Write it Down!

Western side of the library building with two large banners advertising the Treasures Gallery. Small deciduous trees with no leaves are in the foreground.

National Library of Australia at sunset. I took this as I dragged myself away from interesting research to have dinner one night this week.

At times research is like pulling teeth but then there are the wonderful times when you race through the work, doors open one after another revealing hints that suggest that you might be close to a big break through. Over the last few months my research has been humming along. In the couple of weeks it has been particularly fruitful. This week I have been pursuing some fascinating stories in Canberra at the Australian War Memorial and the National Library of Australia.

I am immersed in the thoughts of some of the most reflective men in the Australian Army during World War I through their diaries. While these soldiers are among the most forthcoming soldiers to wield a pen in the AIF (Australian Imperial Force), they often stop writing when I find the subject most interesting. Over the last few months I have been working with other sources to reveal more about those tantalising stories.

The beliefs of the soldiers of the AIF were cloaked by the larrikinism of some soldiers and derisive comments about army chaplains. Their letters and diaries are dominated by accounts of the work of war but every now and then there will be a sentence or two which sheds light on the complex beliefs of the soldier. Surrounded by death every day and charged with the task of killing others, some Australian soldiers pondered the great spiritual questions of life and death as well as the moral questions which a war inevitably brings. I am now searching in other archival sources to find out more about the comments soldiers made in their diaries. In particular I am researching the stories of soldiers who may not have left any writing for us to research today.

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Reflection: Europeans in Australia – Vol III

Book Cover of Atkinson's book.

The Europeans in Australia. Volume Three: Nation by Alan Atkinson (UNSW Press, 2014).

The last volume in Alan Atkinson’s trilogy, The Europeans in Australia has finally been published.  Volume Three: Nation caps a wide-ranging and unique view on the history of Europeans in the land that is now known as Australia.

For more reasons than one, this book is the reason why I am writing and researching history today. I have been extremely fortunate that Alan Atkinson has been a mentor to me for several years and gave me the opportunity to do some work as a research assistant for this book. My current work on the beliefs of Australian soldiers on the front line in World War I stems from discussions Alan Atkinson and I had about this period of history while he was writing the book.

For these reasons what follows is not a book review. This is not an independent critique. Instead I want to share with you why reading the final version of this book has inspired me. Continue reading

Canberra Research Week

Conference room showing back of crowd, Tim Sherratt at front with a projector screen and ceiling of lights above.

People, laptops and Manager of Trove, Tim Sherratt – the essential ingredients for a great THATCamp in Canberra. Photo by Geoff Hinchcliffe.

When I made the decision to write a book about Australian World War One history in the midst of our move to Singapore I knew I would have to come back to Australia on various research trips. While much of my research centres on digitised historical records, most historical records are not digitised and t is only recently that publishers have offered e-book versions of histories they publish. These physical records which are held in Australia provide the context and additional depth which provide richer meaning to the digitised diaries I am working with.

One day I flicked through my Twitter stream and was reminded of a digital humanities event to be held in Canberra at the end of October. Digital humanities is the emerging discipline which seeks to develop rigorous research in the humanities using technology. I stumbled upon it through twitter and blogs back in 2010. Through social media I started learning how to program in Python and how to analyse the language used in digitised historical texts. Continue reading

Singapore Workflow

Desk with three computer monitors on it (and a few other things).Gradually I am developing a work routine here in Singapore. After moving from Sydney I travelled to Canberra, Melbourne and Hobart visiting relations before flying to Singapore. For five weeks I had been living out of a suitcase and in temporary accommodation. It is so good to finally have a place called home.

I work from the study in our apartment. My desk was made by my father who made furniture as a hobby. It is made out of my father’s favourite wood, Black Bean. This tree grows in Queensland and northern New South Wales.

This desk is where I will be doing most of the research and analysis for my book. It is from here that I will search and analyse the diaries of World War I using Python programs that I have written, spreadsheets and other tools. It is from this desk that I will trawl the internet for other resources and references.

My book will be the result of a union of three skills – writing, research and technical. The three monitors on my desk are wonderful work tools. They enable me to work efficiently and think through research and technical issues. Continue reading

Travelling Back in Time

History is about time. That is so obvious that it is easy to take it for granted. While I have been moving I have been pondering what time means for my book.

Some Exciting News marked a new era for Stumbling Through the Past. I finished it on the last day I will be in Australia for some months. I hit the ‘publish’ button, then shut down my computer ready for the drive to Tullamarine Airport in Melbourne. I had finally reached the day I was going to Singapore.

Suitcases deposited, exorbitant overweight luggage charge paid, I zoomed away into the sky through the sunset and beyond, heading backwards in time.

I travelled further back than most.

Wiltshire standing with several soldiers sitting.

Captain Wiltshire (left) with soldiers at Gallipoli. Photo courtesy of Australian War Memorial H14019.

Ensconced in my seat I opened my laptop and went back to the evacuation of Gallipoli in World War I. Captain Wiltshire was marshalling his troops in their final march to the beach and the waiting ships. It was a dangerous time. If the Turks realised what was happening the Allied troops would have suffered massive casualties. Wiltshire described in his diary how the troops deadened the sound of their boots by wrapping torn blankets around them for their final march on the peninsula. The evacuation was a triumph snatched from the debacle that was Gallipoli. The soldiers reached the island of Lemnos safely. Continue reading