Category Archives: World War I

‘Red Cross Rose’ by Sandra Venn-Brown

2021, 297 p.

When we think of Australian women during World War I, we tend to think of them as either nurses (and less often, doctors), or as sock-knitters. But there was a small group of Australian women, generally from middle to upper-class origins who did make their way overseas as volunteers with the Red Cross, or in the case of Rose Venn-Brown, as an administrator with the YMCA. The Armytage sisters from Como, for example, also made their way over there; so too did Vera Deakin. This book, written by Rose Venn-Brown’s grand-niece tells the story of one of these ‘Aussie girls’ in France between 1916 and 1920. Although the Red Cross also drew on her services, her main interest was the YMCA, and after the war ended she was attached to the Australian Graves Detachment based at Villers-Brettoneux in France.

When WWI broke out in August 1914, Rose was working as Assistant Registrar at the Royal Hospital for Women at Paddington. Coming from an affluent family, there was no economic necessity for her to work, but the family of thirteen (!) siblings seemed to gravitate towards white-collar professions after their father died quite early. She would have been expected to resign on marriage, but the war intervened, and marriage never beckoned. She felt that her administrative skills might have been of use “over there”, but she was generally discouraged by the military authorities, who would only send trained nurses. Eventually she circumvented them by travelling to New Zealand and embarking from there as a civilian. Through contacts, she found herself commissioned with the task of organising the medical records of the Australian War Office in Horseferry Road, London. She was asked by the wife of the NSW Agent-General in London to help organize the War Comforts Fund Association for Australian soldiers (which so many women were involved with back home in Australia), and was offered canteen work for the Young Mens Christian Association (YMCA). As far as she was concerned, she didn’t travel all that way to do canteen work, but she pulled some strings to be appointed to look after the finances of the canteens, which had been in a poor state until then. By 11 April 1916, her permits were cleared to cross to France to work for the YMCA, something that men employed by the YMCA were not impressed by. The men called a protest meeting, and it was agreed that Rose would spend a certain amount of time working in the camps – which was, of course, exactly what she wanted in the first place.

Rose later published her letters back home, and her diaries from her time at the front. The author has drawn heavily on both of these sources, and Rose certainly wrote well. As a descendant rather than a historian, Sandra Venn-Brown does not interrogate these sources or their production in the same way that Janet Butler has done in Kitty’s War (my review here).

If Rose Venn-Brown were working today, we would call her an Events Organizer, as much of her work revolved around organizing lectures and concerts for the men in the YMCA ‘huts’ located behind the front. It was acknowledged that the men needed leisure activities as they cycled between periods on the frontline and then back at base, and she liaised with performers and lectures to schedule and stage these events and organized dances and concerts among the men themselves. By this stage, three of her brothers had enlisted and she enjoyed being able to catch up with them when she could. Much of her identity revolved being an “Aussie girl” and the comfort that the Australian troops drew from hearing a familiar accent from a “girl” who could just as easily come from their home towns. Travelling from one part of the Western Front to the other was not easy, and in a letter home Rose gave a graphic description of visiting Gamaches, 62 kilometres north of Amiens, in early 1919 when hostilities had ceased. The journey was about 190 kilometres but took a full day, with the car bursting into flames several times and requiring multiple repairs along the way.

She finally returned home, but lost money in organizing a tour for her friend Flora Sandes, an entertainer from Serbia, whom she met as part of her work for the YMCA in Europe. Rose seemed to have been afflicted by the restlessness that many soldiers felt on returning home, and after three years she left for Shanghai, then travelled back to England and France, where she revisited the old battlefields with a friend Daisy Daking, a leading folk dancer who was sent out from England to entertain the troops and teach folk dancing (a rather surreal image, I must admit, all those soldiers folk-dancing). In the 1930s she returned to be with her family, moving from one family member’s home to another. She never married and never had a family of her own. She died in Chatswood, aged 69, seen by some in her family as “a bit full of herself” and “strange”.

This book presented the “Aussie Girl” in a WWI context that was uncommon at the time, and now too, when the focus is more on soldiers and nurses. The book is interlaced with the author’s own commentary and recollections from various tours overseas, which gives it a more homely feel. The author has been badly let down in the proof-reading, because there are multiple errors that mar the text- a rather surprising oversight in a book published by Australian Scholarly Publishing. Nonetheless, as the blurb on the back says, it does give new insight into battlefield life during the Great War, and it has presented Rose’s own lively recollections and anecdotes to a wider audience.

My rating: 7/10

Sourced from: Yarra Plenty Regional Library in preparation for a presentation I gave to Heidelberg Historical Society about George Lort Phillips, a local man who ended up commanding the Australian Graves Services unit until 1921.

‘Australian War Graves Workers and World War One’ by Fred Cahir, Sara Weuffen, Matt Smith, Peter Bakker, Jo Caminiti

2019, 143 p.

The subtitle of this book is ” Devoted Labour for the Lost, the Unknown but Not Forgotten Dead”, which gives an indication of the stance towards war graves workers adopted in this book, several chapters of which were contributed by descendants. Published in 2019, it moves into the commemorative space left open after all the WWI centenary celebrations by looking at the physical and emotional work that followed the suspension of fighting, most particularly through the men who were attached to the Australian Graves Detachment.

The book opens with two very good context-setting chapters that explained the bureaucratic structure of the grave-worker organizations, both in relation to the British Army and to the AIF. It describes what was involved in grave work: opening the grave, checking for ID disks, paybooks and other identifying objects, wrapping the body in a blanket, sewing it up and marking it with an identifying tag. Bodies were collected and buried in designated cemeteries, some of which were later consolidated into larger cemeteries. Photographs of the relocated graves were sent to next-of-kin in Australia. The Australian Graves Detachment, comprising over 1000 men, was created in March 1919 when there was still a large number of soldiers waiting repatriation back home. It ceased to exist on 20 August 1919, when demobilization was largely complete, at which time its functions devolved to the much smaller Australian Graves Service.

