Dr Guy Hansen explores the First World War collections at the National Library of Australia

As each year passes our connection with the events of the Great War fades. It is now no longer possible to talk to a soldier or a nurse who served in the war. To understand what they went through, we need to turn to the things they kept. The National Library of Australia holds a unique collection of manuscripts, ephemera, art, photographs and documents from this defining period in Australian history. In this centenary year of the outbreak of war the Library is proud to present some of its most important First World War collections in Keepsakes: Australians and the Great War. This exhibition explores Australia’s memory of the war through the mementos and souvenirs kept by service personnel, political leaders, civilians, artists and families. While the First World War generation has passed, these mementos help us understand how Australians experienced the war.

The collections on display in Keepsakes are linked by a common theme. They consist of material which people kept to remind them of their wartime experience. Many of the young men and women who left Australia to serve as soldiers and nurses returned with mementos of their time abroad. The letters they wrote and the photographs they took were gathered together and kept as treasured items by their families. Over time, many of these precious keepsakes have made their way to the collections of the Library. These include the papers of many soldiers and nurses who served at the front. The Library is also home to the papers of Australia’s key wartime leaders, including the prime ministers Joseph Cook, Andrew Fisher and Billy Hughes, Governor-General Sir Ronald Munro Ferguson, and General John Monash. These collections are complemented by recruitment posters, photographs, maps, diaries, cartoons and ephemera. The print record of the war is also kept as part of the Library’s extensive collection of Australian magazines, newspapers, histories and memoirs as well as novels, plays and poetry.

Some of the most personal types of objects kept by the Library are photographic portraits of soldiers from the First World War. These portraits are common in homes across Australia. They are usually mounted on card bearing the name of the photographer’s studio. In many cases the photograph was taken shortly before embarkation. Sometimes the soldiers are joined by their wives, mothers or children. Dressed in new uniforms they gaze into the lens with pride and a sense of optimism.

One such portrait shows a newly married couple. The husband is dressed in the uniform of the First Australian Imperial Force (AIF) and his wife in a lace wedding dress. The scene in the photo is very familiar: a patriotic young man marries his love before leaving for war. The inscription reads, ‘With love from Kate and George 17/11/15’. Looking at the photo you cannot help but wonder what happened. Did the soldier survive the war? Did his experience at the front change him as a person? How did his wife cope with being left behind?

Some determined digging by one of our curators revealed that the young couple were Albert George Searle, known as George, and Kate McLeod. George’s enlistment records show that he joined the army in September 1915. He married Kate in November and left for Egypt on the troop ship Kanowna in December 1915. After serving in Egypt he was invalided out of the army in 1916. He tried to enlist again in 1918 but was rejected on health grounds.

George’s military record is not that of a traditional ‘hero’. He did not fight in any key battles and he did not return home with medals for gallantry. George, however, was like many Australians. He, and over 400,000 others, volunteered to serve their country in whatever capacity they could. If they survived the war these men and women faced the challenge of returning home and resuming a ‘normal’ life. After the war George worked as a shire clerk in Coonamble and had three children with Kate, two boys and one girl. Looking at their wedding photograph you are struck by how they had no idea of what the war would hold for them. They were yet to discover how traumatic the war would be and how it would change Australia and the world. With the hindsight of history we know what George and Kate could not know—the war would last until 1918 and of the 400,000 Australians who enlisted to fight 60,000 would be killed.

George and Kate’s photograph is not unique. It is one of many studio portraits of soldiers taken during the war that survive today in public and private collections. The significance of these photographs comes from the way that so many soldiers wanted to leave a record of their service. Their portraits were intended as keepsakes. To serve in the AIF meant you were likely to be separated from your family for years. In this way the photos were a reminder of someone not present. If the soldier died in the war, the portrait stood in memoriam. After the war the photos remained on the mantelpiece for years—a private memorial to service and sacrifice. A selection of these portraits has been brought together and displayed in Keepsakes. Each of these photos captures a moment when the flow of world history intersected with the lives of ordinary Australians, changing them forever.

