Over the last few months I have been dealing with life, the universe and the mundane. I had so much on my plate that I regretfully decided to reduce the pressure by taking a pause on my blog. But I am back! Over the next few weeks I will share some of what I have been doing. Today I thought I would give you an update on my book project.
When I was in Melbourne for the birth of our first grandchild I took the opportunity to attend the War and Emotions Symposium at Melbourne Museum. Over the last year there have been many war conferences, books, exhibitions, television series and other events hoping to catch the interest of people during the centenary of World War I. I couldn’t possibly give attention to all, and frankly, too many are superficial or cross the line by glorifying war but I’m so pleased I had the chance to attend the War and Emotions Symposium.
The Symposium was a working conference of researchers sensitive to the emotional scale of World War I. We heard researchers such as Michael Roper and Alistair Thomson discuss the importance of how families curate their War history and other researchers pointing out how difficult it is to engage with the war history that families have generated through generations of story telling and documentary sources that are privately held. Bart Ziino and Peter Stanley mentioned the need for us to take religious sentiment seriously, and Joy Damousi reflected on her research about the sounds of War and their effect on soldiers. I appreciated the session where musician, Barry Conyngham and historian Ross McMullin discussed performance of War history. If you ever have the chance to hear Ross McMullin talk about the celebrated high-ranking Australian officer, Pompey Elliott, you should. Historians generally don’t give enough attention to performance when presenting. McMullin is an exception.
Throughout the Symposium the importance of not just focussing on the events of between 1914 and 1918 was emphasised. Michael Roper argued that we need to think of a century of war, taking the Great War as a starting point, not the ending point. Marina Larsson and Kerry Neale did this when talking about the disabled men after the War. Once again the issue of what is publicly known and privately hidden was raised when Kerry Neale discussed the soldiers who suffered horrendous facial disfigurement. These men and those who were permanently mentally incapacitated were hidden from view, their voices not heard. We think we have heard it all but Tracey Loughran asked, how do you tell the stories that don’t appear in the archives?
This was a small working conference of some of the leading researchers in the field. I have always felt out of place working on war history when I am clearly not a military historian. As I sat through this conference I realised that I had found my research community. The Symposium was stimulating, useful and high quality.
Over the last few months I have been plugging away at the WWI diaries, reading some and collecting more. I have also been interrogating websites. My knowledge of html, spreadsheeting and programming has been invaluable. I am able to interrogate online databases in ways that people who rely on search screens provided by websites or Google can never do. It is rather satisfying being able to extract information from a website as a result of careful reading of the code for the page. On the other hand I have had to deal with a temperamental computer this year which has impacted my productivity.
While I start with machine readable information, I am very cautious. Machine readable soldier records and diaries rely on transcriptions. If I am going to use evidence in my book I always refer to the original handwritten document. The importance of doing this was reinforced to me again this week when reading soldier transcriptions. I found many errors in the two databases that I was using and some of these errors were significant for my research. Machine readable data does not necessarily take into account the ambiguities and exceptions of the handwritten originals. In the last week I have read aaround three hundred war service transcripts. It was tedious work but I came across enough insights to make it worthwhile.
While doing this type of work I am always thinking about the focus of my book. I am interested in the beliefs soldiers held in their hearts while they were at war with regard to God and how the universe works. I am looking beyond the conventional labels of identification that can do such a poor job of explaining the beliefs held by people. I am interested in their contemplative selves which admitted doubt, searched for better explanations and craved a salve for degradation and destruction. We are in different, more secular times now. My job is to be a translator for readers who occupy a different world of belief to the people who lived through World War I.