The book then moves to biographical sketches of different men involved in the Australian Graves Detachment. These chapters start off with descriptions of the men’s military experiences (with the exception of Private William McBeath, who arrived too late to see military action, although he did undertake training in England in case the Armistice did not hold). Their military involvement explains the reality of war experience that they brought to their war graves tasks, both in terms of personal bravery but also in terms of the camaraderie of being ‘one of the men’. This camaraderie influenced -for good or bad- their leadership style with the AGD. This is seen in the case of Major John Eldred Mott, featured in Chapter 3, who as an ex-German POW, had displayed great ingenuity in escaping prison camp, and was seen as a largely sympathetic man-of-the-men. His leadership style was more consistent with management of civilian workers than a hard-and-fast military approach, but this was of course one of the ambiguities of the AGD. Drawn from a volunteer army, they were no longer operating under the rules of war.

Frank Cahill (also known as ‘Carr’), in Chapter 4, was one of the 1914 men who were promised an early return to Australia under the ‘first in, first out’ demobilization strategy, but he decided to stay on and volunteer with the photographic section, a division of the AGD that came in for criticism for the number and quality of their images. He returned to Australian in 1921 but could receive only a 25% pension for an injury to his wrist. He committed suicide in 1928, and his widow had to struggle to have her husband’s death acknowledged as “materially hastened by war service”.

In Chapter 5 Peter Bakker and Fred Cahir identify four indigenous soldiers who worked with the ADG: Edward “Darkie” Smith from Queensland, William Charles Miller from Tasmania, George William Mitchell from Queensland and John Ogilvie from Western Australia. Smith continued to work with the Australian Graves Services and was Australia’s longest serving indigenous WWI soldier, clocking up six years, two months and five days of continuous service. However, it is notable that the only court-martial within the AGD was the stabbing of Private Ogilvie- a manifestation of racism within the group?

Chapter 6 looks at Captain Allen Charles Waters Kingston, who was caught up in the Court of Inquiry in March and April 1920 which was critical of Kingston’s command of the AGD in Villers-Brettoneux. He was suspended as a result of the Court of Inquiry, and returned home on the same ship as two of his most trenchant critics.

Chapter 7 is probably the most personal of the biographical chapters, as it incorporates diaries and letters from the author’s grandfather. Private William Frampton McBeath enlisted in June 1918 after completing his carriage-making apprenticeship, and the war was over by the time he arrived. He was drafted into the Graves Detachment, where he kept a brief diary- one of the few kept by graves workers. He arrived back in Australia on 13 November 1919, along with 1300 other troops.

The biographical approach taken by this book, particularly when the chapters were written by descendants, leads to a fairly terse dismissal of van Velzen’s “tabloid” book Missing in Action which is more critical of the AGD and its successor, the Australian Graves Services. However, there is no getting around the fact that two inquiries were held into the graves services division, which highlights not only the troubles and conflicts within the units themselves, but the political sensitivities over graves work back here in Australia, something that Bart Ziino’s A Distant Grief captures well. The individual stories told in this book underline the physical and psychological difficulty that soldiers- not just graves workers- had when re-adjusting to life in Australia, as highlighted in Marina Larsson’s Shattered Anzacs.

The book closes by enumerating the enormity of the task undertaken by the graves workers. Between February and August 1919 nearly 70,000 Allied (not just Australian) soldiers were located, exhumed and reburied by the AGD. One hundred years on, the stark beauty of Commonwealth War Graves Cemeteries have washed clean the sheer drudgery and horror of their creation.

My rating: 7/10

Sourced from: SLV as an e-book. Read in preparation for a talk on George Lort Phillips at the Heidelberg Historical Society.

‘Missing in Action’ by Marianne Van Velzen

2018, 240 p. plus notes

Australians are familiar with the War Memorials that stand in nearly every suburb and country town. They are so much just a part of the built environment now that we barely see them, except on Anzac and Remembrance Day when you walk past and see wreaths of flowers placed on them. At times I stop and look at the names, and shudder at the groups of names from one family, but more than 100 years on from World War I, they do not have a particular emotional resonance. That was not true at the time they were constructed. As Ken Inglis explores in Sacred Places, war memorials in every small town were a surrogate – however inadequate- for an individualized grave.

Quite apart from the practicalities and logistics of repatriating so many dead bodies from World War I, the decision was made at a Commonwealth level that all soldiers from Commonwealth countries would be buried in the Commonwealth War Cemetery closest to where they fell. But they had to be located first. In battlefields that were bombed repeatedly, with weapons that could blow a man to pieces and without time for careful record keeping, this was no easy task. At first it fell to the Australian Graves Detachment, which worked alongside the English Graves Registration Unit in identifying and burying Australian bodies. At the end of 1919, the remaining soldiers working for the Australian Graves Detachment merged into the smaller, newly founded Australian Graves Services. The tasks of digging up bodies remained with the English Graves Registration Unit- after all, who knew what nationalities were going to be uncovered?- but once located, the Australian Graves Services (AGS) would inspect the body and its remaining clothing, looking for identification to ascertain if it was an Australian soldier, and if so, who it was. It was hard work, physically and emotionally, and soldiers who worked in these deployments were cut some slack, especially in terms of their leisure time activities. But the families at home did not know that, and the government wanted to keep it that way. And when questions began being asked at home, often prompted by disgruntled ex-employees, there was a concerted effort to keep any inquiries out of the news.

This book is the story of the two inquiries that were held into the Australian Graves Services unit in the first two years following the war. Quite apart from the difficulties of the job, this was a unit riven by jealousy, ego, incompetence and deviousness. It was overseen from Australia House in London, with three main bases over in Europe: Somme/Amiens; Villers-Bretonneux and then Poperinghe up on the Belgian border. Each of the officers who headed these bases loathed the others, for various reasons. Van Velzen approaches the story from multiple viewpoints, moving from one officer to the other, retelling events from their perspective. This leads to a certain degree of repetition, but it does also allow for actions and people to be viewed in different lights. Nobody comes out of this well. Jealousy, obstruction and rorting look bad no matter how you describe it.

After an initial inquiry cleared out the initial ‘troublemakers’ (who returned to Australia to make even more trouble there), there was a reshuffle of authority and a forging of an alliance between George Lort Phillips at Australia House, and Alfred Allen, a Quaker who had come to the AGS through the Red Cross, who was in charge at Poperinghe . Exonerated and perhaps emboldened by the first inquiry, Allen had become increasing sure of his ability to find bodies through ‘divining’, and it was this confidence that brought him into collision with Cecil Smith who had been charged by his wife’s uncle Col. James Burns with locating his son, Robert Burns. James Burns was wealthy and influential (he was the Burns in the Burns-Philp shipping company) and he had the money and contacts to persist when Phillips and Allen began stonewalling Cecil Smith in the search for Robert Burn’s remains. Smith alerted the politicians back in Australia, who wanted to keep all this out of the newspapers, leading to a second inquiry which was quietly shelved, just as the first one was. And as for Robert Burns’ body? Well, you’ll need to read the book.