Photo albums are another kind of visual record which is kept in the Library’s collections. These sometimes provide a narrative of overseas service almost as an extended holiday. This is not surprising given that the First World War offered the opportunity for many Australians to travel to the northern hemisphere for the first time in their lives. Private David Izatt, for example, compiled two albums depicting his wartime service as a great adventure. The albums trace his journey from Australia to Ceylon, Egypt, Turkey and France, and feature soldiers visiting sights including the pyramids at Giza and Victor Hugo’s house in Paris. In a lengthy inscription on the inner cover of one of the albums he writes about ‘The Pleasures of Travel’, expressing a hope that the photos will be of special interest to those who have not had the opportunity to travel and that those who have been overseas will ‘delight in reviving the memories of beautiful and interesting expeditions’.

The Library also holds many personal diaries and letters of servicemen and women recounting their war experience. These provide a very personal view of the war and give a sense of how soldiers became increasingly aware of the dangers they faced. There is the correspondence of Ferdinand Henry Wright, who volunteered at the age of 26, leaving behind his young wife and two children. His letters home illustrate his growing realisation of the possibility of dying at the front. In one missive he enclosed an envelope carrying a letter to his infant son, only to be opened on his 12th birthday in the event of his father’s death. As it eventuated Wright survived the war and the letter to his son was kept as a reminder of what might have happened.

Mervyn Higgins is another soldier for whom the Library holds copies of his correspondence with his family during the war. Higgins enlisted as a private in the 8th Light Horse Regiment in late 1914. He served at Gallipoli and in Egypt and quickly rose to the rank of captain. Prior to the war he had been a barrister and seemed destined to follow in the footsteps of his father, Henry Higgins, Justice of the High Court. His letters to his father show great pride and excitement in his service as a soldier. These personal letters are kept with more formal correspondence in which we discover Mervyn Higgins was killed in action at the Battle of Magdhaba on 23 December 1916. Henry Higgins was deeply affected by his son’s death and sought information about where his son was buried, eventually being advised that his son’s grave was in Kantara, Egypt. Also kept by the family was Mervyn’s memorial plaque, also known as a ‘dead man’s penny’, which was issued to families of servicemen who died during the First World War.

For women the options for war service were limited. Nursing was the major occupation available. Sister Anne Donnell worked in hospitals in Lemnos, France and England. In 1920 she published a collection of her letters home entitled Letters of an Australian Army Sister. The Library has a copy of the first edition of her book, copies of her original letters and some of her photographs taken during the war. The letters describe her impressions of Gallipoli, the resilience of the Australian nurses, and off-duty mischief. Another nurse featured in the exhibition is sister Bertha Mary Williams, who kept autograph albums in which her patients recorded their thanks for her care. The albums are filled with poems and drawings which give a glimpse into Williams’ work as a nurse and the men she cared for.

Whereas letters were subject to censorship, diaries and journals provide a less mediated account of the war. For example, the Library holds the diary of Kenneth Bailey, who enlisted in January 1918 at the age of 19. He served with the 105th Howitzer Battery, Australian Field Artillery. Bailey reached the front just in time to witness the end of hostilities. The final entry in his diary is for 11 November 1918: ‘they got orders this morning to fire no shots after 11am today and there are no tell-tale flashes … so maybe hostilities have ceased at last’. Bailey survived the war and went on to pursue a career as a diplomat and lawyer.

The Library also holds personal papers relating to the war experience of Hugo Throssell. Originally a farmer from Western Australia, Throssell was a second lieutenant in the 10th Australian Light Horse Regiment. He was awarded the Victoria Cross for his role in the action against the Turks on 29–30 August 1915 at Hill 60 on Gallipoli. After the war, he married the writer, Katharine Susannah Prichard, and became a socialist and pacifist, presenting lectures on his wartime experience. During the Depression, he fell heavily into debt and committed suicide in 1933, using his service revolver. Prichard kept Throssell’s wartime notebooks and journals as well as press clippings and other material which documented Throssell’s celebrity status. This material came to the Library as part of her collection of papers.

While the papers of those who served in the war provide an insight into the personal experience of soldiers and nurses, the poster and ephemera collections held by the Library provide a sense of how the war was played out in Australian popular culture. The visual materials of this period are very striking, particularly the propaganda material produced by patriotic associations and various arms of the state and federal governments. Even today, one hundred years after the commencement of the war, most Australians have seen Norman Lindsay’s terrifying posters encouraging Australians to support the war effort. The Library is in the unique position of holding both the original artwork for many of these posters and examples from the numerous print runs. Lindsay’s portrayal of square jawed Australians stands in contrast to his brutish caricatures of German soldiers with distorted faces and waxed moustaches. Lindsay played to fears of foreign invasion and invited citizens to consider what might happen if the ‘Huns’ ever made it to Australia.

