Monday, December 22, 2014

Exciting news!

This blogging project has had many points of origin, some of them related to my professional background, some of them related to my pastime of fiction writing.

Over time, researching the lives of Western Australia's First World War soldiers has become a central passion in my life, and it's been frustrating to have it sitting on the sidelines, awaiting the rare moments I have time to work on it around my day job and family commitments. As an illustration of that, I have no less than *five* draft blog posts lined up, just waiting for final words to complete them.

I decided earlier this year that I wanted to give this work the importance it deserved, and take my own skills to the next level while I was at it. So, I proposed the Landscape of Loss project as a PhD thesis, and applied for the scholarship I would need to make that possible.

I've been lucky enough to succeed in my application, so beginning in March next year, this work will become my full-time job until 2018, with a particular focus on the social impact on the home front in the Perth suburb of Subiaco. I'm so excited to have this opportunity, and I can't wait to share the journey here.

A particular thanks to anyone reading along. This year I've been very privileged to hear from many descendants of the men I've researched, and I appreciate that hugely- please do leave a comment or drop me a line at the listed email address if you have any thoughts to share.

Tuesday, October 21, 2014

Kalgoorlie Centenary Reenactment March

On August 17th 1914, the Goldfields town of Kalgoorlie was abuzz with excitement. A couple of weeks earlier, the news had arrived that Australia was at war, and that day, 187 eager men gathered to make their way by train to the capital city of Perth. They were the first to enlist from the Goldfields, and they left behind lives, families, and occupations like mining and railway work.

Of those 187 men, around 50 would never return.

Exactly one hundred years later, the Goldfields First Troops Memorial March group staged a moving reenactment on a beautifully clear morning. 187 local men and women marched down Wilson Street to the tune of a pipe band, with a police escort in front and behind, while locals (and visitors like me) cheered them on.

I've been to a few centenary events so far, but none have brought the times to life quite so effectively as this one. Most of the marchers were not in costume, but that only emphasised the fact that the same men one hundred years ago were also ordinary members of the community, leaving behind their homes and families.

Once the marchers were standing to attention outside the train station, the names of the fifty who were killed were read out. As each name was called, the person representing them stepped out of the group and lined up. And when the last name was read, they marched away, off through the station gates. Their absence made an immediate, noticeable difference, and the subsequent playing of the Last Post, the minute's silence, and the singing of Auld Lang Syne was as sad as it must have been jubilant back then.

All in all, the whole reenactment was beautifully done, and very effective. I was only in Kalgoorlie by chance on the day, and I'm so glad I got to go along. I've studied a few of the first 187, and seeing this gave their experience so much more dimension. A bravo to all involved.

Anzac Connections at the Australian War Memorial

[Kicking off a few overdue updates with a guest post kindly written by an old friend, Daniel McGlinchey- Assistant Curator at the Australian War Memorial- giving some great insights into what it's like to work with the primary records of the First World War].

“ is simply rotten here in the bad weather up to our knees in mud and water and no chance of getting dry ...”
The man who endured these conditions, Private John Collingwood Angus, 28th Battalion, was writing to his sister Nance, from France in May 1916. By 6 July he was killed, but the letters he wrote were donated to the Australian War Memorial, and his words now reverberate through time because of modern technology.

My name is Daniel McGlinchey and I am an Assistant Curator at the Australian War Memorial (AWM), working on the Anzac Connections project as part of the AWM’s centenary commemorations.

Members of the project team have been working for the last couple of years to digitize collections of Australians that served in the First World War. Digitization of the AWM’s paper collections means they are more accessible and prolongs the life of the originals due to less manual handling. The Anzac Connections project has already released 150 First World War private record collections online.

The process of digitizing private collections starts months before their release online. The process starts with nomination, evaluation and selection. Collections are nominated for various reasons. For example, collections are nominated because they are unique and iconic and portray life at war in a particularly descriptive manner. Some collections are nominated to support the opening of new galleries or displays and TV programs, which might generate interest in the collection material used in them.