Van Velzen has relied heavily on the 790 page report ‘Court of Inquiry: To inquire into and report upon certain matters in connection with the Australian Graves Services’. Bart Ziino’s also drew on this source in his more academic text A Distant Grief (my review here), as did a recent article “Suppressing an ‘undesirable public controversy’: Corpses, the Department of Defence, and the Australian Graves Services, 1919–1921” by Romain Fathi in the most recent edition of History Australia (Vol 19, Issue 3). However, in this longer, and less academic book, Van Velzen draws more heavily on the evidence given to the inquiry in a more conversational style, using it to bolster the varying viewpoints as she moves from character to character. The tone is rather sensationalist, tending to look for good guys and bad guys. However, by locating the inquiry within the very human story of Robert Burns and his grieving father, you as a reader do not lose sight of the fact that it is a young man who has died here, even though the other players in this grubby affair may have.

You are left with a sense that everyone comes out badly here. Perhaps it is just as well that people ‘back home’ did not know, and perhaps there was a justification at the time for keeping it quiet. As is often the way of things, it is deputy heads that roll.

Marianne Van Velzen has written a very readable if populist book, with neat narrative framing around Robert Burns. Your attention is captured anew with each new character, with a satisfying ending, which is not something that you can often say about military books. Its marketing might be a bit sensationalist, but it’s a well-constructed story that uses its sources well in an engaging, but thought-provoking way that emphasizes the human and the political over the military

My rating: 8/10

Sourced from: Yarra Plenty Regional Library

‘A Distant Grief’ by Bart Ziino


2007, 191p & notes

In the time of coronavirus, we have seen funeral services stripped back to just ten people. It’s a cruel thing. Just those few people, sitting far from each other, unable to hug or comfort- those most human of responses to pain and grief.

A cruelty of a different sort was exerted on the families and loved ones of soldiers who died over in Europe during WWI (and the following war).  After some hesitation in the early months of the war, it was decided that none of the soldiers who died in British Empire troops would be repatriated to their home countries: not English, not Canadian, not South African and not Australian soldiers.  Apart from the practical difficulties of locating and shifting the remains (if any) of individual soldiers, this was seen as an expression of equality and solidarity amongst the countries of the Empire, with no soldiers seen as any more important than the others.  It was a big call. There was serious dissent against the policy in Britain by the 1920s.  I would imagine that for British families, it would have seemed to be merely bureaucratic inflexibility that prevented bodies being transported a relatively short distance. Canada was unhappy with the policy, especially when America managed to ship back 70% of their dead. (p.83)  But Australian families had few expectations that the bodies of their soldiers would be sent home. It hadn’t happened during the Boer War, and a recognition of the logistics involved meant that there was little public agitation for it to occur in WWI either.

Instead, the role of interring and marking the graves of Australian soldiers fell to the Imperial War Graves Commission. With the exception of the soldiers who fell at Gallipoli,  it was decided that each soldier should have an identical headstone marker, 81cm high, 38 cm wide and 8 cm thick. They were generally of white Portland stone and engraved with name, rank, unit, date of death and age. A religious emblem could be included if desired, and next of kin were permitted a personal inscription at their own cost. Where the identity was unknown, the headstone reads ‘A Soldier of the Great War. Known to God’. (p.3)

The Imperial War Graves Commission asked for 10 years to finalize the burial of WWI soldiers, and this book, which draws on the archives of the Commonwealth War Graves Commission, tells the story of the Commission, and the way that Australian reactions to death were defined by distance. Certainly, these deaths were of individuals – loved, mourned individuals- but without individual bodies, mourners had to take on more communal responses to their loss.

Chapter 1 ‘Imagined Graves’ examines the imaginative way that bereaved loved ones tried to understand soldiers’ deaths and make some connection between their lives on this side of the globe and the grave on the other. As Ziino writes:

Imagination, of course, could not function in a vacuum. From the first news of death, grieving Australians sought knowledge of what exactly had become of loved ones. They needed that knowledge to give substance to the mental images they were already developing. Relatives wanted to know that the last moments of life had been painless or that the dead had received the particular blessings of their faith. Ultimately, they wanted confirmation that the body had been buried and identifiably marked- an essential part of their imagining. Mourners wished that they had been there to palliate soldiers’ dying, to make the break between life and death personally- this was an important part of coming to terms with death. At home these people were removed from all but the fact of death, and detail was required to give structure to that event. (p. 15)

In the absence of a grave, ceremonies of farewell and release were carried out through the ‘In Memoriam’ columns of newspapers – sometimes for decades afterwards. Other families treasured photographs and relics of the dead that made their way home, while soldiers still serving at the front often served as a conduit between the front and the family by writing to and visiting bereaved families after the war.

Chapter 2 ‘The Sacred Obligation’  shows the way that Australian families, realizing that it was unlikely that they would visit the European cemeteries, turned to others to care for the war graves. The state stepped into this space. Public memorial services were held in Australia, while over on the front administrative responsibility was initially vested in the Directorate  of Graves Registration and Enquiries, and turned over to the Imperial War Graves Commission which came into being on 21 May 1917.

Chapter 3 looks at ‘Gallipoli and Australian Anxiety’. As the first large scale ‘Australian’ battle of WWI, there was particular concern that the bodies of fallen soldiers lay for three years in ‘alien’, non-Christian soil where there were no brother soldiers or officials to act for relatives. While the war was still underway, there were attempts by the British government to gain access to the cemeteries on the peninsula that the Turks had created. Not surprisingly, the attempt was rebuffed, but an Australian presence was quickly established at Gallipoli after the Armistice.  There was not, as they had feared, widescale desecration of the graves, although wooden crosses had been removed by Turkish soldiers for firewood. Almost immediately there were attempts to make a claim on the cemeteries, a difficult legal point of  sovereignty. It was decided that the cemeteries on Gallipoli would not have cruciform shapes visible from beyond their walls, and that the headstones would take the form of a low sloped stone, rather than upright headstones as in other Commonwealth War Cemeteries. Australians had to accept that Australian graves would rest on Turkish soil, which gives some context for the words purported to have been said by Mustafa Kamal (Ataturk) – an issue of recent controversy.

