Category Archives: First World War

History, war and remembering in 2018

100th anniversary of the First World War Armistice

The 100th anniversary of the First World War Armistice will be one of the most notable anniversaries commemorated in 2018.

On 11 November 2018 it will be one hundred years since the First World War Armistice. On this day,  at the eleventh hour, all military action ceased — four years of global war ended.

In allied countries, like Australia, the news of the Armistice and their victory was greeted with immense joy. Reconciling the real cost of the war would come later.

The Australian War Memorial will commemorate the centenary of the Armistice with a creative public program, which will combine public activities, displays, installations and events for the five-week period from 5 October to Remembrance Day, on 11 November 2018. Details can be found here.

The centrepiece for the commemorations will be the installation of 62,000 knitted red poppy flowers on the Memorial’s grounds. Each poppy represents an Australian life lost in the First World War, who are individually listed on the Memorial’s Roll of Honour.

Other 2018 military anniversaries

Other significant military anniversaries in 2018 include:

1 May 2018: 75th anniversary of the Battle of the Atlantic in 1943
13 May 2018: 50th anniversary of the Battles at Fire Support Bases Coral and Balmoral (Vietnam War) in 1968
27 July 2018: 65th anniversary of the Korean War Armistice in 1953
16 October 2018: 75th anniversary of Australian work on Hell Fire Pass and completion of the Thai Burma Railway in 1943

What will you be remembering in 2018?

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Armistice Day, 1918, Swanston St. Melbourne




Women of Empire 1914-1918

I often think of Virginia Woolf’s words — for most of history, anonymous was a woman — so I was really pleased to come across the exhibition Women of Empire 1914-1918.

Fiona Baverstock and her husband Keith came up with the idea of the touring exhibition during the 90th anniversary of the Gallipoli campaign. At the time there seemed to be little recognition that women were involved in the First World War. Fiona and Keith were determined that this should be addressed for the centenary of the First World War.

The exhibition profiles Australia and New Zealand women whose experience of the First World War was especially eventful and illustrative of the varied roles women played during the war. Each woman is represented by an original outfit of the era from the extensive collection of the Dressing Australia Museum of Costume. These costumes are a simple and powerful way of letting us imagine the lives of these women.

A few of the women featured in Women of Empire 1914-1918 are familiar names in Australian history. Most though are women, who at best are remembered as historical footnotes, but should be better known in Australian history.

To me all these women sounded remarkable but especially interesting were:

Marion Leane Smith: The only known Indigenous Australian nurse to have served in the First World War. A Cabrogal woman born in NSW, she was raised in Canada and served that country and Britain as a war nurse. During World War II she brought the Red Cross to Trinidad.

Ettie Rout: She set up the New Zealand Volunteer Sisterhood taking them to Egypt in July 1915 where they manned canteens and established a Soldiers’ Club. A safe-sex pioneer Ettie devised a prophylactic kit — eventually adopted by the military — to sell at the New Zealand Soldiers’ Clubs in England in 1917. After the war, she was called the wickedest woman in Britain for her book Safe Marriage, which provided instruction on avoiding venereal disease (VD) and pregnancy.

Dr Elsie Dalyell: In the laboratory at the Scottish Women’s Hospital at Royaumont her pioneering protocols for the treatment of gangrene saved limbs as well as lives. After this, she enlisted in the Royal Army Medical Corps as a senior bacteriologist in Malta and Salonika. In Constantinople (now Istanbul), she tackled a severe cholera outbreak. Twice Mentioned in Despatches, Elsie was awarded the OBE in 1919. In World War II, she organized the Red Cross Blood Transfusion Service.

If you want to know more about the women featured in Women of Empire 1914-1918 you can read their profiles here.

GOLD STAR to Fiona Baverstock and her husband Keith for their work to ensure that women of the First World War are not overlooked during the centenary.



Miles Franklin and Vida Goldstein, two of the more well-known Australian women featured in Women of Empire 1914-1918


Vale Emeritus Professor Ken Inglis AO

On 1 December, 2017, the same day the Prime Minister’s Australian history award was announced, Australia lost one of its leading historians — Professor Ken Inglis.

Ken’s classic book The Australian Colonists featured in 1856, Winning the Eight Hour Day. Covering the social history of Australia from 1788 to 1870, this is a great book to read if you want to understand how people lived in colonial Australia.

What I didn’t know until reading the many tributes to Ken’s life was that The Australian Colonists was a starting point for a deeper story Ken wanted to understand and document. This story was the remembrance of the First World War and how it shaped the lives of Australians. In 1998 his thinking on this culminated in another classic of Australian history Sacred places : war memorials in the Australian landscape.

Ken’s work first came to prominence with the publication in 1961 of The Stuart case, the story of a 1950’s murder trial that divided Australia. Rupert Max Stuart, a young Aboriginal man, was found guilty of the murder of a nine-year-old white girl based on what seemed a fabricated written confession.

