Alt banner image

Author Q&A: Bruce Scates on 100 personal stories of World War I

Amidst the fanfare of the Great War centenary, historian Bruce Scates and his co-authors Rebecca Wheatley and Laura James set out to investigate 100 personal stories from the war: reflecting the experiences of servicemen and women, as well as their families. Here, Bruce tells us about how they researched for their book World War One: A History in 100 Stories (Penguin Books, $59.99). 

As a historian, what initially drew you to researching World War One in particular?
I wrote, with Raelene Frances, a school text, Women and the Great War. And it emerged out of, I guess, our first sabbatical in Europe amidst the war graves on the Western Front. And I found that a deeply moving experience. When I was there, of course, I became conscious of the fact that all across these cemeteries and tombs of the dead, there were messages, poppies, offerings that had been left by pilgrims. I became very conscious that this was a site of visitation for Australians still today. And I found that fascinating, that the Great War had continued to exert such a hold on the Australian imagination. So I think that’s probably where my interest originally emerged.

And I think also I was very troubled with what happened in our country late in the 20th century with the conservative government, the Howard government, exploiting the memory of war to promote what I thought was a very simplistic, romanticised view of war and a militarist agenda, so I thought that historians had to engage with that conversation and remind people of the consequences of that truly global conflict.

World War One: A History in 100 stories explores the personal stories not only the soldiers, sailors, nurses and airmen themselves but also their families. What made you and your co-authors decide to take this approach?
Well I think, what we have to realise about war is that it doesn’t just affect the people who served; it has the consequences right throughout the community and the cost of war isn’t simply suffered by soldiers in uniform. It’s families who cope with those deeply damaged individuals that come home and communities that bear in so many ways the cost of that.

I think, too, that the point about the Great War is that it is a total war; everyone is sucked into the terrible maelstrom of the Great War. And it’s not as though civilians were not deeply affected by the fighting that was going on; it affected entire communities, so we wanted to shift the focus.

I think too, the sufferings of the soldiers in particular – and in more recent years also, I think, we have acknowledged the contribution of nurses – I think we’ve valorised that military service. Our task was really to address what we saw as that great imbalance and to remind people of the human consequences of that war across society.

What’s happened in recent years is that the repatriation records have been released and these records are astonishingly rich. They tell the story of what life was like in the 1920s and ’30s – and indeed well into the post-war years. What they alert us to is the terrible damage that war wrought on the whole social fabric, so it’s not just the story of the soldiers; it’s the story of the families who are struggling to cope with these individuals. And the stories that are very uncomfortable, stories about domestic violence, insanity, alcoholism – a whole range of things that alert us to the gross obscenity of that war. And the ripple-on effect for families and communities. So these repatriation files are telling us a post-war story, and I think the other thing to emphasise about these records is no other country in the world has such rich and diverse holdings so for a historian, I mean, this is a wonderful archive. One that’s, you know, giving us a much fuller and nuanced appreciation of the impact of war on communities.

Certainly the scale of them would be unique, as there are holdings of that kind of size and complexity. We’re talking about, you know, over 10 kilometres of records, so this is one of the largest archival holdings in Australia. And the other thing I guess to note here is that a lot of countries such as Britain had no such records or they were destroyed during the Blitz. So Australia’s kept these files – and indeed, they were working files until the death of the last World War I veterans – and they’re an extraordinary goldmine of information for social historians.

Would you have any tips regarding how World War One repatriation files and records can be interpreted and used to learn more about an individual’s post-war experiences?
I think they can be used in a number of different ways. The point about the repatriation system in Australia is that it was adversarial, and what I mean by that is that returned servicemen and women had to prove that the illness or injury they were suffering was war-related. The onus of proof was on them.

That meant that they had to argue a case before both a medical tribunal and also a panel appointed by government. So what you get here is families pleading the legitimacy of their condition. And what that means is that you will have wives writing about the nervous state of their husbands, you’ll have men talking about a whole range of terrible ailments and what it’s done to them, what war has done to them – and this is a compelling kind of resource to be used.

Of course, historians always read these letters and testimony critically; I mean, we know that people have an interest in advocating their own personal interest. But at the same time, there’s no doubt that families suffered enormously in the inter-war years as a result of that war service.

Were there any personal stories you uncovered that touched you personally?
Yeah, I would say over 100! I think with every story we researched was – we chose 100 to mark the centenary, it was symbolic; we couldn’t tell all the stories. I am acutely aware of many of the stories that we had to leave out. We were trying to give some kind of coverage in the book, so of course a gender balance but a regional coverage as well. We wanted to highlight the experiences of certain groups that have long been marginalised in our memory of the Great War, so obviously Indigenous service was one of the themes that we were going to look at.

But what that means of course is there were only certain stories we could tell. All of them, in their own way, have a tremendous poignancy.

And we tried to tell different kinds of stories, so it’s not all about shell shock victims; it’s not all about amputees – it’s got to cover a range of experiences. And I guess for me, many of the stories I’d known of for a long time because I’ve encountered them in my research. So, stories of say, pilgrimages to the first war graves; the attempts to raise war memorials, what they meant to those communities. This was a chance for me to elaborate on themes I’d encountered before and I was grateful for that.

But I think some of the most challenging stories were discovered by my collaborators, the early career researchers Laura James and Bec Wheatley who – and I think we can bless Trove partly for this – through some enterprising research uncovered some incredibly powerful stories that I think are very, very eloquent.

What were some of the challenges involved in researching and writing the book?
I think one of the challenges, and a challenge that we tried to address – but of course we could never really address fully – was engaging with community. We’ve got to remember that for historians, there’s that great archival deposit that we use and that’s usually our primary focus; but there’s also a wealth of memory about these stories that isn’t confined to an archive. It’s part of a family memory, a community memory, and accessing that takes a long time.

It’s not like walking into an archive and, you know, taking that digital camera and capturing the testimony, it’s as simple as that; it’s actually about a relationship of trust with individuals and it takes an awfully long time to nurture and to develop.

So I feel that while a lot of the stories, while we could contact descendants and capture their anecdotes and relate their particular stories, we couldn’t do that for all of that. And I’m sure in future people reading the book will say – indeed, even at the launch, people came up to me and told me about certain elements which weren’t running counter to what we’d said, but simply enhanced the narrative in a wonderful way. So I look forward to those comments from families and communities. I would’ve seen that as one of the challenges of this project.

Join our mailing list