Australians and the Great War at the National Library

A collage of drawings, cartoons and text from wartime publications interspersed with statistics about the war covers one wall at the Exhibition.

A collage of wartime publications displayed at the National Library of Australia’s ‘Keepsakes: Australians and the Great War’ exhibition.

With two daughters now living in Canberra and research required for my book, I am frequently visiting our national capital. On the weekend I attended a seminar about writing during World War One at the National Library of Australia. In the lunch break we had the opportunity to join a curator’s tour of the Library’s World War One exhibition, ‘Keepsakes: Australians and the Great War’.

Like many cultural institutions in Australia, the National Library of Australia is holding an exhibition to showcase the material held in their collections about World War One. We often think that libraries only hold published material, and archives are the home of manuscripts, ephemera and other items. However, the delineation between libraries and archives is not so straight forward, for example the Public Records Office of Victoria holds a number of school readers from the nineteenth century. Libraries such as the State Library of New South Wales hold significant collections of handwritten World War I diaries.

One of the reasons that government libraries in Australia hold unpublished archival material is that in many cases government archives were established many years after government libraries. The National Library of Australia emerged from the Commonwealth Parliamentary Library which was established in the early years of Federation whereas the National Archives of Australia traces its founding back to concerns expressed by Charles Bean in the 1940s about the need to preserve war records.

The Director of Exhibitions, Dr Guy Hansen, explained that the Keepsakes Exhibition was not about developing a particular narrative about the Great War but about highlighting the extent of the primary sources about the War held by the Library. The ‘Mementos of the War’ section shows autograph books, letters, photos and diaries of women and men who served in the War. Here visitors can see a memorial plaque or ‘dead man’s penny’ issued by the government to the next of kin of soldiers who died in the War.

This Exhibition helped me to muse about my own work about the War. Responses of people during the War to death is an important aspect of this. The memorial plaque on display, together with a letter about the location of the soldier’s grave was sent to Henry Higgins, the High Court judge, and his wife Mary on the death of their only child, Mervyn.  This reminded me of a small section in Pat Jalland’s book, Australian Ways of Death: A Social and Cultural History 1840-1918. I was moved by the few paragraphs she wrote about how Henry Higgins mourned the death of his son. Jalland says that the “powerfully repressed response” by Henry Higgins to his son’s death was arguably “representative of most grieving parents of soldiers killed in the Great War”.

In some cases the wartime items of one person can be held by several collecting institutions. Names familiar to me from my work with the collections of the State Library of New South Wales, such as wartime nurse, Anne Donnell, and photographer, Frank Hurley, appeared in this Exhibition. It was a lesson to me in not assuming that I have covered all the material available on a person, even if I have found many items in one particular institution. Sometimes a handwritten item can be held by one institution and the same item can be held by another institution but in type-written form – a copy of the original handwritten document. The typewritten form is much easier to read but often we don’t know the circumstances under which it was copied. Did the author of the material or a relation type it up and skip little bits that they judged were not interesting or embarrassing? This made me ponder my use of typewritten diaries and letters. If I quote them in my book it would be best to double-check the handwritten version if it is available.

Text on poster asks "ARE YOU CORRECTLY ENROLLED" plus more. Text in red. Warns of 2 pound penalty if qualified people are not enroled.

A poster in the Exhibition.

The ‘Leaders’ section of the Exhibition shows some of the papers of wartime Prime Ministers, Joseph Cook, Andrew Fisher and William Hughes. Hansen explained that through the William Hughes collection the Library has a lot of material about the divisive conscription referendums and the Industrial Workers of the World (commonly known as the Wobblies), whose leaders loudly and provocatively campaigned against the War and conscription. The ‘Leaders’ section also shows items from the Governor-General, Munro Ferguson, General Monash and the journalist Keith Murdoch.

An example of the work of Cecil Hartt during the War.

An example of the work of Cecil Hartt during the War.

Hansen observed that the art of cartooning was flourishing in the early twentieth century. The National Library has the original artwork of some of Norman Lindsay’s most violent drawings. It is confronting seeing the large originals on the wall in brilliant colour. Other wartime cartoonists on display are Will Dyson (who was also the official War artist for Australia), Cecil Hartt, David Low and Stan Cross. Wartime ‘Gumnuts’ postcards drawn by May Gibbs are on display as are drawings of the Australian artist, Ruby Lind, who lived in London during the War.

Photography was also important both for its military use as well as to depict the War for people who lived far away from the frontline. Hansen highlighted the extensive collection of aerial photographs held by the Library which were used by the military for maps and planning. Scattered throughout the Exhibition are photographs of soldiers and nurses as well as photographs taken by them during the War.

The impact of compulsory education can be seen in the outpouring of words on paper by so many people during the War. ‘A Writers’ War’ showcases some of the many books written and published during the War. Tablets, which now seem to be standard equipment in exhibitions, are set up so that visitors can flick through Trove resources for 1914 and 1915, Sir John Monash and CJ Dennis, Norman Lindsay and Arthur Wheen.

The highlight of the ‘Writers’ War’ room, and for me the highlight of the Exhibition, is the material surrounding the first publication in English of Erich Maria Remarque’s novel, All Quiet on the Western Front. It was an Australian who translated this book from the original German and coined the memorable English title of the book. On display is the galley proof of the novel where the translator, Arthur Wheen, hand-wrote the new English title of the book. In other sections of the Exhibition visitors can view some of Wheen’s letters to his family while he served during the War.

The Exhibition certainly served its purpose. I am exploring the excellent website about the Exhibition to understand more of what the National Library holds. Through this I have found their guide for WWI material the Library holds. Their ‘Keepsakes Highlights’ page features particular collections and has relevant links to the collections in the National Library’s catalogue and on their website. Through this I found the ‘Guide to the Papers of William Morris Hughes’ which is extensive and very useful. The Exhibition website also links to a collection of ‘Keepsakes’ lists in Trove. An essay about the Exhibition discusses the features of the Exhibition.

‘Keepsakes: Australians and the Great War’ is at the National Library of Australia until 19th July. It is free and open daily 10am to 5pm.

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