How do we remember the First World War? Over the last year staff in the National Library of Australia’s exhibitions section have been exploring this question.  We have been searching the Library’s collections for material relating to the war and discussing the role libraries play in preserving our memory of the Great War.

The Library holds the papers of a number of important wartime leaders including William Morris Hughes, John Monash, Joseph Cook and Andrew Fisher. In addition to these collections there are recruitment posters, war photography, maps, diaries, letters and ephemera. We have been working our way through this material identifying  items for use in our upcoming exhibition Keepsakes: Australians and the Great War (due to open on 25 November 2014).

While the papers of Australia’s political and military leadership are proving to be a gold mine of information about the war, it is another less assuming part of the Library’s holdings which has moved staff the most. Objects that have generated the most comment are studio portraits of soldiers taken shortly before embarkation. These photos, often mounted on card bearing the name of the photographer’s studio, can be found in the papers of individual soldiers or as items in the pictures collection.  They capture a moment in a soldier’s life just prior to heading overseas. Dressed in new uniforms, they gaze into camera with pride and even a sense of optimism. Sometimes the photos are family portraits with wives, mothers or children.

These photos were intended as keepsakes. Placed on the family mantelpiece, they served as reminder of someone not present. Later, if the soldier died in the war, they would stand in memoriam. In many Australian households these photos remained on the mantelpiece for many years – a private memorial to service and sacrifice.

These photos move us because we know the end of the story. While many soldiers saw the opportunity to go to war as a great adventure, we cannot help but look at photos with the knowledge that the war would go for years and that many would not return.

Studio portrait of First World War soldier

Tesla Studios Portrait of an Australian soldier, ca. 1915, gelatin silver print, Pictures Collection,

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