Live from the Australian War Memorial
Mat: Hello everyone. Welcome to Living History and the second in our exciting panel discussions from the Australian War Memorial. Today you guys are going to be heavily involved as listeners because I’ve asked you to send in your questions. We’ve got a fantastic team of historians for you who are going to answer your questions, and also have just a great discussion about Australian military history, the work that the Australian War Memorial does and really anything else that that comes up, so I’m sitting at a table with a number of great historians. Let’s go around and introduce each one. Let’s start over here Dr. Karl James regular contributor to the podcast. Karl, welcome back. What are you working on at the moment?
Karl: Hi Mat. Thanks for having me. Well since we last spoke, I’m now the head with the Military History section here at the War Memorial.
Karl: Kind of fun. Now I’m back for appearance number 5 so there may be some correlation between my appearances on this podcast and my promotions here at work.
Mat: I think so. I think that’s what’s been driving it our time
Karl: Clearly. You know, this is how you want to get ahead as a historian if you are on Mat’s podcasts.
Mat: So you’ve been on to talk mostly about World War 2, I think we’ve had you. I mean that’s your area of specialty, isn’t it?
Karl: Yeah, absolutely. So the Second World War is my main bag. It was my grandparents’ war and talking to them growing up, every story, nearly every experience from all four grandparents always came back to the war in some shape or form, so I grew up listening to their stories, their experiences. I grew up in both their house as well as my own, just lots of books and I was able to follow my interest in the Second World War through my formal studies and then so I would get a job working here at the Memorial some thirteen years ago and for most of that time, I’ve concentrated on Australia’s involvement in the Second World War but we’ve also done as is the nature of working here and as a public historian, various other different activities so looking at Australia’s involvement in the Vietnam War. More recently Australians came into conflict in Afghanistan, but the Second World War is always going to be my main love and area of interest and research and publications.
Mat: And in the new role so Head of Military History, is at the new title?
Karl: Yeah, that’s right. So the military history section, we are a group of round about a dozen historians and editors within this section, as well as the Memorial’s Indigenous Liaison Officer and so it’s a broad skill set and with the historians, most of us have a sort of conflict specialty so the Second World War, First World War, Vietnam or Afghanistan, as well as peacekeeping and humanitarian operations. So my role is largely now management, but we still have a lot of exciting research projects and looking at an edited volume on Australia’s involvement in the Second World War. I’ve got my long-term research interest in the Siege of Tobruk, and of course Australia’s involvement the Pacific War. Always lots of different activities around that as well.
Mat: Fantastic. Well, great to have you back on the podcast again Karl, and if you haven’t listened to Karl’s previous episodes, go back and do because they’ve been some of the most engaging we’ve done in the whole series. Sitting to my right Dr. Kerrie Neal. Kerrie, welcome to the podcast. First time we’ve had you here. Tell us about your work at the Australian War Memorial.
Kerrie: Hi Mat. Well, thanks very much for having me on. I’ve been at the Memorial now for well over a decade. I’m currently working in the Heraldry and Technology section in a curatorial role and most recently, the biggest project that I’ve worked on is the After the War exhibition which was the Memorial’s centenary of the end of the First World War exhibition that opened last year looking at the consequences of all conflicts that Australians have been involved in over the last hundred years.
Mat: I just went and looked at that exhibition. I just walked through well just before we came into this interview and congratulations. It’s a fantastic and an interesting way of looking at a … people hear me bang on about this all the time. I don’t think we spend enough time talking about the aftermath of these big Wars, and it was just a fantastic exhibition. Some fascinating artefacts that tell this story. Was it a difficult exhibition to put together?
Kerrie: It’s the sort of exhibition I’ve always wanted to work on here at the Memorial. It was emotionally I think quite a challenging exhibition for myself and the team. There’s a lot of very personal stories looking at loss, grief, the sacrifice that families make, as well as those men and women who’ve served and returned home to a very different life. It’s also looking at the society and also those family units that they’re returning home to as well.
Mat: What are some of your favorite items that are in that exhibition?
Kerrie: There’s a few that spring to mind. Firstly, there’s this very simple biscuit tin from the Vietnam War era that I think most of us can probably identify a biscuit tin in the home that’s filled with either Grandma’s sewing items or trinkets and things that have been collected over the years, and this particular tin is actually still filled with the Anzac biscuits that Terry Handel’s mother and sister baked for him and sent over to Vietnam for him to share with his mates. The sad part about the story is though Terry was killed in November 1966, and the unopened biscuit tin was returned to his family and has remain unopened to this very day and we won’t open it here at the Memorial. It remains basically a shrine, a memorial to Terry’s memory.
Mat: That’s what I love about items and about artefacts because they tell such a greater story than just their mere form, their mere shape. There’s so many wonderful stories and tragic stories intertwined with just about everything you see in these galleries, isn’t there?
Kerrie: Absolutely. I mean we did want to make sure that there was a balance of stories that also talked about the resilience and the recovery of men and women who have served. So particularly looking at more recent conflicts, we were able to focus on things that are very familiar to people like the Invictus games which were actually held in Sydney last year that coincided really well with the exhibition, and so looking at the way that those men and women who have returned with in the most case physical wounds but emotional and psychological as well, have really taken to adaptive sports and that sense of teamwork beyond the military environment but still representing their country and serving together in a way in the sporting field were some really uplifting stories that we found as well.
Mat: I like how you’ve embraced the modern era as well because I saw in the small section dedicated to Poppy Pierce who was killed in Afghanistan the wonderful story of his daughter as a 17-year old performing on the Voice in tribute to her dad, and the clips from that show there. So I just really loved it. I thought it was a great demonstration of the repercussions of service, the repercussions of loss and we don’t spend enough time thinking about what happens when the guns fall silent.
Kerrie: Exactly, and what we were able to do not just focus in the exhibition on the consequences of the First World War. Bringing it out to cover those hundred years of conflicts, you really started to see the themes and the patterns of loss, of sacrifice, of family grief, and that generational impact that war can have. No matter what conflict it was, we still found stories where you know, a mother’s loss – it doesn’t matter what generation you’re looking at. The fact that even from one or the case of one family, seven sons go off to war and don’t return home. Those stories, it doesn’t matter what time frame you’re looking at, people will relate to those.
Mat: The impact it would have on a family and a community of losing that many sons just astonishing. How long does the exhibition still open for, because it’s reaching its final days, isn’t it?
Kerrie: Yes, so it opened around Armistice Day last year, then we close on the 15th of September, so you’ve only got a short amount of time to get in and have a look at it.
Mat: I think when this podcast comes out, people have a mere number of days to go and check it out so if you’re in Canberra, certainly go and do it because it’s well worth seeing and again telling that story so well of a chapter of the history we don’t relate to as often as we should which is what happens after the war. Thank You Kerrie. Great to have you here. Sitting next to us as well is Dr. Lachey Grant. Lachey, again first time the podcast. Welcome. Tell us about the work that you do and your work at the War Memorial.
Lachlan: Thanks Mat, it’s a pleasure to be here. I’ve been at the Memorial since 2011 and I’ve been working and researching mainly on the story of Australian prisoners of war in the Second World War and some of my highlights at the Memorial include the publications I’ve published in those areas including the Chaney book which brought together various items from the Memorial’s collections – the writing of the men themselves, the objects, the photographs, the artworks they did all went into one publication, and I’ve also worked on a variety of exhibitions over the years and displays in the Memorial, and some of those highlights would be our Holocaust display in the Second World War gallery and our Milne Bay display in Anzac Hall.
Mat: I’ve got to say looking around the room, I am by far the oldest member of this team sitting here. Talk to me about how you got into military history and this idea it really seems that there’s – and I’m so excited by this – there’s a new generation of young historians coming through. No disrespect to the more esteemed members of the history community who’ve been around for a long time, but I think it’s very exciting to see that younger historians are coming through and doing such great work. How did you Lachey get into military history, and what is it that drew you to this field in the first place?
