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

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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

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. Continue reading

Indian Soldiers Fought at Gallipoli

Group of soldiers wearing turbans gathered on top of a hill around a gun barrel on wheels.

The Australian War Memorial says of this photo, “A group of gunners from the 7th Indian Mountain Artillery Brigade with one of their guns, which was used to support the Australian and New Zealand troops on the Gallipoli Peninsula. The guns of this brigade were the first shore at Anzac Cove on 25 April 1915; from then on they won, and kept, the admiration of the infantry.”

The Anzac Day that was bigger than ever has been and gone. Returned soldiers from Australia and New Zealand have marched for another year, remembering wars past and present. This year was the centenary of the event that started it all – the landing of British forces at Gallipoli. Australians and New Zealanders were there.

And so were many Indians.

New Zealand journalist, William Hill landed as a soldier with the Auckland Infantry Battalion. While in hospital later that year he wrote a letter in which he recalled:

The first realisation of what the war really is like came to us as we stumbled across the beach, which was just littered with wounded men – English, French, Indians, New Zealanders and Australians.

29/8/1915

On Saturday Indian soldiers marched at Anzac Day events around Australia. The presence of Indians in the Anzac Day marches is an important reminder of the nature of World War I. It was a war of empires. The imperial overlords mustered the colonials to battle the armies of other empires. At Gallipoli the armies of the French and British empires fought the Ottoman forces on their home soil. The British forces included soldiers from England, Scotland, Ireland, Australia, New Zealand, the India subcontinent and Newfoundland which is now part of Canada.

One hundred years after the first landing of troops at Gallipoli Australians hear very little about the Indian soldiers who played an important part in the fighting at Gallipoli. Yet there are many references to the Indians at Gallipoli in the diaries of the Anzacs. 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

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