Honest History dialogue: thoughts provoked by an epitaph

‘Honest History dialogue: thoughts provoked by an epitaph’, Honest History, 21 December 2014

Our monthly Honest History e-newsletters include Whizzbangs, miscellaneous thought-provoking paragraphs, sometimes with a connection to events of the day. A Whizzbang in our 2 December newsletter ran thus:

Standing stones. The grave marker of Private WL Rae (killed 8 August 1918, aged 24) in the Villers Bretonneux cemetery reads, ‘Another life lost, hearts broken, for what’. This sentiment on Great War graves is unusually frank but not unique. Australian War Memorial Director Nelson quoted more sentimental, less challenging epitaphs in his recent Bolton lecture (p. 8).

We have no provision for commenting on Whizzbangs. Perhaps we should; we welcome all feedback. A reader, Robert Lewis, responded to this particular one and the following exchange ensued via email between 2 and 20 December.

David Stephens (DS) is the Secretary of Honest History. Robert Lewis (RL) is a former history teacher and resource development officer with the History Teachers’ Association of Victoria, a winner of the NSW Premier’s Young People’s History Prize (in 2008 for Australians in the Vietnam War, with Tim Gurry) and an independent writer of classroom history resources. He has commented on the national history curriculum and reviewed Lake and Reynolds’s What’s Wrong with Anzac?


RL 2 December: Brendan Nelson quoted only two epitaphs in his address.  For you to describe these epitaphs as ‘sentimental’ and not ‘challenging’ is a clear misreading of their historical value as evidence, and a callous dismissal of people’s grief.

Your reference to the ‘Standing Stones’  – the headstone which asked ‘For What?’ which you described as ‘unusually frank but not unique’, and which you offer as evidence against the ‘sentimentality’ of the ones quoted by Nelson, is worth drawing attention to.

But it is unfair and misleading for you to characterise this headstone and its sentiment as ‘not unique’, with the implication that there were several? many? others which expressed similar sentiment.

In fact that sentiment is so rare as to be almost totally non-existent statistically. I have looked through John Laffin’s collection of well over 1000 headstone family epitaphs (We Will Remember Them) and the only one I could find that was similar in tone to the one you quoted was  ‘Some Day, Some Time We’ll Understand. Mother’.

These epitaphs were chosen carefully by families. They truly reflect the families’  feelings at the time. And the feelings were almost unanimously not questioning of the value of the soldiers’ deaths, but accepting of it. Two out of thousands is not good evidence to quote unless you clearly and openly put it in perspective. Two, out of thousands.

I think your revisionist website is valuable in helping people be aware of the many excesses of the Anzac myth, but if you can resist ‘over-egging’ your criticisms of its supporters it will be much more useful, more persuasive, and much more ‘balanced’ and ‘honest’.

DS 4 December: Thanks for this thoughtful response; it epitomises the debate about our history (and the uses we make of it) that Honest History is trying to encourage. Having said that, though, I need to disagree with you on a couple of points.

RL 20 December: I think you have misinterpreted my comments – they do not ‘epitomise the debate’, as I think we are on the same side. I have no problem with criticism of ‘Anzacery’. My criticism is that you seem to be finding Anzacery where it does not exist, and that you are imposing your own values on the people of the time rather than accepting theirs.

DS 4 December: Our Whizzbang about epitaphs made no statistical claim about how representative Private Rae’s epitaph was. The reason for contrasting Rae’s epitaph with Dr Nelson’s quoted epitaphs was to extend a theme we had introduced some time ago in a link to Elizabeth Samet’s work on sentimentality and war remembrance.

Samet’s main point is that sentimentalising death in war prevents us asking important questions about the purposes of war (for fear of implying that soldiers have died in vain). The question on Rae’s tombstone (‘for what?’) confronted this key issue whereas Private Hart’s epitaph in Dr Nelson’s speech suggesting Hart died ‘for Australia and Empire’ repeated the then very common (but highly contestable) words. Private Webb’s epitaph about living in the hearts of those left behind is something that hardly anyone would challenge.

RL 20 December: I had not looked at that article when I wrote my original comments. I have now read it, and still believe that you are distorting or misusing the epitaph. Your point in using the epitaph is to say: ‘See, here is the hard question being asked.’ So it is, but it does not follow that if an epitaph does NOT ask that question then it is hiding behind ‘sentimentalising’.

