We’re Baaaack… in Sydney!

BalconyOur Singapore sojourn is over. We have packed up our stuff in Singapore and are now back in Sydney. Saturday was New Year, or Naw-Ruz, for many people in the world including the Baha’is. It was a propitious day to take the keys to our new place in the Parramatta region of Sydney.

It is good to be back and close to the archives I need to consult for my writing. I am looking forward to two conferences which will take place in Sydney in the middle of this year – DH2015, the international Digital Humanities Conference hosted by the University of Western Sydney and the annual Australian Historical Association conference hosted by the University of Sydney. It is the first time in the twenty-six year history of the Digital Humanities Conference that it will be held outside Europe and North America. Continue reading

Reflecting on My work, Big Data and the History Manifesto

My great grandfather wrote this postcard from the western front to my  grandfather who was seven years old. Two weeks after he wrote this my great grandfather became yet another soldier killed in World War I.

My great grandfather wrote this postcard from the front to my grandfather who was seven years old. Two weeks after he wrote this my great grandfather was killed.

Everything about World War I was massive. It was industrial-scale warfare fought along frontlines that stretched for hundreds of kilometres, manned and supplied by millions of people. This too was a war which produced an unprecedented stream of words. It was not just the politicians and officers who sat down to pen their thoughts. Ordinary soldiers near the front and their families from around the world, recorded their experiences and comforted each other through diaries and letters.

In just one month in 1916, the Australian army post headquarters in London successfully sorted nearly three million letters but there were another four hundred thousand letters which could not be delivered as they were inadequately addressed (‘The Soldiers’ Mails’, The Age, 10/2/1917, p. 4). Australia’s five million people were prodigious writers during the war.

Any historian who seeks to understand World War I needs to come to grips with the enormity of it. I am studying just a tiny fraction of the archives produced by that war, yet I am grappling the problems and possibilities of dealing with a huge number of words. The other day I worked out that the collection of soldier diaries I’m working with contains over seven million words. To put it in more comprehensible terms, my corpus is currently the equivalent of over thirteen volumes of Leo Tolstoy’s War and Peace. This collection will grow as I add more diaries to my research corpus. I also have to read other primary sources such as court martials and Australian Imperial Force (AIF) unit diaries. Continue reading

The Destruction of Memory

Destroying a shrine in Timbuktu, 2012.

Destroying a shrine in Timbuktu, 2012. Photo via The Telegraph, India.

The rebels had fled, but before they left they had destroyed a precious archive. The world gasped in dismay as the mayor of Timbuktu announced that a library recently built to hold Timbuktu’s historic manuscripts had burnt to the ground.

At the time the Mayor did not know that while some historic manuscripts were now a pile of ashes, most had been saved. Yet these manuscripts were not the only physical reminders of a rich culture that were destroyed.  During their ten months ruling Timbuktu the rebels destroyed most of the city’s Sufi shrines. It was no accident.

The deliberate targeting and destruction of culturally significant items occurs too often. In our life time we have witnessed the detonation of the giant statues of Buddha at Bamiyan in Afghanistan by the Taliban in 2001. In 1992 the heart of the cultural heritage of Bosnia was destroyed when the library in Sarajevo was subjected to the artillery fire of Serbian troops who were encircling the city. The deliberate nature of the attack was evident when snipers shot at firemen trying to save the library.

Director of 'The Destruction of Memory', Tim Slade.

Director of ‘The Destruction of Memory’, Tim Slade.

Director, Tim Slade is working on a documentary which he hopes will help people understand the serious nature of this ‘war against culture’.

“The killing of people and the killing of books and buildings are intimately and inextricably related”, states Slade. Referring to Raphael Lemkin, the man who helped to create the UN Convention Against Genocide, Slade observes, “Lemkin saw that it can be difficult to wipe out an entire people, but a group can be annihilated if their identity and culture has been erased.” Continue reading

WWI Soldier’s Daughter to Speak About Peace

Head and shoulders photo of Judy Hassall

Judy Hassall

This Sunday in Sydney a human rights champion will be talking about her lifetime of work and how she was influenced in this work by her father, a veteran from World War I.

If you are in Sydney tomorrow morning I encourage you to attend.

Judy Hassall is the daughter of Archie Barwick whose wartime service has recently featured on the ABC television series, The War That Changed Us. Archie Barwick returned to Australia and lived a full life in northern New South Wales. He was more than a valiant soldier and expressive diarist. He helped to create a vibrant family and gave to his community. Judy Hassall is part of his legacy.

As I have written previously Judy has had a big impact on many lives, including mine. She used what she learned from her parents to spend a life time working to foster intercultural harmony and shining a light on human rights abuses. Continue reading

Beyond the Church Parade: Religious beliefs in the front line during WWI

Soldier pausing from writing at a makeshift table and looking directly at the camera.

Australian WWI soldier-diarist, Henry Charles Marshall(1890-1915). Photo supplied by State Library of NSW.

Today I am presenting a paper at the Religious History Association Conference which is running as an affiliated conference to the Australian Historical Association conference in Brisbane. This post provides an abstract of the paper and supporting information about my paper.

To general readers of this blog I hope that this gives you a feel for the work behind an academic paper. This is the work I have been doing on and off behind the scenes for the last couple of years amidst everything else that life throws up. I hope to blog about the sessions I attended at the conference on Tuesday in the next couple of days. There have been some good discussions about how war both reinforces and challenges gender roles in society.

Abstract

A review of World War I diaries reveals glimpses of the personal beliefs held by Australian soldiers serving on the frontline. Using research tools available to the twenty first century historian, such as digitised texts and programming, a collection has been made of the expressions of religious belief recorded by soldiers in their diaries while on active duty. Read with an understanding of the way audience and masculinity shaped the soldiers’ reflections, these fragments give us greater insight into the forms and extent of personal religious beliefs held by Australian soldiers. Continue reading