It’s About Time

Unfilled double page spread from a 1918 diary

History is about time. I have been using old calendars like this to help me construct a WWI timeline. Image courtesy of the State Library of South Australia.

In my last post I wrote about Sue Castrique’s conception of history as drama and how it helped me with how I tackle the writing of my book. I am writing about how Australian soldiers reconciled their experience of World War I with their beliefs, whether they be agnostic, adherents to one of the large Christian denominations or held more unorthodox beliefs for the time. Over the last couple of weeks I have been doing a major review of my writing task with the goal of producing a book that you will find is a riveting read.

While I am writing about the inner lives of the soldiers, the context which led to their reflective thoughts is critical. I am mindful of the advice given by the historian of war the historian of war and gender, Karen Hagemann. “Violence needs to be at the centre of the history of war”, she said. The war intruded into every aspect of the soldier’s lives. I cannot ignore the horrific events that punctuated the tedium and discomfort of the lives of soldiers on active service. Some events, such as battles were significant for many soldiers and nations, other events were important only to the soldier writing his diary or letters. Both types of events are important for my book. Continue reading

Searching Catalogues Effectively: National Archives of Australia

Rectangular building with horizontal stripes. In between the stripes are the windows.

State Library of Tasmania in Hobart. This photo is undated but it looks like it could have been taken when the building had just finished completion. Photo courtesy of State Library of Tasmania flickr collection.

While in Hobart I have been spending a lot of time in the ‘History Room’ at the State Library. This is where researchers can retrieve items from the state and national archives that are held in Hobart. In my book I want to include stories of soldiers from each state in Australia and also look at their pre-war experiences, hence my Tasmanian research.

As usual I am encountering the problem of records that were never kept at the time or are difficult to find through existing catalogues. I have needed to delve deeply and creatively into various catalogues. I thought that many of you would have encountered similar problems researching your family history, trying to complete assignments etcetera, so I thought I would share a little of what I have learned.

Each archive and library has its own way of organising their catalogues, filing their material and explaining how to find items. Sometimes items or collections may not even be mentioned in electronic catalogues or they may be on card catalogues which have not been transferred onto a computer yet. Other items in the collection may never have been catalogued in the first place because of shortage of staff.

The catalogue on the website of the National Archives of Australia only describes about twenty percent of the items they hold. So how can you find out about the thousands of boxes of archival material that are not mentioned in the electronic catalogue? 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

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

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.

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