Once we have collated the nominated collections, the fun starts with the evaluation of each one. This means we get to read collections, my favourite part, noting themes, people, and places and how they will complement the collections already online and match the AWM’s objectives. It is all too easy to be sucked into a diary that takes you back to 1915; you can sense the excitement and apprehension of a young person going off to war, as though you are in Egypt yourself swatting the flies. This is why I like my job.

Once the collections are evaluated, we hold a selection meeting to discuss each collection and its merits. Each of our small team will have a favourite collection that touches us in some way, but through rigorous debate the nominations are reduced down to a manageable “batch”, an in-house reference to the selected collections, of around 7000 images that can be scanned.

The next process involves physically going through each collection and placing it in a recognizable order ready for scanning. The individual pages are scanned and then hours spent on describing each part of the collection and adding links and descriptors. This is essential work to enhance user experience for the public.

This stage of the project includes identifying the correct copyright holders of the material. This can be a bit like “who do you think you are” trying to track relatives of long past Anzac’s by searching the many databases of information now available to us. I must admit though I enjoy this part. It is highly rewarding when you track a family member down and the reaction is a mix of surprise and pride.

There are other steps that contribute to placing the collections online and I apologize to my colleagues that I have not listed them all. Once, however, we are ready to go live with an Anzac Connections batch, we begin the promotion of the project. This entails blogging stories from the batch of collections that are being released, using social media and work networks to highlight the new collections that are available under Anzac Connections. I enjoy talking and writing about my work and it is a good way to alert a wider section of the community of what is available to help with family history research.

At the end of this month we are aiming to upload more collections in Batch Five for Anzac Connections and work has already begun on Batch Six, which includes some of my favorite letters and diaries so far. I hope you have enjoyed this glimpse into the work of the AWM, and here is the link to the project to see which collections are online:

Monday, August 4, 2014

The Day the World Changed

New troops march through Perth

Wednesday 5th August, 1914, was a day like no other in Perth, Western Australia.

The winter sun beamed down on the city, unseasonably warm, and an anxious crowd was gathering outside the offices of The West Australian on St Georges Terrace.

There were no other outward signs of change around the Sandgroper state. In the wide streets in town, the clerks and the salesmen carried on their business as usual. Out on the land, our sheep-and-wheat farmers lamented another day of no rain in a drought that had dragged on for three years. On the harbour at Fremantle, in the mines of the Goldfields, and on the rails of the Transcontinental Railway project, the workers laboured on, steady and strong. In the parlours of Subiaco and Mount Lawley, society talk bounced between the serious matter of the double dissolution Federal election that was underway, and the frivolity of the latest productions at His Majesty’s Theatre.

The future was bright for the state. Just a couple of weeks ago, the first ever class graduated with pomp and ceremony from the new University of Western Australia. Around the footy grounds, consistently strong performances from the Bulldogs and the Sharks saw a Fremantle derby shaping up as the big finish to the sporting year. Families frolicked at Cottesloe Beach, strolled the grounds of the zoo, and relaxed by the Swan.

For weeks, news had been trickling through about the growing tensions in Europe after the assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand in Sarajevo, and the people of Perth had been watching it all unfold. For the last week, the newspaper billboards had indicated something big was coming. Each day, more people turned out to the Terrace to see what would happen next.

Around 12:30pm, a new update arrived, and a cheer rose up from the crowd.

The wait was over.

War had been declared.


By the evening, spirits were running high, and youth were lobbing stones at the Austrian embassy. By the next day, the rush to enlist was already beginning, and the march to war was very much underway.

Today marks the 100th anniversary of the declaration of the First World War, and tomorrow the centenary of the day the news officially arrived.

There are many differences between the lives we lead today, and those of one hundred years ago. Perth itself has changed considerably- the centre of town is unrecognisable, except for a few preserved buildings. At the same time, we still have plenty in common with the ancestors who walked these streets on those fateful days, and we can still understand them.

We are now entering the full swing of the centenary commemorations, remembering the events that occurred from this date forwards. Considering what existed before the conflict gives crucial perspective to what was lost. The people who heard the news of war that day, and those who acted on it, hurrying to enlist, are very recognisable to us now. What war did to their world is the entire reason we still feel the impact today.

For the people of Western Australia, from this day forward, change was coming. Life would never be quite the same again, and the conflict and the loss on the other side of the world would play a part in shaping who we are today.