Lachlan: Well I have to say a bit like how it’s very much been part of my family history. My family is from regional Victoria from the Daylesford and Ballard area, and both my grandfathers served in the Second World War and my Nana served in the Air Force, and their fathers and uncles all served in the First World War too so it was always part of the family story. Christmas time, all those family gatherings Grandpa was all often talking about things that happened to him during the war. For him it seemed to be he was a six-year veteran from 1939 to 1945 and served in the Mediterranean and New Guinea. He never spoke about the combat element of it. He did see quite a few battles and campaigns along the way, but just anecdotes of seeing the pyramids, seeing the world, it was something that was obviously really special in his lifetime, and to counter that my mother’s father rarely spoke about his years in New Guinea at all.
He shared a few snippets with my brother and I but never spoke to them out with my mum or my uncle, so the war was always here and then I visited the War Memorial on a family holiday to Canberra when I was about seven and I thought the place is pretty amazing. The dioramas in particular drew me in which of course are still there on display, and from that moment onwards, I had an interest and I think a particularly influencing thing on me as well was the 50th anniversary of D-Day in 1994, and then I think the Australia Remembers campaign that the Keating government had in ’95. There was a lot of documentaries and a lot of things on TV and from then I had the opportunity to study history at Uni, and that’s what I wanted to do.
Mat: It’s one of those topics I think we’re going to dig into in a bit more detail is Australia and D-Day because a topic that I think is very popular with people. I’m going to throw it open to Karl and Kerrie though. This idea firstly, do you see that there are young historians coming through? Am I correct in my assessment that there seems to be a whole new wave of young historians coming through and is this important? Is this going to tell history in a new way that we haven’t seen before?
Karl: Absolutely. I think so and I suspect the “young historians” – I’m using air quotes here – I think they’ve always been there but with social media, it gives everyone a much greater platform to be visible and so that always certainly helps because back in the day when you’re starting out, how did you become a historian? You went to university, you studied, did postgraduate studies, you wrote a thesis and then you did lots of publications and you tried to shop around to get a job. So that was great but it was the traditional method.
Now you still need to go through a lot of those formal training, the formal procedure. However things such as Twitter, Instagram, Facebook, various other different groups, networks, it just gives people more of an opportunity I think to make a profile, and to become present and to contribute to a debate, rather than say putting an article up for a peer-reviewed refereed journal which can sometimes take between 12 to 18 months for that article to then be published and read by a small readership. These days you can make a post in social media. You can tweet something and go to a battlefield and there’s yes there’s much more of instantaneous response, but it’s just a bit easier to help build a profile.
I think too that then encourages you to do more, to make those informal networks in addition to the formal studies or attending conferences. all those traditional methods still exist and they’re still really important because you have to have something substantial behind that tweet to back it up, but I do think there’s now just more of a general interest and I’m a big advocate of using social media to get your stories and to make these networks and connections so I do think it’s an exciting time. I mentioned and spoke about this before and it’s a great way for everyone to become involved within the field and within the community, and overall that experience has been in my point of view though overall that experience has been very positive.
Mat: I think what I’ve noticed and Kerrie, I’ll bring you in a minute to hear your thoughts about this as well, but you’re so right Karl. We do live in an era where I know social media gets a bagging and there is a dark side to it, I think we would all agree but when it comes to a field like this for history, the word I use is conversation. I know that Karl, you are on Twitter for example, and so people can jump on Twitter and say here’s something interesting that I just found out about my family, or I just saw a World War I artillery piece in my local park and it prompts a discussion and they can now have a conversation in a way they never would have been able to before.
You know 20 or 30 years ago, historians at the Australian War Memorial would have been virtually unreachable. Even the ability to be able to actually speak to them one on one just wouldn’t exist. Even what we’re doing now – a podcast – now where we’re sitting here just having a conversation and inviting people to contribute and to listen in. I think it’s absolutely fantastic and obviously it’s being driven by the new younger generation of historians. I think that’s absolutely wonderful.
Lachlan: And Mat I think someone’s used a term like the democratization of the records as well. The National Archives has been digitizing all those First World War service records and in the process of digitizing the Second World War service records. It has been so easy for people to look up their relatives from those conflicts and find out about some of their family history and so much of I think the interest in Anzac in the last couple of decades is driven from the interest in family history and by people researching. It’s been easy access to research relatives.
Mat: Kerrie, what are your thoughts on the young generation of historians?
Kerrie: Well I was actually just going to follow up what Lachlan was saying that I think the availability of materials, so whether it is a conversation that begins on Twitter or looking at a service record online suddenly records that would have taken months to travel overseas, go to the archive, research through and find, you can now do digitally in a matter of minutes and so conversations around the family dining table about family history suddenly become much more engaging and interesting when people can actually look back at the records relating to that family member.
I mean for myself as opposed to the two gentlemen here, I don’t really have that strong connection in my family history to the military but again looking at that 1995 Australia Remembers experience, I think that a lot of students coming through at that particular age – I would have been about 11 – and I had the opportunity to interview a veteran, a prisoner of war of a German camp, and that to me I think was my turning point in realizing the privilege of hearing these men and women tell their stories, and the fact that – I can almost picture him now – that Mr. Dixon had not shared these stories with his family and his wife is sitting there beside him with tears streaming down her face as he’s opening up to this young girl about the experiences and almost the guilt that he felt about being a prisoner under the Germans rather than the Japanese.
And so to me that is what brought history to life and I think that there’s probably quite a generation coming from that particular anniversary and I’d say that we’ll see the same thing again coming out of the centenary of the First World War of those younger generation again looking at that particular history and falling in love and finding those stories in that connection.
Karl: And I think the thing that’s key is not necessarily about say, family history. While family histories at first exposure and the first hook, the exciting new research and new researchers is they’re asking new questions and so things such as sexuality, race, gender, ethnicity, you’re opening up the field to say military history into a much wider field, much stronger discipline. Once upon a time, military history was really just tactics, plans, logistics. It was for Staff Corps officers to plan the next battle or the next war based on the previous Wars’ experience. You will still need that element of military history.
However today, and just as we’ve already been talking about, military history is about more than that. It is about the experience the individual soldiers but it’s also experiences of people, family at home, coming back after the war, the experiences of racial minorities within specific groups, relationships, lots of different fields and topics and avenues and so having by having more people work in the space and being interested in the space, it creates new questions and it lets us think about these things in many different ways and it gets you away from a very traditional narrative and approach to conducting history, and what is therefore important or significant and really opens it up to make it much more about that holistic human experience and acknowledging that one person’s experience will be different to someone else’s based on their background, their sexuality, their gender, their identity and that this is as important in military history as it is say, a social history or in another discipline.
Mat: Do we run the risk with the availability of information, the ability for everyone to have an opinion, do we run the risk that our understanding of our own history becomes a bit superficial? Do we run the risk that now that anyone can publish their own book or make their own YouTube video or record a podcast, is there a risk that our whole understanding of history that we’re not looking deeply at it anymore, that everything becomes superficial? Is that a risk do you think in the future?
Karl: Yes, I think superficial and very insular and so you lose the bigger perspective about if you just tell Australian stories all of the time, that excludes the role of our allies so what are the British and the Americans doing for example, and then of course what are our enemies doing? So the risk is it becomes too parochial and if you solely focus on say an emotional reaction to something, so it’s easy to talk about the First World War but only framing in terms of commemoration, how do we remember the First World War? We go to battlefields. Do you really go to battlefields or are you going to cemeteries? You know, so there is a way of losing detail, of losing context and so it’s certainly a risk that it will always come back to well what are the questions and what you want to achieve? If you’re really just about looking at your grandparents or great-grandparents and placing their individual experience into a wider national narrative, then maybe that’s all you need. It won’t get you a PhD, but you don’t need to have a PhD to have a love and a passion of history.
