World War One: a History in 100 Stories has been written by Bruce Scates, professor at Monash, and Monash PhD students Rebecca Wheatley and Laura James, but the clearest message that emerged from its launch this evening in Melbourne was the number of other people involved besides the nominal authors. There were libraries and librarians, archives and archivists, universities and academics, and particularly the descendants of the characters depicted in the hundred stories. As well as, of course, the men and women in the stories.
There were 300 or so people at the launch, more than originally expected, and the latecomers, as promised, had to mill around outside. Among the historians present and acknowledged was Emeritus Professor Ken Inglis, the father of war and memory studies in Australia. The musical interludes were apposite and affecting – the line ‘Please don’t call me soldier because it’s not my name’ stuck in the memory – and the authors and the MC, Professor Rae Frances, hinted at the effort that had gone into the book.
Honest History noted particularly the theme that the book ‘challenges and extends the way we remember the Great War’. This, we thought, is on the right track. There was more along the same lines from the guest speaker and chief launcher, Emeritus Professor Jay Winter of Yale University. Among other things, he said that dealing with the Great War by means of individual stories is ‘an attempt to overcome the anonymity of mass death’. (This writer is heartily sick of the government commemorative industry constantly repeating the phrases ’62 000 dead’ and ‘101 000 dead’, as if the numbers on their own had meaning separate from the individual and family tragedies they represented.)
Professor Winter also made the point that how we construct the past depends upon our view of the future. This writer immediately thought of the bloodthirsty remembrance speeches of former Anzac centenary minister, Michael Ronaldson, and wondered what sort of future he had in mind. But Professor Winter detected a growing and encouraging trend among historians to see war as an illegitimate way of defending national honour. So that was hopeful.
Finally, Professor Winter spoke of how small things in the history of war – individual stories – have been eclipsed by large, constructed national myths, grand stories about what nations think they are and have been. We should be looking not for superheroes but for little heroes – men and women who were betrayed by moral pygmies in positions of power.
Honest History will review the book soon. Meanwhile, there are more resources on the 100 Stories website, including an online course commencing shortly which already has 10 000 students signed up worldwide.
11 November 2015