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War and Australia

Australians are justly proud that, politically, the federation of their nation was achieved in 1901 not through violence or civil war, but by a peaceful democratic process. Of course, this does not mean that Australian history is not marked by bloody conflicts at home and overseas fought before and after Federation. Frontier wars fought between Indigenous people and European settlers have been recorded in a variety of complex ways, including orally transmitted accounts of killings and massacres, but unfortunately none of these events are represented yet on the UNESCO Memory of the World Australian Register. However, other aspects of the story of Australia at war are well covered in the Register.

In archival terms, war has had something in common with the gold rushes, in that the events are so momentous that thousands of people who might not otherwise feel inclined to make personal records, do so. Their experiences of travel, adventure, triumph and tragedy fuel a sense of being part of key moments of historical change. As a result, the records they leave us can be very rich.

One hundred years on from the First World War, this interest is at an all-time high. Film and television dramas and documentaries are filling our screens with recreations of the sights the original Anzacs saw. In April 2015 an initiative known as ‘Camp Gallipoli’ even offered people ‘the opportunity to sleep out under the same stars as the original Anzacs did 100 years ago’. It seems that we yearn to see through the eyes of those now long-dead men who served on Gallipoli. In fact, there is only one way we can actually do this. ‘With the Dardanelles Expedition: heroes of Gallipoli’ is the only surviving cine film taken on Gallipoli. It is held by the Australian War Memorial and has been inscribed on the UNESCO Memory of the World Australian Register as Ashmead-Bartlett’s Gallipoli Film (1915).

The film was made by British war correspondent Ellis Ashmead-Bartlett and official photographer Ernest Brooks, with inter-titles by the Australian official war correspondent, Charles Bean. It was purchased for the Australian War Memorial in 1919. Filmed in the middle part of the 1915 campaign, it features Australian, New Zealand and British troops in military operations and daily life. Ashmead-Bartlett’s camera, an Aeroscope, was a modern but still bulky. In viewing his flickering images we should recall the formidable difficulties of talking cinematograph pictures on the battlefield. In August 1915 Ashmead-Bartlett came under enemy shellfire while filming and was buried by dirt. He continued his dangerous and exhausting project nevertheless. The result is an intense and powerfully intimate piece of film made more poignant by its age, and silence.

Ashmead-Bartlett’s early dispatches had praised the Australians’ efforts at Gallipoli but, as the campaign wore on, he became increasingly convinced of its futility. Another journalist, Australian Keith Murdoch, visited Gallipoli in early September and needed only four days to come to the same conclusion. At the war correspondents’ camp on the nearby island of Imbros, Bartlett and Murdoch hatched a plan to try and beat the censor and get word to British authorities as to the real state of the campaign. Ashmead-Bartlett would write his observations in the form of a personal letter to British Prime Minister Herbert Asquith, and Murdoch would deliver it. In the event the letter was confiscated from Murdoch in Marseilles, so on his way to London Murdoch wrote his own version, this time for his friend Andrew Fisher, the Australian Prime Minister.

Although the Anzac troops were ‘determined and dauntless men’, Murdoch wrote, the campaign was a ‘costly and bloody fiasco’, one of the most ‘terrible chapters in our history’. Australian lives were being squandered. Murdoch’s fellow journalist Charles Bean later wrote that, although Murdoch made some massive overstatements, there was ‘much truth’ behind them. The letter was sent to British Prime Minister Asquith as well as to Fisher, and in Britain it was printed as a state paper. It had a powerful impact: General Sir Ian Hamilton, commander of the Mediterranean Expeditionary Force, was recalled, and shortly afterwards the Allied troops were withdrawn from the Gallipoli peninsula. The Australian government was henceforward more involved in decisions about the use of Australian troops under British command. Keith Murdoch’s reputation as a journalist of talent and influence, meanwhile, was firmly established. His involvement in the affair helped him lay the foundations for his family’s global media empire. His son Rupert donated Keith’s typed copy of the letter to the National Library of Australia in 1970, and it is now inscribed on the Australian Register as The Gallipoli Letter, written by Keith Murdoch, 23 September 1915.

At the end of the First World War, senior staff at the Public Library of New South Wales recognised the importance of capturing records as quickly as possible. Its Principal Librarian, William Ifould, advertised in newspapers throughout Australia, New Zealand and the United Kingdom that it wished to purchase diaries from those who had served. The Records of the European War Collecting Project, established by the Trustees of the Mitchell Library, State Library of New South Wales in 1918 was the first of its kind in Australia, predating the collecting project undertaken by the Australian War Memorial by some years. The 236 diary collections so acquired are among the most recent inscriptions on the Australian Register.

Ifould had a clear purpose. He wanted ‘diaries actually written up from day to day and not copies’. Records demonstrating a ‘psychological’ and ‘sentimental’ point of view were what he was after. At the time the term ‘sentimental’ had not acquired the pejorative meaning it has now. It meant expressiveness of emotions and feelings. Ifould knew that personal records would not necessarily contain strategic or tactical insights into military actions. He wanted ‘the daily intimate records of individual men, their hopes and fears and feelings generally’. At the time, it was unusual to attach value to records like this, but Ifould’s far-sightedness allowed the Library to build a collection which is now of critical interest to historians and everyone interested in the Australian experience of war, for it is the voice of the ordinary person at war which Australians now most long to hear.

Turning now to the Second World War, there are two inscriptions on the Register. One is Thomas Burstow’s handwritten diary, the only extant account written by an eyewitness civilian of the bombing of Darwin by the Japanese in February and March 1942. Burstow was a draftsman from the Lands Department who had moved to Darwin in 1940. On the afternoon of 19 February, the first and most disastrous day of the bombing, he picked up a blank address book and began what he called a ‘Rough Diary’ to describe what he saw. Like Keith Murdoch, he was an eyewitness to some of the most momentous events in Australian history, but his record was meant for no other reader than himself. In a firm, unhurried hand, the entries describe the number of bombs in each raid, the damage to ships and buildings, and the numbers killed, wounded and missing. Burstow became an Air Raid Precautions Warden, so he was well placed to make accurate observations. Despite surely experiencing fear and constant anxiety, the only emotion expressed in the diary is Burstow’s anger at the behaviour of civilian men seeking evacuation. The diary ends on 26 March 1942, when Burstow joined the Army. The diary was donated to the Northern Territory diary, via the Returned and Services League, in 1992, and is inscribed on the Australian Register as Rough Diary: Air Raids on Darwin and Immediate Alerts.

Finally, the Register includes records of a different type. The Displaced Persons Migrant Selection Documents 1947-1953 were not made not by eyewitnesses, but by the Commonwealth government to administer one of its post-Second World War migration schemes. During the war many people in eastern and central Europe were taken from their occupied homelands to work in German industry. Others fled their homes in the face of occupation. After the war they were unable or unwilling to return, and many were living in refugee camps in Germany. In 1947, the Australian government agreed to include such people under its Displaced Persons’ Resettlement Scheme. For a country whose immigration policies since Federation had always prioritised people of Anglo-Celtic heritage, it was a significant political and demographic shift. The records have a practical value for migrants and their descendants because they include biographical detail about every member of a family unit. Beyond this, they also have a very strong emotional significance. Because they were created in the Displaced Persons camps of Germany and Austria, they are a tangible connection between the old family identity in a European environment, and a new identity as citizens of a nation on the other side of the world.

All together the records include some 170,000 personal dossiers, and the collection is one of the largest bodies of records on the Australian Register, over 400 metres of records in 206 series, held by the National Archives of Australia.

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