27 August 2012


This article is the next in my series from guest writers. It is written by Sandra Playle of Vision Research Services and I have kindly been given permission to reproduce it here

August 1914 signalled the onset of WW1 with Britain and Germany going to war.  Australia’s Prime Minister, Andrew Fisher pledged the government’s full support for Britain.  This announcement was met with great enthusiasm by Australian’s with many patriotic young men keen to sign up for King and Country.  Others were lured to enlist because they saw it as an opportunity to travel the world.
The First World War, in terms of casualties and deaths, proved to be most costly for Australia and the other countries involved.  When the war began Australia had a population of less than five million yet over 300,000 men enlisted and from those some 60,000 died and approximately 160,000 were gassed, wounded or taken prisoner.  These 160,000 along with the other soldiers that survived the war eventually returned home. (1)
During the ensuing post war years soldiers formed service organizations and governments put projects into place while the communities organised commemorative services, erected memorials, and created honour boards, yet the one thing communities overlooked the most was the soldier himself.  Sadly, many still do.
For many years Australians (in particular, school children) have visited the shores of Gallipoli, the battlefields of France and Belgium as well as the cemeteries where those that died during the battles are buried and commemorated.  They do this to both honour and research our war dead.  However, the soldiers that were fortunate enough to make it back to the shores of Australia pale into insignificance despite the fact that their experiences were much the same.
The soldiers and nurses buried in general cemeteries across Australia appear to have been largely forgotten.  Although some were fortunate enough to be given military funerals, and many have been commemorated with military headstones, there are still too many who have not.  The reasons for the lack of markers are varied, but include the family’s lack of ability to afford the expense.
The most tangible part of WW1 for Australian’s today, would have to be the soldiers of Pheasant Wood that were re-interred at the new WW1 Cemetery at Fromelles in France.  People started to take more notice of the soldiers in their family and this was evident by the many family members who registered with the Australian Army’s Fromelles Project administrators.  The same was also apparent by the number of articles that appeared in the print media and aired on television channels across the country.  More interestingly several schools on the east coast of Australia encouraged their students to research these particular soldiers.  People wanted to know more about these men and families wanted to tell their stories.
The people and organizations within our communities are integral to preserving history but often they are stymied by lack of funding, volunteers and resources.  It takes some major event before the government’s coffers are opened and sometimes it becomes a ‘feel good’ exercise as opposed to being purposeful in preserving history.
In 2011 the Commission for the Centenary of Anzac released its report.  It is a fascinating document in its scope and content although I am left with questions.
The Commission writes:
“Research by Colmar Bruton identified a common theme that expressed the need for people outside the capital cities to be provided with ways to engage in the centenary to have a local focus for commemorations and to be left with a lasting legacy from the centenary activities.  It was proposed that communities may be engaged in activities centred on refurbishing existing war memorials, honour rolls and avenues of honour.  The Commission agrees that these types of activities would provide opportunities not only for communities to come together to restore and enhance memorials leaving them as a legacy for future generations, but to discover the stories and personal histories that played a part in the development of their communities”.
This is a case of ‘reinventing the wheel’ as such projects happen annually across Australia and are funded by Department of Veteran’s Affairs via the ‘Saluting Their Service’ program.  Whilst the Commission agrees that these projects could be part of the Centenary it does suggest that discovering the stories and personal histories would be worthwhile I was unable to ascertain how they envisaged that this would be done.
Most states in Australia run some sort of educational program outside of the school based curriculum.  However, the most comprehensive outside of the Australian War Memorial that I am aware of exists at the Shrine of Remembrance in Melbourne.  The education officers do an outstanding job of delivering military history to the state of Victoria.  Yet what of the rest of Australia?