Chapter 4 ‘Agents for the Bereaved’ turns its attention to the Western Front and the way that families wanted an ‘Australian’ presence and identity on the former battlefields. The Australian Graves Service was established, with its headquarters at Australia House in London. It oversaw (rather than conducted) exhumations and concentrated on identifying Australian remains and maintaining records for the bereaved at home. They provided photographs of the grave for the families at home, and were seen as an ‘Australian’ presence even though there were serious questions asked about their behaviour. When it was disbanded in 1921, with its work subsumed into the Imperial War Graves Commission, there was dissatisfaction back in Australia not only amongst families, but also the RSSILA (forerunner to the RSL) and different public bodies.

Chapter 5 focuses on the Imperial War Graves Commission itself, and the way that its role changed over time. At first, it held itself aloof both physically and emotionally, from the bereaved of the Empire. It was essentially a political body, and as time passed the  Commonwealth War Grave cemetery, with its row upon row of identical headstones, came to have a different meaning for generations who had not known or loved the individual who was buried there.

In Chapters 6 and 7 focus returns to Australia, and the ways that Australians expressed their grief. Chapter 6 looks at the memorials erected, the photographs cherished and the nature of the 66-letter inscriptions that families were allowed to place on the gravestones. As returned soldiers began dying in Australia, the question of ‘official’ headstones in local cemeteries arose.  Lost sons began to be commemorated on their parents’ gravestones and horticulture began to be linked with commemorative spaces. The 1991 repatriation of an unknown Australian soldier in 1991 reminds us that grief carried across generations, although now it was imbued with other political and nationalistic themes.  Chapter 7 ‘Pilgrimage’ looks at the personal journeys that some families were able to make to the grave of their loved one. Most Australians at first accepted that would never make the trip to see it, and especially immediately after the war, the Government actively discouraged trips to the politically unstable Gallipoli. Those who travelled often had a keen awareness that they were doing something unavailable to most Australians, and many felt a personal obligation to share their experiences with other families through photographs and letters. A formal pilgrimage was organized in June 1929. And as we all know, a pilgrimage to ANZAC Cove has become a rite of passage for young Australian travellers- one that I find rather problematic, especially with recent Australian governments’ obsessions with creating memorials on other people’s land.

This book is an academic monograph, but a very human one.  The argument of the book is the juxtaposition between administrative efficiency and personal grief, and this is reflected in Ziino’s use of his sources. As well as the bureaucratic archives of the Commonwealth War Graves Commission and other bodies, Ziino draws on personal letters and communications in family archives, and the human stories found in newspaper articles.

As he points out in the conclusion, if physical distance marked the Australian experience of battlefield death, it is now a chronological distance that shapes our response.

Australians are no longer so distant from the graves of their dead. Modern transport has telescoped distance and made travel to the battlefields possible for thousands of Australians who now undertake such pilgrimages. Yet distance remains important to Australians’ relationships to the Great War. While it has contracted physically, distance has lengthened chronologically. Today’s generation is reconceptualising the legacy of that war…These modern pilgrims are expressing grief, but the nature and meaning of that grief is not the same as for those who endured it first hand. Time and further conflicts have intervened in their memory of war. (p. 190-1)

Source: My own copy

‘The Labour of Loss’ by Joy Damousi


1999, 163 p & notes

It really wouldn’t have surprised me if this book had been reissued in the last five years, but it wasn’t. It would have done very well in the deluge of books about WWI between 2014 and 2018, and dealing as it does with loss experienced during and resulting from World Wars, it fits very neatly into the  ‘history of the emotions’ school of historical enquiry, which has high prominence at the moment.  But it wasn’t reprinted, and so it remains a fore-runner to much work that has been completed in its wake.

As Damousi says in her introduction

This book examines the stories of those for whom loss in war remained the experience through which they understood themselves, and through which they shaped their lives. After the wars ended, their lives had been irrevocably changed through continuing grief, for the burden of memory would remain with them as they attempted to rebuild an internal and external world without those to whom they had been so fundamentally attached. (p. 6)

Damousi is very conscious that she is dealing with ‘white’ soldiers and the experiences of their families, and mentions in several places that the burden of memory was often disregarded for indigenous soldiers.  A strong gender theme runs through her analysis.

The book is divided into two parts. The first deals with the First World War, the second part deals with the Second World War.

Part I : The First World War

1. Theatres of Grief, Theatres of Loss

2. The Sacrificial Mother

3. A Fathers Loss

4. The War Widow and the Cost of Memory

5. Returned Limbless Soldiers: Identity through Loss

Part II The Second World War

6. Absence as Loss on the Homefront and the Battlefront

7. Grieving Mothers

8. A War Widow’s Mourning.


The themes of the grieving mother and wife are dealt with in both sections, while other themes e.g. soldiers writing to bereaved families, the return of limbless soldiers, or absence from home are dealt with in one section only. I’m not sure that there is a qualitative difference between these emotions and events between the two world wars, and perhaps the decision to locate a topic in one war rather than the other depended on the sources that Damousi uses.

As Damousi points out in Chapter 1, when a soldier died at the front, it was quite common for his friends in the battalion to write to his grieving family themselves. Sometimes bereaved families ‘at home’ drew their son’s friends to themselves like adopted sons. While writing these letters to other families at home, the soldiers were almost rehearsing their own possible death.  Meanwhile, back on the homefront, delayed letters continued to arrive from sons who had been killed , and bereaved families forged their own links with each other.




Chapter 2 and Chapter 7 both deal with grieving mothers, but in World War I the mother figure had a political as well as familial role. Not only was the mother lauded for “giving up her son” but the Conscription debates drew heavily on the image of the mother both as  the one who sacrificed, but also the one who determined, men’s fates.  ‘The Blood Vote’, for instance, placed the burden of decision onto mothers, rather than fathers or sisters.

Yet when it came to financial support for widowed mothers who lost their sole breadwinner, mothers soon found the limits to compassion for their sacrifice. After being giving a prominent role in the immediate post-WWI period, by the 1930s mothers found themselves shunted to the side of parades and their pensions became increasingly inadequate over time, especially when additional payments were granted to widows but not mothers.