Friday, March 7, 2014

Podcast: Episode 2- Every Walk of Life

Episode 2 of the Road to War and Back podcast can be found here.

Below, you'll find the text and all the extras.


At the declaration of the Great War in August 1914, people from all over Australia mobilised to the cause within days. The initial pledge was to send 20,000 men across, but those numbers were quickly exceeded, and the fleet that ultimately gathered in the Indian Ocean, heading across to Gallipoli, carried almost 30,000.

People from every walk of life put their hats in the ring, and not only those signing up to fight. In addition to the men coming forward to join the military effort, there were nurses, doctors, chaplains, and many others who stood up to assist, providing important care to those who went across the sea to the battlefront.

In 1914, the population of the state of Western Australia was a lot smaller than it is now, with 320,000 people living here, or around one seventh of the current population of two and a half million. Western Australia is one of the largest states in the world, and the capital city of Perth is one of the most isolated, being further from Sydney than it is from Indonesia. Perth is now one of the most spread-out cities in the world, sprawling along the Indian Ocean coastline for more than 120 kilometres, but in 1914, it was far more compact.

Perth, to the west of everything
Much of Perth’s population was centred near the Swan River, in suburbs like Maylands, Subiaco, Nedlands, Fremantle, and South Perth. The city itself was, and still is, overlooked by the lovely Kings Park, and the main street of St Georges Terrace was lined with grand hotels and stately sandstone buildings, some of which remain today, and some of which are now beneath the towering steel and glass buildings that distinguish the Perth skyline.

The embarkation rolls held by the Australian War Memorial provide a great picture of what life in Perth was like at the outbreak of the war, showing us the places people lived, and the original occupations of those who enlisted.

Statistics tell us that the most common category of people joining up to fight was tradespeople, followed by labourers. Next were farmers, then clerical workers, and then professionals. The miscellaneous category captured many other occupations. While the numbers give us the bigger picture, looking at individuals gives us the finer detail, and brings these characters to life.

David Derrick, for example, was a 30-year-old bushman who worked in the southern forests, felling trees for timber. Aboard a troopship off the Greek island of Lemnos in March 1915, David stole a boat, and according to his charge sheet, rowed it across to an out-of-bounds village. He returned by two in the morning, but he was caught, and sentenced to jail time for the seriousness of his crime. His sentence was commuted, though, to a few weeks of hard labour, finishing just in time for him to land with the rest of his battalion on the beaches of Gallipoli in April.

David Derrick's charge sheet (Source: NAA)
David was wounded, but recovered. He went on to fight on the Western Front, and after a bit more disciplinary trouble and a serious round of mumps, returned to Australia in 1918.

Or Jack Richards, a journalist, and the publisher of the Northam Courier newspaper. At the age of 29, Jack was one of the first to enlist at Blackboy Hill when war was declared in 1914, joining Western Australia's famed 11th Battalion. He landed at Gallipoli, too, and after making it through six months of fighting, he was invalided out with influenza and typhoid. While recovering in Cairo, he wrote a letter in which his adventurous spirit and his knack for telling a story shone through.

It is exactly twelve months to night since I, and many other Australians, first trod the streets and viewed the strange sights of a city on the "Near East," and now, after an absence of nine months, my acquaintance with the pretentious buildings, the dingy alley ways, and the multi-coloured street scenes of Egypt's capital is renewed. To the average Australian swaddy who has but a fleeting, superficial knowledge of the city and its environs, the Cairo of to-day does not muchly differ from the Cairo of a year ago. But there is a difference to be noted by anyone who cares to observe carefully. To the soldier who visits the city bent upon a few hours' enjoyment, the garish lights of the cafes, the raucous cries of the street hawkers, the jingle jingle of the many tiny bells on the trappings of the gaily bedecked donkeys, the   bright blue kaftans of the male labourers, the sombre black robed veiled women, and in the "cafes chantants" the gaudily dressed and bedizened girls, with their hennah stained fingers and khol darkened eyes, are exactly the same as when the Australians first invaded Egypt.

