Since Gallipoli, Australians have told the story of how the nation came of age on Turkey’s beaches, proving themselves as brave soldiers, as larrikins and mates, sacrificing themselves for a doomed cause.
But Australia also has a less celebrated, alternative war story, says Monash University history professor Alistair Thomson.
“There’s another narrative that emphasises war’s terrible consequences. It had long-term effects on people’s minds, and bodies, and on families,” he says.
Not all Australians supported the war. Two conscription referendums were held – and defeated – during the campaign, and about half of the men of eligible age did not sign up.
Although the Anzac legend insists Australian soldiers showed more courage than the rest, that's unlikely, he says.
“Actually, in World War I, when you had artillery and machine guns, it didn't matter much how brave you were as a soldier,” he says. “National character made little difference.”
Life in the trenches was pitilessly described in All Quiet on the Western Front, by the German WWI veteran Erich Maria Remarque. The first English translation was made by Australian Arthur Wheen in 1929. (Wheen, who also fought in the war, gave the book its English title.) The novel was initially banned in Australia, and also banned by the Nazis in Germany.
What has changed in the years since?
Anti-war books are no longer banned, but more than 100 years after the Great War, some Australians are still uncomfortable with attempts to challenge the Anzac myth, Professor Thomson says. “It’s bewildering.”
He was involved in two separate efforts to commemorate the WWI centenaries. The first was the WWI: Love and Sorrow exhibition at the Melbourne Museum, which explored the war’s impact on Australian families – eight per cent of the population enlisted, and 60,000 had died by the time peace was declared.
Professor Thomson, one of the exhibition’s historical advisors, says the curator, Deborah Tout-Smith, wanted to tell the story of the war through the experiences of ordinary men and women, including the experiences of their families left behind. It deliberately avoided loaded terms such as “the fallen” or “sacrifice”, but instead sought to give visitors a taste of what it was like to live through the war and its aftermath.
“She wanted to be historically accurate, she wanted to show what war does to men’s minds and bodies, and how those effects last through a lifetime,” Professor Thomson said.
The exhibition included photographic records of facial reconstructions attempted by pioneering plastic surgeons at England’s Sidcup Hospital.
It also included an immersive, photographic installation showing Glencorse Wood, a battlefield near Ypres. This was also the site where Arthur Kemp, one of the soldiers whose story was told in the exhibition, died.
The installation showed the blasted landscape of war, and then the wood slowly returning to life. The viewer’s shadow was projected on to the images, while on the wall behind were the names of the hundreds of young men who lost their lives alongside Kemp. The names were arranged alphabetically, not by rank or nationality. In this installation, visitors were encouraged to contemplate their own thoughts and feelings about the war.
Love and Sorrow was well-attended and highly regarded by visitors and historians, he says. Surveyed visitors said the exhibition prompted them to think about the war in a new way.
Professor Thomson was also invited to be a historical advisor at the Sir John Monash Centre, next to the Australian National Memorial at Villers Bretonneux in northern France.
Supported by then prime minister Tony Abbott, the new museum was allocated $100 million of federal funds, a significant proportion of Australian funding to commemorate the WWI centenary.
In its bid for the museum, design firm Convergence asked a team of historians to draft a proposal for its war exhibit.
Professor Thomson helped draft the proposal, which he says was influenced by the approach taken by Love and Sorrow.
"The stories we tell us about ourselves as a nation matter. They mean a lot to people, and people have a lot at stake, so if you start questioning them, that's difficult. It's true in a family, too. If you start to question family mythology, that can be painful."
It sought to tell the story of the Western Front through the experiences of 12 Australians – decorated soldiers and officers, but also Ettie Rout, the pioneering nurse who educated soldiers about venereal disease, and distributed condoms (sexually transmitted diseases took a terrible toll among the Australians, he says, many of whom brought their infections home).
The Department of Veterans’ Affairs and the Office of Australian War Graves, who were managing the project, deemed Ettie Rout unsuitable, because her presence might offend the French.
The story of Arthur and Billy Rae was also proposed. Billy was a young soldier who died at Villers Bretonneux. Professor Thomson first visited the cemetery in 1980, and remembers Billy’s epitaph:
ANOTHER LIFE LOST
Historian Bruce Scates discovered the words were chosen by Billy’s father, Arthur, a trade unionist who became a pacifist after the war. This story of death and dissent was also rejected.
Professor Thomson and other academic historians selected by Convergence, including Monash professors Bruce Scates and Rae Francis, resigned in protest.
“We wanted to treat the visitors as adults, with respect, and to tell a story that was as frank and fearless as possible,” he says.
He has still not visited the Sir John Monash Centre. But he recognises that as a national war memorial, the centre doesn't have the same freedom to give a wide-ranging account of the war as the Melbourne Museum.
Oral history of WWI survivors
Professor Thomson’s first oral history project was interviewing WWI survivors living in Melbourne’s western suburbs.
“My starting point was to understand their coming home, and how they managed. Because these were working-class men, many of them were unemployed in the '20s and '30s. They had a really tough post-war life. Some were damaged by the war, and were struggling with inadequate pensions and support. The stories they told about the war were not the sort of stories I'd grown up with.”
Their stories powerfully influenced how he's looked at war in the years since, he says. His own grandfather suffered mental ill health after serving in WWI, and his father was “never comfortable” at Professor Thomson’s interest in exploring his grandfather’s story.
“The stories we tell us about ourselves as a nation matter. They mean a lot to people, and people have a lot at stake, so if you start questioning them, that's difficult. It's true in a family, too. If you start to question family mythology, that can be painful.”
He questions the Australian government’s decision to spend $500 million upgrading the Australian War Memorial.
“Hundreds of historians have been petitioning against it, saying all of our other public cultural institutions, our archives, and libraries are being underfunded, and you're throwing half a billion at the Australian War Memorial, which has been one of the best-funded museums in the country.”
He's also concerned about the war stories the memorial hasn't yet told.
“I'm looking forward to the moment when the Australian War Memorial is able to say, ‘Well, a lot of Australian Aboriginal men and women died fighting for their country, not just overseas with the Australian armed forces, but fighting against European settlers in Australia.' That's a difficult story that we need to tell.”
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