In the World War II section on mothers, Damousi makes similar observations, drawing on the diary of Una Falkiner, whose son died in a plane accident in September 1942, and Hedwige Williams whose son  Charles Rowland Williams died in Germany in May 1943. This chapter -, shaped perhaps by the sources available? – seemed to me to have a deeper emotional timbre than the corresponding WWI chapter.

Chapters 4 and 8 deal with war widows. What is common to the experience in both wars was that the war widow tended to become public property as her lifestyle and life choices were judged by others to determine whether she qualified for a widow’s pension. It became rather unedifying as neighbours, other widows and mothers informed on those who they felt were ‘undeserving’. Again, in relation to the Second World War section, the same themes recur in the experience of women in the two wars, but in Damousi’s account she draws more heavily on a particular source – in this case, Jessie Vasey, the widow of General George Vasey who died in an Australian plane crash when he and several other high-ranking defence officers died near Cairns. She channelled her grief into political and charitable action for war widows but, once again, after the immediate post-war years, women found themselves and their sacrifices pushed aside.

The correspondence between the Vaseys also features strongly in Chapter 6  ‘Absence as Loss’ where Damousi  draws on Vasey’s letters back home to illustrate the yearning for domesticity expressed in much wartime correspondence. Interestingly, I have just finished listening to an excellent podcast series called Letters of Love in World War II, where a British couple range over philosophy, yearning and domestic trivia in their 1000-letter correspondence. Again, it is perhaps not so much a qualitative difference between the two wars, as a question of sources.

The depth of sources has possibly also influenced Damousi’s decision to deal with fathers’ grief in World War I, and not in World War II. In Chapter 3, ‘A Father’s Loss’ she examines the extensive archive of John Roberts, an accountant with the Melbourne Tramways Board, who lost his son Frank on 1 September 1918 at Mont St Quentin. Perhaps there was a particular plangency in losing a son so close to the Armistice; or perhaps the almost-obsessive pursuit of every possible way of documenting and making contact with those who may have seen, or been with, his now-departed son reflected Roberts’ own personal approach to traumatic events. In either case, Roberts’ correspondence is a rich and complex archive of grief for the historian.  More generally, however, fathers maintained a more prominent public part than mothers and widows in commemorating their sons through political organizations and they leveraged their ability to influence policies.  In the Second World War, however, fathers (many of whom had served themselves in World War I) found that the reactivation of war challenged their ideas of patriotism and their own earlier sacrifice. They often found themselves harking back to their lost pre-WWI world, which they had been unable to secure.

Of course, World War I and World War II was interspersed by the experience of the Depression. It forced hard decisions about sacrifice and worth in finding and holding scarce employment. As Damousi points out in Chapter 5, initially there was strong pressure for governments, councils and private employees to offer jobs to returned WWI soldiers, and particularly soldiers who had been injured. However, when jobs became scarce,  returned men without injuries were preferred employees, and war widows were expected to yield their jobs to returned soldiers.

I’ve been thinking a lot about the title of this book.  I’m not sure if the loss that she mentions here involves “labour” as such, although it certainly was a life-changing event for those who were left. But then I find myself thinking of the title of Shakespeare’s play “Love’s Labour Lost” which to me has its echoes in this title. For, without actually spelling it out in her title,  what comes through in Damousi’s examination of memory and grief, is “love”.

AWW2019I have included this on the Australian Womens Writers Challenge database for 2019.

Source: La Trobe University Library


Movie: They Shall Not Grow Old

Released for Armistice Day, this film by Peter Jackson (of Lord of the Rings fame) takes 100 hours of black and white footage from the Imperial Museum, slows it down and transforms it into colour. The most striking thing is the faces. They look right at the camera- and you. Unlike the generic ‘soldier’ who flashes onto scratchy black-and-white film then disappears, each one of these faces is distinctive. The voice-over is a montage of audio snippets from 120 oral histories -600 hours in all- that reveal the commonalities of the war experience from these men who clearly come from such different classes and backgrounds. There are no names, no ‘iconic’ battles, no dates.  It’s excellent.

‘Best We Forget: The War for White Australia 1914-1918’


2018, 272p

There are some books whose time has come, and I think that Peter Cochrane’s latest book falls into that category. Released by Text – a general publisher as distinct from an academic one – it comes at the end of a five-year tsunami of books and features about World War I and our ‘birth as a nation’ and ‘ANZAC character’.  These tropes have been pushed very heavily by governments, particularly (but not exclusively) by the present conservative government. But in this book, with its cleverly twisted title, Cochrane argues that the seeds of Australia’s involvement in World War I began in the half-century before 1914, when a self-governing and increasingly prosperous Australia began to feel the chill of its geographical location so far from ‘mother’ England, and the ominous size of the Asian populations that surround this island nation. It’s almost impossible to read this book today without a consciousness that, with the rise of China in the 21st century and the United States led by an erratic president, there is much in common between us today and the politicians and leaders of 1914.

Cochrane’s  book starts and finishes with a discussion of myth-making. Much of the popular ‘birth of a nation’, ‘mateship’ and ‘ANZAC character’ rhetoric springs from the writings of war-correspondent Charles Bean. But as Cochrane points out, Bean had been developing his argument that the Australian was a new type ‘hammered out of old stock’ and imbued with all the qualities necessary for military greatness, particularly mateship, long before World War I (p.7).  The true ‘Australian native’ was a clean man, a cleanness found ‘in the blood’ of the Anglo-Saxon race. He took this mental template with him to his WWI reporting and to his magisterial The Official History of Australia in the War of 1914-1918 which shaped Australia’s view of WWI for decades after. As he notes in his closing chapter, Bean’s characterization has strongly influenced popular memory, most particularly the shock jocks, right-wing politicians and allied intellectuals (and I would add, ambitious Directors of the Australian War Memorial as well) ever since.

