Exhibition of Soldier Diaries at State Library NSW

war diaries sitting amongst red poppies

Image courtesy of the State Library of New South Wales

We gasped as we entered the exhibition. The enormous room was dominated by a wall of hundreds of World War I diaries. Born at Gallipoli, on the Western Front, the Middle East or on an Australian naval boat, these diaries now sit in the calm and comfortable conditions of a new exhibition at the State Library of New South Wales.

There are big diaries, little diaries, stout ones and thin ones. Some contain pragmatic accounts of the experiences of the diarists; others contain discussions of the literature they read and their thoughts as they battled internally about the horrors they were participating in.

The State Library of New South Wales has launched a major new exhibition that draws on the wealth of material in the diaries. Life Interrupted: Personal Diaries from World War I is comprehensive. It includes the familiar aspects of Australian participation that you would expect – Gallipoli, the Western Front and the Middle East. But it also includes the often overlooked military action by the Australian Navy and World War I in New Guinea. The exhibition has a section on Australian prisoners of War and scattered throughout are the words of a World War I nurse and army chaplains.

A small group of bloggers and media were fortunate to have a tour by the exhibition curator, Elise Edmonds. “I wanted to use their own words”, she said of the diarists. This exhibition pivots on the use of the words of the participants in the Great War. The diarists tell us the stories behind the displays of photos, front pages of newspapers, recruitment posters, maps, medals and other personal items in the exhibition. At one point the visitor can hear actors read out excerpts from the diaries.

Some of the diarists were also artists and photographers. The photos of Henry Charles Marshall and Frank Hurley are exhibited as well as drawings by Leslie Hoare. Some of these images have already been digitised and are available on the Library’s website, but there is nothing like seeing the original, the size of it and the type of paper used while immersed in the World War I context of the exhibition.

handwritten letter with little painted scenes interspersed among the writing.

Painting-letter from Louis Vasco to his wife. Image courtesy of State Library of NSW.

I was particularly taken by the beautifully presented letter by artist, Louis Vasco to his wife. This is an example of the soldier’s diary as a travel diary. Vasco is discovering a new place and a new culture and relating to his wife what he sees in both pictures and words.

This exhibition demonstrates the difficulties faced on the battle front but does not dwell on the horror of the war. Many aspects of life on the battle front are included such as the island of Lemnos where hospitals servicing Gallipoli were stationed. There is even a small section of the exhibition about the horses that were used.

Technology plays a light touch in the exhibition. I did not have a chance to hear the audio through the headphones. Elise Edmonds informed us that sound booth chairs will be installed soon. The positioning of a small sound lounge in an exhibition is useful in a large exhibition such as this. Installed in the middle of the exhibition this section will provide weary legs a rest and refreshes visitors for the rest of the exhibition. At various points stationary ipads were placed next to opened diaries.These allow the visitor to ‘turn the page’ of the diary and read further. These were not set up yet when we viewed the exhibition.

Life Interrupted is a good exhibition for anyone who is unfamiliar with Australia’s experience of World War I. According to the last census 27% of Australians were born overseas and 20% of the population were born here but had at least one parent born overseas. In this centenary of World War I we must not forget that a considerable proportion of Australians have no personal connection to Australia’s involvement in World War I. We need to ensure that we are not so self-absorbed in the World War I history of Australia that we fail to connect this history to all Australians, including this important segment of our population.

The State Library exhibition includes a time line noting key events on the walls which helps to orientate the visitor while they reflect on the items on display. It includes some handwritten prayers of a Turkish soldier which were found and kept by an Australian soldier.

This made me think. Wouldn’t it be good to have a book and an exhibition that featured the stories of the WWI ancestors of Australians who were not white or who were not from the British Empire? Such a book/exhibition could include the WWI stories of Australian ancestors from India and China, from Italy, Greece, Vietnam and of course, those from Turkey. Through this centenary we are discovering just how multicultural the battle front was, something that has not been evident from our traditional histories of the Great War. A special mention and discussion should be made about the German experience in such an exhibition, covering the Great War both in Australia and on the frontline.

An enormous amount of work has been put into this World War I exhibition at the State Library of New South Wales. It is a comprehensive overview of the Australian experience during the War and demonstrates the depth of the collection of war diaries held by the Library.

Life Interrupted: Personal Diaries from World War I is a free exhibition now showing at the State Library of NSW until 21 September.

This post was updated to replace the photo of Henry Charles Marshall with the letter-painting by Louis Vasco. 

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3 thoughts on “Exhibition of Soldier Diaries at State Library NSW

  1. That is amazing. Normally we expect that young men’s true feelings would have been censored and obliterated.

    And I agree that we need material that featured the stories of the WWI ancestors of Australians who were not from the British Empire. Students have found “Russian Anzacs in Australian History” by Elena Govor (published 2005) to be very useful.

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  2. Excellent; both your review and the exhibition itself. I really like your idea of honoring the variety of people who have migrated to Australia. The Institute of Texan Cultures here has made that the focus of their whole museum. You might check them at if you decide to do a similar exhibit. I was part of a project of theirs, writing a book for use at various levels of readers about Asian Texans. Others did books on Europeans, Africans, and Hispanics and their particular histories in our state.

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