Mat: I think you’re right and one of the things that are that perhaps we’re seeing lately that is perhaps had a bit of a resurgent is the Anzac myth seems to be making a bit of a comeback and no offense to people who want to jump on Facebook and Twitter and talk about it, but that is the most prominent thing that gets put forward is the Aussies won the war and the American spirit and all these things and that’s fine. A discussion about that is a perfectly valid part of a story but I think one of the potential risks is that gets pushed a bit more front and center because it’s sexy. It’s not sexy talking about the logistics of bringing food and water up to the front line. That does not get a lot of airtime on Facebook but talking about someone who won a Victoria Cross and then went back to his girl and lived on a farm and was the archetypal Aussie, that gets a lot of time. We see that everywhere. We see it through all media. We see it in documentaries. We see it in movies as they get made these days so it’s always been around, but I wonder if it is more of a risk factor now that this information is so accessible and so easy to put it front and center.
Lachlan: Well, I had a very interesting experience on Anzac Day this year, Mat. I attended the ceremony at Polygon Wood for the first time and the Polygon Wood Ceremony is organized by the local guides’ association in Ypres, and the one thing that really struck me I host a group of Australian school students over there each year and attending the Polygon Wood ceremony was really interesting was because it’s very much an international ceremony. It was very much and Australia and New Zealand shared ceremony for start, but of course that’s very much how we had heard the Belgians’ story as part of the ceremony as well, and there was emphasis on not forgetting the local communities who rebuilt their cities and all the work that had to go into rebuilding the countryside as well, and there was even recognition of reconciliation between the countries of Europe as well with recognition of Germany too, so it was a really interesting Anzac Day ceremony. Seeing that very international approach to it, which you don’t always see here and something very much the students picked up on, coming from their small towns from different states and territories in Australia, so yeah.
Mat: Do you think that’s something we don’t do enough? The opposite perspective of the war, you know looking at the war from a concept of our enemies and the thing that prompted me was not just your comment there Lachey, which was excellent, but I’ve just come from… at the start of the month I was in Cowra for the 75th anniversary of the Cowra breakout, the big Japanese breakout from the prisoner of war camp, and I think Cowra is a model of not just reconciliation but perspective, because there were representatives from Japan there. It was a joint commemoration but it’s not something that we typically see. I’m always amazed that when we go to a service, particularly on a battlefield when we go.
We see it at Gallipoli obviously. We see the Turkish side in a big way in Gallipoli but I’m always surprised you go to the Western Front, Normandy, so many of these commemorations and there might be a token representative there. You go to Pearl Harbor and there might be the Japanese deputy ambassador sitting there and make a short speech, or there might be one German representative at Normandy, but it just seems that that we tell it from a victor’s perspective, and it might be a little bitter that the these people that were defeated in these battles don’t particularly want spend a lot of time thinking about them, but the concept of commemoration that people who fought in these battles on either side were all just in the main young blokes just trying to stay alive. Do you think we missed that a little bit, not just in commemoration but also in our study of history, we miss that perspective of what happened on the other side?
Karl: Absolutely. My work over the years on prisoners of war, one of the focuses of that has been the interactions between the prisoners and the people in the countries where the prisoners were being held, mostly across Asia and the Pacific, and because with focus on the Anzac legend, the story is often that Australians survived captivity because of this is the bonds then of mateship, and so the Australians helping each other as prisoners, but when you’re looking through the story of the prisoners of war, they always talk at the assistance that they got from local people wherever they were, often sympathetic Chinese in places like Singapore and Thailand, but also local ties would provide food and medicine to the prisoners or sometimes trade with them. But even in Japan, I found it extraordinary looking through our collections of diaries here are the amount of prisons that talk about the contacts they formed with their local Japanese civilians during their time of imprisonment, and these sort of stories go against the flow of how we kind of understand Australia and the attitudes of veterans of that conflict towards the people of the region.
Kerrie: I wonder if there’s something here about the physical distance that Australia has from so many of the main battlefields, the areas that Australians have fought in, that unlike I guess local communities and towns overseas where their history is literally scarred across their landscape, Australians don’t necessarily see that and so what the majority of the public hear are the stories of those men and women who’ve come back, or the stories of the battles over there and I just wonder if that’s some something to explain part of the reason that we do become a little bit insular and sort of inward-looking that we look at the Australian experience in particular when people are interested in their own personal histories.
Mat: That’s a great point. The soldiers themselves didn’t have a very broad perspective. If they went off to fight in New Guinea, on the Kokoda Track or they went to Gallipoli, they didn’t have a broad perspective on the local people and the broader picture of the war. They had their little job to do and they did it and they came back and that’s what they told their family, so it’s a really good point. We had some questions sent in from people. Do we want to move on? Any final thoughts on these broad topics we’ve opened with before we dig into these questions? I put a couple of notes up on social media asking people to send in questions just to use as some anchor points. A great opportunity for people to get their questions in front of some of Australia’s leading historians, and thank you everyone who sent in questions because we had some brilliant responses so I’m looking forward to digging into a few of these. I think these will kick off some good conversations.
Well, let’s start with this one Lachey because I know that coincidentally this is an area of great interest for you and you know a lot about this, but John Flower wrote that he’d be interested know how many Australians went ashore on D-Day and in what capacity, and whether these men or women are remembered anywhere for that action? And this is a really interesting one because we had the D-Day anniversary only a couple of months ago. I did a lot of press and a lot of interviews about it. There was a lot of interest in Australian involvement and there was also a great lack of knowledge about anything the Australians may have done. People have been influenced a lot by media, by films, by Hollywood so we’ve seen a lot of an American story. We’ve seen a bit of the British story but D-Day was an absolutely vital coalition effort, wasn’t it? Lachey, can you shed some light on Australia D-Day and what was going on?
Lachlan: Yeah, great question John. Australians were among more than a dozen Allied nations represented in the D-Day landings. Over 3,000 Australians were involved on 6th of June and thousands more involved throughout the Normandy campaign because we always have to remember it’s more than just the 6th of June. This campaign goes for 10 weeks.
Mat: I think that’s the number one thing we can take out the early part of this conversation is the distinction between D-Day which was one day – June 6th – and the several months of the Normandy campaign which was vital in the war in the West.
Lachlan: I mean the vast majority of those Australians were serving in the Royal Air Force or the Royal Australian Air Force squadrons, and about five hundred were serving in the Navy but in terms of going ashore on D-Day, there are a few Australians, over a dozen Australian Army officers IAF are there serving on attachment with the British Army to learn lessons about the amphibious operations to come back to Australia, and there’s also war correspondents a very famous one obviously, Chester Wilmot. He landed by glider with the 6th Airborne Division. He was attached to the British Airborne Division reporting for the BBC, but there’s also an unknown number of Australians who enlisted directly into the British forces during the war, and I say unknown because it’s hard for us to identify who some of these individuals are, but the more and more research we have been doing over the years, we’re aware of quite a number including our nurses who landed with the British services, and also one remarkable story is of a lady named Olive Sherrington from Sydney.
She was on holidays in England when the war broke out and so enlisted in the Mechanized Transport Corps, and she was one of the last British women to be evacuated from France, actually after Dunkirk, so she was evacuated from the Brittany coast, driving a convoy of ambulances, saving a whole bunch of English soldiers after the fall of France, but she was one of the first British women to return to Normandy as well. She drove her truck off the landing craft a couple of days after the landings.
Mat: I saw during the commemorations there was I think there was only one Australian soldier who was killed on June 6th. I know we lost a lot of airmen and sailors, but I think there’s only one Aussie soldier who was actually killed, and Pete Smith, one of the historians who leads our tours always takes Aussies to that grave. Again I think serving with the British forces but D-Day is an interesting one, wasn’t it because in terms of planning operations, the Australian contingent was small but I think representative of how important the coalition was in not just D-Day itself, but the defeat of Nazi Germany in general.
Lachlan: Yeah, absolutely. I mean Australia was a very small nation at the time. We have to remember we only had a population of 7 million. we also have to remember the context of the global war, the vast majority of Australia’s resources were still fighting in the region of the Pacific, driving that Japanese advance back but the fact that we have 16,000 airmen based in Britain at this time, that’s the size of a division at that time in the jungle in New Guinea so if we think about it from that perspective, Australia’s contribution particularly to that air war in Europe is quite significant for a small nation such as Australia.
