Fresh Observations of War and Military

An army chaplain at work. Gallipoli, Turkey. c. 24 May 1915. Padre McKenzie of the 4th Battalion, AIF, burying a soldier in Shrapnel Gully, Gallipoli, Turkey c 24 May 1915. Image from Australian War Memorial.

An army chaplain at work. Gallipoli, Turkey. c. 24 May 1915. Padre McKenzie of the 4th Battalion, AIF, burying a soldier in Shrapnel Gully, Gallipoli, Turkey c 24 May 1915. Image from Australian War Memorial.

Mobilities and mobilisations in history is the theme of this year’s conference of the Australian Historical Association.  This is a very rich topic. The construction and maintenance of empires was based on the ability to move people and goods around the empire.  Subversion often draws on the ability to move also.

There have been some fascinating papers delivered at this conference on a very broad range of topics.  In today’s post I will concentrate on three absorbing presentations concerning the military. Michael Gladwin‘s started the session with a captivating paper, ‘”Captains of the Soul”: the mobilisation of Australian Army chaplains for Australia’s twentieth century wars’.  Midway through the paper the lights went out.  The motion sensors connected to the light detected no movement from us – we were fixated by Gladwin’s presentation.

Who knew chaplains were so rivetting? In his overview of twentieth century Australian army chaplaincy Gladwin argued that army chaplains have made a contribution which has been recognised by the army.  Chaplains, or padres as they are more commonly known in the army, have been tasked with helping the soldiers act in accordance with the Christian principles of the ‘just war’.  The role of the padre in ‘character training’ has developed greatly, especially since the 1950s. Their role is continuing to develop especially with peacekeeping as the army has been required to build bridges with other cultures.

Gladwin was careful not to over-reach with his conclusions, arguing that the chaplains have made a recognised contribution to the army but acknowledging that he could have written a chapter in his forthcoming book about soldiers behaving badly.  While they were in the minority Gladwin also pointed to the declining attendance at church services as evidence that moderates his argument of the value of chaplains.

Some historians have taken the soldier’s word at face value thus missing the religious sentiment that many soldiers held argued Gladwin.  He said that he had found a large body of evidence that many soldiers did hold religious beliefs.  Quoting Manning Clark, Gladwin referred to the “whisper in the mind and shy hope in the heart” held by many soldiers. They were not people who shouted about their faith to all who could hear, rather they were quiet believers who kept matters of faith close to their heart.  An historian needs to have attentive ears to hear those whispers!

Much of what Gladwin said resonated with my feelings about the place of religious belief of Australians leading to WWI.  Gladwin concluded that the service of chaplains has been important to the army and it is significant that the army as one of Australia’s largest public institutions values their work today.  Religion has not gone away.

The ‘Great War’ is designated as a ‘world’ war.  However, the Australian narratives about World War I focus on the fighting in the Middle East, Gallipoli and the Western Front in France and Belgium.  Rod Nettle’s paper focussed on the role of China in World War I.

It would be an understatement to say that China’s role in World War I is little known.  Nettle said that there has been little work done in this area and even in China this aspect of their history is not widely known.

The Chinese province of Shandong was held by the Germans at the outbreak of the War.   Japan, who was a British ally, invaded Shandong to evict the Germans.  The Japanese made their first foothold in China by occupying Shandong and Manchuria.  The protests of the Chinese were ignored.

Nettle told of how more than 100,000 Chinese were recruited and shipped to France via Canada.  I wondered if I had heard correctly but I found other sources confirming this (see below).  Nettle’s grandfather, a European engineer who had settled in China was also recruited from China to fight in the War.  He was an asset to the army as he was one of the few Europeans who could speak the language of the Chinese.

Indian soldiers with bicycles. Soldiers on horses looking on.

Indian bicycle troops at a crossroads on the Fricourt-Mametz Road, Somme, France, 1916.

A photo of Chinese soldiers in the French war zone celebrating Chinese New Year reminded me that these battlefields were multi-racial places.  France recruited people from their African colonies.  At the unveiling of a memorial in 2006 to Muslim soldiers who died in France, President Jacques Chirac acknowledged that 72,000 African soldiers had died while fighting under the French flag in World War I.

The stories of the Chinese and the Africans together with the Indians who served in Europe during the War put a different complexion on World War I.  Without them our accounts of the War make it look like an exclusive European affair. A history exploring the racialised aspect of the War would be very interesting.

Kimberley Doyle delivered the last paper and it did not disappoint.  She focussed on peacekeepers between 1997 and 2007 in her paper, ‘Islands, trenches and deserts: Australian peacekeepers in the Pacific’.  This was based on an oral history project she is conducting. She interviewed forty-four members of the Australian Defence Forces who had served in three peacekeeping missions – East Timor (now Timor Leste), the Solomon Islands and Bouganville.

Doyle observed that the answers to the question, ‘what does it mean to be a peacekeeper’ were often ambivalent and confused.  Peacekeeping is a relatively new form of service.  Participants struggled to see how it fitted into the traditions of the Australian Defence Forces which have been shaped by the Anzac legend. Doyle observed that memories are influenced by many pasts as well as the present. Because of the recent nature of peacekeeping the participants don’t have that well of collective memory which they can use to shape their memories of peacekeeping service.

There are two contradictory aspects of peacekeeping in terms of defence force traditions. Peacekeeping is seen as coming second to fighting in a war in terms of the strenuous nature of the service.  Yet the moral value of the peacekeeping service often exceeds that of wars.  Participants in Doyle’s study felt that it was ‘right’ to do the peacekeeping, but this is not so clear cut in wars.

While writing this post I found that I was reluctant to leave one paper and start writing about the next.  I had to drag myself away from reading other articles on these topics and exploring the ideas further. 

What was so engrossing about these three presentations?  On reflection all three had a strong story to tell and they told it well.  The strength of their stories lay in the fact that they were examining the military from fresh perspectives.  They are doing what historians do – challenging received stories, bringing to light the little known and encouraging us to think deeper about issues.

Next year we will see the centenary of the commencement of World War I so we are likely to see an outpouring of histories about the War.  The quality of the work I heard today indicates that we can look forward to reading some interesting historical work which challenges our perceptions.

More Information

I have also written about the Australian Army chaplain, David Garland, and his role in introducing the annual Anzac Day commemorations: The Emergence of Anzac Day.

2 thoughts on “Fresh Observations of War and Military

  1. Great post Yvonne. When I worked in London, I remember seeing the Commonwealth Memorial Gates and learning more about the contribution of Africans, Indians and people from other countries to the British war efforts. Thanks for keeping those of us unable to be there informed! 🙂


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