Category Archives: Updates

52. Update 3

Memorial at Bourgues. Both wars are given equal prominence on the face of the memorial but, as is the case everywhere in France, the great majority of the names of the dead come from WW1.

Click to enlarge. Memorial at Cher (Bourges), September 2015. Both wars are given equal prominence on the face of the memorial but, as is the case everywhere in France, the great majority of the names of the dead come from WW1. For a dramatic illustration of this point, click on the slide of  Estaing 1 below.

 

I was in France for September and the research and writing had to be put on hold. But now it is time to return to the blog.

One of the first tasks over the next few weeks will be to identify all the men from the Shire of Alberton who enlisted in the first half of 1915. I will provide a detailed analysis of this group, employing the same methodology as for posts 22 and 23 when I looked at the group that enlisted prior to the end of 1914. Then, early in the new year, I will cover all those who enlisted in the second half of 1915; and I will continue to apply this six-monthly analysis through to the end of the War.

Additionally, I am going to continue the earlier theme on the more extreme forms of patriotic behaviour that started to manifest themselves in the local community from early 1915. I specifically want to look at the anti-German feelings that arose. This will complement posts 38 and 41.

It is also appropriate to analyse the first farewells for men leaving the shire. There were significant differences between the formal farewell staged in Yarram and the more social and inclusive farewells in the various townships.

Similarly, it is now relevant to look in detail at the early recruiting committee established in Yarram: its composition, agenda and success.

However, more immediately, I want to reflect a little on my month in France. The major activity was a 200K walk in a fairly isolated region in France. It was the ‘Via Podiensis’ or the first 200K of the pilgrimage route of the Camino – ‘le chemin’ in French – from Le Puy en Velay to Conques. It is a stunning walking trail through a part of France that few people see. In fact, probably the only reason any traveller would ever be there would be to walk this particular section of the centuries-old pilgrimage route of St. Jacques, or St. James, which runs all the way to Santiago de Compostella in Spain.

It is very rural and the country is rich in both agriculture – the famous green lentils of Le Puy – and dairying. But like so many other rural areas it seems to have experienced significant population movement, as the youth, in particular, have moved to larger cities. It was most noticeable when walking through the small villages or hamlets that there was hardly anyone to be seen. Overall, there were similarities with Gippsland, or at least the part of the Gippsland that was covered in the former Shire of Alberton.

One similarity that struck me immediately was that even in the smallest village or hamlet there was a memorial to those who were killed in WW1. As is the case in Australia, these memorials also incorporated names from WW2 – and, additionally for the French, names from the wars in Indochina and Algeria – but by far the greatest number of names recorded the dead from WW1.  I have included a gallery of some of the memorials. Most of these towns now have only small populations. One hundred years ago there would have been more people living in them – just like the equivalent places in Gippsland – but most were only ever small towns or villages in an isolated part of France. Yet every one of them has a substantial memorial, with the names of those locals who were killed in WW1.  In both Australia and France, people from the local area, however it was defined, felt the powerful need to record the names of their dead. In France, the convention appeared to be that the dead were described as ‘children’ (enfants). Correspondingly, we often referred to our soldiers as boys, but not usually in the formal context of memorials.

The presence of all these memorials  – not just the ones I saw on the walk but also those in the larger towns and cities I visited, like Toulouse and Bordeaux – also reminded me of the incredible struggle that France faced in WW1. The nation was invaded by Germany in 1914 and the whole of the War, at least on the Western Front, involved French efforts first to withstand and then drive back the invading German army. It was a struggle on a scale never before seen. The numbers are staggering: with conscription, the French forces, including colonial troops, reached 7.5M . The generally recognised figure for combat deaths is in the order of 1.4M and the number of those wounded is commonly given as 4M. The scale of losses from key French battles is as shocking. For example, the largest war cemetery in France is at Notre Dame de Lorette (Ablain-Saint-Nazaire) near Arras. In one year, between October 1914 and October 1915, some 100,00 French troops were killed in the immediate vicinity.  Verdun is an even more sobering example. The monumental ossuary there – Douamont – contains the bones of some 130,000 men killed at Verdun between February and December 1916. Over the same period, the total number of French killed was 162,000. The German dead numbered 143,000.

What also played on my mind was the question of what the French made of WW1, in this the centenary year. Obviously, like us in Australia, they have had special commemorations. But my concern was not so much the question of the scale of the commemorations but rather their deeper meaning.

In Australia, this year’s WW1 commemorations – or, more particularly, the Gallipoli commemorations – have focused on national identity. Gallipoli, according to accepted truth, proved our national identity, defined our core values and even gave ‘birth to the young nation’. So, as a nation, our stake in WW1 has always been, and still remains, fundamentally important and very positive. At the same time, it will be interesting to see, as the next few years unfold, if our commemoration of events on the Western Front will be as significant. What happened to the AIF on the Western Front was far worse than at Gallipoli, but how will we commemorate it? And how will we remember what happened in Australia over the same period?  How, for example, will we commemorate the two conscription referenda when the nation voted against the wishes of the government-of-the-day, and when the No vote was represented as a betrayal of the soldiers at the front? Did those votes tell us anything about national character? Or will they pass unremarked? Similarly, will we pay any attention at all to the centenary of the Easter Rebellion in Ireland?