Karl: Yeah, and that was a conscious decision too because so the Australian government received a fair bit of flak with the recall of the IAF from the Middle East in late 1941 and early 1942, bringing those soldiers back to fight in the Pacific. However the government was very mindful of that criticism and they didn’t want to… so while these soldiers have come back, there’s a conscious decision to not turn off that pool of airmen who were going across to Europe to fight in the active air war. So part of the reason you still have some 16,000 airmen flying with the RAF in Britain is so that Australia consciously can be seen to be fighting against Nazi Germany all the way through to the end of the war. So in many ways, we do focus on the Pacific for the latter part of the Second World War by keeping our airmen active in the air war against Nazi Germany. The Australian Government said look, we’re still here. We’re still fighting Nazism and so it’s a conscious decision. It wasn’t just by luck or coincidence. It was really an attempt for Australia which was really only a medium-sized power to maintain an active and a recognisable active role in this global conflict.
Mat: Kerrie, you mentioned earlier I think it was you that touched on reconstruction and rebuilding after war, and there was one question here that I thought was really interesting. Actually it was Lachey that said that. I’m doing really well of my notes so far, but there’s a good question here about reconstruction which was asked by Sarah Morris, which was about Australia’s role in the reconstruction specifically Ypres after the First World War, but I think more broadly it’s a really good question because the rebuilding of Europe, the rebuilding of these towns and cities after not just the First World War but the Second World War as well was absolutely vital. Did Australia play a role in contributions to rebuild some of these places after the wars?
Karl: Well not in terms of the city of Ypres which is an interesting case actually, because I mean some of the most iconic photographs we have in the War Memorial’s collection are of the ruins of the city of Ypres. Obviously some of Frank Hurley’s photographs are very iconic for listeners at home, and there was a lot of debate at the end of the war about whether to actually rebuild Ypres or not. Some – and Churchill was one of the advocates was to leave Ypres in ruins as a Memorial.
Obviously the citizens of Ypres wanted their city rebuilt. That wasn’t a designated outcome and it was rebuilt. It was rebuilt using funds acquired from reparation payments from the Germans, and again there was debate on whether to rebuild it as a modern city or to rebuild it as it was in that Flemish Medieval Renaissance style which is so evocative of the city itself, and of course they went to rebuild the old city as close as it was and amazingly by 1934, they had rebuilt the Tower of the Cloth Hall, so only 15 years, 6 years after the end of the war, they had made some headway in rebuilding their old city.
But of course there’s other places other cities that Australia did contribute to, and most notably was the Victorian school in Villers-Bretonneux. The funds were raised by schoolchildren in Victoria.
Mat: I think originally the town request that we pay for their local abattoir to be rebuilt and but we decided that a school was a bit sexier. Kerrie, in the work that you’ve done this idea after the war and rebuilding in many ways, the people of Europe had to literally rebuild after the First World War and after the Second World War, plus they also had to go through the social implications, the family implications of having lost men. Do you feel that this experience of rebuilding after the war trying to put the pieces of people’s lives back together was a shared experience that the people of Belgium understood what the people of Britain were going through, and the people of Britain understood what Australians were going through? Were all nations going through these things in a similar way or was it isolated? Was Australia trying to put the pieces back together in its own way, which was quite separate from what was going on in other nations who participated?
Kerrie: I wouldn’t say that it’s isolated as such, but obviously there are going to be significant differences between areas that need to, as we’ve just heard from Lachey, rebuild schools, rebuild cloth halls, and rebuild infrastructure to that level of cities and towns that have just been decimated. Whereas in Australia it was more about rebuilding the social norms and rebuilding community where young men had gone off and basically they talk about a lost generation and while that’s a bit of a catchphrase, there are towns in Australia where it was the bulk of young men who went off to serve, and when a number of them don’t come home, how do you fill that void in terms of farmland and of getting men back with the soldier settlement scheme? We saw for Australia that was something that particularly didn’t work well in Australia, but for examples that I’ve looked at in say Canada, there was a bit more success. So I think there’s a shared sense of the need to rebuild a life which I think is shared amongst most of the combatant countries, whereas it’s obviously to differing levels when we’re talking about buildings and infrastructure.
Mat: This idea that soldiers would return to a land fit for heroes that we said after the First World War and the Second World War as well, Vietnam, you know that it’s an ongoing constant comment that these men and women deserve the best that we can give them, and almost universally we fail in that endeavour as a society and the problems that come from turning civilians into soldiers and then sending them off to war are far reaching. Is there an example of when we got it right? I know we talked a lot about problems after the First World War leading into the Great Depression, and we talked about Vietnam and PTSD in modern conflicts, is there an example of when we got it right? When we actually did look after our solders when they came back and we did make a land fit for heroes?
Kerrie: I think we definitely see examples of that in the exhibition where it’s again more on a community level particularly after the First World War, where someone like Gus Quiann (?) who was a double leg amputee who comes back to [inaudible; 37:15] where he had grown up. He had all of the family and friends that knew him there and they banded together to build a home for him that was adapted to his needs, and you see a lot of those sorts of stories where individuals are really supported by the communities around them.
Obviously when we talk about Veterans Health, veterans’ physical reconstruction and rehabilitation, you do see significant improvements over the conflicts where you look at say the artificial limbs and the reconstructive surgery that was available after the First World War as really being the start of something that’s quite remarkable now. When you look at the adaptive equipment that’s used for the Invictus games, or the prosthetic limbs that are available now, and so those sorts of improvements I think have really helped shape a veteran’s experience post their deployment, post their military life moving into a civilian world.
Karl: This is a curious question though is for the World Wars and our pre-1914 commitments, the forces who were sent overseas are essentially citizen soldiers so they are pre-war civilians. We have a global conflict and they have been mobilized to join up, with the expectation they will serve for the duration of the conflict and then when the war is over, then they will return back to civilian life, and so it is a curious question as to what extent can you ever provide enough for these returning men and women? I think in many ways, even during the interwar period, looking at some of the work that Joan Beaumont is doing right now looking at soldier settlement, looking at repatriation, pensions from the Repat Commission for example, even during the interwar period, Australia is still spending more on veterans – well, the term veteran isn’t used until after the Vietnam War – so after the First World War, Australia is still spending more on returned men and returned women than any other country within the Commonwealth.
Certainly we know with hindsight that it probably wasn’t enough and it wasn’t enough money spent in the right areas and then when the war is finishing and there’s a sort of a period of demobilization, part of that was opportunities to learn skills like civilian skills, trades, opportunity to go to university. You had your deferred pay so you could save up and buy a block of land as well as various other means. You had soldiers’ settlement – the second time around is a much more successful attempt so it’s curious because in many ways you know the government has always been mindful; these governments have been mindful of this criticism and they do their best but is it enough and is it certainly in the right ways, and so what we’ve seen a lot of say with Kerrie’s work for example is the need to address a physical wound so if the soldier comes back with an arm lost or a leg lost, or with what is PAs – prisoners’ adjustment – of the needs. Now we concentrate on the physical injuries but now what we’re talking about with modern-day veterans and veterans’ health is the mental injuries and the moral injuries. Is there enough to address not necessarily just a serviceman but his wife and their family? So in many ways it’s just that it’s constantly changing and evolving and in some ways it’s easy to say, oh not enough is given to our veterans but then how much is too much, or could you ever give enough to these men and women who’ve sometimes been away for six years in case of the Second World War and say thank you for being a prison of the Japanese and Thai-Burma railway. That was really horrific! Like what could you do to get past the physical impact of and the health injuries of being prisoner of war? The mental injury, the trauma as well as the absence, you know. Not being in touch with your family for two and a half, three years. How do you ever get that time back?
