“What are your legs? Springs. Steel springs”.
Archy’s nervous mutterings before he sprints into gunfire are familiar in Australian history classes. So are the tale of Simpson and Duffy and their “bravest deeds of Anzac”.
Peter Weir’s Gallipoli and the stories of Simpson are undoubtedly recognisable. They and many other well-versed stories have stood the test of time and have been drawn on in the classroom for decades.
But now, nearly 100 years on from the Great War, the nation and our classrooms are very different places. A narrow focus on a few key stories of the Anzac tradition don’t tell the whole story.
It’s time to recover some of the harder stories of the First World War and redress an imbalance of remembrance. It is time we expand the ambit of commemoration and adapt the way we tell the history of the Great War to old and new audiences.
A hundred stories
This is the ambition of the One Hundred Stories project at Monash University. The project involves providing classroom resources, including a DVD and teaching kit, that are designed for Australian schools.
These tell one story for each year of the approaching Anzac centenary, showing a whole range of perspectives and experiences of the war.
Without discarding the familiar themes of heroism, endurance, mateship and success and without suggesting that these stories are typical, this project remembers some of the more difficult and uncomfortable stories of the Great War, ones that have often been avoided in the past, voices that have been previously unheard, often marginalised and perhaps forgotten.
Researchers have delved in to new archives, worked with family members, trawled diaries, memoirs, photographs and letters, to capture experiences of servicemen who came home and those who did not, of indigenous servicemen and their communities, of women – wives, mothers, sisters, sweethearts, friends and nurses.
Each of the stories is challenging but as a teaching resource they can equip students with the tools, skills and space to reconsider the grief and suffering the war visited on Australia. As well, engaging with these stories provides opportunities for student interaction with archival material and the development of historical skills.
One such story is of Lance Corporal Harold Candy. He came home to Adelaide his body ravaged by battles at Pozières and Hamel and having suffered the effects of many illnesses, one of them being venereal disease.
Tormented by his physical and mental scars, in 1921 Harold took his own life, most tragically on the night before his wedding.
Harold hung himself in Adelaide parklands. He didn’t die on the battlefields of France and although it was nearly three years after the Armistice, Harold is certainly a casualty of the Great War. So too his devastated fiancée.
Rachael Pratt nursed the wounded in Turkey, Abyssinia, England and then France. In 1917, while Germans attacked her casualty clearing station from above, Rachael worked despite the shrapnel that had pierced through her back and lodged in her lungs. She worked until she collapsed. And for her service Rachael was awarded the Military Medal “for conspicuous gallantry and devotion to duty under fire”.
Sister Pratt never recovered from those injuries. She endured chronic bronchitis the rest of her life. And she never recovered from the trauma either. Eventually Rachael was deemed “totally and permanently incapacitated” and admitted to a hospital for the insane. Sister Pratt died in Heidelberg Repatriation Hospital in 1954.
Shortly before her death, she had written the following to her family: “the war is awful and I simply cannot discuss it … there is no prospect of it ending”.
And there’s Francis Wilkinson who was awarded a Military Medal for his bravery at Passchendaele. With his Scottish bride, he came back to Australia and embarked on another battle, this time with the landscape.
Eventually Francis’ soldier settlement farm failed, his mad despair and his “shattered nerves” were said to be the reason he attacked his wife and four-year-old daughter, brutally beating them with a hammer, strangling them and then slitting his own throat.
Some consider such tragic and unsettling stories unnecessary and possibly too distressing for the classroom. But Australia’s secondary school students are willing to work with these stories; they are keen to grapple with the hard, the hidden and they are unconvinced by one-dimensional stories.
Students aren’t passive readers of mythology, unable or unwilling to question this history.
Perhaps we have reached a point, a distance far enough removed, that we can widen the scope of the Great War and recognise its countless victims. Young Australians aren’t afraid of difficult and uncomfortable histories, nor should the community be.
On Remembrance Day, with our schools, we can confront the stories that have been hidden and that have proved so difficult for so long. The centenaries of the Great War offer us the chance to commemorate and to learn this history in new ways for a very different Australia, a very different world.