Daily Archives: September 5, 2017

‘The Crying Years: Australia’s Great War’ by Peter Stanley

cryingyears

2017, 239 p. & notes

It’s a rather touching thought that even a historian as steeped in knowledge of World War I as military/social historian Peter Stanley could be inspired by a cache of Great War images.  After all, his thirty five year career spawned thirty publications, he worked at the Australian War Memorial for 27 years and has been involved in many of the debates about Australia’s military heritage.  But, as he explains in the introduction, he was introduced to a collection of images – many of which he had never seen before- in a talk given to the Canberra Great War Study Group by Nicola Mackay-Sim, the Pictures Curator at the National Library of Australia in 2012. The NLA featured many of those images in its Keepsakes exhibition in 2015, but this book, The Crying Years is not, as Stanley is at pains to point out, a catalogue of that exhibition.  Instead, this book that Stanley wrote in conjunction with the  NLA, draws on other images and artefacts held by the National Library of Australia and integrates them into an informed and nuanced chronological account of the Great War seen through the eyes of Australians as

civilians and soldiers, men and women, adults and children, rich and poor, pro- and anti- conscription, powerful and powerless, white and black, at home and overseas. (p.vi)

By widening the lens in this way, Stanley is arguing that the popular idea that the war can be equated with the AIF’s part is “egregiously mistaken” (p.vii). You’ve seen the shelves of such weighty paperback books that see the war solely in terms of men and battles overseas,( probably moved closer to the front of the store for Father’s Day), where the name of the male author is as big as the particular wartime battle that he’s choosing to focus on.  Instead, Stanley is one of several prominent historians, who under the Honest History umbrella, promote the precept of ‘not only, but also’.  The Honest History website proclaims that “Australia is more than ANZAC, and always has been”. Likewise, the Great War is more than men and battles, and it was here in Australia as well as overseas, and this approach underpins this book.

The book is arranged in six chapters, one for each year of the war.  He includes 1919, and extends beyond that year to touch on the soldier settlement schemes and ANZAC commemoration in succeeding years.  This approach is similar to Joan Beaumont’s Broken Nation, and indeed this book forms an excellent illustrated companion to Beaumont’s book.  Not only does a year-by-year structure emphasize the length of the war, but it also captures the emotional swells of the wartime experience as the news from the front filtered ‘home’ and the media and organs of power acted in concert to promulgate ‘unity’ in patriotism.  The tenor of the text closely follows the lines of Stanley’s section of The War at Home, in an even more accessible  format.

The text weaves between images of photographs, maps, letters, cartoons, newspaper articles, posters, artwork and ephemera, with bracketed numbers directing the reader to the image on that or the succeeding page.  In coffee-table books like this one (although the designation ‘coffee-table’ seems terribly inappropriate) the text and images often can become separated, but in The Crying Years the connection is maintained well.

There are breakout boxes that focus on some 28 Australian individuals who lived at the time, and whose affairs were affected by the Great War to varying degrees.  Walter and Marian Griffin’s vision of Canberra, for example, was challenged by the Government’s focus on the war and German internees; Sir John Hubert Murray was administrator in Papua; Justice Henry Bournes Higgins (of the Harvester case) was grief-stricken when his son was killed in Sinai in 1916 at the age of 29; the ‘bohemian’ writer Zora Cross wrote the poem ‘Elegy on an Australian Schoolboy’ after the death of her injured brother from the meningitis epidemic that swept the AIF, from which the ‘the crying years’ of the title for the book is taken.  Some of the people he has chosen seem rather tangential to the war, but this underlines his point that the war did not touch ‘every family’ directly (p. 182). Others selected for breakout treatment, like  ALP politician and anti-conscriptionist James Catts, demonstrate the complexities of political thought and allegiances of the time.

The quality, clarity and diversity of the images is impressive.  These are not your usual WWI warfront photos: instead, they are uncensored photographs taken by the soldiers themselves.  There are jarring photographs of the different manifestations of patriotism at home, like the Aboriginal children from the Point Pearce mission dressed up as ‘a Band of Loyal Workers’ as Japanese, nurses, policemen and sailors, brandishing a large Union Jack.  It is quite clear that not all men of fighting age enlisted, as the photograph of shearers playing two-up outside a shearing shed shows.  I have read about ‘button days’ as children and young women sold patriotic buttons as fundraisers, but I have never before seen such a variety of them.

This is a beautifully curated book, where the text is every bit as important as the images.  Even if you’ve decided to steer clear of all the World War I commemoration tsunami, you could read and look at just this one book alone and gain a nuanced, rounded and informed perspective on the war, not just on the front but in the suburbs and small towns of Australia as well.

Source: Review copy courtesy of NLA through Quikmark Media.

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