Mat: I’ve noted that today even though I just used the phrase PTSD, often we’re dropping the D now. We’re just calling it PTS with the recognition that it’s not a disorder, and I think that’s important. I think that’s an important step to say that the expectation is if you go into combat and have to kill and fight for your life, it is going to mess you up. You’re not going to be the same when you get back and I think it’s important that that’s recognized, and I think there was a feeling with modern wars perhaps because we had such a long period of peace before Afghanistan and Iraq, I think potentially we did drop the ball a little bit in terms of our understanding of the effects it would have but it’s good to see that we’ve caught up again. It’s good to see that we have now got programs in place. It seems a little bit slow to start and unfortunately we lost a lot of good people who didn’t receive the help that they needed, but it’s good to see that that hopefully now we’re up to speed a little bit more than we have in previous times, because in the First World War they had no idea this was going to occur. There had never been war on that scale before but hopefully we’ve learned some of those lessons.
Moving on to something that relates very closely to reconstruction and coming back after the war is a question that Mary Booth asked, which was about the repatriation of soldiers killed overseas and specifically with the First World War, this is particularly notable. Mary asks just wondering if there was ever a suggestion of repatriating the deceased soldiers back to Australia, and did the families ever get the opportunity to have bodies buried at home and of course it varies depending on the war, but looking at the First World War as an example this was devastating in its scale. The most costly war Australia has ever been involved in. Not just Australia, all nations at that time the most costly war they’d been involved in. Who would like to take this one? Who would like to talk a little bit about graves overseas, decisions to bring them home?
Kerrie: Well, I’m happy to jump in here. We do actually deal with that a little bit in the exhibition, trying to bring a sense of what visiting a cemetery over on the Western Front is like today. Obviously at the time, families really didn’t have any opportunity to go and visit the graves of their loved ones overseas, and obviously when we talk about just the overwhelming number of men who were dying over on the Western Front and in other theatres of war, even though there was obviously consideration given to bring the bodies back, it was just logistically not going to be possible and so we get the creation of the Imperial War Graves and then later the Commonwealth War Graves Commission, where basically a plot of land in a far distant country becomes a part of Australia’s soil, and that’s where the bodies of the men and women who fought for Australia are interred.
So families really were given the opportunity to engage in that burial process through writing epitaphs for the headstones. That was fraught with its own difficulties as well when you’re asked to capture all of the feelings and the sentiment that you want to express for your loved one in a restricted number of characters, it’s a bit like trying to work out everything that you want in a tweet we refer to it these days, so there was still a connection that families had to the burial of the dead in the First World War, but obviously Bart [unclear; 44:29] has done a lot of work on this with just that distance of grief, and the fact that travel today, quite often I’ve been on tours over to the Western Front and to Gallipoli, you find that it’s two or three generations removed that are the first ones of their family that are paying their respects at their ancestors’ grave and that becomes something of a pilgrimage and something quite special for the family.
Mat: I think without those cemeteries we would have lost a great connection to the history because had the bodies been repatriated and were buried in family plots in cemeteries all over Australia, we wouldn’t have that focal point. I don’t think too many Aussies are going down to their local cemetery and wandering around looking for war graves. Some of us do and if you do, I certainly encourage you to do. It’s absolutely fascinating but in general I don’t think Australians are wandering down to their local community cemetery and looking out for war graves, so the focal point that is provided by having cemeteries which are lasting legacies of these battles and often the only legacy of these battles that remains on the ground. It’s a real testament to the work that the Imperial War Graves Commission did and the Commonwealth War Graves Commission now in creating and maintaining these incredible monuments to thousands of fallen men.
The question is, will they do it in the future? There must reach a point where the French get a little bit sick of the number of cemeteries there.
Kerrie: And they are maintained so beautifully. that’s the one thing that you really notice no matter where you’re going through, you sort of come to the next cemetery and it’s just absolutely pristine and the locals take such pride themselves in having a Commonwealth War Graves Cemetery in the area, and as you’re saying it is that mark where you can go to somewhere like Tyne Cot, and you are almost overwhelmed by the sea of whites with the headstones, it just tends to kind of peter off into the horizon almost. It’s just so overwhelming in its size, or then you come to a tiny little cemetery where there’s only two or three headstones and it’s in the middle of a farmer’s field where everywhere else is being farmed and quite productive and then you’ve got this cemetery that is just a mark on the landscape, but it is held in such respect by the locals as well that it’s maintained just absolutely beautifully.
Lachlan: And again as we touched on earlier, the digitization of records. Once upon a time, families might know there’s a relative buried somewhere in France or Belgium but not know where or how to find it without writing to the Commonwealth War Graves Commission, but now it’s easy to find. You can then look up their service record, find out about their story so families are very well informed often when they’re visiting these places. But in terms of the repatriation of the bodies, the government changed the policy in 1966 during the Vietnam War and some of the early casualties in Vietnam were buried in Terendak in Malaysia, and families were from that point of those who were buried in in Terendak were given the option to whether to repatriate the bodies of the Vietnam soldiers and 33 of the 36 took up that offer and repatriated them, but there’s still a few buried in Terendak in Malaysia from the Vietnam War.
Mat: I think it’s reflective as well as obviously more modern conflicts is that hopefully we’re never going to see again the scale of casualties we saw in the First and Second World War, and so you were right Kerrie. What you said the reason they didn’t come home is there was just no way to bring them home. There was no possible way to find shipping and they wanted to focus on the living soldiers. They had enough living soldiers to bring back. There was just no way to bring back deceased soldiers as well, but I think obviously it’s a reflection of the fact that we would expect casualties to be hopefully lower in future conflicts, and logistics will mean that we can bring them back. So I can’t imagine that policy would change from the concept that we bring our soldiers home. Anything else to add? Karl, do you want to add anything from the World War II perspective?
Karl: It’s a similar sort of thing of the Second World War because by that time, the tradition had been well established in having the temporary battlefield cemeteries near where soldiers fought and would die, and then later on they are largely consolidated into the largest cemetery. It’s much more accessible. The thing that’s interesting with the Pacific War for example is along the Kokoda Trail, there was something like a dozen temporary battlefield cemeteries and so when the war ends, even before the war ends, like ’43, ’44, a lot of those smaller graves and burial sites are consolidated around Bomana War Cemetery and so part of the issue which was different to what had occurred in the First World War, in the Second World War is the case of well how do we maintain all these small temporary battlefield graves in areas that won’t get a large number of visitors. It’s not a large population to support them.
So in France and Belgium, yes the landscape on the Western Front is just dotted with combat war cemeteries and it’s part of the landscape now. In the Second World War in the Pacific in places around Kokoda, Bomana, Madang, Lae, Tarakan, various other places wherever Australians fought, Australians were buried. In ’45, ‘46 there’s a very strong clear appreciation that they just couldn’t sustain having these temporary smaller battlefield cemeteries everywhere across New Guinea so they are consolidated and grouped around places such as Bomana, Lae, Bita Paka and Rabaul, so the questions were very similar but how you had to maintain these sites was an issue. And there’s also the missing but it’s a different type of missing so rather than being obliterated by an artillery shell and so in the First World War, in New Guinea is the case of whereas the bodies they’re lost in the jungle. If you’ve got an aircraft it’s in the mountain somewhere in New Guinea. In the highlands, it’s just gone and they never really had the resources to conduct a lot of exploration to look for the missing. So for example there’s still several thousand missing servicemen from the Second World War in New Guinea who have no known grave. We’ve very much focused on the missing from the Western Front. These blokes are missing in the jungle essentially or they’ve been swept out to sea. The remains have been eaten by crocodiles. It’s an interesting question
Lachlan: And we have to remember too some of those Second World War cemeteries where the Australians are buried have been in places where there’s been political turmoil over the years. Haven’t always been easy to access the cemetery in Burma for example, at the Burma end of the Thai-Burma railway wasn’t accessible for many years due to the Myanmar Government. Has only been accessible in the recent decade and now again I believe it can be harder to get to, and also in the Middle East and North Africa as well. Those graves in the Western Front have always been much more easier for Australian visitors to access.