In contrast to Lindsay’s crude anti-German propaganda, Will Dyson helped create an almost beatific view of the Australian soldier. Cartoonist for the London labour newspaper, the Daily Herald, Dyson became famous during the First World War for his scathing critique of Prussian militarism. He saw Germany’s war aims as a form of virulent nationalism which threatened the fabric of European civilisation. Some of his most potent cartoons were brought together in Kultur Cartoons published in 1915. Later in the war, in his capacity as Australia’s first official war artist, Dyson recorded the experiences of Australian soldiers on the front-line in 1916 and 1917. In his collection of drawings completed on the Somme and at Ypres, Dyson depicted Australian soldiers as noble warriors. Their faces literally shine in the light of their lanterns and fires. These drawings were sold as limited edition lithographs and also published in a popular large format book entitled Australians at War.

A similarly positive depiction of Australian servicemen can be found in the photographs of Frank Hurley, for which the Library holds many of the glass plate negatives. Hurley was appointed to the AIF as an official photographer in August 1917 and went on to document conditions on the Western Front. He often reworked his photographs to create more powerful images. His famous composite photograph of the morning after the battle of Passchendaele combines a foreground image of the front-line with a dramatic cloud scape which was actually photographed in Palestine during the Second World War.

David Lowe is another artist who produced images of the war which have lasted in the national memory. Lowe made his reputation with his scathing caricatures of Billy Hughes in The Bulletin. His depiction of Hughes as an energetic but bellicose and egotistical leader is perhaps best captured in his Billywog cartoon in which Hughes is drawn as a children’s toy with the attached instructions for use: ‘Blow up with wind until head expands, then release hole in face, whereupon Billy will emit loud noises until he goes flat …’. The cartoon stands today as a testament to the robust nature of Australian democracy during the war.

Keepsakes also offers an opportunity to sample the Library’s collection of oral history interviews. These include interviews conducted with Australian airmen and ground crew who served in the Middle East, in Britain, and on the Western Front in both the Australian Flying Corps and the Royal Naval Air Service. Also featured are excerpts from a 2001 interview with Alec Campbell, the last Australian survivor of the Gallipoli campaign. These interviews have been combined with photographs from the Library’s archive of images from the period.

The exhibition also features personal items from Australia’s most senior political and military leaders. For example there is a handwritten note from Billy Hughes, written in high dudgeon, to the British Prime Minister Lloyd George complaining about the behaviour of the German delegation at the Paris Peace Conference. Also from the Peace Conference is Joseph Cook’s annotated copy of the Peace Treaty. Other material featured in the exhibition includes letters from Munro Ferguson, Hughes and Monash which illuminate the relationships between these powerful men.

One of the key political debates in Australia during the war focused on attempts by the Hughes government to introduce conscription for overseas service. This proposal was defeated twice at referendums, firstly in 1916 and again in 1917. The bitter and acrimonious nature of the conscription referendum campaigns is reflected in the exhibition through a selection of posters and handbills issued by both sides in the debate.

The exhibition also displays correspondence from the journalist Keith Murdoch. Murdoch emerges from the archive as a powerful behind-the-scenes player who sought to influence both prime ministers and generals. Most famously he attempted to dissuade Hughes from promoting Monash as the commander of the Australian Corps. In the end Monash was confirmed in the position and, after the war, was widely acclaimed as one of the most successful military commanders of the allied forces.

The Library also holds a range of political, tactical and operational maps from the First World War. Maps showing the political borders of Europe prior to the outbreak of war give a sense of the complex alliance system that helped propel the world into war. Also on show are maps of the battlefields of Gallipoli and the Western Front. These document troop positions, outposts and trenches. Operational maps were prepared before all major actions and reflected the growing complexity of modern warfare. Each map provides a snapshot of how military planners saw the battlefield. For example, the exhibition includes a map recording the disposition of German troops immediately prior to the Battle of Broodseinde on 4 October 1917, the most successful Allied attack of the extended Ypres offensive in 1917.

An important resource for developing accurate maps was aerial photography. These photographs were taken during reconnaissance missions aimed at gathering intelligence about enemy dispositions. A selection of these photographs is presented in Keepsakes. The spectacular aerial combat that has come to dominate the public imagination was in many ways closely linked to the important role of reconnaissance flights. Aerial photographs could be combined to form a mosaic of the battlefield. Three-dimensional images of the frontline could be produced through the use of a stereoscope. These photographs allowed planners to locate targets, assess enemy positions and judge the effectiveness of artillery bombardments.

