Category Archives: Australian History

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).

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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.

Soundtracks: Songs that Defined History

When does history begin? raised questions about when modern events like 9/11 move from news to historical event.

My prompt for this was, in part, an engaging new documentary series on SBS, Soundtracks: Songs that Defined History. Eight key events in recent American history are explored through the popular music that influenced the event and defined the collective memory of that time.

SBS kicked off the series with the episode exploring 9/11. The use of music to understand 9/11 and its aftermath seemed to work brilliantly. Gold star viewing!

The show started with songs like The Rising by Bruce Springsteen that calmed and comforted people dealing with overwhelming shock and grief. It highlighted how classics like New York State of Mind by Billy Joel and We are family by Sister Sledge, played at Benefit concerts were reborn as anthems of strength and solidarity.

Later when shock and grief turned to anger country music caught the national mood, with Toby Keith’s Courtesy of the Red, White and Blue one of the angriest songs. Against this trend Natalie Maines of The Dixie Chicks, just before the 2003 US led invasion of Iraq, made a throw-away comment, that she was ashamed of President Bush a fellow Texan. Conservative Americans were outraged. Three years later The Dixie Chicks  told a polarised America they were Not ready to make nice.

The show also featured the songs of commemoration. The segment on the ten-year anniversary and Paul Simon singing The Sound of Silence made me cry. The 2009 Empire State of Mind by Jay Z and Alicia Keys a song representing a renewed and resilient New York gave the story of 9/11 an upbeat ending, a story of survival.

I think this is a great series to watch if you are interested in popular music and recent American history. Also a great example of how we can make history that is entertaining, informative and important!

What are the soundtracks that have defined Australian history? Suggestions?


Convict love tokens at the National Museum of Australia

History and serendipity featured the story of how the National Museum of Australia, my local  museum, became the holder of the largest collection of convict love tokens in the world.

The National Museum of Australia has set up a wonderful, interactive display of the entire collection of love tokens, which really allows you to explore these beautiful objects from a number of perspectives. You can find it here. Happy exploring.

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Valentines, 1884