But, Cochrane argues, this is not the whole story. It’s a rather uncomfortable fact that the first issue that the newly federated Commonwealth of Australia dealt with in Parliament was the Immigration Restriction Act, more popularly known as the White Australia policy.  Australia had passed race-based legislation right from the 1850s, in response to Chinese migration, and in 1901 as its opening act, it reasserted its identity as a ‘white man’s country’. This could be, and was, framed as an pledge of loyalty to the British Empire, but Britain for her part, by now had her own strategic interests in encouraging and protecting her relationship with Japan instead.  And as Germany became more bellicose and Europe more volatile, Britain proposed outsourcing responsibility for the security of the Indian Pacific to Japan – Japan!!- as a well-resourced ally instead. Cochrane argues that Australia’s willingness to fight in Europe was a way of proving our loyalty to Britain, to whom we were tied by race and culture, and leveraging that loyalty to ensure that Britain continued to look to the interests of her daughter Australia, and not the new ally, Japan.

As Cochrane argues

…this idea of Australia as an Anglo-Saxon citadel, the last bastion of the purest and finest white blood, entirely ‘clean’, shaped defence thinking in Australia from the late colonial period onwards, in company with the fear that Australia might be left to fight an Asian invader alone. More importantly, this fear was the strategic concern behind Australia’s commitment to the First World War. The primary objective, of course, was the defeat of Germany, the survival of Britain and the empire, and the maintenance of those strategic, economic and sentimental ties that most Australians cherished. But most Australians also cherished their racial purity and that too was at stake, or so it seemed in the years before the war and during the war itself. (p. 9)

We are uncomfortable with the Immigration Restriction Act today, but at the time Australian politicians on all sides – liberals, conservatives, labour interests- saw racial purity as fundamental to upward progress of this newly federated nation.

The White Australia policy was not merely about keeping other types out. It was a desirable end in itself, racial homogeneity being a precondition for social reform and a high standard of living, for the constitutional vigour of the race, the high ideals, the upward evolutionary trajectory associated with the new Commonwealth. There was a vast reservoir of emotional investment in the coming nation.  ‘Race pollution’ was akin to ruin, while race purity was embraced as a positive ideal, the indispensible prerequisite for the principles on which white Australian social and political life was based. (p.46)

Cochrane’s book traces through the increasing anxiety from the 1870s onwards as Europeans moved into the South Pacific, evoking fears that a foreign power such as France, Germany or Russia might use Pacific islands as a launching pad for attacks, or worse – invasion, of Australia. British garrison troops were withdrawn from Australia in 1870, and Britain remained largely unmoved by Australian pleas to annex New Guinea, the New Hebrides, and the Solomons, as they had done with Fiji. Britain by this time was more concerned with European stability. Australia’s fear of Asiatic races was long established, burnished by the veneer of Social Darwinism.  The Anglo-Japanese commercial treaty of 1894 gave Japan, a powerful nation state with its own imperialist visions, honorary membership of ‘civilized Europe’ (p.41)  This set up an immediate conflict between the new Commonwealth of Australia, which saw itself as the last citadel of Anglo-Saxon race purity in the Pacific, and Great Britain which wanted its ally and business partner Japan exempted from the Immigration Restriction Act.

This anxiety over Japan explains Australia’s willingness to expand its military preparedness prior to World War I, introducing its civilian military scheme, and its panting readiness to assist Britain as a show of good faith. It’s as if Australia were the jilted child, jealous and edgy when a new adopted child is showered with favours. There is a strong sense that Australia was being ‘played’ by Britain.  While not sanitizing Billy Hughes as such, the book does make sense – if you accept the White Australia premise- of Hughes’ desire to introduce conscription to keep the troop numbers up, in order to bolster Australia’s position in the Pacific in the post-war carve-up at Versailles.

At the domestic level, politicians made no secret at all of the anxiety over Japan and Asia. It’s right there in their speeches, alongside fear of Germany and distress over Belgium. It was voiced on all political sides, and often. Cochrane doesn’t have to look hard to find examples, although just a quick survey of the newspapers of the time on Trove highlights that Germany was portrayed as the more potent foe. As with other histories that pack a punch, once a historian has alerted the reader to a phenomenon, it suddenly seems to be everywhere, hidden in plain sight. There seemed to be no embarrassment about proclaiming and defending whiteness and ‘cleanliness’ at the political level. However Cochrane does not conflate this political rhetoric at a national level, with the personal motivation that an individual soldier might have felt to enlist.

Cochrane does not deny the potency of the other spurs to military action, like fear of Germany and disgust over Belgium, but he does raise the question over why the anti-Asiatic rhetoric has been expunged from our popular memory of World War I.  This is a theme that he returns in the final chapter of the book, especially in the light of the Centenary of WWI:

Best We Forget is an ironic title. We do well to remember the Great War: the battlefield ordeals and the soldiers’ sacrifice. Yet, in the course of bringing a nation into being and fostering it to maturity, sacrifice takes many forms. We might also remember that nations are built as much in peace as in war; negotiators and conciliators count as much as warriors; inventors and visionaries have shaped Australia’s evolution as least as decisively as have the great generals; and, thankfully, debate and compromise have done more to shape our political culture than have the bayonet or the gun. (p. 229)

I think that, especially coming at the end of a long period of historical reflection, this book will be a stayer. Once alerted to the anti-Asian racism that underpins much of Australia’s war rhetoric, you can’t unsee it.  Nor can you sing ‘Advance Australia Fair’, written in 1878, without remembering that the word ‘fair’ can  (and at the time, did) have racial overtones.

This is an important book, well written as all of Cochrane’s work is, accessible and controversial. It places the war within a continuum of Australian history, rather than as a purely external disruptive event, and forces us to expand our view of ‘loyalty to the Empire’ to encompass uncomfortable truths.  Perhaps it’s not so much ‘Best to Forget’ but certainly ‘Best to Recognize’.

Sourced from: Yarra Plenty Regional Library

My rating: 9/10



‘Six-Bob-a-Day Tourist’ by Janet Morice


1985,  86p.

It didn’t take long for Thomas Gardner of  117 George Street East Melbourne to enlist in what was to become  the Great War. Due to the time difference, news of Britain’s declaration of war reached Australia on the same day that it was made (5 August 1914). Just three weeks later, Thomas Gardner, aged 33, had joined the AIF, E Company, 7th battalion as one of the ‘Six Bob-a-Day Tourists’, the deprecating term given to the highly paid Australian soldier, whose generous pay outstripped that of many working men at home and the soldiers of allied countries.  Without wanting to diminish it in any way,  Tom’s story ticks all the WWI narrative features that have come to be associated with ‘our ANZACs’ : sent out to the Training Camp in Broadmeadows; the sea voyage; waiting around in Egypt; Gallipoli; Lone Pine; France; hospital in England; back to France; sent home; discharged on grounds of ill-health; dead.  You can read about Thomas Gardner’s war and see pictures of him at the National Anzac Centre website.

