War, Business and Orchids – the Smith Story

 

We did it! I was part of an international research project that has led to the publication of this book. No Substitute for Kindness: The Story of May and Stanley Smith (May and Stanley Smith Charitable Trust, 2017).

Stanley Smith was an Australian businessman, WWII operative in China and expert horticulturalist. His life took him from a comfortable Brisbane upbringing to the danger of war and finally to a life half-way across the world. His Chinese-born wife, May Wong, grew up during the civil war in China and the fighting against Japanese occupation. May and Stanley met through their work for British propaganda and intelligence in the Chinese wartime capital of the city then known as Chungking (Chongqing).

Together the lives of Stanley and May Smith make a gripping read in the newly published book, No Substitute for Kindness. Commissioned by one of the philanthropic funds established by the couple, a team of researchers and writers from the United States, England and Australia have pieced together a fascinating biography.

I was one of the historians who worked on the book. My principal task was to research the early years of Stanley Smith’s life. He was born in Brisbane in 1907 and was a student at Eagle Junction State School. Stanley then won a state scholarship to the Church of England Grammar School or ‘Churchie’ as it is commonly known. Continue reading

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Review: Waging Peace by Anne Deveson

Book Cover of Waging Peace

Waging Peace by Anne Deveson (Crows Nest, NSW: Allen & Unwin, 2013).

Anne Deveson was a highly regarded journalist, film-maker and human rights activist who died late last year. Her last book was a memoir titled Waging Peace and was published in 2013. Anne Deveson was a groundbreaker in many ways. She helped Australian society grapple with serious issues that people experienced silently such as mental illness, poverty and abuse. As I expected this book caused me to think.

Deveson was born into a family of the British Empire. Her father lived in the colony of Malaya as a rubber planter while Deveson spent her early childhood in England. Her comfortable life was upturned when World War II was declared. She was nine years old.

France fell to the Nazis in the middle of 1940. England was alone and bombs rained down on the cities and towns throughout the country. Deveson’s father was working in Malaya, far away from the hostilities. It was prior to Japan’s attack on Pearl Harbour and the British still thought the sun would not set on their empire. Deveson’s father urged his family to flee to the safety of Malaya so Deveson, her brother and mother left England on a passenger ship. Their ship was part of a convoy that sailed through dangerous waters hoping to escape the German U-boats circling the British Isles. They arrived safely in Malaya but a few months later they had to evacuate again, this time to Australia. Continue reading

Debut Author Chat: Jayne Persian and the Beautiful Balts

Today I am delighted to publish a post written by Jayne Persian, lecturer in history at the University of Southern Queensland, and author of Beautiful Balts: From displaced persons to new Australians. Her book was published this month by Small Publisher of the Year, NewSouth Books. This post is part of my ‘Debut Author Chat‘ series where authors who have recently published their first history discuss their book. 

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Head and shoulders of Jayne Persian

Jayne Persian, author of Beautiful Balts and lecturer in history at the University of Southern Queensland.

Beautiful Balts: From displaced persons to new Australians tells the story of the first mass intake of refugees accepted into Australia: the 170,000 Central and Eastern Europeans who arrived in Australia between 1947 and 1952. Characterised as ‘Beautiful Balts’, they were recruited in Europe by the Australian government, under the slogan of ‘populate or perish’: migrants were needed to bulk up the Australian population, and to solve a post-war labour shortage.

I open the book in Austria’s Drau Valley in May 1945. A 70,000-strong Russian Cossack force was waiting to discover its fate. They had fought with the Germans against the Soviet Union, had surrendered to the British and were hoping to remain in Austria as anti-Soviet refugees. What happened next is now infamous. Many of these men, women and children were forcefully handed over to the Soviets: there are allegations of brutality, automatic fire, suicides. Some people were trampled to death.

Small groups of Cossacks, including Ivan and Nastasia, managed to escape the round-up. Ivan, a Don Cossack, met Nastasia in 1943, when she was working as a forced labourer in eastern Ukraine under the Nazis. Ivan was much older, around 53 years old to her 17, but had offered her an escape from forced labour if she would marry and join him in his journey across Europe. They left Ukraine on 31 December 1943, travelling with the Cossack Army to Italy via Romania, Poland and Hungary. In Italy, in a shed during a bomb attack, her first son was born. Little Maxim died at 14 weeks of age, of malnutrition. From Italy, Nastasia and Ivan journeyed over mountain ranges, evading Italian partisans, to apparent safety with the Cossack camp outside Lienz.  After witnessing the merciless repatriation of their camp, the small groups fled up the snow-covered mountains and hid in ravines, surviving by killing sheep at night, while evading British patrols. After three months of this, Ivan and Nastasia were caught by Austrian police and sent to Kapfenberg displaced persons’ camp. Continue reading

Review: The Anzacs by Patsy Adam-Smith

Cover of the Anzacs

The Anzacs by Patsy Adam-Smith, (Melbourne: Thomas Nelson Australia, 1985)

The fog rolled down the river and engulf our house. The cold and damp penetrated the walls and windows. Our only view, an opaque whiteness. Through the stillness, the sound of a lone bugler playing the Last Post reached us from the nearby cemetery. Another old soldier had died.

This was the house our family was living in when Patsy Adam-Smith published The Anzacs, her iconic history of Australian participation in World War I. Adam-Smith recognised that the 1970s were the last chance to talk to many of the surviving soldiers, so she interviewed veterans for her book as well as reading copious letters and diaries written during the War.

