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Teaching the untold stories of World War I

“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…

There are some powerful stories in the Anzac tradition but many more that are unknown to students. Australian War Memorial

“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.

Battle scars

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.

Harold Candy State Records of South Australia GRG26/5/4/1324

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.

Lines of the 9th and 10th Battalions in Egypt. The soldier in the foreground is playing with a kangaroo, the regimental mascot. Wikimedia commons

Students aren’t passive readers of mythology, unable or unwilling to question this history.

Broader understanding

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.

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15 Comments sorted by

  1. Mat Hardy

    Lecturer in Middle East Studies at Deakin University

    Having worked as an interviewer on the Australians at War Film Archive (www.australiansatwarfilmarchive.gov.au), which had a similar 'warts and all' approach, I listened to a lot of the stories that are the results of those described above. It was astounding how many of the WW2 vets I spoke to grew up in dysfunctional families because of the mental scars borne by their WW1 fathers. Alcoholism, domestic violence, sexual abuse and abandonment of families through suicide or just walking out were common themes. Plus afterwards a lot of disparagement of WW2 veterans by the WW1 diggers because they "didn't know what a real war was".

    I commend the project described in the article. The sooner we get away from clinging to memes like Simpson and our Victoria Cross fetishism, the better.

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    1. Gerard Dean

      Managing Director

      In reply to Mat Hardy

      Mr Hardy

      I am astonished that you pass off our reverence for Simpson and his donkey as a 'meme'. Also, the article suggests that Australians don't know the tough stories and the military heroes.

      Australia is virtually unique in the world in that it celebrates a defeat as its national day of remembrance, Gallipoli, against an enemy who it respected, Johnny Turk. Furthermore, our most celebrated war hero was a private who, with his donkey, saved many lives before being killed himself.

      Australia's…

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    2. Sean Manning

      Physicist

      In reply to Gerard Dean

      I think you have misunderstood what meme means. Religion, for example, is a set of prevalent memes. Despite what pop culture insists on calling a meme (captioned photograph) memes are a very well defined social phenomenon originally coined by Richard Dawkins and are not at all derogatory.

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    3. Michael Lenehan

      retired

      In reply to Mat Hardy

      Hi Gerard

      You might be right. Perhaps the reason Simpson is "our most celebrated war hero" is that it was mostly propaganda. he was a pommy who worked in the mine just up the road from me (two of them actually) from about 1910 on the south coast of NSW - yet enlisted from Western Australia!

      He actually seems to have been pretty shiftless and, perhaps, a bit of a "donkey" himself. How much of his legend is real and how much was just a beat-up to promote recruiting and prop up failing morale after the Gallipoli disaster is really hard to know.

      Choosing a humble hopeless private like Simpson to "celebrate" may have been a similar strategy to the fake enlistment of "Private John Wren" (yes, the big time crook from Frank Hardy's Power without Glory!) to help promote recruitment in Victoria.

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  2. Dale Bloom

    Analyst

    I’m sure the One Hundred Stories project at Monash University will do its best to demonise men as much as possible.

    After all, men are evil.

    But of course many of the men returning from WW1 were traumatised, when it was not fully recognised, or before there was any treatment.

    “The essential psychological effect of trauma is a shattering of innocence. Trauma creates a loss of faith that there is any safety, predictability, or meaning in the world, or any safe place in which to retreat. It…

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    1. Joe Gartner

      Tilter

      In reply to Dale Bloom

      There's women in the ADF that I have served with who have PTSD as well. There are and have been countless female civilian victims of war who are severely traumatised.
      There is nothing in your flippant and myopic statement that converts the effects of war into a pro-male or anti feminist manifesto. Nothing.

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    2. Dale Bloom

      Analyst

      In reply to Joe Gartner

      “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.”

      So will the students be told that many of the soldiers would have been suffering post traumatic stress?

      I am quite certain that will be left out, and the soldiers simply demonised.

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    3. Matt Stevens

      Senior Research Fellow/Statistician/PhD

      In reply to Dale Bloom

      Dale, you are a smart cookie, but you are playing the fool. Stop arguing, listen to your friends. If you don't have any get out and join a group and make a start.

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    4. Dale Bloom

      Analyst

      In reply to Matt Stevens

      What you could do is find an academic who has ever said one positive word about the male gender.

      Or, find an academic who has ever said one positive word about Australia.

      I have no doubts teachers will use the One Hundred Stories project to demean and demonise Australian soldiers as much as possible, while asking for more taxpayer funding of course.

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  3. Joe Gartner

    Tilter

    I am mystified about the hagiography of war, and soldiers. The soldiers I've met are like other people with the full gamut of human qualities. They choose to put their arse on the line for their mates, which makes them unusual and perhaps that should be recognised for the virtue that it is.
    The circumstances and effects of war should also be recognised for what they are. Warts and all sounds damn fine to me.

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  4. Jeff Haddrick

    field manager

    Surely one of the most unemphasied stories of the massacre that was WW1 must be the incompetance of some of the generals, particularly the British commander of the forces in Europe. Has no one ever tried to come up with a figure of how many extra tens or hundreds of thousands of people died because of his incompetence.
    Would it not be a salutory lesson for the young to learn what the costs can be of a lack of creativity, flexibility and grounded knowledge. It would also show the magnificence of the human spirit despite the offorts of 'friend' and foe.

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  5. Peter Hindrup

    consultant

    Just so as the kids are taught that war, all wars, are a failure of government. A failure of diplomacy, and the victory of greed, arrogance and the delusion that 'we' (both sides) have the right to dictate to the world.

    Teach them that youths went of to war,full of bravado, imaging that it would all be over in months, that they would 'show them Jerries'. That they were in the 'right',had god on their side.

    Teach them that British troops were no better,and no worse, than those on the other…

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    1. David Collett

      IT Application Developer at Web Generation

      In reply to Peter Hindrup

      It may not do the above - but I think it will remove some of the mythology that surrounds Australian's in war, making it far more real and far less palatable.

      For example, from reading the 3 short excerpts, I now have a greater understanding of:
      * How war affects women as well as men, and how they can be heroes (from the nurse story)
      * The mental consequences that continue after the war - and how it flows on to loved ones and affects people for the rest of their lives.

      All in all, I think it is a vital and excellent project.

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    2. Dale Bloom

      Analyst

      In reply to Peter Hindrup

      “Teach them that British troops were no better, and no worse, than those on the other side, who were also fighting because of the stupidity of their governments.”

      That is getting closer to what should be taught, and in the case of conscription or “call up”, the troops were being forced to fight.

      However, I doubt that it will be taught, as it would be too political.

      Instead, what will likely be taught is that the soldiers were male brutes.

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