Writing the NLA's Great War book

Writing the NLA's Great War book
Professor Peter Stanley uncovered a treasure trove of WWI material in the Library's collection for his new book The Crying Years
15 August 2017

How does a book begin? I can pinpoint the exact moment when the idea for what became The Crying Years popped into my head. Almost five years ago, National Library of Australia pictures curator Nicky Mackay-Sim presented a talk to the Canberra Great War Study Group—otherwise known as The Estaminet.

The Estaminet at that time was a group of Great War researchers, small enough to fit into its then regular meeting place, the tiny ‘Chapel' at the National Museum of Australia, where I was working. Nicky brought along and discussed images from the Library's pictures collection, photographs that hardly any of us—Great War specialists—had seen before. Even before she had finished speaking, I realised that here was a rich and almost entirely unknown visual resource. Soon, I was talking to the Library's publisher, Susan Hall. What about a book exposing and interpreting the Library's photographs of the Great War?

Campbell photograph Sheltering from Bursting Shells

James Pinkerton Campbell, Sheltering from Bursting Shells, 1915, nla.cat-vn1504935

I was especially impressed by a photograph taken by Malvern photographer turned light horseman James Campbell, whose depictions of the Gallipoli campaign were fresh amid over-familiar, often staged images. His photograph of three light horsemen sheltering in a trench amid the dust of an Ottoman bombardment struck me as deserving greater attention. It is one of the most revealing and truthful photographs of Australians at war, and one of the very few images taken of soldiers actually under fire (as, indeed, was Campbell the photographer).

The Library's Publications and curatorial staff responded positively, but they urged me to broaden the selection from just the photographs to the entire range of the Library's collections. By that time, I was working at UNSW Canberra and researching the ‘Society' chapters of what became The War at Home, a volume of the Oxford Centenary History of Australia and the Great War. I relied largely upon the Library's collection, because it contains arguably the widest range of primary sources such as private papers, newspapers and ephemera, and practically everything published on the subject in Australia over the past century. In due course, The War at Home appeared late in 2015.

Spread from The Crying Years

Spread from The Crying Years

By then, I was deeply engaged in researching what I thought of as ‘The National Library Book of the Great War'. Building on the foundations of the research undertaken for The War at Home, I began to explore the Library's visual and primary sources, and found not only that I could illustrate aspects of the war already familiar to me, but that I could also reach new insights because of the nature of the evidence the Library had preserved.

Foremost among the evidence was the visual material: the photographs in the Rex Nan Kivell Collection, the cartoons and posters of Norman Lindsay, Stan Cross and Claude Marquet. Amazingly, much of this material had never before been published (or not published since the Great War). The cartoon propaganda, especially that produced by both sides in the rancorous and divisive conscription campaigns of 1916 and 1917, showed the bitterness with which Australians wrangled over the issue. The work of the government's pro-conscription case perhaps reached its nadir, when official cartoons in 1917 openly accused Archbishop Daniel Mannix of being a German agent.

Claude Marquet cartoonCharles Nuttall cartoon

Left: Conscription: 'I'll Have You!', page 76 in Cartoons by Claude Marquet (1920), nla.cat-vn1730208; Right: Charles Nuttall, Kaiser—'If You Hadn't Said England Was Right ...', page 15 in Comment and Cartoons (1917), nla.cat-vn2597327

One of the pleasures of researching the book was the opportunity to explore some of the Library's least known and least used collections, such as its many collections of ephemera. The most interesting were the collections of commemorative and fundraising medallions made by Percy J. Marks, which includes, for instance, badges of German internees in the ‘German Concentration Camp' at Holsworthy near Sydney. Indeed, one of the most satisfying aspects of the project was to connect wartime experiences across the Library's collections—so the internees' war could be traced in ephemera (such as in the rich and diverse John Ferguson collection, which includes theatre programs created by internees and postcard photographs of them) but also in newspapers and published memoirs about and by them.

Three parts of the way through the Great War centenary, you may ask whether we have heard enough of the story of Australia's Great War to last us another century. I found early on in my research that the nature of the National Library's collection imparts a particular emphasis, one which impelled me toward developing and offering a distinctive, arguably new interpretation. Traditionally, Australian re-tellings of the Great War emphasise an ‘Anzac' or khaki story—the story of the Australian Imperial Force and its long journey from Albany to Anzac and on to Amiens. In this version, the civilian war is a distraction, a sideshow. I found that the Library's collection, while not ignoring the soldiers' story, placed the experience of the Australian people as a whole at the centre of the narrative.

Enlist the Empire Calls

'Enlist the Empire Calls': George Street and Martin Place, Sydney, c.1916, nla.cat-vn2399232

The Crying Years tells the story not just of the Great War as experienced by the 300,000-odd Australians in uniform, but of the way it affected the entire nation of five million—city and country, men and women, young and old, uniformed and civilian. All of that stemmed from Nicky McKay-Sim's talk five years ago: thanks, Nicky! 

The Crying Years: Australia's Great War was released by NLA Publishing in August 2017.

The Crying Years Cover

My grandfather enlisted in March 1915, leaving his young wife and baby daughter for service in Egypt and on the Western Front. I have often wondered how they coped before he came home. I am looking forward with great interest to reading this book.
The Crying Years will be a 'must read' for me. My grandfather enlisted in the British 61st Division, and became one of the many that were sacrificed during the battles that took place around the Somme. While patriotism was flouted by the government of the day, compassion was sadly absent for the wives, women and children at home. More heart-breaking was that my grandmother 9like many in Australia) was left alone to care for, feed and bring up young children at a time when living conditions were raw and harsh. Will this human aspect be addressed in the book?
Hello Anthony Thank you for your comment. I'm happy to affirm that The Crying Years does indeed return repeatedly the experience of those who had often been forgotten in telling the familiar story of Australia in the Great War - women and children. The burden of the war fell on civilians, differently to the war the troops' knew, but still severely, unrelentingly, and with little of the compensations of comradeship, adventure and rewards such as decorations and public regard. Your grandfather was one of the thousands of Australians who joined British empire forces, and so powerful has been the Anzac legend that Australians have virtually forgotten a group that in the war years would have been lauded for their loyalty to the empire. I hope you read and enjoy The Crying Years. Peter Stanley
This book is much more than just another glossy on WWI. Its breadth across home and front issues and responses is surprising. Editing of the war warehouse of Peter Stanley's mind and the NLA collection is remarkably disciplined. The writing is lucid and unapologetic, without being lurid. The work of the skilled bunch of sheilapersons in production, editing and design is outstanding, topped off by the master class in relating text to illustrations. The book deserves to become the standard introductory work to Australia's Great War.

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