Review note: Australia and the First World War (Australian Historical Studies)

‘Review note: AHS Classics virtual issue “Australia and the First World War” (Australian Historical Studies)’, Honest History, 12 July 2015

This virtual issue ‘reprints’ seven articles with an introductory essay from Bart Ziino. They are all free access until end December 2015. (Another virtual issue of Great War related ‘reprints’.)

Bart Ziino’s overview looks at writing on the Australian experience of war, with the selection starting from Ken Inglis’s ‘The Anzac tradition‘ in 1965. Ziino argues that ‘the adaptability of the Anzac legend, and its assimilation of varied experiences of the First World War, requires both investigation and caution in the production of new histories of events almost a century distant’.

P00176.002RSL World Tour Pilgrimage to War Cemeteries, Istanbul, April 1960 (Australian War Memorial P00176.002)

Lloyd Robson’s piece on the origin and character of the First AIF was first published in 1973 and followed his pioneering 1970 book. Robson assiduously compared the Digger legend cultivated by CEW Bean with the statistics of the men who served. Robson pointed out politely where Bean’s romantic view was not supported by the evidence.

Bean was also the focus in David Kent’s 1985 article about how The Anzac Book was put together. Kent showed that ‘Bean was an exceedingly selective editor who rejected anything which might have modified his vision or tarnished the name of “Anzac”‘. Kent has spoken elsewhere* about how his analysis of Bean’s proselytising bent was harshly criticised after the 1985 article was first published.

Bean scored a trifecta with Alistair Thomson’s 1989 piece about how the Official Historian represented Australian military manhood.

My tentative argument [said Thomson] is that because some form of Australian national identity was an important aspect of most soldiers’ identity, and because there were major overlaps between what being an Australian soldier meant in Bean’s eyes and in the men’s eyes, his official definitions of nationality and Australian manhood were on the whole not rejected during or after the war by the diggers. Indeed, for some diggers they seemed to register and articulate, and therefore help to define their own experience as Australian men, while at the same time filtering out contradictory understandings.

Also from 1989 is Judith Smart’s article about the highest profile home front activity during the Great War, the conscription referenda and the angst that surrounded them. Specifically, Smart addressed how anti-conscriptionists in Melbourne were able to make their case, despite strong official and community attempts to prevent them being heard. Unorganised women were particularly effective.

Women were the subject also of Joan Beaumont’s piece from 2000 but her focus was on pro-war voluntary organisations. ‘This patriotic feminism’, she argued, ‘was perceived in Australia in the immediate aftermath of war as legitimising women’s claim to citizenship, a right conventionally seen as being “earned” by contributing to national defence’.

By the end of the twentieth century women had become dedicated military tourists. Bruce Scates described in 2002 how pilgrimages to Great War sites were growing in number and he argued as to their significance.

A cultural history of Australian pilgrimages to “those distant hallowed places” offers a chance [Scates believed] to reconstruct and understand what Jay Winter has called “the languages of mourning”. It will survey “the  restless memory of war”, noting how the meanings of that great conflict have changed with each succeeding generation and how even individual testimony can be rich, complex and contested. And ultimately it may tell us a great deal about how a nation invents, and reinvents, a sense of community.

Women have also treasured family keepsakes of war service and been assiduous curators of such material. Anne-Marie Condé wrote in 2005 about the history of history, the collecting by the Mitchell Library and the Australian War Memorial of the records of war. She summarised the difference in the two institutions’ collecting philosophies.

For these many reasons, the collection built by the Memorial in these years differed from that of the Mitchell Library. Whereas the Mitchell Library was willing to spend its money mainly on original diaries, the Memorial acquired a mixture of material but with an emphasis on letters. The Memorial could not afford to be choosy: it would accept copies or, indeed, almost any sort of war record, be it a memoir, a narrative, a published obituary, a newspaper cutting. Even the least significant record could act as a memorial to its creator, and the more donations the Memorial acquired, the greater the number of people who, by the act of giving, might be counted as supporters of the Memorial in the future. It was a pragmatic rather than purist approach.

RELAWM14250.002Leather boots worn by Lieutenant RJ Hunter, 19 battalion 1st AIF; returned to his mother after his death on the Western Front in 1918 (Australian War Memorial RELAWM14250.002)

This philosophy is still evident at the Memorial today. ‘The tragedy symbolised by a shrapnel-torn scrap of uniform found on the battlefield’, says Memorial Director Brendan Nelson in his foreword to Anzac Treasures, published in 2014, ‘is no less powerful than the reverence evoked by two of the boats from which the Australians landed on that first Anzac Day’.

All in all, this selection is a useful introduction to a range of writing on the Anzac tradition. It should be read in conjunction with the more extensive set from the Journal of Australian Studies of ‘reprints’ of articles on the Great War. It should encourage other journals to unlock their ‘back-number’ resources in similar fashion. Restrictive subscription arrangements and exorbitant prices for online articles narrow the market for thoughtful academic writing.

* David Kent, ‘Sack the bastard!’ – ‘David Kent, the vilest man alive’: after-dinner speech, Second Trevenna Conference, Mars and Minerva: Intellectuals and War in Australia and New Zealand, University of New England Armidale, 4-6 February 2006.


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