Karl: In some ways leaving that’s the connection why people are interested in the topic what is the first of all resonates and there’s a popular interest. Partly it’s because it’s much easier to get to these battlefields and these burial sites whereas even Tobruk and El Alamein, the travel advisory warnings make it very difficult for tourists to get to Tobruk to look at the cemetery and even to visit Alamein and then the other battle sites in other parts of the world, it is a little bit of a question mark. Some of these places are not easy to get to, and you really have to be committed with it from a financial point of view or a security point of view. So as we look forward in the next 5, 10, 15, 20 years, if people can’t get to these places and they can’t explore and create an experience for themselves, will that mean interest will go away because I think there’s a strong connection between that experience of walking a battlefield and getting that sort of an emotional response to it, you can’t get that from just looking at digitized documents or reading books. The veterans will now pass within the next few years so if you can’t get to Tobruk or get to Alamein or Tunisia or parts of the Pacific. Will we lose interest in this story or will we just not tell their stories anymore?
Mat: I think we already see that a bit with the Pacific Islands through the tour company that I run. In spite of the fact that the number of families that could point to these isolated little Pacific Islands where they had family members serve, virtually no one goes there. No one is visiting the Pacific because it’s just too hard, but everyone is going to France even though it might be great-great-uncle Bob who fought in France. They have no direct connection with their own grandfather or father may have fought in some Pacific island which is much closer to home, but it’s just not on the tourist radar. On that point, is it important that we maintain these cemeteries particularly in the more isolated places? As historians, what part of the story do cemeteries tell, because we’ve already seen the French wishing to make changes to cemeteries, to move cemeteries and the French are fairly stoic about the whole idea? Their perspective on it is well there’s so many of them buried. None of the relatives are left alive. What does it matter? Is it important that we spend the hundreds of millions of dollars it costs to maintain these cemeteries? Is it important that every cemetery is maintained, or can you see a time in the future where we’ll start to consolidate, where we’ll start to reduce the number? What do we think?
Lachlan: Well I think part of the original theory with the Imperial War grave cemeteries was recognizing that these were particularly the soldiers from Britain and the Commonwealth were fighting for democracies. Our citizen soldiers, the Australians were all volunteers. I think that’s been one of the important things in recognizing their place of death and giving them a sense of identity with a headstone and a place where relatives can visit, and I think going back to that original planning of why they established these cemeteries in the first place, we should try not to forget that.
Karl: I can’t see it ever getting to the point where we couldn’t, we wouldn’t or we shouldn’t continue our interest in funding for it, because there’s such as strong as part of it social bonds almost an unspoken contract between the community and the government, the people who send our troops overseas and I hope we’d never get to that point as well, to be honest. I think it’s something we should always we need to do. We need to remember their service. We need to make sure these places are accessible. We can acknowledge that grave sites have moved, but so long as they’re still there and people know how to get to them.
Mat: It probably harks back to what we said at the top of the conversation as well, that there’s a resurgence of interest because of digital records, because the availability of information, so perhaps we’ll see more people going to some of these isolated cemeteries simply because they can find out that their great-uncle Bob is buried there and can go and visit as well.
This is an interesting one. Rich Willis posted a couple of interesting questions and I hand-picked the ones that I think are most pertinent, but the one I wanted to look at is this is a really interesting one that relates the First World War – Lions led by donkeys – is this concept that the men who fought in the front line were all heroes and the bungling generals that sent them to their death were incompetent. It seemed to come about in about the 1960s. It really seemed to take off after the Second World War, this concept, this re-envisaging the First World War, but it’s almost a universal concept that applies to every war that this perception that the bloke holding the rifle in the mud is the hero we should be looking at, and not only that the general in the Chateau shouldn’t be honoured in the same way but almost the opposite, that that’s a person to be disdained. What are your thoughts about this ongoing concept of the Lions led by donkeys?
Lachlan: Well it will never go away, this one it seems, Mat. It always reappears. I think maybe we put ourselves in the mindset at the time. I don’t think planners at the time as horrific as the First World War was were wanting to sacrifice the lives of their troops to make objectives. They very much wanted to achieve their objectives with as limited loss of life as possible, and are faced with a really difficult circumstance with the defenses on the Western Front, with all kinds of new weaponry and technology and that modern industrial warfare that we talked about in the First World War. It was really hard nut to crack for those in charge of planning those attacks, and they did come up with quite a series of innovations throughout the conflict that did help the Allies advance and limit the casualties. But the heroic individual soldier is very much one of those I think we’ve spoken about that democratic citizen soldier before. That’s very much the way in which in Australia at least we’ve have sort of seen the veterans of the war.
Karl: Yeah it’s very much a zombie myth and in many ways it really is a myth it should be and has been busted for about 30 years. There’s been a substantial library of scholarship now that’s looked at the learning process both from across the British and imperial armies as well as our allies, as well as the Germans because they’re learning, the Germans are learning and adapting in the same way the British forces are, and when I say British, I mean British Imperial and the Commonwealth forces, and it must be incredibly frustrating. If you’re a First World War historian and you look at the work of people such as Gary Sheffield, Amy Fox, Lily Hampton, and so many of our friends and colleagues have worked in this space and published in the space where it’s like well but it still is an idea that just won’t go away. In part I think it’s because it is so hard for us today a hundred years after the conflict still to make sense of it, so while it is something where you can see some very good leaders and commanders putting together those elements of the combined arms battle for example, it’s incredibly hard problem is like you alluded to. You’ve got an entrenched enemy. You’re well dug in thick belts of barbed wire, artillery machine guns. What’s the problem? How do you come up with an equation to get past that? it’s a very hard thing to do and a lot of men died, and because so many men died or were killed or wounded or missing, it’s hard for us now just to make sense of that and sometimes the debate when looking at the learning process, it becomes a little bit static so you can read a book and think okay well this is actually what they were doing. This is why they came up this process or they put these elements together. At the end of the day, you still have twenty thousand men who were killed.
Monash was one of the great battlefield commanders of the First World War. Rommel was great, however even in winning that successful action a lot of men still died, so it’s very hard to turn off that emotional response particularly again if you go to the Western Front and all you see – because some people they’ll just see cemeteries – and it’s hard to get past that. However the lions led by donkeys, it’s a myth that should really just go away and we’re all just sick of it.
Lachlan: And there’s legacies of the Second World War of this concept in a way too because of the vast loss of British Commonwealth lives in the Second World War, British and Commonwealth commanders in the Second World War were very hesitant to waste the lives of soldiers, and some historians have been critical of that and pointing to the massive loss of life by the Nazis, or the Fascists or Communists and Soviet Union but they had a different perspective on individual liberties that the Western Allies respected their individuals, and there was a real consciousness and effort to limit the amount of casualties on our side in the Second World War.
Mat: Even from just a logical point of view, it doesn’t stand up very strongly because men, particularly the First World War were a scarce resource. They took a long time to train a man, equip him. They were short of men throughout the entire war and even the most hard-hearted General still didn’t want to kill his own men simply because they were not possible to be replaced, and I don’t think most Generals were these hard-hearted men. They were when they had to be, but at the same time the armies don’t want to kill their own soldiers, and if we ever see a battle that goes badly wrong, no one’s happy about it. No General is going, oh well that was great for their morale and we’ll do better next time. I mean armies are not happy when large numbers of men get killed so I don’t even think it stands up logically. If you even look at the records, I can’t see any examples where any army was happy that they sent troops in and they all got mowed down.
Obviously mistakes were made. Obviously there were attacks that went in like in any war where large numbers of men were committed perhaps when they shouldn’t have been and were killed, but I think the important thing here is intent. Were Generals flippant about the lives of their men and negligent in sending him into conflicts? I don’t think I’ve come across a single example that could be justified in that respect. Kerrie, did you see in putting the exhibition together, was there a feeling, was there ever any evidence that you saw in your work post-war that families at the time felt that their dead sons had been mismanaged on the battlefield and they would still be alive if a general had done things better? Did you see evidence of that, or is this something that was kind of evolved over the decades after the war?
Kerrie: It seems to be something that’s more evolved as you say in the decades after the wars.
