As you've probably seen elsewhere, the fourth of August 1914 was the start of World War I (which was the 5th of August in Australia, which is today) and, as you;ve probably also seen, I've been doing a lot of related work at the museum. All right, that's all I've been doing for months? Years? Something like that.
I started with the photos from the Weekly Courier, a local weekly publication with full page photographic inserts in the middle, and spent some time transcribing a diary and one afternoon looking at photos of dead bodies in trenches*, but mostly recently I've been looking at service records, and reading them. These build a different story of the war to the usual ones. This story is made up from medical records, lists of promotion and transfers, letters from next of kin, medical records, disciplinary matters and requests for replacement medals/discharge papers. It is accounts of men in and out of hospital, dying of wounds soon after returning home, or decades later. GSW & shell shock** & gassing. It is letters from family asking for news when they haven't heard anything in a long time, or wanting the address of the hospital to write to, or enquiring about personal effects for a dead son while dealing with a seriously injured son, or waiving the claim of a bastard son's rights to medals (as next of kin) in favour of the soldier's father (but don't address these letters to the mother, as she doesn't know about the child), or trying to find the location of a grave Of men declared missing during August 1916 but the family having to wait months for the official KIA verdict, along with accounts of witnesses who had last seen them (being blown up by a shell, laying the ground seriously injured). The dead left there to be buried by shells. An NCO buried by his men in the cemetery of a nearby village.
Those who never made it out of (training) camp because they lied about their age. One such young man, whose two brothers had enlisted earlier, came back for a second try when he was old enough and was finally get sent over overseas, only to run up a string of AWLs. Pages of them. Even when he was finally sent home, he jumped ship in the US. Or the forty-four year old whose wife wrote a very long letter saying how hard he was finding it, how he really wanted to enlist and do his bit, but he was finding it very hard and he'd be forty-six in a few months... Or a young man from Warsaw, Russia who was discharged for being an enemy agent. He was actually from Bohemia, but he really hated the Germans and wanted to fight them, his letter said.
Recommendation for awards for gallantry, with accompanying descriptions. A major whose knee was injured when a plane fell into his tent. A captain blown up by a shell and twice covered by dirt, who was suffering from concussion and gassing. A young Duntroon graduate with a bright future killed in the Gallipoli landing. The three brothers, of whom only one came home. The major who shot himself on the transport home.
This is not the story you get through TV and films. It's a story about people doing what they did and how it affected them, and it contrasts so differently with the ra-ra dramatics you get on the screen (and in books and magazines) that I'm not sure I can watch them any more. It's a little depressing, with occasional light moments, but mostly it's fascinating and deep and I wish it would go away and leave me along.
*This is not a good thing to do. Not at all. There are some fascinating WWI photos that are worth looking at
. Maybe even spending a whole afternoon looking at, but not exclusively bodies in trenches.
**Which seems to have originally been used to describe the (not visible) injuries caused by a shell including hearing loss, but later developed the broader meaning, although I can't find a source to confirm this