I was attracted to reading this book not so much for Tom’s story on the front, but for the interactions with his family back home.  Tom had been rather peripatetic in the years leading up to the war, travelling from town to town as a wood-turner, but he returned often to 117 George Street to visit his mother, sisters Mabel, Adeline and Edith, and niece Cecily and nephew Guy.  His widowed sister Mabel re-married in June 1914, just before war was declared.  She had matriculated from PLC, and after returning to Melbourne following her first husband’s death after just four years of marriage, worked as a secretary, learned Esperanto, and was involved in debating and literary societies.

As Morice notes:

Two months after their wedding, war was declared, and at home the verbal battles raged. Tom was a volunteer and his mother and two of his sisters took the patriotic stance. Mabel and [husband] Will, however, took the opposite view. Will did not volunteer partly because he had just married, but mainly because he and Mabel were both pacifists (p.45)

Mabel and Will were drawn to the lectures and anti-war stance of Dr Charles Strong of the Australian Church.  Mabel, and her childhood friend Eleanor Moore, were present at the inaugural meeting of the Sisterhood for International Peace at the Russell Street Australian Church, and became the correspondence secretaries for the Sisterhood. She also joined the Free Religious Fellowship, an organization with a literary base that included Vance and Nettie Palmer, Louis Essen, Frank Wilmot (Furnley Maurice) and Alan Villiers.  It was headed by Mr Frederick Sinclaire, the former minister of the Unitarian church in East Melbourne.  She used her elocution skills by lecturing on pacifism for the Peace Movement, and hosted sewing groups and letter-writing and pamphlet-printing sessions at her home in East Melbourne. During the conscription debates she attended meetings and marches for anti-conscription.

Her mother and sisters, as strong patriots, disapproved of her political activism but how did her brother Tom – serving in the same way that she was protesting-  feel about this anti-war political involvement? In a letter from November 1916, after the conscription proposal had been defeated, he wrote that he was sorry that politics had led to tension between Mabel and her sister Adeline:

I was very glad to see Hughes’s proposal ousted….If conscription had been carried, goodness knows where it would have stopped.  And you can tell Addie this- that were I a married man in Australia (I am not speaking of Belgium or France) and had children who were depended on me, I would not deem it my duty to enlist until every eligible single male had gone… Re your conscription remarks.  You are very violent, my dear, peace-loving sister.  Well, let me lower “me breff” while I tell you that a fellow named Tom who lived at 117 George Street, East Melbourne, also voted ‘No’. And he knew a lot of other fellows, who knew a couple of thousand other fellows who voted ‘No.’ So I’m blest if I know.  (p. 55)

This book features only Tom’s letters, not those sent by his family.  The book is organized chronologically, with the focus on Tom’s war, intersected by Mabel’s peace activities back home. Through Tom’s letters, we see him becoming increasingly disillusioned by the war, until by June 1918, at the age of 38 he described himself as “so nervy I can’t bother about anything.”  You just know that this is not going to end well.

At only 85 pages, this is not a long book, and it rattles along at a pace.  It combines imagined scenes with excerpts from Tom’s letters, illustrations, and contextual information.  The author,  the grand-daughter of Mabel, has rather delicately omitted the details of Tom’s encounter with venereal disease which is mentioned on the National Anzac page, and as a reader you can sense her sympathy for both Tom and Mabel.

The book is not easily available today, and you’ll need to turn to secondhand sellers if you want to find it.  It puts a very human face on WWI, and it complicates the image we have of the family left ‘at home’.  Family members could love and grieve for their ‘boy’ overseas, and they could campaign for peace back home as well. Some family members expressed their love through patriotism; others through fighting to put an end to war.


This is my first review for 2018 for the Australian Women Writers Challenge.

‘In the Shadow of Gallipoli’ by Robert Bollard


2013, 224 p.

I know that historians often get railroaded into a title for their book by marketing-oriented publishers, and I can’t help thinking that the title of this 2013 book was chosen with one eye on the then-upcoming centenary of Gallipoli in April 2015. There is, in fact, very little about Gallipoli in it at all. The content is far better conveyed by the sub-title ‘The hidden history of Australia in World War I’.  Although even that isn’t particularly accurate either, because much of what is written in this book is not ‘hidden’ at all: Jauncey covered much of it in 1935 and Ernest Scott (available online) covered the rest the following year in his Volume 11 of the Official History of Australia in the War of 1914-1918.

Nonetheless, given the hoopla which surrounded Gallipoli in 2015,  it was important that there be a corrective to the view that the whole of Australia wanted to rush off to fight on foreign fields and the equally erroneous idea that Gallipoli was the ‘birth of a nation’.  This book is an eminently readable counter-balance, aimed at a general audience, that examines the division and acrimony at home in Australia during the war.

There are eight chapters, titled with a quote and descriptor.

  1. ‘To the last man and the last shilling’: Patriotism triumphant
  2. ‘If you want the 44-hour week, take it!’: The strike wave begins
  3. ‘Wherever green is worn’: Irish discontent
  4. ‘I will curse the British Empire with my dying breath’: The first conscription referendum
  5. ‘Fifteen years for fifteen words’: The empire strikes back
  6. ‘Solidarity for ever’: The Great Strike of 1917
  7. ‘We’ll burn the town down!’: The second referendum
  8. ‘Plunge this city into darkness’: The peace turns ugly.

It seems to me that historians write about Australia during the war through a prism which, while recognizing other contemporaneous influences, hones in on one particular focus.  Judith Smart focuses on women; Jauncey focuses on pacifists; McKernan on mainstream churches, and here Bollard picks up on the unions in particular. Chapter 2 takes readers back to the ‘working man’s paradise’, the Harvester judgment and arbitration. He refers in many places to the Broken Hill – or as he terms it the ‘Barrier’ -miners, and his chapter on the Great Strike is probably the strongest in the book. I liked the final chapter, too, where he examines the role of returned soldiers in the strikes that exploded during the wars immediately following the war.