The Anzacs sold over 100,000 copies after it was published in 1978, at a time when Australia’s population was 14 million. But like other popular books, publishers were not very keen on it when Patsy Adam-Smith approached them seeking a contract. “It won’t sell. It’s about war,” one publisher said. This was the era of the peace movement and revulsion about the war in Vietnam. Compared to now, war histories were not prominent in bookshops. Continue reading

Anzac Day: Reflecting on Australia’s Diverse Experiences of War

Small plaque set in a boulder in a natural landscape.

On a walking track across the road from the Australian War Memorial is this memorial to Aboriginal people who have served in Australian defence forces. Find your way to this simple place of reflection on Canberra’s Mount Ainslie via the Creative Spirits website.

I have written several posts over the years about the origins of Anzac Day from the Anzac Day celebration in South Australia in 1915 and the solemn commemoration in Brisbane on 25th April 1916 marking the first day that the Australian and New Zealand troops, together with large numbers of troops from other countries in the Allied forces attacked the Ottomans on the beaches of the Gallipoli peninsula.

I have written about the strong Christian history of Anzac Day that still permeates our Anzac Day ceremonies today (see, for example the 2016 national Anzac Day order of service – pdf), and the early observances of the Anzac Day silence – a reverent, respectful pause to remember the wreckage wrought by war. In another post I wondered about how respectful Australians really are when I found Anzac logos emblazoned on some rubbish bins.

Today is the one hundredth anniversary of Anzac Day and the 101st anniversary of the landing of Allied troops at Gallipoli. This anniversary is an opportunity for deep reflection about how this day can continue to reflect the ongoing history of Australia and our society’s needs both now and for the future.

It is understandable that the effects of World War I and the second part of this maelstrom which was World War II continue to reverberate today. Anzac Day focuses on the Australian and New Zealander contribution to these horrific conflict, so much so that we might forget to reflect on the enormity of these wars on a global scale. Statistics on World War I are hazy, but one estimate suggests that 65 million troops were deployed in the War, over half of whom were killed, wounded or taken prisoner. The impact of World War I on Australia was significant, and so it was in many other countries throughout the world.

In my Anzac Day post last year I wrote about how the fighting at Gallipoli was not simply between the Ottoman forces and the soldiers from the Antipodes accompanied by a few, much maligned British officers. The Allied forces were represented by men and women from both the British and the French empires. It was a multi-ethnic and multi-lingual combined effort. In that post I focused on the too often forgotten contribution of Indian soldiers in the battles of the Gallipoli peninsula.

Australia today is very different to Australia one hundred years ago. The 2011 census showed that 1 in 4 Australians were born overseas and 43 percent of Australians had at least one parent born overseas. While people born in Britain continue to dominate these figures and nine percent came from New Zealand, the 2011 census showed that six percent of Australians were born in China and 5.6 percent were born in India. There were people born in China and India who lived in Australia one hundred years ago and some served in the AIF during World War I, but by any account Australia has a more diverse population now.

Does today’s Anzac Day reflect the fact that many Australians had no forebears living in Australia one hundred years ago? A few days ago historian, Carolyn Holbrook observed that Anzac Day is so powerful that marginalised groups in Australia seek to be linked to this national day. “These groups do not criticise Anzac for its militaristic, colonial or racist connotations”, Holbrook observed. “Rather they seek to be embraced by it.” Yet many Australians would find it difficult to successfully weave their stories into the Anzac Day legend. Continue reading

War, Emotions and Beliefs

Melbourne Museum sign

It is hard to get a good photo of the aircraft hangar like building that contains the Melbourne Museum. While the outside of the building may look uninspiring, the exhibitions inside of the building are well worth a visit.

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. Continue reading

Pause, Reflect and Share… and a note to publishers

Peter Stanley standing on the, left, holding his book. I am standing on the right.

Peter Stanley and I at his book launch earlier this month.

Tomorrow I am driving to Canberra and will be in Melbourne at the end of the week. I am looking forward to researching at the State Library of Victoria and the Public Records Office of Victoria as well as catching up with family and friends. I have identified some key soldiers for my book and will be doing further research into the lives of a couple of the Victorian soldiers.

While World War I will be the focus of my book, I want to write about some of the experiences of the soldiers in their families and schools before the war as well as looking at their lives after the War. Soldiers brought the culture and learning they had received as children to war with them. The War stayed with them for the rest of their lives.

As you can imagine I am reading a lot of books about World War I. Most are well written but the one I am reading at the moment is infuriating because of the lack of referencing. I have done a bit of my own research to try to substantiate some of the author’s claims but cannot find proof of major claim about a statistic of the War. Humph! If a history is not properly referenced unfounded claims can be passed as truths. For all we know these books can be a mix of fiction and history, a member of the ‘faction’ genre.  Poorly referenced histories are not good sources. I have found another book on the topic which I am hoping is properly referenced.

Publishers – if you want your history books to be taken seriously then allow your authors to publish their fully referenced work! Why should we believe unsubstantiated claims?

As my then seventeen-year old daughter observed several years ago, footnotes (or endnotes) are ‘sneakily important’. Read that post for more about the problems of lack of referencing and the rise of ‘faction’.

I will step off my soap box now. Continue reading