Jack was eventually sent home, judged permanently unfit for further service, but that didn't sit well with him. In 1916, he tried to re-enlist in the Australian Imperial Forces, but they wouldn't have him back. So, in 1917, he applied instead to the Australian Flying Corps, and was accepted. He made it back to the war, flying as a pilot on the Western Front, and survived that, too.

Lt Edward John "Jack" Richards, bottom centre (Source: AWM)
He went on to have a long career in newspapers, and an association with the RAAF that continued through the Second World War. He died in his 80s after a full life.

Women played important roles both before and during the war, too. Like Sister Caroline Allen, who had been operating her own private hospital in the Goldfields town of Kalgoorlie for several years by 1914. Nothing had stopped her in that time, and in between delivering babies and easing people through their dying days, she was often sent in to nurse infectious patients in isolation, when others wouldn't dare. As a result, she weathered a diptheria outbreak in Menzies in 1909 that killed many and saw her hospitalised herself.

Nurse Allen's close shave with diptheria (Source: NLA)
Nurse Allen reads as a formidable person in the pages of history, and it's no surprise that in 1915, she enlisted, and went across to Gallipoli to assist the war effort there. While nursing on the island of Lemnos, she ran across her future brother-in-law Royce Baesjou, whose story has been told here, and will be updated with more detail soon, thanks to his descendants.

Caroline Allen (right) with future brother-in-law Royce Baesjou at Lemnos, 1915 (Source: Bev Taylor)
Once the evacuation was complete at the end of 1915, she went over to England, where she spent the remainder of the war and some time afterward nursing Australian soldiers, before returning home to retirement, and a quieter life on an orange and lemon orchard with her widowed sister Helen. She was quickly bored with that, though, and newspaper reports show that she continued nursing on the side for a good long while after that.

These are just a few of the unique people of Western Australia who left their mark on history. Next time, I'll tell you more about the day that changed them forever- April 25th, 1915.

Thursday, February 6, 2014

Lives of the First World War

Centenary commemorations are rolling out all over the world in 2014, and the incredible volume of information, the sheer number of projects underway, and the massive quantity of time, emotion and research being contributed is just overwhelming.

I'd love to list off all the many things that are going on, but I can hardly keep up with them. If you're not already on Twitter, I'd strongly recommend joining up there and jumping into the conversation, because it's all happening. Here are just a few of the things I've been involved in recently, big and small.

Postcards from the past

On the smallest level of commemoration, I'm sharing some of my own family's most striking First World War mementoes on Twitter over the next few weeks, using the hashtag #GreatWarPostcard, with more than fifty beautiful examples like these held in scrapbooks that my great-great aunts kept during the war.

Several family members went away to fight in the Great War, and the death of my great-great aunt Vena's fiance Tom has inspired everything I do. These postcards are a poignant reminder of the turmoil felt by those who were left at home to wait for news of their loved ones at the Front.

Imperial War Museum's Lives of the First World War project

On the other end of the spectrum, one of the largest and most exciting projects coming up this year is the Imperial War Museum's Lives of the First World War.

Much like Australia's own Mapping Our Anzacs website (soon to be reinvented as Discovering Anzacs), the Lives of the First World War is essentially a crowd-sourced information gathering project, in which individuals across the globe will contribute data about soldiers who fought for Britain and the Commonwealth.

Anyone can get involved, and the project will be launched later this month. So, go check out the FAQ to learn more about the project, and sign up to the mailing list to receive updates.

There's been a bit of noise in the media this year about a lack of adequate recognition for Anzac contributions to the British war effort, but this is one way for Australians to ensure their stories are heard in the wider context of the Great War, and the organisers have been hugely enthusiastic and engaging about that inclusion. Check them out on Twitter here.

Uncovering the everyday- excavations at Blackboy Hill

Closer to home, I had the amazing opportunity to take part in further archaeological excavations at the Blackboy Hill campsite. For a bit of background, you can read about the history of Blackboy Hill here, and check out my interview with the University of Notre Dame's Senior Lecturer in archaeology, Dr. Shane Burke.

I am an archaeologist myself, and it was my great privilege to attend and assist in the excavation in recent weeks. I'm hugely grateful to Dr. Burke and the university for giving me that chance, and for letting me share some pictures of the work with you.