I cannot claim to know how the French interpret WW1 one hundred years on, but I can make the case that they do not have such a one-dimensional and simple take on it as we do. For example, in keeping with our historical preoccupation with WW1 as an exercise in nation building and the definition of national character, we make much of the larrikin spirit of the AIF and in particular the reluctance to submit to military discipline and respect the officer class. For the French however there was Verdun, where the slaughter was so great and so unrelenting that the Army mutinied. It is far harder to gloss that particular historical reality into any celebration of national character. Also for the French, the victory in 1918, at such dreadful cost, was followed, not much more than 20 years later, by defeat and occupation. That occupation saw resistance, but also collaboration. 200,000 people were deported from Vichy France. The difficult legacy of those times is still evident in French society and politics today. I was struck, for example, by schools that record – at the very front of the school so that every student sees it – the names of Jewish students deported to death camps. It is a legacy that also touches on questions of national character, but in ways that are more problematic and contested than our simpler, commemorative version of national history. Then there is the obvious truth that Europe 100 years on from WW1 is a very different place. For a start, Germany, even though defeated in 2 world wars and divided for 50 years has clearly emerged as the dominant political and economic powerhouse of Western Europe.

You could extend this line of thought and consider how other major powers involved in WW1 now see and commemorate it, for example, Germany and Russia.  And if I was walking in Ireland and started to muse on how WW1 and its legacy played out in that particular nation’s history I would find anger, frustration and two markedly different versions of a powerful sense of betrayal.

The walk in rural France is over and it is time now to return to the blog on the social history of the impact of WW1 on a particular community in Gippsland. But is is worth keeping in mind that the commemoration of history is never a politically neutral exercise.

References

For more background on French commemorations, memorials etc, see Chemins de Memoire There is a (partial) English translation.

Specific French memorials:

Notre Dame de Lorette
Douamont  (Battle of Verdun)

For a comprehensive account of the British Empire’s approach to the burial and commemoration of its war dead in France see:

Crane, D 2014, Empires of the Dead: How one man’s vision led to the creation of WW1’s war graves, William Collins, London.

 

17. Updates 1 & 2

1 December 2014
I am changing the way I include Updates on the blog. So as not to lose the first Update (27/9/14) in this new arrangement, I have copied it and included it below. This is why I have called this first of the new-style Updates, Update 1 & 2. From now on each Update will come out as a post. For those who want to go back over earlier Updates, they will also be accessible from the Home page.

I am also conscious that the blog does not have much visual and other media and I exploring ways of including more primary source materials in digital form on the blog – for example, maps and pictures of life in the Shire of Alberton round the time of WW1. Hopefully I will be able to incorporate some sort of gallery of such resources in the near future.

Thanks to those who are following.

27 September 2014
In terms of content, the intention to this point with the blog has been to set the background for the detailed study of the 600 – 800 men – depending on how you define ‘local’ – from the Shire of Alberton in Gippsland who served in the AIF in WW1. In fact, it was the most recent post that saw focus shift to the men.

Obviously, the Shire of Alberton was a particular rural community that had developed its own identity, one that was certainly different from that of metropolitan Melbourne. In fact, as already shown in previous posts, the Shire saw itself, and a great deal of history had been written about it, as the quintessential pioneering community. At the same time, as I have emphasised throughout, the commonality of world views between the Shire and the outside world. This commonality was based on forces such as the universal commitment to the Empire and the shared identity of being (White) British; the strength of common institutions, particularly state schooling; and the constant and widespread movement of people, particularly the working class, across the wider rural landscape and to and from Melbourne and other major centres. My basic argument has been that while the Shire of Alberton had its own particular history, it was tied inextricably to the broader Nation and Empire, to the extent that this particular study of how the Shire of Alberton responded to WW1 can be read generally as a case-study of the Nation’s response.

In terms of this commonality, certain key themes have emerged already: the pull of the Empire; the politics of White Australia and the fear of invasion; control of the narrative of the War; and class-based responses to the call to duty. Others will become more apparent in future posts: the culture of the AIF and attempts to mould this culture; the inherent conflict between the political and industrial wings of the ALP; the application of war-time controls and powers; the divisive impacts of the attempts to introduce conscription; and the solemn promise of repatriation.

It should definitely be clear by now that the blog is an exercise in social history. Social historians can accept at face value the motives people gave for their actions one hundred years ago. The motives commonly expressed at the time included the likes of loyalty to the Empire, the fight against German militarism and tyranny, and the bonds of camaraderie. We also have to acknowledge the incredible personal sacrifices made at the time and the heroism shown. However, social historians also search for the deeper ‘structural’ drivers that shaped society’s beliefs and actions, even if the people directly involved did not themselves acknowledge such drivers. It should be obvious by now that ‘class’ is one such driver that I am looking at. The social construct of ‘identity’ is another. The latter is particularly important in the context of a rural community with a high dependence on the rural working class. The transience of the rural working class often undermined its members’ ability to be recognised as ‘local’ and thus they could be written out of local history, even unintentionally. At the same time, the lack of connection to a particular location opened the possibility that their identity could be more strongly tied to a particular institution, in this case the AIF.

In terms of the technical features of the blog itself, it was good to be able to incorporate the first table, admittedly a fairly simple one, in the last post. The technique is not perfect but at least it shows the feasibility of incorporating the full array of data which is required for the quantitative analysis I need to present in relation to the large group of men.

Lastly, I would like to include photographs of the men who enlisted and served in the AIF and would definitely appreciate it if family members were prepared to forward them. Contact me at: philipcashen@gmail.com

Comments on the posts, including insights based on family history and local knowledge – and even anecdotes – would also be appreciated. It is also a good idea to become a ‘follower’ – via the Home page – because as a follower, the system will automatically email you a complete copy of each post.