan Ozou [? 22:11] and Annette Becker who’ve written that the sense of obligation of unquestioned sacrifice which held most people in world war 1 in its tenacious cruel clutches for so long and so profoundly and without which the war could never have lasted as long as it did is no longer acceptable. The foundation on which the immense collective consensus of 1948 to ‘18 was based has vanished into thin air.
Now I think that problem of understanding is as great when we look at the home front as when we look at battles. You know question ... one of the questions that I intend to keep asking is why did the men of the AIF stay there? In the Somme winter of 1916/17. And one of the striking features of the writing which the centenary has spawned is how little of it I think comparatively deals with the Australians who stayed at home. Yet these were the majority. Depending on what statistic you take somewhere between 60 and 70% of Australian men of what might be deemed military age did not volunteer. The men who volunteered were the minority of the Australian males.
And what has happened to the voice of those who stayed at home in the history of the Great War? And as you’ll know if you’ve looked at my book, one of my goals was to try and retrieve those voices and in particular to see how those voices interwove with the experience of the men on the battle front. Now it’s obvious that Australians at home did not experience any of the physical damage of war such as bombing, occupation and starvation but their experience was in some ways as fundamental as the experience of the AIF. Because for all the divisions at home the Australian population in general continued to support the war.
Now there were divisions obviously over conscription for overseas service and this has figured very strongly in the historiography of the war particularly in the 1970s, debate about conscription which is might I say an example of how history is often shaped by the contemporary preoccupations of the historian. Because the generation of historians that discovered conscription as an issue to write about were the same people who were being subjected to the selective or birthday ballot during the Vietnam war.
There were also deep divisions within Australia during the war on the issue of equality of sacrifice, equality of sacrifice. Now for many in the trade union movement ... many of them stayed at home ... the real war was between Labor and capital as this cartoon depicts. And the plutocrat, or capitalism, was always depicted as what was fondly called fat. He was making obscene profits while the men were dying overseas. Again cartoons to me seem to be at least a visual form of writing and the left wing press is very rich also in descriptions of these debates.
Now this discontent on the left which fuelled the Labor split of 1916 exploded in a huge general strike in 1917 which began in the New South Wales tramways over a relatively minor issue and then spread right down the eastern coast from New South Wales to incorporate Victoria, right north to incorporate Queensland. And within five weeks 69,000 workers had struck and at the height of the strike more than a quarter of all New South Wales unionists were on strike. Now I would challenge us to find many people today who know about the general strike of 1917 even though historians ... Labor historians have described it as arguably the most cataclysmic event in the class struggle in early 20th century Australia. And while we are routinely exhorted to remember the mateship of the diggers we are seldom encouraged to reflect on the solidarity displayed by working class Australians who banded together in this collective action to resist industrial oppression.
And of course this is in part because the dominant narrative to emerge from world war 1 was as we know the Anzac legend which has worked to sideline different stories of nation-building and which has orientated the national memory of world war 1 towards military prowess and military exploits rather than visions of social justice and democratic equality. Again I think the erasure of the general strike from what I might call national memory is an affirm ... a confirmation of how we remember the past with the lenses of the present. Today when neoliberal market economics seems to be triumphant, ‘though I can tell you as an historian it won’t last forever, and only one in five, one in five if that of fulltime employees in Australia are members of a trade union, class warfare and millenarian visions of the collapse of capitalism seem to be tales from a past that is indeed a foreign country.
As I said earlier for all these divisions in Australia it is important to remember that the majority of the population continued to support the war and even though the conscription referenda were lost the demand for capitulation or even for a negotiated peace as the union movement argued never became dominant. And in contrast to Russia where of course there was even high levels of civil dissent and dispute Australia did not dissolve into revolution or civil war although there was a lot of violence in public life in the war years.
Why the Australian political structures survived is a fascinating question to which I still don’t really have the answer. I think it has something to do with the robustness of the institutions and the style of political democracy which was already well developed in Australia. But it is also perhaps owes something to the power of the values that were widely shared even across the divisions and provided a sense of social cohesion despite the pressures of the war. And those values were white Australian and imperial loyalty. We don’t talk much about those today but it has to be said time and again that Australians fought not for the Australian nation but for the British Empire of which they were part.
So again we have the problem of understanding how do we write about a society that will tolerate more than 60,000 deaths from a population of five million for values such as imperial loyalty and racism. I think many people answer that question today by simply ignoring those dimensions to Australia in the past because they’re politically uncomfortable.
And another aspect of the war which generally gets overlooked because it’s politically awkward are the patriotic funds movements. This was a remarkable mobilisation of the civilian population and particularly the women of Australia. In 1917 it’s estimated that about 55,000 women were in paid employment in Australia, 82,000 women joined the Red Cross and that was only one of a plethora of organisations. And I just ... this is the women of Australia in the Government House in Melbourne with their parcels and I find the one on the right truly extraordinary. There you are on the western front in the famous mud and what are you getting yet, a cup of tea from the women of Australia. That speaks more than many words, I think. Nearly 400,000 Red Cross parcels were sent from Australia to Germany, Holland, Austria and Switzerland. But this mobilisation has been largely overlooked partly I think because women was voluntary ... the women’s work was voluntary and the view of women that this kind of work encapsulated is not one which late 20th century feminism finds acceptable, that is women as we’ve heard were encouraged to stay at home in a traditional feminine nurturing role or to be nurses in a traditional nurturing role waiting and weeping and keeping the home fires burning.
But more problematically these same women not only affirmed traditional notions of femininity but they supported the war generally, they were patriotic and militaristic and indeed the Red Cross it has been argued in international scholarship became in a quite ironic sense militarised. That is, its humanitarian impulses and its internationalist impulses were appropriated for the cause of nationalism and with ... ironically the Red Cross actually aided the work of killing by relieving the national governments of many of their obligations to their own citizens. So all of that makes it a bit difficult and I wrote an article in oh 15 years ago saying whatever happened to patriotic women? And no one’s ever answered the question.
So to conclude it seems to me that writing about Australia's history of the Great War has been shaped and continues to be shaped not simply by the events of the past but by the events and values of the present. And this is not just because historians always face the problem of how to fill and find the missing pieces of jigsaws but because we know, that is unless we’re going to write chronicles we have to be selective, is an inherent part of any historical writing and indeed of any individual writing as I think Janet showed very powerfully. And so in making choices about what to include or exclude all writers are inevitably the prisoner of their own values and prejudices. But if our choices are driven too much by what sells, of what will make good television programs then we are at risk of engaging not in history but in memory which is a related but very different phenomenon. Thank you.