Mat: The reason I ask the question is because you would think that would be the logical time when you’ve got grieving families and the wounds are raw and they’ve just buried their dead sons. They’re never going to get to visit the graves. You’d think that was the time when people would say, well let’s launch an inquiry into what the hell was going on, but I haven’t seen much activity that suggests there was any sort of backlash against the commanding officers. Just the opposite that these men were fated as the heroes that won the war.
Kerrie: And quite often what we have are examples of are letters from those, not necessarily the highest ranks, but at the next level up from the rank-and-file sort of expressing their condolences to these families and talking about the lost son as somebody who they were proud to fight beside, so there’s almost a sense that these men are taking ownership of the loss but it’s not that anybody’s looking for someone to blame. The war is to blame, not individual leadership and so that’s what I see with a lot of the correspondence from families that are looking for explanations or the details around the death of their loved ones. It was more they just needed to know the circumstances. They didn’t need to know who was the person that sent that order, and where that order came from, so no I think it is something that’s generated post-war and as you say quite some decades later that you really get that that lions led by donkeys.
Mat: And Field Marshal Haig who is probably most criticized in this context, I always just come back to the fact that when he died – I can’t remember the year. I think it was 1928 or something like that when he died – I think it was 400,000 men took an unpaid day off work, his former soldiers, to come and line the streets right at the time of the Great Depression. I mean, I just don’t see any evidence that the men themselves ever felt anything except Haig was the hero who won the war. It’s a curious one and it is persistent unfortunately, but the answer to the question is was there any justification in it? I think a resounding no and please if you’re listening to this, do whatever you can to put this one to bed. It simply was not the case.
Let’s skip to another a bit of a change of tack. Here’s a question from Nicky Shay who asked about U-Boat activity in Australian waters during both World Wars. There’s something about submarines, isn’t there? I mean, it takes a huge amount of courage to go underwater in a metal tube. There’s something about it that’s considered a bit sneaky, a bit not conforming to the honor of war. There’s just some mystique about submarines, isn’t there and the idea from an Australia particularly during the Second World War in Australia that felt under threat the idea that there could be ships that you can’t even see lurking in the waters waiting to sink any of our vessels. I think it was part of this story of the terror of Australia in those early stages of the Second World War. What do you think about that? What was U-Boat activity in Australia during that?
Lachlan: Well obviously Mat, as you say the submarine activity I mean the Sydney Harbour attacks was one of those very iconic and memorable events in Australia during the Second World War, but there was a continual sort of maritime threats around Australia during the war. U-Boat activity didn’t take place until 1944 though, so it was relatively late in the conflict. The Surface Raiders, German Surface Raiders were causing more problems before then. Obviously the famous incident with HMAS Sydney and the Kormoran was one of those but in 1944, the Germans sent 4 Type 9 U-Boats to patrol Australian waters. Two of them were intercepted because we were breaking the access codes and two of the U-Boats because they were docking in Indonesia and Singapore and Malaysia, and when the Allies knew they were on the way, two of them were intercepted, and only one of them got to working in Australian waters and it sunk our two merchant ships during that time. The first one was the Liberty Ship Robert J Walker off the New South Wales Coast on 24th of December 1944, and later the Peter Silvester off Fremantle in February 1944, and that was AU-862. So it was not until quite late in the conflict but throughout the whole of the war, 53 merchant ships were lost due to Axis shipping activity in Australian waters and that was over 1700 lives lost but U-Boat activity wasn’t till later.
Mat: I’m always astounded at the efficiency of submarines during the Second World War in particular. The warning of the Battle of the Atlantic, the U-Boat threat. This was a serious opportunity Germany had to I might say win the war, but to certainly turn odds in their favour. The Second World War submarines were incredibly efficient at sinking slow-moving merchant ships loaded with desperately needed supplies.
Karl: Absolutely, Mat. I think in Australia we know about the loss of ships like the HMAS Sydney and of course Kormoran but also the Hell ships in the Pacific to the Montevideo Maru and the Rakuyo Maru. 2000 Australian prisoners of war died at sea in the Second World War when their ships were sunk by allied submarines when they were being transported by the Japanese to various parts of the Japanese Empire, but this is only a small part of the picture. The carnage at sea during the Second World War from submarines and other ships and there’s this Japanese ship sunk with up to 5,000 or 6,000 Japanese troops on board. There’s transport ships sunk in Europe. The Lancaster leaving France after the fall of France had possibly 4,000 and more. They don’t know the exact number of British troops on board. The Wilhelm Gustave in the Baltic, perhaps up to 7,000 maybe more German troops on board sunk by Russian submarines. The list just goes on and it’s one of these aspects of the Second World War I think is we have such a big army history with so many of our participants being soldiers on the ground, it’s maybe not as big a part of the Australian story but in terms of the global war, the absolute carnage on the seas in the Second World War with ships getting sunk and with extremely large losses of life in each incident.
Mat: There’s an extraordinary map that you can download on the web showing shipwrecks just from the First World War around the British Isles from the First World War, and it looks like someone who has measles. There are literally hundreds if not thousands of shipwrecks around just from the activity. Incredible! You know I’ve been to Guadalcanal many times and they call the stretch of water there ‘Iron Bottom Sound’ because of the 200 ships and aircraft that are sunk there. They’re just extraordinary how efficient the sinking of ships was during the Second World War.
Karl: Probably more so than sinking ships was just thinking about the tonnages lost. It’s more the ability to interfere with an enemy’s surface shipping so for example with some having a couple of German Raiders operated in Australian waters, how does the RAN respond to that? We have to commit more ships walking for these Raiders the surface raiders or the submarines so there’s more of a … you have to deploy a lot of forces or naval assets and air assets as well to look for and to hunt and just on the precaution against submarines and surface Raiders. So while the German surface Raiders only had a couple in Australian waters in 1941 and likewise the Japanese submarines is quite active, there’s not a lot of them but they take up a lot of the RAN and the ADF’s resources in hunting for them and just to be a deterrent, and if you think if you have to deploy Australian ships in Australian waters in the Pacific or the Indian Ocean then that means you can’t deploy them into other operational areas and the same for aircraft because they have to have the maritime connection is that sea and the air working together, so you have more of an event, not just necessarily sinking an enemy ship we’re sinking an Australian ship or a merchant ship. If you have one or two vessels active in those waters, it means you have to deploy 5, 6, 7 ships like a patrol boat to look for them and hunt for them, and you maintain aircraft and squadrons all up and down around the coast, so it’s a good way to interfere with your opposing forces resources and assets well.
Mat: And from a propaganda point of view they had to do that because the loss of a passenger ship to an enemy submarine or surface raider, the panic that that instils in the population is far in excess of the loss of one ship.
Karl: Absolutely, but it brings it home to Australia why the Second World War had touched us at all. It touched everyone in the war in many different ways, for example there is in 1941, in early 1941, two ratings are killed trying to defuse a German sea mine in a beach around Adelaide and that’s before Kormoran is active in Australian waters and of course Toulouse Kormoran in Sydney and with the Japanese hunting up and down the east coast of Australia, there’s something like 100 attacks on Australian shipping during the Second World War, just within Australian waters so it’s part of that story which today just isn’t very well known. We know about say Sydney Harbour and Newcastle coming under attack. We always have to mention Newcastle when we mentioned Sydney Harbour, but the war touched Australian shores and was in Australian waters more than any other conflict.
Mat: In the First World War as well to a lesser extent. Obviously during the Second World Wars was when we saw that really take off. the First World War to a lesser extent but even going back to the American Civil War, the Shenandoah, the Confederate Raider that called in at Melbourne quite famously and we did a podcast on that fairly recently so check that out if you want to hear the full story of the Shenandoah, but just extraordinary the idea of these ships and the Shenandoah never went anywhere near North America. It was a Raider that sailed under the Confederate flag during the Civil War that never went to North America, but its job was just to capture as many and sink ships whoever it had the opportunity. So I think what we will find is that this naval operation of Raiders in foreign waters, it was much more expansive than we perhaps realize. It went on all over the world and with quite devastating results.
