Centenary of the First Battle for Passchendaele

Yesterday (12 October) was the centenary of the First Battle for Passchendaele. This was the last major Australian engagement in the Third Ypres campaign on the Western Front. Australian, New Zealand and British forces unsuccessfully attempted to take the Passchendaele heights from the defending Germans.

For Australians, Passchendaele became shorthand for the slaughter and suffering of the  Western Front. The fighting was ferocious, in heavy rain and on an endless pool of mud. The battle left seven thousand ANZACs dead or injured. Below is one of the many reports that appeared in Australian newspapers in the immediate aftermath of the First Battle for Passchendaele. This one was published on 16 October 1917 in The Riverine Grazier (Hay, NSW : 1873 – 1954).

todays latest


More things in Heaven and Earth than are dreamt of

In Holiday history find, the whale-cure for rheumatism I raised the issue that some past practices can be difficult to imagine. To have a historical understanding of the past, however, we need to have an open-mind, we need to have imagination. We need to remember Hamlet’s words.

There are more things in Heaven and Earth, Horatio, than are dreamt of in your philosophy
— William Shakespeare


Holiday history find, the whale-cure for rheumatism

The school holidays ended yesterday. We spent a week of the holidays on the far south coast of New South Wales. The highlight was whale watching in Eden. What a joy! Cruising beautiful Twofold Bay, on a calm and sunny morning, seeing; birds, seals, dolphins and whales.

We also enjoyed looking around the Eden Killer Whale Museum. For about one hundred years Eden was a whaling port. The industry started in Twofold Bay in 1828 and ended in 1930 with the closure of the Davidson whaling station. The Museum does an excellent job of telling visitors about the area’s interesting history.

One thing that especially intrigued me was the story of how people would sit in a whale carcass as a remedy for rheumatism. This seems to be one of those past practices you read about, but you can’t imagine. On my return from holidays I felt compelled to find out more.

Somewhat surprisingly I found a number of references to the whale-cure for rheumatism in Troves Digitised Newspapers. Below are extracts of two of the more descriptive accounts. The first was published in The Menzies Miner, a paper from the West Australian Coolgardie Goldfields, on Saturday 26 June 1897. This one is a patient’s, slightly, comical story of taking the whale-cure.

The second account, from the Newcastle Morning Herald and Miners’ Advocate was published 30 December 1895. This article explains the whale-cure and also gives a good overview of how the whaling at Eden worked.

Is it a coincidence that both newspapers’ readership were miners? Or does it reflect that cures for rheumatism were of particular interest to people whose bodies ached from days of  hard labour.

Do you find the whale-cure hard to believe? Have you come across a past practice that you find hard to believe?

Whale cure

Article from the Menzies Miner, 1897


The Whale Cure_1

Article from the Newcastle Morning Herald and Miners’ Advocate, 1895

September 2017, roundup: songs, history buffs and the Russian Revolution


Cicero, George W. Bush, Larry David, Richard Fidler, Billy Joel, Toby Keith, Alicia Keys, Vladimir Lenin, Larry Levin, Martie Maguire, Natalie Maines, Emily Robison,
John Schumann, Paul Simon, Sister Sledge, John Spitzer, Bruce Springsteen,
Ronald G. Walters, Dan Wilson and Jay Z


Istanbul, Turkey; Russia; the World Trade Centre, the Pentagon and rural Pennsylvania, United States of America


1917: the Russian Revolution; 2001: 9/11; 2003: US led invasion of Iraq; 2006: Not Ready to Make Nice released; 2009: Empire State of Mind released; 2011: 9/11 ten-year anniversary


Making Sense of American Popular Song
Seinfeld Scripts
Soundtracks: Songs that Defined History


Ghost Empire


To be ignorant of what occurred before you were born is to remain always a child.
— Cicero

A lie told often enough becomes the truth.
— Vladimir Lenin

And the Anzac legends didn’t mention mud and blood and tears, and stories that my father told me never seemed quite real I caught some pieces in my back that I didn’t even feel… God help me, I was only nineteen.
— John Schumann

Forgive, sounds good Forget, I’m not sure I could They say time heals everything But I’m still waiting
— Natalie Maines, Martie Maguire, Emily Robison, and Dan Wilson

Can’t see nothin’ in front of me Can’t see nothin’ coming up behind I make my way through this darkness I can’t feel nothing but this chain that binds me Lost track of how far I’ve gone How far I’ve gone, how high I’ve climbed On my back’s a sixty pound stone On my shoulder a half mile line.
— Bruce Springsteen

God help me, I was only nineteen

In Soundtracks: Songs that Defined History I asked what songs define Australian history. For me one of the first songs on this list would have to be I Was Only 19.

And the Anzac legends didn’t mention mud and blood and tears,
and stories that my father told me never seemed quite real
I caught some pieces in my back that I didn’t even feel…
God help me, I was only nineteen.
— John Schumann

John Schumann has provided an engaging account of how the song came to be and the impact it has had on the Australian veteran community. It can be found here if you would like to read this.

Using songs to define history

Soundtracks: Songs that Defined History recommended the documentary series by the same name. This series takes eight key events in recent American history and highlights how popular music shaped these events and defined the collective memory of them.

If you wish to use a song as a historical source a really useful resource is Making Sense of American Popular Song by John Spitzer and Ronald G. Walters.

John and Ronald suggest that we use a framework of questions when we want to use popular music to understand the past.

What is the song?

What is the basic, musical work?

What are the renditions (publication, recording, performance) of the song?

Who created the song?

Who wrote the music?

Who wrote the lyrics?

Who else created the song or rendition of the song?

What is the song’s structure?

What is the metric structure of the text?

How many words to a line?

How many lines to a stanza?

Are lines of the same or different lengths?

Do the ends of lines rhyme? If so, what is the rhyme scheme? Are there internal rhymes?

Does the song use alliteration or assonance?

Is the song strophic—does the tune repeat over and over with new words?

Is it through-composed—neither words nor music repeat?

Does it have a verse-chorus structure, the tune repeats in the verse with new words, but words and tune both repeat in the chorus?

Does the song have a memorable phrase?

What was the song’s historical context?

What are the factors that are relevant to understanding and interpreting the song at a particular moment in history?

What is the primary context? That is, what was the context at the time the song was first created?

What is the secondary context? That is, what are the contexts of the song at subsequent periods from the time it was created to the present?

What does the song mean?

What do the words mean?

What is the implied meaning of the song?

How have performances of the song influenced the meaning of the song?

How have people interpreted the song? What have they said about the song?

Is the song considered to be a good song?

What can the song tell us about people and society?

Does the song express shared values or experiences and emotions that help define a group’s identity and solidarity?

Does the song, the singer or the genre help people construct self-images and provide models for how to behave?

Does the song express judgments about lifestyles, values, and appearances?

Does the song relate to other popular texts?

Does the song have multiple interpretations?

Does the song serve as a forum for public debate about manners, morals, politics or social change?

Are there other questions that could be added to this framework?

download (26)

Music students about 1903-1906