It may be that the question is not asked in the epitaph because the people have worked out their own answers. Their answer is not to condemn the war as meaningless, but to actually believe that there was meaning, that their loved one believed that he was doing something worthwhile. You may not believe that now, you may believe it was all a waste, you may even be right, but that is not what people at the time believed. Perhaps they were conditioned to believe that. Perhaps not. But they are telling us what they believe – and they are NOT reflecting the attitudes you are trying to impose on them.

DS 4 December: Of course you are right in saying that families then were ‘almost unanimously not questioning of the value of the soldiers’ deaths, but accepting of it’ but it’s the ‘almost’ that is of interest. The number of families who expressed reservations in epitaphs was almost certainly more than two in a thousand but more work is needed on that. [See Footnote.] Meanwhile, we reckon ‘uncommon but not unique’ is about right.

But polling the wording of epitaphs (e.g. John Laffin’s selection – another author with different preconceptions may well have made a different selection) is really beside the point, anyway. The real question is whether the epitaphs confront the reality of death in war. Euphemism may have comforted grieving families then; this should not prevent us getting beyond euphemism now. One hundred years on, we are surely free to make something different of those deaths than the families (including mine, on both sides) made of them then. This is not ‘callous’; it is rational – and it might help us towards avoiding wars in future.

RL 20 December: Here we differ again. You say you were making ‘no statistical claim’ about Rae’s epitaph, and that there are ‘almost certainly’ more than two in a thousand expressing bitterness and resentment. But you are saying this with no evidence. Evidence is crucial. You cannot make history be what you want it to be rather than what it is. I quoted Laffin. Yes, Laffin was a great, passionate believer in the Diggers. But I have seen no evidence that he would suppress epitaphs that did not fit his views. In his other books he is brutally frank about the nature of war and warfare. I believe he is honest in his recording of the epitaphs.

You also say ‘The real question is whether the epitaphs confront the reality of death in war.’ That’s a fair question. You say they do not because they do not show what you expect. I say that they tell us what the reality was to those people at that time – that there was great loss and pain, but people accepted the cause for which their men died. You may dislike this, you may have reasons to explain why they were deluding themselves emotionally and intellectually, but the fact is that they had their own answers to the deaths, and they publicly expressed them through their epitaphs.

Of course we are free to go beyond the attitudes and values and emotions of 100 years ago, but do not make up or exaggerate evidence to suggest that you are now exposing attitudes and values at the time that have been kept hidden or suppressed until now. Please do not belittle the evidence by calling it ‘euphemism’ unless you can establish through evidence that people were hiding what they really believed.

DS 4 December: ‘Criticism of its supporters’: we have said from the beginning of the Honest History enterprise that we have no difficulty with dignified, proportionate commemoration. What we oppose is Anzackery, the overblown, jingoistic commemoration/celebration that some governments, organisations and individuals have become adept at – and particularly adept at inflicting upon children. (James Brown, in Anzac’s Long Shadow, made similar points.) This gratuitous griefmanship often requires a trenchant response.

RL 20 December: I repeat my first comment. I agree that we need to criticise and condemn the unthinking jingoism that exists – and there is plenty of it. But in doing so do not see Anzacery where it does not exist, and do not distort the historical reality to support your indignation. I believe Honest History offers much that is good. I fear that zealotry is distorting some of it. There are plenty of real targets and faults without creating false ones.

DS 4 December: If you browse our website you will find plenty of examples of dignified commemoration and advocacy of it, such as Genevieve Jacobs’s Wallendbeen speech, Richard Reid’s article, the Remembrance Duet posted on the site this week and my own column about war cemeteries in Belgium.

RL 20 December: I think Richard Reid’s article expresses exactly what I am arguing – that people who lived through the time, who knew the pain and the grief and the loss and the reality of war, did not see the deaths of the soldiers as meaningless. They made their decision about the meaning of the war, and we cannot today claim that they were hiding behind ‘sentimentality’ and ‘euphemisms’. You may disagree with them, but you cannot distort their reality to suit yours.

Footnote: Sergeant Phillip Ball MM, killed in action 28 March 1918, is also buried at Villers-Bretonneux. His epitaph reads: ‘I fought and died in the Great War to end all wars. Have I died in vain?’ A collection of Great War epitaphs, including an ambivalent one for Private SJ Cannell, saying simply ‘Sacrificed’. An analysis of Canadian Great War epitaphs touches on general issues.

The Commonwealth War Graves Commission censored epitaphs: ‘Was it in vain?’ was allowed but ‘”Against his will/A man to kill” was refused on the grounds that it might cause pain to other relatives visiting the cemetery’.


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One comment on “Honest History dialogue: thoughts provoked by an epitaph
  1. Leighton View says:

    Very interesting exchange. Appreciate it being shared ….

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