War is not just about tactics on the battlefield or the machinations of political leaders. It is also about community, both at the site of active fighting and in the home towns and cities that have seen their men disappear to fight.
In ‘Our Schools and the War’ Rosalie Triolo explores Australia’s participation in World War I in terms of community. She focuses on the students, parents, teachers and officials who comprised the Education Department of Victoria. Triolo examines the battle field as well as the home front in her quest to understand how this education community responded and contributed to what was referred to as ‘The Great War’.
The consideration of the role played by Victorian school children in the war is one of the strengths of this book. Throughout the war the Education Department exhorted school communities to raise funds for the war effort. Triolo shares a long list of activities undertaken by students. In Leongatha students raised canaries for sale, made photo frames, caught mice and sold fish they caught. Students at other schools sold vegetables they grew, helped to feed farm animals, gave musical performances, caught rabbits and sold their skins and made fly nets. Innovation in fundraising was encouraged as long as it did not have the taint of gambling.
Children were made to feel as real contributors to the work of the communities in which they lived. Their contributions to the war effort gave them many opportunities to apply what they learned at school. We may have a stereotype view of education in this era, that it was about the three R’s rote learning and corporal punishment, but Triolo observes,
…children were given unprecedented responsibility and autonomy in their communities. They were freed to exercise initiative, step out of desks and classrooms and engage in activities for the wider community as never before.
Good communication is at the heart of any vibrant community. Over many years the Education Department of Victoria had developed extensive and well-functioning systems of communication at the core of which were two Department publications, The Education Gazette and Teacher’s Aid, and the School Paper. All Victorian schools were required to use the School Paper as the principal source of reading material in the classroom and it was compulsory for all teachers to read The Education Gazette. It was through these publications that the Director of Education, Frank Tate, and the editor of the publications, Charles Long, introduced various initiatives in aid of the war effort, urged the Victorian state education community to work harder to support these projects and reported on successes.
These publications as well as the newsletters produced by the Teachers’ College and high schools, found their way onto the battle-field. Teacher-soldiers enjoyed reading them. They also wrote about their war experiences and sent them to the editors of Victorian Education Department publications who printed them.
Yet communication within the Victorian Education Department community was not restricted to formal publications. School children were encouraged to make ‘comforts’ such as clothes like socks and gloves for soldiers fighting overseas. Woodwork classes were devoted to making crutches, walking sticks, stools and bedside tables for injured servicemen. Students included letters to the recipients of their work and at least one class was set the task of writing to soldiers on the battle-front as part of their homework. This was not one-way communication, grateful soldiers replied to the students thanking them for their efforts.
Teacher-soldiers remained teachers at heart while fighting in the war. They were often selected to deliver various courses to other soldiers and appreciated meeting their former Victorian Education Department colleagues while serving overseas. When they could they took the opportunity to visit schools in the places they were stationed behind the battle-front such as Egypt and England.
There are two essential elements to histories – thorough research and eloquent writing. The depth of research and care taken to assess the evidence makes this a text that I will refer to in my own work. However, at times the writing style fails to make this the captivating book I was hoping for. Triolo has masses of evidence to grapple with and in places it feels that she is just listing this evidence. Reflecting on my impressions of this book I realise that I expect to become emotionally involved when reading a war history. While I felt something at various stages during the book, particularly in the sections about the experiences of the teachers on the battle-front and the children working to support the war effort, there were many places where I was reading the book as I would read any other text that I use for professional purposes.
This book is a useful resource for any researcher examining the history of war in Australia. While it is entirely focussed on the Victorian response this raises questions about how education communities responded in other states. This book will also be interesting for local and family historians in Victoria seeking to understand the context of what was happening in families and local communities during the War. Triolo’s work has revealed extensive, systematic work towards the war effort by the boys and girls, and the women and men of the Victorian Education Department.
This review is part of my contribution to the Australian Women Writers Challenge 2013.