World War I – The Battle Of The Historians

Stone the Crows! Don’t mention the war

The Australian Historical Association has decided to ignore the rest of us and have its own World War I centenary. While most interested Australians are reading about the awful experiences of the diggers in the Gallipoli trenches, academics will be questioning “foundation histories,” (gosh any in particular?). The association announced last week.[i]

History abounds with metaphors of foundation: the foundations of knowledge or the discipline, as well as the foundational narratives of nations. These metaphorical foundations do not stand on solid rock: they can be unsettled, shifted and shaken. The AHA Conference will do some gentle shaking in 2015, a year when many Australians will celebrate the centenary of the “birth of a nation” at Anzac Cove.

‘Twas ever thus. On the eve of every Anzac Day, academics are outraged that people are not interested in what they should be: “We suggest that Australians might look to alternative national traditions that gave pride of place to equality of opportunity and the pursuit of social justice: the ideals of a living wage and decent working conditions, the long struggle for sexual and racial equality.” [ii]

There are all sorts of reasons for this. Historians from the old left argue that “the militarisation of Australian history” takes attention away from the national narrative that matters and:

… a manifest distortion of the nation’s history has been the result. It may not be apparent, or even matter, to young people, but many older Australians find it a deeply disturbing development. The generation of historians who pioneered the teaching of national history in the middle years of the twentieth century paid little attention to military history, even though most of them had fought in the Second World War. Their focus was on political and social developments within the nation, not on military adventures overseas. If anything, their own war experiences had given them a jaundiced view of military life.[iii]

Other academics, from the younger left see the entire narrative of Australian nation-building as irrelevant when there are matters of gender, ethnicity and sexuality to explore. As Andrew Trounson puts it; historians like to joke that to attract students you have to put “ ‘sex’ or ‘death’ in the title”.[iv] And academics in general sneer at scholars of slaughter: “Military historians occupy a distinct position within the historical discipline. Some university faculty, particularly those in history departments, regard them with suspicion. At best they are wannabe generals, at worst warmongers and militarists corrupting the nation’s youth.”[v]

Which means we are going to have two distinct commemorations of Australia in WWI. The first will focus on the war as fought, first at Gallipoli and then as the decade continues in France, Belgium and the Middle East. And with luck what we will get is more of the same, continuing the tradition of scholars such as Robin Prior and Trevor Wilson, authors of fine works on the Western Front, and campaign studies, like David Cameron’s study of the senseless Lone Pine mini-campaign at Gallipoli.[vi] And while we are unlikely to see a successor to match Les Carlyon’s great narrative histories of the First AIF new readers will discover them.[vii]

But there are already ample bad books that demean the memory of the ANZACs by turning citizen soldiers doing their best into superheroes, and the Aussie-Aussie-Aussie-oi-oi-oiers will undoubtedly produce more. It is this caricature the academic left loathes and focuses on, ignoring the work of military history scholars.

The fact that the Prime Minister has announced a new interpretive centre at Villers-Bretonneux, where the AIF stopped the last great German offensive in March and again in April 1918, will not endear Western Front commemoration to academics who see Australia as fighting other people’s wars.[viii] Or indeed even to scholars whose expertise in campaign history is a matter of record, notably Peter Stanley, who writes, “We worry that over the period 2014-19 Australians will be exposed to bellicose claptrap – to history that is essentially dishonest: unjustified, exaggerated, distorted; unbalanced even if it is not inaccurate.”[ix]

So the danger is we will get two Anzac commemorations – one of varying qualities, focused on what the diggers did, the other shaped by a belief that chronicling combat is not needed in studies of war and society. And the two will not talk much to each other at all.

But they should. Theorising about “foundational narratives” aside, no study of war and society is meaningful without why and what the men under fire achieved, and didn’t. And no analysis of strategy or campaign study is complete without recording how the soldiers, and the society they came from coped, and didn’t. Joan Beaumont’s Broken Nation, which looks at the war on home and fighting fronts, demonstrates how it can be done.[x]

So does, for the home front at least, the UK Arts and Humanities Research Council’s guide to academic engagement with the centennial of WW I – detailing masses of research on how the war transformed life across the UK and the British Empire (Although you have to wonder if they have got the details sorted given one of the few mentions we get is to “soldiers recruited from Australian and Tasmania”).

We will we get the same? I doubt it, after all, there are foundational histories to be shaken – even though it would have meant nothing to the WWI generation. Most of them thought Australia established its own identity at Anzac Cove in 1915 and outside Amiens three years later. And for the purposes of understanding what they believed and how they behaved, so it did. But now this seems less important than what academics think they should have thought.


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[i] Stephen Matchett, Campus Morning Mail, October 27 @

[ii] Henry Reynolds and Marilyn Lake, (cited) Stephen Matchett, “One day of the year to stop whingeing about Anzac,” Stone the Crows, April 27 2010 @ recovered on October 26

[iii] Henry Reynolds, “Militarisation marches on,” Inside Story, September 25 @ recovered on October 26

[iv] Andrew Trounson, “Why our history is losing its lustre,” The Australian March 7 2012

[v] Brian McAllister Linn, “Military history: reaching beyond the traditional academy,” Historically Speaking, 10, 5 (November 2009) 10-12 @ recovered on October 26

[vi] For example, Prior and Wilson, The Somme, (Yale, 2006). David W Cameron, The battle for Lone Pine: Four days of hell at the heart of Gallipoli, (Penguin, 2012)

[vii] Historiography on Australia’s military record is surprisingly scarce but for a comprehensive analysis to see, Joan Beaumont, “ANZAC day to VP Day: arguments and interpretations” Journal of the Australian War Memorial, 40 (February 2007) @ recovered on October 26 and Craig Stockings (ed) Zombie myths of Australian military history (New South, 2010) and Anzacs dirty dozen (New South, 2012)

[viii] Paul Kelly, “Tony Abbott on mission to highlight Western Front,” The Australian, June 9

[ix] Peter Stanley, “Gallipol-98 years on. Speech to the Gallipoli Club” August 7 2013 @ recovered on October 26

[x] Joan Beaumont, Broken nation: Australians in the Great War (Allen and Unwin, 2014)