As someone who lives and breathes the fact and fiction of war in Western Australia, I've visited Blackboy Hill before, and I've mentally walked that ground in the shoes of real historical figures and fictional characters alike. Though the place has changed, the significance of it has never faded.

Despite that, I can safely say that I have never been closer to the Great War than in being able to place my hand on the soil horizon of 1914, and uncover artefacts that were used and discarded by some of the 32,000 men who went through the camp on their way to war.

The volunteer crew hard at work
There's something almost indescribable about knowing that the button, fastener or buckle you just pulled from the soil was worn by a man who lived and died, whose name may have passed before you in historical research. On a more general level, you can see all the photographs you like, and hear many jokes about the quality of the stew, but when you hold a fork in your hand that was used to eat that stew, it's very real and you are suddenly very present in that other time and place.

As the article linked above describes, the site is incredibly rich in material, as you'd expect from an area that was part of the camp's rubbish dump. Excavating in an area like this gives the ability to see a very broad cross-section of what life at the camp was like on a day-to-day basis. Rubbish dumps are not fussy- they take whatever comes their way, valuable or ordinary, average or extraordinary, and they do so in great volume.

Here are some photographs from the excavation, showing the work and some of the material we uncovered. Students from the University of Notre Dame will continue to study this material and interpret it, and I look forward to seeing those results in the future.

On the left, a collection of artefacts representing some of the types found during the dig, including (clockwise from bottom left) ceramics, bone, charcoal, metal scraps, wire, screws and nails, eyelets, buttons, and miscellaneous small items (a wooden checker piece in the centre).

Sieves set up, ready to sift through the dirt removed by excavators, in search of small artefacts.

Excavation in action- reaching the end of the first level in the large 2m x 2m square. An excavation is undertaken with great care, as soil builds up in layers over time. Carefully peeled back with trowels in layers (or spits) of a few centimetres at a time, the soil itself can reveal much about the phases of use of a site, and can be very useful in deciding how old a particular artefact is. If you have a distinctive item that you know comes from 1914, and all the other items around it are found in the same layer of soil, then you can reasonably hypothesise that there is a similar age for those artefacts (or at least, that they were deposited no earlier than the time that artefact was made).

In this case, there was not much definition within the soil, and artefacts from the relevant time period were found in great volume close to the surface. Not too surprising given that there has been limited use of this particular part of the site since the original camp was disbanded.

Here, volunteers screen excavated dirt through the sieves. Artefacts were found in such volume that it took a considerable amount of time, three sieves, and most of the people at the site to sift through it all.

Some of the artefacts in-situ- as I excavated, I found this many pieces with each scrape of the trowel. I've never seen such a high-density site before. Pieces visible here include a button, ceramic, glass, and part of an old fuse.

One of the most exciting finds- a leather boot! In addition to parts of the upper, we also found many eyelets and nails from the sole in the same area.

Sorting and bagging the artefacts- dividing the objects by type (glass, ceramic, bone, metal, etc) allows the researchers to consider different kinds of analysis when they return the material to the lab. Research questions might focus on a particular category of artefact, or consider the whole assemblage. Keeping it all separated also ensures that more fragile items, such as charcoal or lead, are not damaged by denser items, like brick or bulk metal.

Another exciting find- a complete fork. Somehow this came out of a square that two of us were excavating, without either of us noticing it until it appeared in the sieves. One of the most striking items to give a personal angle to the place- somebody held that fork and ate with it. These rubbish areas were close to the kitchens, so unsurprisingly there was a lot of material related to cooking and food, including glass, ceramic and bone.

And lastly, a button. There were several small objects found during the excavation, including parts from a watch (a cog, a dial, a chain), part of a harmonica, and a wooden game piece (like a checker). These and articles of clothing (also found were many other buttons, belt buckles and fasteners) are further reminders that it was individual men making their way through this very large camp. The smallest details of their lives show us all over again that they were ordinary people caught up in an extraordinary time.

Every time I wrote '14 on an artefact bag, I was struck all over again by the fact that this year is exactly one hundred years from the time when life began to change for so many. It is a momentous year, and there is much more commemoration to come.