Several villages that are near CWGC cemeteries in Belgium and France, run tours for overseas visitors and often include visits to the local museums.  Many schools run an education programmes that study the war and the soldiers buried in their local or nearby CWGC cemeteries.  Furthermore, the school children of those countries, through their various curricula programmes know more about Australian war history and our war dead than we do in Australia, for example, the Harefield Churchyard in Middlesex England where children have been laying wreaths every Anzac Day since the end of the war.  Many schools and historians in Turkey, France and Belgium have portfolios on Australian soldiers buried in cemeteries in the vicinity of their community and I am often amazed at the scope and content of their research.  By the same token, these countries celebrate the various battle anniversaries to the extent that the Last Post is played at Menin Gate every evening to honour the soldiers.  Apart from the Australian War Memorial it is not known where else the Last Post is played every evening in Australia.  It is surprising that the same dedication is not part of the military history psyche in Australia
A number of schools undertook some exciting research into the Fromelles lads, in particular the students from St Mary’s Catholic College in Sydney.  This work is indicative of the potential for the stories of soldiers buried in local cemeteries to be told.  The results of their research can be viewed here:  http://smcchistory.ning.com/ 
In its discussion on student education the Commission says:
“Between 2011 and 2013, the National History Curriculum for Foundation to Year 10 will be introduced by departments of education into classrooms in every Australian state and territory.  The curriculum provides a balanced, rigorous, contextualised approach to Australian, Indigenous and world history, which will enable students to appreciate Australia’s social, economic and political development.  It will help students to learn about Anzac tradition, Anzac Day and other important events and symbols in Australian history”
The Commission goes on to say:
“In regard to the centenary, class – based activities and projects may be introduced into the national curriculum that discuss not only the activities of the First World War, but the role of all conflicts and peacekeeping operations that Australia has been involved in, from the Boer War through to Afghanistan in helping to shape our national identity”.
I have managed to establish what is contained in the Australian History Curriculum concerning the components for Australia’s involvement in war.  In Year 3 students learn about ANZAC Day2, however there is no further detail as to the content in the curriculum.  Then it is not until Year 9 that Australia’s war history appears in the curriculum through studies into WW1:
“World War I (1914-1918)
Students investigate key aspects of World War I and the Australian experience of the war, including the nature and significance of the war in world and Australian history.
·         An overview of the causes of World War One and the reasons why men enlisted to fight in the war.
·         The places where Australians fought and the nature of warfare during World War I, including the Gallipoli campaign
·         The impact of World War I, with a particular emphasis on Australia (such as the use of propaganda to influence the civilian population, the changing role of women, the conscription debate. 
·         The commemoration of World War I, including debates about the nature and significance of the Anzac legend.”
WW2 is introduced to Year 10 students in the following manner:
“World War II (1939-45)
Students investigate wartime experiences through a study of World War II in depth. This includes a study of the causes, events, outcome and broader impact of the conflict as an episode in world history, and the nature of Australia’s involvement.
·         An overview of the causes and course of World War
·         An examination of significant events of World War II, including the Holocaust and use of the atomic
·         The experiences of Australians during World War II (such as Prisoners of War (POWs), the Battle of Britain, Kokoda, the Fall of Singapore)
·         The impact of World War II, with a particular emphasis on the Australian home front, including the changing roles of women and use of wartime government controls (conscription, manpower controls, rationing and censorship)
·         The significance of World War II to Australia’s international relationships in the twentieth century, with particular reference to the United Nations, Britain, the USA and Asia.”

