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?
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.
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.
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.
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!