There were other books as well. He also played a major role in developing the innovative Australians, a historical library a multi-volume, multi-contributor history of Australia to commemorate the 1988 bicentenary of Australia.

Of course a life well-lived is much more than the books left behind. Graeme Davison, another significant Australian historian, in recognising the contribution of Ken Inglis commented:

Influence is not to be found in the sum of scholarly contributions — or not in those alone — but in his influence upon others, and the unfailing generosity of spirit and acuity of mind that he has imparted to our professional and national life.


sacred places

100th anniversary of the Battle of Beersheba

Yesterday (31 October) was the centenary of the Battle of Beersheba. One hundred years ago Australian light horsemen charged against Turkish defences to capture the town of Beersheba.

The account below explaining the Battle of Beersheba is taken from two books that I often reach for when I am trying to understand Australia’s military involvement in the First World War — The Encyclopaedia of Australia’s Battles by Chris Clark and Broken Nation by Joan Beaumont.

Australians were in Palestine as part of the Egyptian Expeditionary Force (EEF). The commander-in-chief of the EEF, General Sir Edmund Allenby had been told by the British Prime Minister, Lloyd George to take Jerusalem as a Christmas gift for the British nation. To do this the EEF needed to break the Turkish defensive line focussed on Gaza and Beersheba.

Allenby decided that this would be done by capturing Beersheba and its valuable water wells and then moving onto Gaza. The plan had British infantry troops attacking Beersheba and Gaza simultaneously, while the Australian and New Zealand horsemen of the Desert Mounted Corps would come in from another direction to also attack Beersheba.

By the afternoon of the 31 October the Desert Mounted Corps were in place for the final attack on Beersheba. Taking the town had become critical because of the desperate need for water. Lieutenant General Harry Chauvel, the Australian commander of the Desert Mounted Corps called upon the fresh troops of Brigadier General William Grant’s 4th Light Horse Brigade to lead the attack.

It was decided that given the urgency of the situation the attack would be a high risk cavalry charge across open ground. The 4th and 12th Light Horse Regiments formed three lines about 500 metres apart, with five metres between each rider. Not having cavalry weapons, the lance or sabre, the troops made do by carrying their long bayonets in their hands.

As they approached the Turkish trenches the light horsemen broke into a gallop, drew bayonets and yelled wildly. Turkish field guns, machine guns, rifles and even German aerial bombing were unable to stop the charge. The unexpected speed and momentum of the light horsemen allowed them to quickly overtake the Turkish defenders. Within an hour all resistance collapsed.

For Australians the successful charge at Beersheba was welcomed news after the frightful stories of futility coming from the Western front in 1917. Below is one of the early news reports of the breakthrough at Beersheba. This understated account, with map, appeared in Hobart’s newspaper  The Mercury on the 3 November 1917. Later accounts like this one in the Singleton Argus on the 8 November 1917, which highlighted the ANZACs feats, would help to build the national memory of Beersheba as a moment of Australian exceptionalism.


Beersheba report


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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Centenary of the Great Strike 1917

Today, marks the centenary of the Great Strike of 1917. According to Joan Beaumont  in Broken Nation the Australian eastern states erupted into industrial warfare in August 1917.

The catalyst was a dispute in the New South Wales Government Tramways Workshops in Randwick, Sydney. The railway management eager to cut costs introduced a new card system designed to measure the cost and performance of each worker. In response about 6,000 railway and tramway men stopped work on 2 August.

Within five weeks, almost 70,000 workers, across three states and numerous industries had joined the industrial action. Despite this initial energy, by September and October strikes at individual workplaces were broken and the union movement were left significantly diminished.

As Joan explains, the historical importance of the Great Strike of 1917 has largely been forgotten, overshadowed by the stronger story of the Anzac legend. Its centenary today is a good reminder that the search for historical truth is not always found in the headlines of history.

Do you think other events have been overshadowed by the story of the Anzac legend? How would you describe the Anzac legend?

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Victorian Government railway engineering works, 1879

I swear that I will well and truly serve

As Joan Beaumont explained in Broken Nation nearly 417,000 Australians enlisted in the Australian Imperial Force (AIF) during the First World War. To enlist you had to take the oath (or make an affirmation):

I ….. swear that I will well and truly serve our Sovereign Lord the King in the Australian Imperial Force from ….. until the end of the War, and a further period of four months thereafter unless sooner lawfully discharged, dismissed, or removed therefrom; and that I will resist His Majesty’s enemies and cause His Majesty’s peace to be kept and maintained; and that I will in all matters appertaining to my service, faithfully discharge my duty according to law. So help me God.

More information about military oaths can be found in the Encyclopedia produced by the Australian War Memorial.

Can you imagine being one of the many Australians who took the oath? What meaning, if any, do you think it held for them?


Recruitment poster featuring Albert Jacka