During an email discussion with Paul Kliem, President of the History Teachers Association of Australia, I was able to establish that the content of the curriculum components was left pretty much to the discretion of the teacher thus making the Commission’s ideals for the Centenary celebrations pointless.
Whilst the Commission concedes that the community believes that education is paramount there appears to be a rather large gap between their report and the National History Curriculum content.  Therefore, during such a significant period in Australian history the soldier and his history are passed over once again.
The Office of Australian War Graves tend graves of soldiers buried in a general cemetery when they fall into a specific criteria all others are the responsibility of the family.  Very few cemetery authorities tend graves and as family members die or move out of the area the gravesite is rarely visited it falls into disrepair thus obliterating some if not all of the soldier’s history.
Within some State Government legislation there is little protection for cemetery preservation and many cemeteries have been demolished with buildings constructed over the top of the graves at some later stage.  In many cases irreplaceable artworks in the form of headstones have been destroyed along with tomes of historic fact.  Some could consider it to be legalised vandalism and desecration of sacred sites or consecrated ground.  Furthermore, and specifically for Western Australia, the desecration of soldiers graves at Karrakatta Cemetery was described as ‘inevitable’ by the Secretary of the day for the state’s RSL.  In fact, the WA RSL has never publicly taken up the baton to protest about the clearing of soldier’s headstones anywhere in the state nor have they considered introducing a project to record them.  Large sections of Karrakatta Cemetery were completely cleared of headstones without photographs or transcriptions being recorded.  Even as this article is being written, sections of this cemetery are earmarked for clearing.
An example of the types of burial places being obliterated from Western Australia’s military history at Karrakatta Cemetery is that of Corporal Bertie Onions MM and Bar whose headstone was removed during the complete clearing of one of the Roman Catholic sections.  Bertie was born in England, later his family moved to Denmark WA where they took up farming and in October 1916 at the age of 20 he signed up to take part in WW1.  Corporal Onions served with 48th Battalion being wounded twice during fighting in 1918 and his bravery on two occasions saw him awarded the Military Medal and a Bar to that medal.  The citations read:
Military Medal:- "For conspicuous gallantry and devotion to duty during operations 8th/9th August 1918.  During the advance on PROYAT Pte Onion handled his Lewis Gun with great skill and courage in the face of opposition from the enemy.  At one stage, seeing the Company on the right being in trouble by an enemy machine gun, Pte Onion crept out with his Lewis Gun and succeeded in silencing the enemy gun which had already caused several casualties.  When the final objective was reached Pte Onion got his Lewis Gun into position and gave valuable assistance in beating back a party of 20 Germans who were attempting to regain a strong post.  Pte Onion's conduct throughout operations greatly inspired the men around him"
Bar to Military Medal "For conspicuous gallantry and devotion to duty during the advance near LE VERQUIER on the 18th September 1918.  L/Cpl Onion in charge of a Lewis Gun section after the capture of the objective charged a portion of the enemy trench still holding out and preventing our troops on his flank advancing.  Although his No 2 and 3 were shot he worked ahead under heavy machine gun fire, took up a position from where he could enfilade the enemy trench holding up the advance. From here he gave covering fire which greatly assisted the flank troops to advance and finally capture the trench and its garrison who were unable to escape owing to L/Cpl Onion's fire.  His action displayed wonderful dash and initiative which inspired great confidence in the remainder of his section." 
Through a concerted effort within a community coupled with a school education program each and every soldier’s grave, outside of the jurisdiction of the Office of Australian War Graves, could and can be reclaimed, repaired, restored and researched and their story told.  Those well researched and recorded personal histories could be given back to the community via local libraries, local government offices, RSL branches, cemetery authorities and historical societies thus ensuring every soldier in that cemetery has been granted the right to live forever.
On ANZAC Day 2012, the talented 117 member Orchestra from Western Australia’s Churchlands Independent State School will play at the opening of the “House of Australians” in Vignacourt in France.  Attending this event will be prominent Australians and Australian Historians.  Perhaps I am cynical but I have yet to see such attention given to an event in Western Australia outside of Anzac Day and Remembrance Day.  Nor have I seen that amount of money dedicated to the memory of soldiers anywhere in Western Australia outside of the state war memorial or the Army Museum.  Perhaps the full potential of the WA Army museum has yet to be discovered.
Paul Kelly of ‘The Australian’ whilst discussing the report of Commission for the Centenary of Anzac in his article “The Next Anzac Century” published 23rd April 2011 wrote; “The report is prudent but disappointing. It reflects an Anzac story that now carries too many expectations and is weighed down trying to satisfy everybody from traditionalists to the peace movement”.  Ironically Kelly missed the way out of those expectations, which is through the stories of the soldiers themselves.  Those individual histories can reshape the story of the ANZACs and breath life into what this generation of men were really like. 
It is those men that came home wounded, scarred, limbless, tortured by nightmares and terrorised by their experiences, it is their stories of what their lives were like and what they achieved post war that need to be told.  These were amazing men who did amazing things.  These are the stories that are beyond Gallipoli, beyond Simpson, beyond Kokoda for every soldier has earned the right to live forever.

1: A percentage of soldiers did not return to Australia choosing to remain or marry overseas.
2. Days and weeks celebrated or commemorated in Australia (including Australia Day, ANZAC Day, Harmony Week, National Reconciliation Week, NAIDOC week and National Sorry Day) and the importance of symbols and emblems.

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