Karl: Yes, and Mat, one of the things in the Pacific War that Australian listeners might not be aware of is the American submarine service had the highest losses on aggregate of any American service in the war, and I believe the German Navy was similar but the important and crucial role they play in the Pacific is often forgotten as well, because we know that Japan expanded its empire for resources to help fuel its industries, the rubber and tin in Malaya and the oil in the Dutch East Indies, but we know from the records that barely any – like only very small percentages – of those raw materials actually got back to Japan. The American submarine force was sinking the shipping along the way, and that’s the circumstances in which prisoner of war ships such as the Rakuyo Maru get caught up in this submarine campaign, when they are being transported to Japan.
Mat: We can’t overstate the significance of shipping particularly in the Second World War. Obviously the Battle of Atlantic, it was hugely important supplies coming across the Atlantic, but in the Pacific when we’re obviously talking about isolated islands, you needed ships to move men and materiel between them and the war on the sea during the Pacific was. What decided the war in the Pacific was where could troops be moved effectively? Where could supplies be moved effectively, and how could we prevent the enemy from doing the same? So yeah, absolutely fascinating some of the stuff that’s been written about the sea war in the Pacific. It’s ironic, isn’t it that we talk about the Pacific, that the war is the Pacific. We mentioned it’s about the ocean. It’s about sailing between islands, yet we focus much more on the land operations which in many ways were secondary to these huge naval operations. Even when we look at something like Guadalcanal, there were seven massive naval battles which really determined the outcome of that campaign. I suppose the land battles are always a bit more relatable when we talk about soldiers strapping on boots and slogging through the mud, but the sea war particularly during the Pacific was…
Lachlan: For listeners, Clayton Blair the American historian’s work on the submarine war in the Pacific is still one of the great classics of the naval warfare in the Pacific.
Mat: There’s also a good book about the patrol boats as well and JFK operating out of those islands which was courage to go out in those small patrol boats against the might of the Japanese destroyers. Lots of good resources out there so certainly check it out.
Let’s wrap it up on one question which I think again from Rich Willis which was a really good one which I don’t think there’s going to be a better group to answer this question – a fairly simple one. What advice would you give to people embarking on a career in military history? Because I think everyone at this table has approached that in different ways. There are and as we said before in the discussion, there are so many more opportunities now than the traditional way of going to university and getting a degree. What advice do you give people I think more broadly, not just a career in military history but people who are passionate about military history? What advice would you give them about making that part of their lives and about learning more and getting the skills required to be able to interpret and understand military history? I think everyone has something so why don’t we go around the table. Karl, let’s start with you.
Karl: That’s a great question and I think everyone has a slightly different path. I would suggest it’s probably key thing to keep in mind is more than one career path there’s probably paths and so you can have a job in a university. You can work in a museum or a gallery in terms of what we do here. There’s also other exciting opportunities so the battlefield guide, working thinking outside the box so there’s more than just say study – PhD – job at university. from a practical point of view, I would suggest you need to be prepared to move so that’s the case if you have a topic and you want to study it for a PhD or masters, which supervisor is a good person to work with? What university can offer you good support as a postgraduate student? Who’s a supervisor who has networks and connections in the field that you want to get into? So it’s a little bit of about networking which is easier said than done. You also want to think about that opportunity to move so for example if you’re in Australia, a lot of the jobs as being a military historian is in Canberra so you do need to be prepared to move to Sydney, move to Melbourne or in other countries. You have to be prepared to move and you also need to be self-directed I think and to be really self-focused. Where do you want to work? What do you want to do and you have to make your own opportunities.
So for example with three of us here, none of us are from Canberra. We’ve all moved from outside different areas. We studied and we moved to Canberra for work because we wanted to follow opportunities in the sense of publishing, building a profile. You have to be really active. What I tell everybody is you have to hustle. You’re constantly kind of hustling, getting out there, selling yourself, selling your wares. you need to have something to back it up as well so the formal study, the publications, the blog posts, the experience doing battlefield guides, so think about what do you want to be, where do you want to do it, and then how do you want to get there and ask for help. There’s nothing wrong asking for help. Thinking about say Matt well how do I get into doing podcasts and how do I do a battle field tour, how do I become a battlefield guide for example? Shoot me an email or anyone else seriously here and say, how did you get a job with the Memorial or how do you get a job in university so it’s there. You just need to work hard
Mat: Who’s next? Kerrie, what are your thoughts at this? If someone wants to follow their passion for military history, how’s the best way to go about it?
Kerrie: I think Karl’s really covered quite a lot of it. It’s a matter of being willing to take opportunities when they arise. I think for me that’s always been the case. I was looking at being a high school history teacher. That was my career path. about moving to Canberra to study at ANU, working part-time at the Memorial as originally as what used to call Information Assistants, now Visitor Services Officers in the galleries really gave me my first taste of what public history was like and so following that through and realizing that I am very much a storyteller, moving through with the PhD and realizing that academia in its purest sense – working at a university, getting the publications up there – maybe wasn’t for me, but working in a public institution, sharing those stories was very much the right fit for me and taking those opportunities when they come I think is really important. the same with as you say Karl, battlefield tours, things like that, when somebody reaches out to you as I was lucky enough to have David Horner do that for me in 2015, to have the privilege of being a historian on the cruise ship that went from Albany in Western Australia all the way up through to Gallipoli, to be there out on the water looking at the peninsula at dawn on Anzac Day a hundred years down, you can’t plan for that sort of thing. You can’t! You can hustle as best you can, but it was just an opportunity that when it’s there, there were other things going on. There was work, there were family commitments but you grab those opportunities and you run with them.
Mat: Lachey, what are your thoughts?
Lachlan: On top of everything that Karl and Kerrie said in terms of top of point that dedication into the work I think tops off what Kerrie said it’s just remaining passionate about the subjects and the stories that you’re telling and I think one thing I see amongst all my colleagues here at the War Memorial is they’ve got a passion for what we do here in telling of the stories of experiences of Australians in conflict over more than a hundred years, and the passion of learning new stories every day as we come to work here. It’s not about what we’ve learned in the past. It’s also about what we’re going to learn going forward as well.
Mat: Yeah I think that’s a fantastic point and I’ll speak here as the mug who never went to university so I’m the walking representative of if you love it, just go out and do it and look for ways to do it and we do. We were talking about the negativity of social media before but there’s a huge positive about that. If you are passionate about this, you can be heard. Your voice can be out there so what I would say to people is I call myself a historian in spite of the fact that I never went to university. I’m not affiliated with any University or museum but I love history, hopefully I know about it and I share that with people so I call myself a historian and we could debate on the definition of historian but that for me, that’s what counts and so I’d say to people that specialization is always important and if you learn that your great-uncle was in Bomber Command during the Second World War, maybe that’s an area you want to specialize in. just read as many books as you can. Go to the Australian War Memorial website and look it up and just form opinions, gain insights, read books about it and then if you are someone who can write or can express yourself, just go and do it. Put posts on Twitter, do a video on your phone and whack that up on Facebook and it’ll get shared. Just do it because you love it. Do it because you’re passionate about it and you do want to tell a story. They’re wonderful stories, they deserve to be told and everyone has a voice when it comes to military history. You don’t have to have a thousand PhDs to be entitled to tell this story. You’ve just got to be passionate about it and want to tell the story so I’m a walking example of someone who didn’t go to university and follow the formal path but hopefully still having some sort of impact on the world of military history.
So I’d say to everyone who’s out there and wants to do something, these guys are right. Ask lots of questions. You’ll be surprised by how approachable people are. I’ve known the people at this table for a long time and I’ve never seen anyone reject any email that came across their desk, so historians are very approachable and we do want to encourage talented interesting people to join this field, so reach out to people. Ask for advice, listen to more podcasts like this one because it’s been fantastic, guys. Thank you so much for your time. Just a rare privilege to sit here and talk to such a great team of historians about these important chapters. These stories do deserve to be told and you guys are doing a wonderful story telling this history and so keep up the good work. We’ll have you on the podcast again but just thank you very much for your time.
Kerrie: Thanks Mat
Karl: Thank you
Lachlan: It’s a pleasure. Thank you.