With the focus on unions and resistance, this is a very political book, with few individuals (other than politicians) stepping forward to centre stage.  It is a book of organizations more than people, drawn from newspaper reports and government files.  His reference list is fairly dated, and women don’t get that much of a look-in here, other than as part of a crowd, and there are no families.

But what he does really well is tell a good story. The narrative is chronological, it is very clearly written, and it’s a seductively easy read. It’s a good antidote to the hefty, celebratory WWI books with big single-word titles that have burdened the nation’s bookshelves over the past few years.

Sourced from: Yarra Plenty Regional Library (e-book)

Read because: in preparation for my talk to Heidelberg Historical Society on the conscription referendums of 1916 and 1917.


‘Australian Churches at War: Attitudes and Activities of the Major Churches 1914-1918’ by Michael McKernan

Independent Church Melbourne Vic.

Independent Church, Melbourne (now St Michaels). The Burke and Wills statue to the right of the church is in the middle of the intersection, its original location.. It’s a well-travelled statue. SLV image

Churches tend to sprout exhortations of “Peace!” especially at Christmas time, and it’s quite a jolt to read of the bellicose and jingoistic approach taken by the major Christian (and especially Protestant) churches during the First World War.  Michael McKernan’s book Australian Churches at War published in 1980, is based on his PhD thesis and is probably not easy to find today. However, there’s a (relatively) more recent transcript of an interview with McKernan on the now-defunct ABCRN program ‘The Religion Report’ that you might be interested in here.

The 1911 census which was the closest one to the outbreak of WWI showed that 98% of white Australians claimed to be Christians at the time. Only .24% of the population claimed to have ‘no religion’.  One of the immediate responses of the declaration of Australian’s ready involvement in WWI was a call to prayer, and to the churches the people flocked. What they heard there in those early weeks of war was to become the stance of the major Protestant churches throughout the war: the view that the war was God’s way of calling people to the churches for a moral awakening.

It is the argument of this study…that churchmen had synthesised war and Christianity so that support for the war effort became an act of high Christian virtue … churchmen accepted the war as part of God’s providence for the world; through sacrifice, suffering and devotion to duty men would be renewed, lifted to a higher, more thoroughly Christian plane. Their concern was not, primarily, for the welfare of the Empire; rather they hoped that war would transform Australian society. (Ch. 8)

It was this hope for moral transformation through sacrifice that brought the major churches to the forefront in encouraging enlistment, and later conscription.

The Catholic Church, at the start of the war, also encouraged enlistments amongst their parishioners in what they saw, along with the Protestant churches, as a ‘just war’, and as a way of proving their loyalty as part of Australian society.  During the first conscription referendum in October 1916, the Catholic Church hierarchy advised that it was a political matter, and one in which the church would not be involved.  Mannix, still under the authority of Archbishop Carr, spoke out only twice.  One was a three minute speech where after congratulating Prime Minister Hughes for allowing the referendum, he said that Australia had suffered enough. The other occasion was at a fete in Preston on 22 October, where he defended his right to speak, at a secular place, at a secular function and in his personal capacity. This, he said, contrasted with the Protestant laity who spoke from the pulpit, week after week.

However, Catholic opinion hardened against the war by the time of the second conscription referendum on 20 December 1917. This is generally attributed to the influence of the newly ordained Archbishop Mannix, and as a response to the Irish rebellion, but McKernan suggests an additional theological motivation. Once  the Allies had shifted from a position of checking Germany’s aggression to one of  jockeying for economic advantage by destroying Germany’s economy and industry, Mannix no longer considered it a ‘just war’. Moreover, Mannix was enormously popular amongst working-class Catholics, and the laity pushed the church into a stronger anti-war and anti-conscription position.

Chaplains were appointed in accordance with the religious affiliations reported in the 1911 Census. They only had to serve for one year, which gave them a different perspective to that of the troops they served. Some chaplains accompanied soldiers on the ‘voyage only’, others were embedded with ‘their men’, especially in Egypt.  Catholic chaplains maintained their focus on providing the sacrament by ensuring that there was a chaplain available at each point of an injured soldier’s progress through ambulance station and hospital.  Among Protestant chaplains, sectarian lines often became blurred, and instead of  insisting on ‘moral regeneration’ as was the stance ‘at home’, many chaplains came to realize a man, outwardly irreligious, could do good things. Such chaplains were welcomed by their troops and the army hierarchy: those who wanted to maintain the sectarian divisions that were rife back in Australia were given short shrift.

There were exceptions to this generally pro-war stance amongst Protestant churches, but not many.  One of them was Rev Leyton Richards, of the Collins Street Independent Church shown above, who argued for the role of conscience.  Congregationalists, a small number of Methodists, one or two Baptists, Rev Charles Strong from the Australian Church and Rev. F. Sinclaire from the Free Religious Fellowship were among those who spoke out.  The Unitarian congregation, from whom Sinclaire had split, was pro-war (a stance I did not expect).  McKernan notes that pacifists with an appeal to conscience won the tolerance and respect of their fellow-ministers, but not those whose opposition sprang from the political realm, outside the church.  They tended to be ostracized and demoted.

Even when peace was declared, the major Protestant churches had not moved on from the ‘moral regeneration’ stance that they had adopted during the first weeks of the war. The sectarian rigidities that had emerged during the war were to grow even firmer and last for the next fifty-odd years.

McKernan concludes his study thus:

It has been the argument of this book that clergymen never broke themselves clear of the events, never gave themselves the opportunity to see events in perspective so that they were ever reacting rather than acting. Their initial response to the war determined their position until peace was declared… In 1917 and 1918 Australian clergymen took no part in the growing worldwide discussion about a negotiated peace; instead they merely repeated their belief that peace would not come until the nation had reformed. And so they concentrated on reform, personal and national. They were always spectators of the course of the war, fussing with the side issues but refusing to come to terms with the main drama. (p 172-3)

It’s impossible to know, of course, how Christian churches would respond to a world war today, especially one where the ‘enemy’ was not Christian.  As Judith Smart has noted in relation to the pro-conscription women’s movement, it’s not particularly fashionable to look at the conservative, establishment view of WWI. Probably as a reflection of my own politics, while reading this book I found myself bristling at the patronizing moral stance of the major Protestant churches, and cheering those courageous enough to really grapple intellectually and spiritually with the question of war and peace. McKernan does us a service, however sobering, in highlighting just how rare this was.