'Like a Gippsland Bushfire'
Peter Stanley takes a closer look at images from the Library’s collection reflecting life during the First World War
30 November 2015
This post was originally written for the regular feature In the Frame in The National Library of Australia Magazine.
John Flynn, founder of what became the Royal Flying Doctor Service, used this tinted slide of a Victorian bushfire in the lectures he delivered tirelessly to city people to bring the needs of country dwellers to their attention.
During the Great War, Flynn continued his ministry to the people of the inland. His slide offers a reminder of the lives of Australians living in the bush around this time; many experienced danger and hardship even if they did not go to war. (Despite its prominence in official commemorations, only 1 per cent of Australia’s people actually served on Gallipoli.)
Rural people, then as now, faced the threat of bushfire every summer—and beyond. In 1915, local newspapers in Victoria were reporting fires as late as May, a result of the prolonged drought that broke as the Gallipoli campaign intruded into Australians’ consciousness.
Bushfires remained a characteristic, perhaps unique, measure of peril and a test of Australian soldiers’ capacity. Charles Bean, the official war correspondent, wrote of his conviction that, in facing bushfires, rural Australians demonstrated that they could ‘compass the work of several Germans’, a capacity they carried over into the ‘extreme danger’ of war. (How many Germans he had seen fighting fire, Bean did not record.) Later in the war, Bean described the barrage at Polygon Wood as roaring ‘like a Gippsland bushfire’. Bushfire became a powerful metaphor for the war itself in a notorious recruiting poster which asked: ‘Would you stand by while a bushfire raged?’.
Looking on the war after a century, we can see John Flynn’s lantern slide as both a literal depiction of the fires that continued to threaten the bush and its people during the Great War and as a metaphor for a war that, like the fire front approaching the camera, would soon overwhelm Australia and its people.