In the final area of Keepsakes the Library pays homage to the print record of the war. This is particularly important given that the First World War was conducted when print was king. Electronic media was still years away and news and commentary about the war was delivered through the printed word. Australians were voracious consumers of magazines, newspapers, histories and memoirs, and the war inspired an explosion of creative output as writers attempted to report on what was happening and to reflect on what the war meant. First person accounts of the war, for example, were very popular. The Library holds Joseph Beeston’s memoir, Five Months at Anzac: A Narrative of Personal Experiences of the Officer Commanding the 4th Field Ambulance, Australian Imperial Force, which was published by Angus and Robertson in 1916. The book was written as a first take of what had occurred at Gallipoli and included photographs Beeston had taken at the front. Many more memoirs would be published as the war went on reflecting the interest at home about what soldiers were experiencing at the front. Beeston’s manuscript, original photos and first edition are all on display in the exhibition.

Poetry was also popular during the war. Leon Gellert’s Songs of a Campaign (1917) was a much praised anthology which was reprinted three times in its first year of publication. Gellert served at Gallipoli where he was hit by shrapnel and evacuated to England. He was discharged as medically unfit in June 1916, giving him time to reflect on his wartime experience. His poems express a growing horror at and disbelief of the war as well as a profound longing for home.

Australia’s most popular poet during the war was C.J. Dennis. His famous work, The Songs of a Sentimental Bloke,was first published in 1915 and sold over 60,000 copies in its first year. Written in humorous verse using the slang of the period, it celebrated the lives of working class Australians. A special pocket edition was produced to send to Australian troops serving overseas. Denis wrote two popular sequels, The Moods of Ginger Mick (1916) and Digger Smith (1918), both of which began to explore the emotional impact of the war. A typescript manuscript of Digger Smith is displayed in Keepsakes.

Another treasure displayed in the exhibition is Arthur Wheen’s original translation of Erich Maria Remarque’s classic novel, All Quiet on the Western Front (1928). This novel, written by a German veteran of the war, depicts the futility of war and quickly became an international bestseller. Wheen’s translation of Remarque’s novel was the first in the English language. Like Remarque, Wheen was a veteran of the war, serving as a signaller in the AIF. His copy of the translation traces the title’s evolution from the literal translation, ‘nothing new in the west’, to ‘all quiet on the Western Front’. Brian Murdoch, whose new translation of the novel was published in 1993, retained Wheen’s title, saying that although it is not a literal translation of the German, Wheen’s title has ‘become part of the English language and is retained here with gratitude’. Today the phrase, ‘All quiet on the Western Front’ remains a deeply ironic commentary on the discrepancy between the superficial stability of the front-line during the First World War and the horror of trench warfare.

Perhaps the most influential of all of Australia’s First World War writers was C.E.W. Bean. In August 1914, the Australian Journalists Association selected Bean as Australia’s official war correspondent. Bean reported on the war from Egypt, Gallipoli, the Western Front, and Britain. His reports highlighted the achievements and the characteristics of Australian soldiers. In addition to his newspaper articles, Bean wrote books and diaries, and made copious notes that would form the basis of his post-war official history. During the war Bean began preparing for two enormous post-war projects: the creation of a war museum-memorial and the publication of an official history of Australia and the Great War. Working largely from premises at rural Tuggeranong, Bean and his team produced the 12-volume official history over a period of two decades. Bean’s official history and the Australian War Memorial have profoundly influenced our understanding of the Great War.

The Library is one of many Australian cultural institutions which play a role in preserving and documenting the record of Australia’s involvement in the First World War. The Australian War Memorial, National Archives of Australia, state libraries and galleries, army museums and local historical societies all help to keep the memory of the war alive for each new generation. Keepsakes: Australians and the Great War displays the Library’s unique collection of manuscripts, ephemera, artworks, photographs and documents relating to the war. While these collections can never reveal the full extent of what happened, they are a vital resource for understanding this defining period in Australian history.

Keepsakes: Australians and the Great War was curated by Guy Hansen, Felicity Harmey, Susannah Helman, Denis Shephard and Walter Kudrycz.